In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Liz Elting, the co-founder and CEO of the award-winning TransPerfect. TransPerfect is the world’s largest provider of language and business solutions, boasting over $1.1 billion in revenue and offices in over 100 cities around the globe. Additionally, she is the founder of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, a non-profit organization created to break down systemic barriers and foster systemic change for women and other underserved communities.
She has been named one of Forbes’ Richest Self-Made Women every year since the list’s inception. Currently, she is the author of the upcoming book, DREAM BIG AND WIN: Translating Passion into Purpose and Creating a Billion-Dollar Business, and is a contributor at Forbes and SWAAY.
Almost any dream can become a reality with the right mindset and strategies. Learn how setting goals with deadlines, embracing constant innovation, and empowering women can lead to billion-dollar success. Liz’s journey from starting TransPerfect to her philanthropic endeavors serves as an inspiring roadmap for aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders. Dream big, take action, and win!
Questions I ask Liz Elting:
- (01:12): What motivated you to establish TransPerfect, and how does that tie into the reason you wrote your book?
- (04:05): What were some of the most challenging lessons you had to learn as you grew your company?
- (08:17): How would someone take it beyond just the dream into reality?
- (10:20): How do you balance or weigh the importance of taking risks?
- (11:26): What advice do your have for those aspiring to launch the next Google? Where can they find big ideas?
- (12:50): How have you adapted TransPerfect to meet changing global trends? How can others do this?
- (15:03): Was philanthropy a goal or a happy side effect of your success?
- (17:40): Do you see being a woman in your field as an advantage or disadvantage? How has it shaped your experience?
More About Liz Elting:
- Liz’s new book: DREAM BIG AND WIN: Translating Passion Into Purpose and Creating a Billion-Dollar Business
- More about the Elizabeth Elting Foundation
- Liz’s website
- Connect with Liz on LinkedIn
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(00:29): Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Liz Elting. She’s the founder and c e o of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation is an entrepreneur, business leader. I didn’t know they threw this word in there for me. Lingo, file, philanthropist and feminist. Liz is the founder of TransPerfect World’s largest language solution company with over $1 billion in revenue and offices in more than 100 cities worldwide. We’re going to talk about her latest book, dream Big and Win, translating Passion Into Purpose and Creating a Billion Dollar Business. So Liz, welcome to the show.
Liz (01:08): Thank you so much, John. I’m so excited to be here.
John (01:12): So we’re going to get into the book, but I want to go back in time a little bit because it’s relevant, I think, to you writing the book. What led you to start TransPerfect?
Liz (01:21): Well, I had always loved language. I mean the English language and then languages. I had the opportunity to live in a number of foreign countries, Portugal when I was little, then Canada when I was 10 until college, and then I did my junior year in Spain and I worked in Venezuela, and I was able to study four languages, so Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Latin loved languages. Went to school, decided to major in languages and didn’t know what on earth I would do with it. That was the concern because I was very practical. But I ended up getting a job shortly after my internship in Venezuela, which was shortly after graduating from college. But I got a job at a translation company in the late eighties, and it at the time was the world’s largest. It was about 90 people, and I realized, wow, what a beautiful way to combine language and business and what a perfect way to do.
(02:13): So I was there for three years. First I was in production, and then I moved over to sales, and I thought, what a wonderful industry and what a necessary industry, but I think it can be done better. I saw a real gap between what clients needed and what was available in the industry. So went back to school, got my M B A from N Y U and had a very brief stint in finance. Felt like I had to try out finance just because I had my M B A from N Y U, and that’s what people from Y U did. 70% of majors went into were finance majors, and I tried it, tried it out. So briefly after six weeks I left and I thought, wow, I loved the translation industry, and I had a thought on how it could be done better and this finance is not for me. So with that, that’s kind of the moment I decided, okay, I’m going to start TransPerfect. And really with the goal being to build the world’s largest language solutions company. At the time, there were about 10,000 other companies. That’s what I did. But they were tiny. They were mom and pop.
John (03:15): Well, I was going to ask you that. You halfway answered it anyway, so I’ll let you really tee it up, but did you really started thinking, I can do this big giant thing, or was it just like, Hey, I can do this better?
Liz (03:26): Yeah, no, it is a great question because you never know how big you can make it. But I think what I thought was, as I said, there were 10,000 translation companies out there in 1992 when we started, but they were really companies that were started and run by translators who were enormously talented, but they were busy doing the translation work, so they couldn’t scale their companies. So I thought, if I’m going to do this, I want it to be different and better. And the biggest, I just figured if I’m going to not use that M B A and take the risk, I’m going to go for broke. And so that was certainly the goal.
