From Working As Freelance Translators To Starting A $480K/Year Translation Agency
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Our names are Robert and Mariona Bolohan, we are a married couple who also run their own business, you may wonder if we’re crazy and we probably are but we both have a passion for languages and that is why we created our own translation business called Lotuly.
We went from being freelance translators when we landed in the UK in 2015 to running a remote translation agency with over 500 translators across the globe.
We specialize in human translation. As you may know, AI or machine translation is not capable of providing cultural awareness, and therefore it is useless for companies that want to appeal to another market where they speak another language. Their entire reputation is at stake so a human native speaker of the target language must take care of that, and that’s where Lotuly comes in.
We currently offer translation & localization services in over 90 languages and 40 subjects even though we mainly focus on e-commerce, e-learning, software & marketing companies, but also universities and legal firms, we helped them go global and expand into other markets without compromising on quality (from startups & SMEs to Fortune 500 and everything in between).
We are growing every day, at one point we managed to grow to $40k a month and we are about to become VAT registered so exciting things are coming soon! We are also working on launching a subscription version of our services, and packages will range from $99 to $349 a month (we are also working on releasing a special deal for bilingual content creators).
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
We left Spain in 2015 (Mariona was 18 and Robert 19) in search of new opportunities and when we arrived in London we realized how difficult it was for people if you couldn’t understand the language.
We already spoke 4 languages so we started doing freelancing jobs as translators to be able to support ourselves, little by little our clients were asking us for help in other languages as they liked the way we worked and the quality we provided, but of course, we didn’t know those languages so we recruited a small team that would handle those, from that point forward we saw a business opportunity and took it, and we have never looked back!
We were renting a converted garage at the time for around £1000 per month, it was cold and there were loads of holes and spiders, the door was smashed, we barely had any furniture in apart from a table and a bed with a small tv stand but we pushed through (around 7months) until we were able to move to a brand new studio (29sq meters) it was very small but we made it work and at least it was cozier, in there the whole business idea started to take shape.
But we can’t complain at all as we always had enough to pay the rent and bills every month, some months it was indeed hard to get a new project but then suddenly a client would give us £5k-£10k worth of work so it has always worked out for us but it can be quite stressful not knowing when or where your next paycheck is going to come from.
We have found that even though there is this misconception about machine translation and how fast it is, there are so many clients that understand the importance of having their copy translated by a human. In this article you will find some mistakes that ruined the reputation of huge companies because they used machine translation, including Coca-Cola, making them lose millions in turnover.
We’ve recently featured in The Times on how we’re converting a van into a campervan to be able to work from anywhere 6 months of the year while we travel! You can follow our campervan journey here.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We weren’t always called Lotuly, in the beginning, we were called M & R makers (how creative, right? ) and afterward TMS (translation and marketing services) but it wasn’t right for us, we mixed two different kinds of services and it wasn’t really clear what we were doing so after three months of brainstorming we came up with Lotuly which is the combination of 2 Latin words:
- Logus which means words
- Tratuli which means translation
Therefore Lotuly means ‘’translation of words’’ and we thought that beautiful! But it took us over 3 years to learn from our mistakes, especially from a branding point of view.
We also wanted to be different from our competitors and also transparent on pricing, we wanted to make an impact and be as innovative as possible without compromising on quality, that is why we created an instant quotation tool with more than 300.000 combinations where you can get a price in seconds!
You just need to give a couple of details about your project like the number of words, pair of language, and the subject (no personal details at all) and you will get the quote. We also made sure to always provide the same quality across our 3 packages but the price will depend on how fast you need it back.
We’re still updating it and making some changes along the way but we think it’s an awesome feature to have especially as if you don’t know the word count of your file you can simply upload it in one of the 12 formats and the tool will count it automatically!
Feel free to play around with it here.
Having to come up with a formula behind our instant quote tool was very hard as you can imagine:
- 90 languages
- 40 subjects
- 8,100 pairs of languages
- 12 formats supported
In total over 324,000 combinations went in the back end of the tool, we had to come up with files and files worth of possible language combinations, pricing, delivery times, and the number of words a translator can handle per day based on the technicality of the subject and how popular a language pair was, etc…it was a huge thing for us and it took several months to put together.
