Russ: This is the Businessmakers Show heard on the radio and seen online at thebusinessmakers.com. And it's guest time on the show, and I'm very pleased to have with me Beth Williams, the founder and CEO of TechTrans International. Beth welcome to the Businessmakers Show.
Beth: Thank you so much Russ. I'm pleased to be here.
Russ: You bet. Well let's start from the top. Tell us about TechTrans International.
Beth: TechTrans I found it about 19 years ago with a close personal friend who had all the technology information. But what we did was we found a niche and we really went for it. We translate documents. We interpret for meetings, telecoms. We teach the language, and then we do business logistics. So everywhere we saw a little niche we just jumped out, but we stayed with our core business. We've never gone beyond that core.
Russ: Okay. And the core was actually language -
Russ: And language translation sometimes on fairly technical things.
Beth: All technical. Really all technical.
Russ: Okay, very interesting.
Russ: Okay. So you started the company with a partner who is no longer with you, right?
Russ: And in fact was not with you very long at all.
Beth: No. As a matter of fact, the whole thing was her idea, and she was the driving force behind it. She's the one that spoke Russian; I did not. She asked me to start this with her and I agreed, and she and I sat in my kitchen and had a whine and cheese party meaning whining, and we figured out what we wanted. So she and I put a team together, and we wrote a proposal and we won, but we won because we had her, never dreaming that it would go much beyond five people for NASA, cuz that's all it was. We were just a few months into the business when a drunk driver killed her at night, and I really was left with a bigger hole than I even thought.
Russ: So it was her idea?
Russ: And she brought you in as a partner.
Russ: You were 50-50 partners. Kinda looked interesting to you. Language translation at the time almost exclusively Russian language.
Russ: Because NASA was doing a lot of joint ventures.
Beth: NASA was our customer.
Russ: Okay. And low and behold she gets killed, and you're sitting there. And at the same time you had responded to a bid that you won.
Beth: And the next day I pulled the staff together, all four of them, and they said, "We won't let you down. We'll do this."
Beth: We were cooking along just fine, and the best thing I did was answer the phone, clean the refrigerator, and buy pizza at night, because we were working late. She just left such a hole for us.
Beth: We didn't have time to think about it, because literally two weeks later NASA decided to fly with the Russians and we had no idea this was coming, and we imploded. I needed 100 people the next day. I needed whatever I could get. The translations were coming across the transom [Laughter] like hundreds and hundreds of pages, and a page takes an hour.
Russ: Right. [Laughter]
Beth: So just imagine, and it wasn't until the headquarters went over to Russia and decided we'll fly together.
Beth: It didn't have anything to do with us, but we were there for the support. And so then they would call and say we need 50 interpreters in Russia for a meeting, and I'd think this just doesn't make sense. So I go across the street, and see I really don't know what I'm doing, but I just kind of fake it. And I said, "Listen, 50 people for interpreters is silly. It's like taking coals to Newcastle. Let me go over and find people that we can use to support the meetings." Well what about if there's spies. And I said, "What do you care? You want to fly with them. You really want them to know what you're doing." So they said, "Great."
Russ: [Laughter] And so but your idea was I'll go over to Russia, and I'll find them there.
Beth: Hire people, so I did. And took one of my people with me and we interviewed people, and we hired people. And in those days it was really sad and people weren't getting paid. They were coming to work but not getting a salary, and so -
Russ: In Russia that was the case?
Beth: [Confirms] This was early on after the curtain, so.
Russ: Yeah, yeah.
Beth: So we were paying the full salary and when I needed them, and it still didn't amount to what I would pay over here or for the travel and per diem and yeah, yeah.
Russ: Right. And you said you took a person over, so the person that went with you -
Beth: Spoke Russian.
Russ: Spoke Russian.
Beth: Oh yeah.
Russ: And spoke it well. Where did you find people that spoke Russian so well over here?
Beth: The oil companies had brought them in. They had taken kind of a dive at that point, and so they were laying off and they all came to me.
Beth: And the thing was they were very technical people.
Russ: Okay, so it worked out well?
Beth: [Confirms] Plus, most of these people from Russia who were new in the country they were thrilled to be working with the space program, because that's a big deal over there.