John (04:05): I always love to ask entrepreneurs this question. A lot of times it’s because they can look in the rear view mirror now to answer this, but what were some of the hardest lessons that you learned or had to learn in growing? Obviously many people don’t get past a million dollars, let alone another zero on there. What were some of the hardest lessons?
Liz (04:23): So learned a lot of things. Did many, many things wrong. In the early days. We worked so hard on selling and just realized we had to sell. We needed to bring in revenue as quickly as possible. We didn’t have funding. So to some degree we were able to do that, and that was wonderful. We brought in business, so we needed to hire quickly, and we brought in some people who were excellent, and actually some who were amazing, and then some who weren’t so good. But what happened was we were working so hard on selling that we had too much work because we could only find people so quickly. Back then, in the early nineties or even the mid nineties, people didn’t want to work for a startup. We didn’t have the big name. We were this tiny company with a lot of work, crazy hours, and we were asking a lot of people and we thought, okay, well, we’ll just pay them a bonus.
(05:12): We’ll just pay them more money and they’ll pull that all nighter. But we had a lot of turnover in those days. We lost a lot of people because you can’t do that to people no matter how much you pay them. They need their life. And we learned quickly that we needed to scale carefully, make sure we were trying to grow, but we also needed to make sure we brought in the right people and then we gave them a reasonable situation. So we learned from that to basically set up shifts. We had what we called T one, T two and T three different shifts so that people were not working through the night. We also opened other offices in different time zones, and we had those time zones cover for the other time zone, and then finally comp days. But we found ways around it, but we had a lot of turnover in the early days because of the situation.
John (06:03): I think most businesses, especially if you grow rapidly, I mean you had never run a company of that size mean, so you were learning on the job. And I think that that’s an area that sinks a lot of businesses. I mean, the people management part is probably the hardest part when you grow rapidly, isn’t it?
Liz (06:20): Yeah. And I think it’s the hardest part no matter what, right? I mean, yes, when you grow rapidly, because in the end, I mean, we grew pretty quickly, but we did this for 26 years, or actually, I did this for 26. It didn’t feel so rapid at the time, but we couldn’t bring in good people. We couldn’t bring in people quickly enough who, and we didn’t figure out how to manage their hours. But you’re right. You’re right. When you’re growing quickly, it’s hard. But I think finding, developing and retaining great people is the hardest part of every business. I’m sure you hear that and you know that we hear it all the time. That is the hardest.
John (07:00): Well, and you were kind of pre-internet, a pre global economy mean, so you needed people all over the world, and they were not as easy to find as they are today. You didn’t have the marketplaces where you could find ’em. I’m curious, Wiley is your publisher on this book, right? Is that right? They
Liz (07:15): Are. Did
John (07:15): I remember? Yeah. So was there any wrestling over the title? And the reason I ask that is there’s some people that the thought of creating a billion dollar business just doesn’t even seem on the table. Did you have any, I’m just curious if you had any discussion with your editor on that title?
Liz (07:33): Yes, we did. Because I think you’re right. A lot of people think, well, that’s just out of the realm of possibility. Why would I even bother? And this book, certainly it’s for everybody. It’s for people who want to create million companies and 5 million companies and 10 million companies. So we did, but I think we put it on there ultimately because we wanted to show, you can do this. You can dream big, and I mean, dream very big, and you can create a billion dollar company. And I tried to share lessons I learned from what I did and the many things I did wrong, and you can get there. And it was to inspire people to realize they can reach for the stars and they could well make it. So that
John (08:17): Was idea, dream big and win and maybe make more money than you’re making today is probably not as inspirational, right? Right. So there are a lot of books that talk about dreaming big. I think one of the things I really like about your book is so few of them have the and win component because to some extent, it’s easy to dream big, isn’t it? So how do you take it beyond just the dream?
Liz (08:43): Right? And I’m so glad you said that because some people feel like they don’t want to talk about winning. Winning is a bad word, but for a lot of us, we’re very competitive, and if we’re doing it, we’re playing to win, and that’s who this is for. But the answer is it’s easy to dream. A dream without goals, with deadlines is just a wish, right? I mean, it’s all about goals with deadlines. And I talk a lot about that in the book about the daily goals. We had things like make 300 phone calls a day and send out 300 letters, and maybe now it would be emails, but every day and not letting the day pass without doing those things for an extended period of time. And I did it when I started the company and we had all of our salespeople doing it and held them to it.
