This week’s Misfit Entrepreneur is Liz Elting. Where to start with Liz. She co-founded TransPerfect, the world’s largest provider of language and business solutions. The company does over $800 million in revenue per year and employs over 6000 in 100+ cities across the world. She has been recognized and awarded with everything from Ernst and Young’s entrepreneur of the year to being named one of Forbes richest self-made women many years running. She and her story have also been highlighted in numerous books and publications.
More recently, Liz is known for her philanthropic efforts with her foundation, the Elizabeth Elting Foundation which works to advance the economic, social, and political equity of women and marginalized people.
I’m excited for Liz to share her story with you and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Growing up, Liz lived in a number of different places. Everywhere from New York to Portugal to Canada. She went to college in the US and realized she could pursue her passion of languages. She just didn’t know what she would do with it – but her dad told her to follow her passion. After college she worked the translation industry in New York. She found a company that was the largest translation company in the world that helped combine her passion for language and business.
She worked in the company for 3 years and learned the industry. She then went back to school and got her MBA. While in business school, she decided to go into finance and briefly tried out investment banking. She realized she made a huge mistake and then started TransPerfect in November of 1992. In 2018, she sold half of her company and started her foundation.
When we first spoke, you said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Explain that…
- That is Liz’s mantra ever since she grew up.
- She really felt it when she started her company working 100 hours per week.
- She delayed gratification and it paid off.
- She had to work intensely and not quit and the more she put in and more focused she was, the more successful the company became.
At the 9:30 mark, we discuss the first products developed and how Liz got her initial clients, then scaled…
- At the other company she was at, they translation work for companies, but Liz knew there was so much more that they needed.
- She knew that everything needed to be able to work in every language.
- The first product was standard translation services for companies, but the goal was to become the end-to-end solution.
- The goal was to do anything in a foreign language to scale.
- Over time they talked to their clients and really listened. They needed things like staffing and litigation support and content management services.
Then they found a way to offer it to them. Talk about going through the stages of business growth – which ones did you feel were the hardest?
- The first million is by far the hardest.
- It is much harder to go from $0-$1 million than from say $5 mil to $500 mil because by that time, you have built the teams, systems, client base, etc. Initially, you don’t have that.
- One of the core values was “Own It” and so when they started in a new market or sale, it was set up like that - employees owned it. It was then that had to build the first million in the market, etc. The sales teams had to work very hard.
Tell us about the core values. What are they and how have they made a difference for the company?
- The core values end up being what is important to you and your life.
- So, for Liz, integrity and honesty was critical.
- One of the questions she would ask in an interview is “What would you do if you saw someone stealing money out of the cash register?” The answers were eye-opening.
- Owning it was another value that she embodied, and it became another core value.
- They ultimately had 10 core values.
Is there a skillset or mentality that you feel is most important for success in today’s world?
- You must have the work ethic.
- You must be a leader and stand out from the crowd.
- Being true to yourself and do what is right.
- Another value was service, and businesses need to spoil their customers and look at how to stand apart.
What did you do to stand out in the area of service?
- Being there for the client 24/7 in the early days, but that was not sustainable.
- When they tried to pay employees to work holidays and other things, it led to turnover, so they had to find ways to “be there” for their clients, but in a more manageable way.
- They found ways to do this by adding in offices in different times, creating shifts, giving comp time, etc.
- They also did special VIP events for clients.
- They found ways to produce results for clients faster than the competition.
- Filling gaps in products or services clients said they needed.
- They were also innovating and figuring out how to help client in better ways.
Talk to us about the entrepreneur journey. What have you learned about how to consistently succeed as an entrepreneur?
- No matter what – staying true to your core values.
- When times are challenging – you must continue to put the money into sales and marketing.
- Find ways to align incentives and compensation so that when the company does well or the employee does well, they are well taken care of. This is for all people in the company.
- Focus on employee morale. Don’t just spoil the clients but do you best to do so for the employees as well.
What are the most important things leaders should do to ensure success and make sure they are doing the best for their employees and organization?
- In the early days, the leader does everything, but over time, they must delegate to scale.
- To do that, you must find the best people, so your interview process is most important. Hire slowly, fire quickly.
- It’s the employee you keep around that can give you the ulcer, not the one you don’t have.
- Once you have your people – focus on training, development, and retention.
- The only way to lead is to lead by example. You cannot inspire people to do things you haven’t done or aren’t willing to do.
Advice for CEO’s? What have you learned about being a great CEO and how it is different from other areas of leadership?
- In the early days, it is a lot of doing and doing everything.
- Then it is a lot of hiring, training, and delegating and retaining (the middle stage)
- Then, it is having the vision for what’s next and making sure the innovations are happening.
- It is thinking long-term and getting the feedback from the people on the front lines.
- It is dealing with clients at all stages.
- And always maintaining a connection with the employees.
- 1 on 1’s with people at all stages and levels it very important as well.
Anything you’ve learned in selling your company and starting into Philanthropy?
- It was wonderful to lead the company for 26 years.
- There were things she saw and bigger challenges/issues that needed to be improved.
- There is a lot of work to be done.
- Philanthropy is entrepreneurship in a different way.
What was the most surprising thing that happened on your journey?
- Hiring an entry level person when they first started and then watching them grow and see what they could become.
- It was so rewarding and exciting and she learned so much from it.
- The learning is continuous and never ends!
Best Quote: Work today like no one else will, so you can live and give tomorrow like no one else can.
Liz's Misfit 3:
- If you don’t think you can be successful as an entrepreneur, you can. No matter what happens to you or go through, success is still possible.
- Hard work. Work today like no one else will, so you can live and give tomorrow like no one else can.
- Integrity and honesty are keys to living a great life and running a good business.
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