Russ: Yeah. Well it was more exciting than probably an oil company.
Beth: Well I think they were meeting their heroes who were coming over here for meetings you know. People they'd heard about all their life, so it was a heady time for us.
Russ: [Laughter] Okay. So you go over with your person that speaks Russian to Russia to hire people to work for your United States-based company.
Russ: So they knew, and then this was shortly after you know the Gorbachev, the Cold War thing kind of ended.
Russ: Were they happy to get a job?
Beth: Oh yeah.
Russ: Were they suspicious about it at all?
Beth: No. They were very welcoming, and I tell you we hired some magnificent people who are still with us today.
Beth: They understood you know we were gonna pay them, and that was important.
Russ: Right, very important.
Beth: And what the job was, so we really got good people.
Russ: And so the way that you were questioned up front when your idea was well I'll go over there and hire over there and they said, "Well what if they're spies?" And your answer kind of was well that doesn't have anything to do with what we're doing. We're trying to translate. There's no reason they won't translate accurately, and these people were translating back and forth between Russian and English very technical,
Beth: Very technical.
Russ: important documents and processes that needed to be understood, right?
Russ: Right. So I would assume that at that time doing something that important you were able to charge NASA a decent price.
Beth: We had already negotiated the price, but the volume was so intense that it was -
Russ: It was still hard to do.
Beth: No, it was good.
Russ: Okay. [Laughter]
Beth: You know the volume was pouring. It was kind of based on volume, and we certainly didn't expect the kind of volume we were getting.
Beth: So we were doing okay. The problem was they burned that contract up in two years, and it was supposed to be five with two-year options, and they just ate it up in hours.
Russ: Okay. So they ate it up because the contract had a maximum number of hours?
Beth: Yeah, [Confirms]
Russ: Okay. And so then you had to go and -
Beth: And re-compete.
Russ: Okay, and you won again though.
Beth: Well by that time I wanted to make us not like anybody else, and I wanted a little difference there. And the whole thing was customer service. The whole world then was using voicemail.
Russ: Right, sure.
Beth: And the contractors and so we didn't have it. So they would need something right now, and they'd call and they'd get it.
Russ: Okay. Cuz you'd have a live person answering the phone around the clock?
Beth: Around the clock 24/7.
Russ: Wow, wow okay. You know at that time we were really starting to do some serious partnering with the Russians. So was TechTrans involved strictly in sort of the preparation for the trip, or were you also involved the day of the launch and after the launch?
Beth: Everything. Because we would escort you to the launch, brief you on what you saw.
Russ: Okay. But now wait a minute. If you're escorting me and I'm a cosmonaut or an astronaut.
Beth: Or you're a technician or a doctor or -
Russ: But what about the two people that went up? I mean one Russian and one American.
Beth: Okay, we're live in mission control 24/7.
Beth: Here and in Russia. And we are interpreting simultaneously everything going up and down the loop.
Russ: Wow. You know I always had the vision that maybe before an astronaut could go up he had to learn to speak Russian.
Beth: He does.
Russ: And a cosmonaut had to learn to speak English.
Beth: And he does.
Russ: But they still need help.
Beth: Well the thing is I mean I firmly believe if there's a crisis you're not gonna go to a second language.
Russ: Right, right. [Laughter]
Beth: You're gonna use cuss words in your own language. So you have to speak at a level three to fly both, so that was how our teaching was born.
Russ: Okay. So you are actually in charge of teaching American astronauts how to speak Russian, and would you also cosmonauts to speak English?
Russ: Okay. So that was also part of your business.
Beth: But we're now teaching Japanese, French, and German. The languages of the International Space Station now we're teaching.
Russ: Okay. Well I knew that you had expanded way beyond Russian, but in the beginning it was almost exclusively Russian?
Beth: It was. It was.
Russ: Okay. And today is it predominantly Russian?
Beth: It's still primarily Russian because of the station. However, we're doing a lot of middle east languages for other customers now.
Russ: Okay. Customers other than NASA?
Beth: Yeah, we've grown. We're about 50-50 now, and this year I expect to exceed that.
Russ: Okay. Meaning you'll be doing this year more business outside of NASA than you do within NASA?