(09:34): So that’s an example of goals with deadlines that we really had to adhere to. Another example is when we thought, okay, we’ve got to scale this to the next level. Basically we set out quarterly goals for when we’re going to open offices, and we said, okay, Q one, San Francisco, Q two Atlanta, Q three, Washington, DC Q four Chicago. And then we forced ourselves to do it. We didn’t give ourselves an out. And that sounds like that might be actually quite difficult, especially without funding, but we basically hired one person at a time. They needed to achieve certain sales goals, and then they could add a person and so on. But yes, I think goals with deadlines is the key, and that’s what a lot of people don’t want to do. But if you do that, I think it’s so key.
John (10:20): I think there’s a misconception out there with people who aren’t entrepreneurs that every entrepreneur is just this massive risk taker. I’d make the case that it’s actually riskier staying in a nine to five job for somebody. But talk a little bit about, I mean, because you took some big risks, talk a little bit about what you think the role or the balance or the importance of risk is.
Liz (10:43): Yes. No, you’re right. And I agree with you. It can be more of a risk if you’re working for someone else, because then you’re at their mercy. That’s right. Which boss you’re going to get. You don’t know what the boss is going to ask of you. You don’t know what’s going to happen going to happen to the company. Plenty of companies go out of business, they lay people off, whatever it is. So yes, whereas you can control your own destiny if you take what some people might consider the risk, and I agree with you, it’s not a risk. If by chance it doesn’t work out, you learned a lot along the way and then you can go start something new. Or if you really don’t want to, you can go back to corporate life. But I agree with you. I think it’s more of a risk not to.
John (11:26): I’m sure people that will read this book will say, okay, I should dream big, but what do I need to start the next Google? Or where do I find the idea for my big?
Liz (11:37): Yeah. And I love that question or that, yes, because I feel like you should not confuse being an inventor with being an entrepreneur or being an entrepreneur with being an inventor. Basically, you can be wildly successful creating something entirely new. And certainly that was what we did. As I mentioned, 10,000 other companies were already doing it, but the idea was to do it better and differently. And there are all kinds of ways to do that, whether it’s with more urgency slash faster, whether it’s with more of a service orientation, really spoiling the client, whether it’s with having a global presence, whether it’s creating a one-stop shop. I mean, there’s so many ways to do it. And I always think about how Steve Jobs did it with the iPhone. It was originally the Blackberry, which had some issues. The screen wasn’t too big. I mean, there were a number of issues, and he wanted it to be able to do a lot more than just have its email usage. So the point is, yes, I think it’s the better way to go because there’s so many things out there that are being done, but they’re not being done as well as they could. And it’s finding that hole, finding that problem to solve.
John (12:50): So every new wave of technology potentially presents challenges for established businesses. I would venture to say that the translation business is going through a bit of an evolution because of ai. So how would you advise people, in some cases, it’s going to gut their profit. In other cases, it’s going to make them have to pivot altogether. I mean, how did you look at that kind of changing world to pivot or think about how you had to change the company?
Liz (13:25): Just to mean, and you probably know this, but I did sell five years ago, but still,
John (13:31): Yeah, I was using that as an example. Oh,
Liz (13:33): Yes. No, no, absolutely. Because machine translation became a part of things during my time in the industry, and you’re absolutely right. So what we did is we tried to incorporate it in any way that it could be helpful. And it was whether it was machine translation, cat tools, and now it’s ai, and I’m sure they’re using it to their advantage and making it so that it is helpful. But the other piece of it that we did, and I recommend doing it, is constantly innovating. And sure, we did it with starting as a company that had almost no technology because in 1992, you could barely mode something. I mean, there was no technology. It was crazy. But then along the way, we really incorporated technology. But as far as other things, we started a litigation solutions division. We started a staffing solutions division. We created technology solutions.
(14:27): And I think the point there is you get the client base and you work with these big companies and you see what else they need, and then you see what the needs are out there as time goes on, and you just keep innovating for your client base. So we kept working with the same clients. I mean huge global companies, but they needed other things. And it’s anticipating the client’s needs before they know they have them. It’s constant innovation. And I think that’s what we did during those 26 years that I was with the company. But I think I’m sure that’s what they’re doing now and what every great entrepreneur and every great C e O is doing.
John (15:03): Yeah, I mean, no question. Easier to sell more to people who already trust you than to go out and find new companies or new business. Absolutely. As people might’ve noted in the intro, in your intro, the first part talks about your foundation. So was philanthropy always a hope, a goal or kind of a happy side effect of what happened in your mind?
Liz (15:26): I think it always was a goal. I learned early on that I wanted to help people. I liked helping people. I mean, I did volunteer work, a lot of us did. But during my years as an entrepreneur, I didn’t have time like any entrepreneur that you barely have time for your company and your family, and that’s it. So I did figure eventually when I had more time, I would focus on the issues and I saw issues. I saw issues with women and how they were treated, how marginalized populations were treated, or people from marginalized communities were treated, and then all kinds of other issues. And the longer I’ve been doing it, the more issues I’m seeing everything from heart disease to cancer to hunger to gun safety. So now I did think, okay, I had a plan early on, and I’ll tell you partly why I had a plan.
