Liz Elting Translates Lessons She Learned Building the World’s Largest Language Services Company

Image of Liz Elting.

Elizabeth Elting and her partner became co-CEOs of TransPerfect, a language translation company that emphasizes comprehensive services, speed, and innovation.

Elting Started Her Translation Service in a Grad School Dorm and Became One of America’s Richest Self-Made Women

Liz Elting was born in Westchester County, New York, but before she was 22 had lived in Portugal, Spain, Canada, and Venezuela, so it was no wonder she earned her degree in modern languages and then worked at a big translation company.

But she became frustrated at how long it took to give clients a quote on a job, let alone actually deliver what was requested. Elting and her partner decided they could do better, founding TransPerfect out of a dorm room at New York University in 1992.

“We had no money, didn’t want investors, but because he was busy with his graduate degree and a job at a bank, I had to do most of the work initially,” Elting, author of Dream Big and Win: Translating Passion into Purpose and Creating a Billion-Dollar Business, told Startup Savant. “I created a database of people who could do part-time translating by contacting embassies and consulates, then set about mailing, faxing, and cold-calling companies for two months before we got our first client.”

It was an attorney who was willing to pay $200 to have a three-page contract translated into Slovak. But Elting’s discipline and persistence eventually paid off when she landed Skadden Arps, a large international law firm. 

“They had hundreds of attorneys, and we’d hit up every damn one of them just with sheer volume of contacts, but we would eventually win a lot of their business because we provided a level of service they could not get from other translation companies,” she explained. “Our diligence would enable us to ultimately win the legal solutions business for all of the Global 200 law firms in the world, providing everything from e-discovery to blow-backs, which is putting digitized, recorded content onto paper.” 

After a couple of years of 100-hour weeks, Elting was set to go on a Christmas vacation when Goldman Sachs called for a project that needed to be completed immediately. “We learned to show up when others didn’t and to outwork everyone else to accomplish great things, so we worked straight through Christmas Day, spending the night in the Goldman office, missing presents and family sing-a-longs.”

JCPenney became TransPerfect’s first million-dollar account.

Lessons From Adversity on the Way Up

Elting’s father was an advertising executive whose real love was travel and starting companies, while her mother was an educator who could take her skills on the road.

Liz was an entrepreneur at an early age, escorting kids to school for a fee, then taking on a paper route and finding ways to do it quicker. 

She was able to skip eighth grade, but in the summer before 10th grade in Toronto, she was hit by a car, fracturing her skull, breaking one of her legs, and putting her into a coma for three days. She woke up speaking French. Petite already, her weight dropped from 90 lbs. to 77 lbs., yet she had to lift a heavy bag of books climbing stairs to classes. 

“My parents encouraged me to see this as a temporary setback, to count my blessings for having dodged a bullet, and to stay busy learning and planning for the return to normalcy,” she recalled. “I became grateful for becoming more self-reliant.” 

Her first real job after recovery was at a dry cleaners with multiple locations, where she learned to run the counters. The experience also taught her to appreciate the value of dressing appropriately for whatever occasion.

One summer in Toronto she worked as a telemarketer for Time magazine and was told to stick to the wooden script, but instead got into conversations to learn about the people she was calling. Her results were so much better than anyone else, so she was allowed to do it her way. 

After the post-grad internship in Venezuela, she returned to New York City in 1987 and worked for a language services company. Ambitious, she produced translations and was cold-calling sales pitches, yet found she couldn’t move up in the bureaucracy. She decided an MBA from NYU would open more doors, but it prepared her to build her own door.

Elting and her partner, Phil Shawe, only paid their bare living expenses and tried to wear every hat for a couple of years, but as they grew, they needed expert help. However, in the mid-1990s, no one was eager to work at a startup.

“I learned from making the mistake of hiring solely based on talent, yet not yet understanding that attitude was at least as important,” she wrote. “We started hiring a team of people who would act as if they owned the company.”

Elting later married Michael Burlant, and a new set of challenges arose when she gave birth to the first of two sons, by which time the company had 150 employees and $150 million in revenue. 

“Being a working engaged parent is less about work-life balance and more about juggling,” she wrote. “When you have so many balls in the air, you have to recognize which ones are glass because you don’t want to break them. I had no balance. I could never get over the guilt of needing to be in two places at once, but I could mitigate it by being fully present wherever I was.”

She advises women who decide to have children to continue to work at least one day a week, take consulting gigs, enroll in classes to advance their skills, or volunteer for a nonprofit that can use their talents. A major focus of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation is to help women leaders. 

Tips for Entrepreneurial Success

Rather than competing purely on price or depending too much on a few clients, Elting had her sales team focus on learning about what companies’ unmet needs were so that innovative offerings would make TransPerfect a one-stop shop. For example, they realized that translating an annual report into a variety of languages was just part of what needed to be done: they also could provide desktop publishing, printing, binding, and mailing. 

She looked for sales reps who were hungry and ambitious, rather than with experience alone, and who seemed to be able to handle rejection well. During the job interview, she noted those who asked questions about her, believing those who were not curious about others would not connect easily with prospects or understand the needs of clients. 

Reps were naturally eager to offer discounts to get business, so Elting incentivized the team to do deals that would increase gross margins, and she improved company cash flow by only paying commissions once the client paid. 

Elting says that one of the most valuable things she did for herself and salespeople was to make an end-of-day report on how many calls were made, mailings and emails sent, meetings held, and bids or proposals completed. Everyone also made notes about new leads and prospects. It could be as simple as a five-minute email to oneself. (This was before CRM software.) 

Conversations with employees, especially if face-to-face with managers and not simply by email, can reveal those who are about to leave because their concerns have not been adequately addressed, she says. Make it safe for workers to disagree with their managers and to skip a level to talk to an executive instead of simply leaving in frustration. Elting says she read all exit interviews to learn what went wrong. Direct costs to hire someone new average $4,700, but soft costs are typically triple that, her sources estimate.

It’s the same with clients: it costs 5-25 times what it would take to keep a client happy to attract a new one.

Elting’s biggest lesson is never to have a 50/50 partnership, which is how she and Shawe started the company as co-CEOs: make sure one of you has 51% or that you have a truly independent board that has the power to break a tie on important decisions. By 2013, small differences with Shawe had grown into a major split on strategy, and she hired attorneys to negotiate a shareholders’ agreement, but one was not reached. She sued and won in 2015.

Litigation continued, and in 2018, a court affirmed she would sell her half of the company’s value, set at $1.4 billion, at an auction. But the lack of a non-compete agreement and other issues caused concerns about the ongoing business, and bids dropped. She ended up with $400 million.

“What I learned was that no matter how little money you have when you start a company, always have an attorney draw up your shareholders’ agreement,” she said. 

She thought about using what she won to start another language services company but realized that she wanted to devote her new life of freedom to her family, travel, campaigning against hunger and mass shootings, helping to develop women leaders and protect women’s rights, health, and the education of girls. It was the perfect solution.