Russ: Now that's interesting because your technology translation, what other kind of businesses are you translating for?
Beth: National labs, some oil companies. Anybody who wants highly technical work done usually comes to us. We have a - we don't just say we can translate it, okay. It comes in to documents control. It's sent with references automatically to the translator who looks at the references, any glossaries we have pertaining to that document, translates the document. Goes to the editor, editor reviews it, makes changes, goes to the proof editor who looks at the overall layout and the page, and then back and out to you.
Russ: And all those people that looked at it are bilingual?
Beth: Yes. And usually have that technical background.
Russ: Okay, my goodness. I would assume they make a good earning, living.
Beth: They do. Nobody ever makes enough, but they do well. [Laughter]
Russ: Right, right. [Laughter] One more question before we leave this sort of NASA world. When you mentioned even when a flight's in the air you have an employee at Mission Control here, and there's one in Russia too.
Beth: [Confirms] In Russia.
Russ: And they're both translating. Do they both hear each other too and check each other and stuff?
Beth: Yeah, they can. Yes. We have two. Like for instance, it's not one person. There's always somebody listening behind.
Russ: Okay. Do they do much correction of each other? [Laughter]
Beth: Occasionally, occasionally. But it's important that we're perfect.
Russ: Okay, absolutely. So how many languages do you speak?
Beth: I'm fluent in BS.
Russ: BS. [Laughter]
Beth: That's the only one I've mastered. [Laughter]
Russ: That is so interesting. Wow. It's such an exciting business. It seems like Beth that you would be bored doing anything else.
Beth: Maybe. [Laughter]
Russ: Okay. [Laughter] It is such a unique story though the way you started with a partner who had the idea who had the language expertise who got killed early on, and she was a friend as well?
Beth: She was. We lived across the street from each other for years, and our kids were the same age. They grew up together. We carpooled together. You know I'd known her a long time.
Russ: Wow. And you talked about you know the company stood behind you, the four or five employees. But still did you consider abandoning the mission under those conditions?
Beth: I did not.
Russ: Never did?
Beth: No, never did. I just thought how hard can it be, and then every day I'd go home and think that was harder than you thought. [Laughter]
Russ: [Laughter] That's great, that's great. Now I can't help but think knowing kind of the history of your life that you've sort of been prepared for challenges and road blocks and disappointments. Share with us. Go back to the early days in your life. I know it was a fascinating beginning in Florida. Tell us about your life.
Beth: In North Carolina, I was looking for a job after school. I wrote to Cypress Gardens that I was a great waterskier and as good as anybody they had in the shows and I'd like very much the chance to audition, and I'd never done this in my life. I had never written a letter to somebody.
Russ: Oh okay, okay.
Beth: I didn't even know how you went about it. Nobody prepared you in New Bern, North Carolina, in those days. And so they sent back an airline ticket and said come audition and be prepared to stay and -
Russ: Meaning be prepared to stay if you get the job?
Beth: Yeah. And so yeah I'd never been on a plane. And I'll just never forget this, cuz my mother I kept waiting for her to say something, and nothing. And she's sitting in my room as I'm packing, and I said, "Isn't there anything you want to say to me?" And she said, "Yes honey, don't ever be bored."
Russ: [Laughter] Sounds like great advice.
Beth: And I thought god you know. And then after I had children I thought if I could say that to them -
Russ: [Laughter] Don't ever be bored.
Beth: Go and don't be bored. [Laughter]
Russ: But so you passed that test, right?
Beth: I did. I went down, passed the test. It was the first time in history they really needed skiers, so I was immediately put in the show and I had a blast. You know I just met all kinds of people. We did things like ski in the Fountain Blue Hotel.
Russ: Whoa, whoa. Cool.
Beth: Yeah, in their pool. And made a lot of friends for life and just had a great time down there. But after a couple of years I really got bored.
Russ: Okay, so your mom said don't get bored, so what did you do about it?
