Christian Arno, 32, had been teaching for just two weeks when he gave up. As part of his languages degree, he'd been sent to an Italian university to work as a teaching assistant. But "I really wasn't a very good teacher. I didn't have the patience." So he became a web entrepreneur instead. "It was 1999 and everyone was talking about the dotcom bubble." Rather than teach, he spent his placement year setting up an online translation service. He was fluent in French, Italian and English, and his contacts could help out with other languages. Jos Shepherd, a "techie friend", set up the site. The firm, TGV, was born.
Despite a "terrible-looking website", it got off to a good start. "In those days Yahoo dominated the search engines and for some reason we came up in their results." TGV provided Arno with "some beer money", but looming exams and a return to Oxford University meant he "didn't really try to grow the business". Upon graduating he faced a choice. "It was either: get a proper job' like my friends or try and make a success of the site."
He opted for the latter and moved back to his parents' house in Aberdeen to focus on the business, helped by a lucky trade he'd made while in Italy. He had invested £500 in internet firm Knowledge Management Software. The shares soared in the tech boom and he sold them for £15,000. "It was enough for me to get the business going and not worry about earning money for a while." He re-launched as Lingo24 and gave Shepherd a 20% stake in exchange for a new site.
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By then Google was replacing Yahoo as the dominant search engine. Arno realised he had to climb up its rankings. "I taught myself search-engine optimisation techniques and gradually got up there." His customers ranged from desperate students needing last-minute help to oil and gas firms in Aberdeen. By 2002, sales had hit £43,000. "That doesn't sound a lot but the profit margin was good as I had very low costs." Arno used the sales to hire better translators. "There is a big difference between a student and a professional." It paid off when a large travel agency brought him business worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. This paid for a "hub" in New Zealand "that made us a truly 24-hour company". Sales grew fast, hitting the £1m mark in 2006.
But in 2007, Google judged that Lingo24 had "broken one of its rules". It pushed the firm further down its rankings. Sales fell and Arno was forced to cut staff. Desperate for new business he hired a sales team and began targeting trade shows. This return to traditional marketing paid off. Sales recovered, while Lingo24 also benefited from the rise of China. "There has been a dramatic increase in demand for Mandarin translation." Setting up a Chinese base wasn't easy. "I was a bit nave. I hired someone I thought I could trust. It turned out he was a convicted murderer. In the end he stole lots of money from us."
But Arno went on to make a success of the Chinese hub. Lingo24 now has bases in seven countries and individualised websites in 65. Last year sales were £5m. Arno now plans to combine online marketing with translation. "We can help firms find a low-cost way to sell to foreign countries." That could prove popular.
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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