(16:22): One thing that happened to me when I was 14, it was kind of the big event of my life. It was life changing. I was hit by a car. I was walking across the street in Vermont, and I flipped over, had a fractured skull, was unconscious for three days. My parents didn’t think I was going to wake up. And then they were thinking, okay, well if she wakes up, she’s probably going to have severe brain damage. Not being able to be able to talk or not be able to walk or something or both. Anyway, after three days, I was fortunate I did come out of this coma, but there was someone else with the exact same injury. So I realized, oh my gosh, I’m the lucky one. I need to do something important here. I could have just as easily lost my life. And then of course, I was lucky with having parents who encouraged education and supported me through it, and being able to be an entrepreneur who hired amazing people. I mean, we in the end had an amazing team that really built our company. So I was one of the lucky ones. So now here I am trying to help people who don’t come from situations where they can get the education. So work a lot on financial aid or try to encourage people to be entrepreneurs or I’m trying to help in all the areas that I just am more good fortune with, and some people don’t have it. So that’s the idea.
John (17:40): So talk a little bit about, you started to mention this a little bit, but did you see being a woman doing what you did as an advantage or a disadvantage?
Liz (17:51): I think
John (17:51): I have four daughters, so that’s maybe why I posed the question that way, because I’d love your take. No,
Liz (17:57): Absolutely. I think the reason actually what prompted me to start the company that I left out, I was trying to move along my answer. I know people don’t have all day, but when I was at the other company, shortly after getting my M B A where I was trying out finance, I was the only woman. And first thing that happened is whenever the phone rang, all the guys would yell Liz phone, because I was the woman. And I quickly realized, okay, that atmosphere was not for me. It felt sexist there, it did. Now, that was many years ago, going through the years as an entrepreneur and as a C E O or Co c e O, yeah, it was tough in a lot of ways, being a woman, people assumed that my partner was the c e o when they first met us, when we just walked in, and I was his assistant because I was the woman.
(18:48): And then I felt like as we grew the company, I think it can be harder for women because when women are tough, they’re considered mean. Whereas when men are tough, they’re considered great leaders. I definitely felt some of that. And then I guess the other issue I saw is not so much that it affected me over time because I was in that leadership role, but other women that I saw at other companies, sometimes in our company, I think they weren’t always treated the way they should be. So I thought, okay, when I’m finished with this, I’m going to help them and support them because in many companies and in many parts of the world and in politics and throughout, it can be tougher for women. And so that’s why I’m focusing on it. And the wonderful thing for your daughters is this. In the nineties, we didn’t have a lot of groups, women’s group support.
(19:40): Now at companies, we ultimately had a women’s group at our company, we started one. There are so many amazing networking groups outside where women are supporting women and some wonderful men are supporting women too. And it’s much better, but we still have a ways to go. And I think as far as your daughters, one last thing is obviously they may find a terrific situation. There are wonderful companies out there, but I also think it’s great when women go and start their own companies and they can create their dream environment. And so I’m a huge proponent of that as well.
John (20:11): Well, I’ll brag a little bit. One of them has started and sold a company already, and then the other one is, one of my other ones is actually runs my company. So Oh
Liz (20:20): My gosh. Oh wow. So they’re entrepreneurs already
John (20:24): And very
Liz (20:24): Successful ones.
John (20:26): I love that
Liz (20:27): They don’t have to deal with these issues, or
John (20:30): Hopefully not, but Liz,
Liz (20:32): Wow, thank you. I said you had kids. I wasn’t imagining they were old enough to do that. You’re much two young
John (20:38): For them. I’ve got seven grandkids, so Oh my gosh.
Liz (20:41): You’ve accomplished a lot. Pretty more than I have.
John (20:43): Well, I wouldn’t go there, but, well, Liz, I appreciate you stopping by the show today. You want to tell people where they can maybe connect with you or find out more about your work, especially the foundation, and then clearly pick up a copy of Dream Big and Win.
Liz (20:57): Oh, thank you. Thank you so much, John. Yes, so my website is https://lizelting.com/, and my website is https://www.elizabetheltingfoundation.org . And then the book, dream Big and Win can be bought on Amazon. So dream Big and Win. Liz Elting, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or whatever your preferred retailer is. But yes, thank you so much, John. This was wonderful.
John (21:21): Well, I appreciate you taking a moment, and hopefully we’ll run into one of these days out there on the road.
Liz (21:26): Oh, that would be amazing. So great talking to you. And so great talking to everybody.
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