We got scammed for around £8k by a company who was constantly avoiding delivering a workable product and asking for more funds in exchange to finish it like they were trying to deliver unfinished phases of the MVP to push for more money out of us so we had to make the difficult decision to find someone else as we were not only losing money but we were also delaying the launch.
Lotuly’s brand went through different stages (as you can see in the below pictures) before becoming the brand we currently settled for and which we also trademarked.
The majority of people will not even see that moved pixel that you’ve touched, just launch imperfectly and keep tweaking!
Our branding team that we worked with has done an incredible job at combining our values into a fully explosive & sustainable-looking brand!
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching can be so disheartening because you have worked so hard for something and the misconception that a lot of us have is that when you go live that’s it, you don’t have to do anything else, everyone will know me and find me and that is a complete lie.
It’s so hard for customers to find you when you start from scratch, it takes months or even years, so if you are in that situation our advice would be don’t wait until everything is perfect because it will never be, you will always be changing something and the majority of people will not even see that moved pixel that you’ve touched, just launch imperfectly and keep tweaking!
Because of small details, we delayed our launch for months and that was completely our mistake so if this can help another business owner to just go for it without wanting everything perfect then it will have served a purpose!
Because we are a translation business there aren’t many grants or financial support, we spent months trying to find someone but we couldn’t so in the end we had to bootstrap it ourselves with the money we were making as freelancers, and we had to move back home with relatives so we could put back into the business what we made and this way grows it.
We spent well over £20k between the MVP, copywriting, legal & GDPR, localization of our project, monthly fees of tools and software we use, branding & other aspects
Somewhere where we didn't invest properly was PPC, we hired a UK based company and we got no return on our investment (and extra +£5k) and we had 4 campaign managers swap in the short 3 months we worked with this firm, so what we learned was to do more research and we needed to find a company that specialized in PPC for service-based companies, not product-based ones.
With very few clicks and too many impressions, something was not right. We decided to drop it and focus on PR and building backlinks but also developing our brands on LinkedIn where we managed to build strong relationships and create that demand for our services organically.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Most people think you have to invest money on every single advertising platform like Facebook, Tiktok, Linkedin, Instagram, etc..but not every channel that works for a product-based business will work for a service-based one like ourselves. The main thing is to find out where your customers are and start with one, target the right audience and keep improving things from there, then once you have a reliable source of leads expand to other channels and keep testing.
We found that researching websites and organizations that would want to partner up or tell our story works well for organic growth and even getting backlinks so making a list of potential podcasts, newsletters, or even Twitter competitions can help you build that growth you need to get yourself out there. With time people start associating your brand with relevant google searches and that’s how we got after several months of hard work to feature on the first page of Google for the keywords human translation London.
We saw that Theo Paphitis (ex dragon from the UK dragon’s den TV program) was running a Sunday award session a month ago for small businesses and decided to tell him in a tweet why we are different and after 2 or 3 tries he acknowledged us and we’ve been awarded the SBS award and even retweeted our tweet getting us several hundred follows off the back of that action. The main thing is not to give up and keep on trying.
We’ve also managed to feature consistently over several years in a well-known freelance platform as reliable and top translators for English to German in the UK. This has been the work of 8 years and starting as humble translators on a platform full of competitors.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Being able to communicate with your customers in the language of their heart will never be out of date, also the translation industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the market so we are pretty confident about Lotuly’s future.
As mentioned previously we are implementing monthly packages that we have already tried and tested with our current clients and they work wonders so we are trying to make this available to the public ASAP.
You must have heard this a million times but if you don’t start now someone else is going to do it.
We would like to cross $1M in turnover by mid of 2023 without having to compromise on our values or the quality we provide.
We are also working on a dashboard so clients can have full access to everything from there and making the translation process an easier one for both parties and less time-consuming as time is money.
