From a student project to an international translation company
Think of Peirce's triadic model of the sign – the word in its written form, the object it refers to and the sense that we make of it.
Already as a high school student Luciano Lykkebo wanted to go where no one else was going. Back then it was moving to Sweden – a country about which he knew nothing other than its name. Later, it was starting his own translation company Scandinavian Language Service (SLS) which kept growing so that by 2018, it consisted of 8 in-house employees and approximately 300 freelance translators, working with all European languages. Today, SLS is merged with the Croatia-based translation company VERBA and Luciano is a partner and Manager of the Danish branch for the VERBA group, consisting of 35 project managers and approximately 600 freelance translators around the world. He takes care of the company’s enterprise clients as well as designs and maintains complex localization solutions for international brands. His road to success was, however, full of struggle and sacrifices but also of undying hope.
He had the talent for appreciating the smallest things
When he moved to Sweden, he knew that he would have to struggle to make a living in a foreign country. Thus, it was wiser to study something that he was good at – language. As he was doing his bachelor’s in linguistics, he was working night shifts at an elderly home. Despite it sounding difficult, Luciano was still happy:
“I was happy that I had a job. This dream of moving to Sweden became a reality. And when I got a job at McDonald’s I felt like now I had the best job. Going from changing diapers to making burgers was like a dream”.
From an idea to action and to endurance
During his master’s education in Language and Linguistics at Lund University, Luciano started contacting translation agencies, to hire him for translations from Swedish into German. He could speak Swedish rather well as he had started learning Swedish back home, in Germany. Soon he realized that there was a greater need for translations from German into Swedish which he did not consider himself to be qualified for. Instead, he asked his classmates if they were interested, and that’s how a student collaboration turned into a translation agency run by Luciano. However, starting a company is only the beginning of an uphill that only the toughest can endure.
“You have your company, you are the manager and that’s great but in the evening you have to make burgers again because you are not making enough money”.
When you are outsourcing the translation jobs you get to keep only a small portion of the total revenue. You need some turnover to live on it. In Luciano’s case this meant two years with an insufficient income and living on his wife’s salary, which affected his self-confidence. He had to take care of everything including answering emails, doing the analysis and accounting. He had no holiday and only little time off, because if you take one day off and the client needs you but can’t reach you, then they might pick another company. The journey was full of rejections and long periods of stagnation. According to Luciano, this is where many startup companies fail: They give up hope in difficult times. But setbacks are part of business. You just have to hold on. In retrospect, Luciano is happy about all the difficulties: “It is good to know what it’s like to fight, because it just makes life easier”.
A startup turning into a prosperous business
After Luciano graduated from his master’s programme in Language and Linguistics, he stopped taking low-key jobs and started instead working with end clients.
"When you work via agencies, all you get is a low price and all the complaints if there are any. But it was first when I started working with end clients that I received appreciation for my work. For the first time I felt like I was good for something."
After acquiring his first big client – an international cosmetics brand, Luciano could hire two more people and soon the number grew to eight people in the office as well as approximately 300 freelance translators, working with all European languages. At this point, as having his own time is of great value to Luciano, he asked his business partner in Croatia if she wanted to buy the majority of his company.
“Since then my life has become less stressful and I can focus on what I really like to do: I have an assistant and a big chunk of my work consists of finding solutions for our enterprise clients.
According to Luciano, you have the following advantages as linguists:
- Think of Peirce's triadic model of the sign – the word in its written form, the object it refers to and the sense that we make of it. Walking the world with this concept makes it easy to understand why communication can fail. People can read and hear the same thing but understand different things. I think this helps you as linguists to focus on not just words but the entire communication process.
- You develop a good understanding of how information is distributed in a text and how you can use this in business to convince somebody of something.
- Through your projects at university, you are trained in taking into consideration that things are always more complex than you initially think. You have the ability to apply this in your work with language and communication.
Here are Luciano’s 5 insights for you as a fellow linguist:
- You need to have an idea about what job would you like to have when you graduate. You can run as fast as you can and will, but there’s not point if you don’t have a goal. If you don’t have a goal, stop running. Stay still until you know where you want to go.
- Unless you want to stay in the academia, combine linguistics with some other skill attached to business: E.g. IT – language science involved in building machine translation engines, neural text generation engines, and UX tests of texts.
If you want to start a translation company:
- Focus on getting clients in the beginning, not on other things such as setting up a website.
- You need to have a plan for how to survive financially and emotionally. Have a group of friends around you who will support you when you reach the point where feel like giving up.
- Make up your mind about whether you want to sell a low price or knowledge. If you want to sell knowledge, think about who is in need for really high quality translations. Make it clear what you are selling and ask directly: Are you willing to buy this from me?
Text: Katja Woxell 2021