Beth: So I just thought you know - another girl from the gardens wanted to go with me. We just drove my car out to San Francisco and got a job in a bank and made a lot of friends out there and just loved the city. And my husband-to-be was in Japan, and so when he came back you know we talked about it. And I didn't wanna get married. I need a few more years in San Francisco. Just one more year, one more year. And he went through test pilot school, and then he called me and came out and he said, "You know I really, really, really - we need to get married." And I said, "Are you pregnant?"
Beth: No, but we have to get married, and I said, "Why?" And he said, "I want to be an astronaut." And they never picked a bachelor.
Beth: And I said, "That is so unfair to do to me. That is cruel, and I'm not gonna do it. You go get it and then we'll talk."
Russ: Wow, wow. Meaning go attain an astronaut?
Beth: You attain it and we'll talk, but I'm not gonna marry you so you can be one.
Russ: Okay. And he did.
Beth: I don't know why that was a big deal to me but it was. And he made it. And he came out and said, "Okay, now." And I said, "All right."
Russ: Well you had to then.
Beth: I know. It was a commitment.
Russ: Yeah, he's an astronaut. Yeah, wow.
Beth: So I moved to Houston, really thought I was being punished in June.
Russ: [Laughter] Cuz it was hot compared to San Francisco.
Beth: There wasn't anything in Clear Lake. You know there was a grocery store in Pasadena and I think one in League City. There wasn't much. Then I met a few friends and thought okay this is okay. And then I learned about the astrodome, and that's when I became enchanted with Houston.
Russ: Okay. Cuz the astrodome was just being built?
Beth: Oh yeah, it was magnificent.
Russ: Wow. Now if I know the story correctly too, your husband never got to go in space?
Beth: No, no. He was assigned one of the Apollo flights. We lost him in a T-38 crash.
Beth: I know.
Russ: How long after you had been married?
Beth: Three, three-and-a-half years.
Russ: Oh my goodness. So that sort of goes down the line of me saying you sort of handled your degree of tragedies and took it in stride, and if I recall correctly you had a young daughter and you were pregnant when he died.
Beth: I did. Yeah, Catherine was ten months old and I was pregnant with Jane D.
Russ: My goodness. Okay. In this very high-level technical translation business I suppose it doesn't always go as planned or perfectly as planned. Do you have a story you can share with us that just short of shows the stress and pressure involved?
Beth: That is about an everyday job. Every day is that way. It's a matter of finding the right person. But we have occasionally - rarely, but occasionally failed. And the first thing we do is get the client on the phone and tell them we apologize, this is what's happened, it's following up, we're fixing it, no charge, we do seriously apologize. And then I expect the manager to go and face that customer in person, in person, and deliver.
Russ: Okay. Now but you're still there and still in charge today, right?
Beth: Yes, and I love it. You know I just think it keeps you going, keeps you happy.
Russ: Oh yeah, right. And so today is business going well?
Beth: Business is great.
Russ: And how many employees now do you have?
Beth: Almost 200.
Russ: My goodness, wow.
Beth: I know.
Russ: How many employees do you have that are not in the United States?
Russ: So you must have a pretty significant management staff in place as well.
Beth: Actually I have a very lean management staff. I think management, too much is just counterproductive. I think the fewer managers you have the better off you are.
Russ: Okay. So it's kind of a flat organization.
Beth: It's a flat organization, but it works beautifully, because everybody there is you know that's your job, do it.
Russ: Okay, that's cool.
Beth: Take ownership of it, and they do. The receptionist runs the show. [Laughter]
Russ: [Laughter] All right. Really good. So we always ask this question here at the Businessmakers show cuz we have a lot of business owners and stuff. You've been doing it for a long time. It's doing real well. What might be your exit strategy?
Beth: And you know what I tell people is cremation. [Laughter] It can only be my exit strategy. [Laughter]
Russ: [Laughter] So there's no reason to stop going to work for you whatsoever.
Beth: You know there's not, no. You know I don't have to beat myself up every day. I've got really smart people doing that for me. [Laughter] It just runs like a top.
Russ: Cool. Well Beth I really appreciate you coming in and sharing your very exciting successful business story with us.
Beth: Well thank you Russ. Thank you for having me.
Russ: You bet. That's Beth Williams, the founder and CEO of TechTrans International. And this is the Businessmakers Show heard on the radio and seen online at the businessmakers.com.