One thing we are super proud of is that we recently partnered up with Ecologi and we’ve been able to plant 1 tree for every 500 words that we translate and our little forest is growing day by day. We can always check how old they are, and if they are doing well, and thanks to this we are also supporting communities in lands where work is hard to find, so we are very very proud of this aspect of our business. We aim to reach 5,000 trees by the end of 2022.
We are also trying to be more active on our social media platforms like Instagram and tik tok!
It never ends! We are also aiming at hiring our first full-time employee besides ourselves to work with us on taking Lotuly to the next stage in our business. Apart from that, we aim at making our translators’ lives easier.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We have learned a lot about other cultures and how people work, we have also learned quite a lot of timezones as our clients and team are all around the world!
There are a lot of things that I would do differently now such as being more confident in our service (i.e. not caring about others' opinions and whether they think it will work or not), we had our fair share of challenges and obstacles, and do you want to know a secret? They never end, something will always come up but it’s the way you react to them that will make the whole difference.
Two clients on two different occasions after doing several projects with them, decided they didn’t want to pay the rest, which has been a financial setback for us worth over $8k (that still hasn’t been paid) there was nothing wrong with our end they just thought it was ok to do that, and because they are in other countries they legally felt safe, after that we researched them and unfortunately, we found reviews saying that they did that to other businesses and even to their employees so that was a learning curve for us because we implemented a new policy which is:
Until the full payment is not received upfront or they sign up with us through Stripe we will not start a project, and this has worked wonders from then on because it has given us the possibility to also pay our team upfront (in the translation industry the norm is to get paid 30-60 days after invoicing and that is not ideal especially if you work on a per-project basis) so you learn and improve from everything but that extra $ 8k wouldn’t hurt to have them hehe but you learn from it and grow!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Stripe, Azure, Angular, Hubspot, Wordpress, exchange rates API, ecologi, 20i
Our quote tool is too complex to be able to be on Wordpress only that is why we chose Angular, it works wonders for us but it means that sometimes we need help in making some tweaks on Angular and that can be time-consuming and expensive!
Stripe is awesome for international payments and also with Starling bank for less than £10 a month we can have a dollar and a Euro account so it’s very easy for us to accept different currencies and therefore it’s more appealing for our clients overseas.
We use exchange rates API directly integrated into our quote tool to be able to accept payments in 3 different currencies.
We also love the guys at 20i because they truly care about the environment and they are trying to do their bit for the environment as a business as we are. They use 100% renewable energy to power their hosting so that is awesome!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
We found several articles on jw.org that have helped us to focus on what we need.
For example, this article talks about how you can live with the means you have and be happy and content with it, or how to avoid unnecessary debt, we have found them very helpful because they helped us to maintain a balanced view of ourselves, of making sure we spend our money in the right places and it has worked for us.
They also have articles on how to manage stress, family life, anxiety, etc and they truly work!
We have found them ever so helpful and also their website is translated into over 1,000 languages and that is mind-blowing from a translation expert's point of view!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
1- You must have heard this a million times but if you don’t start now someone else is going to do it.
2- People buy from people so try to build a relationship with someone before you sell something to them, especially if you are on Linkedin, engage with their content during various days (obviously don’t push it too much) but create those human connections and you will notice a big difference.
3- Don’t be afraid of your competitors, find your USP and every time you feel insecure read them out loud, it works wonders.
4- If you are in front of a computer all day like us make sure to take at least 1 walk a day for a minimum of 30 min, clients, and your team all will be there when you come back but if you don’t take care of yourself no one is going to do it for you and if you are not ok your business will not be ok, so don’t feel guilty for taking time off.
5- If you feel overwhelmed and you probably will just talk with someone, on social media you’ll see pictures of people and you’ll think “oh their business is going so well, their life is so perfect,” it probably isn’t, I had someone telling me something similar and I thought wow that is far from the truth if you could see my hand… it has a rash of all the stress we put on ourselves but that kind of things people don’t normally see, so don’t be so hard on yourself you are doing more than enough.
6- Don’t reinvent the wheel, sometimes you just have to tweak and perfect something that already exists.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Tik Tok
- Linkedin Lotuly
- Linkedin Robert
- Linkedin Mariona
- The Times
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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