Kunal Sarda’s company, Verbalizeit.com turned down two Shark Tank offers of $250,000 in funding. Kunal came from India to attend grad school, and started the translation company with his classmate Ryan Frankel, and they are growing off of a strong foundation. Their translators must have not only impeccable language skills, but proud of their culture and represent their country appropriately. He talks about their challenge to educate their clients on the benefits of going international, and how he surrounds himself with smart people, and the struggles of dealing with the US Visa program as an entrepreneur.
Kent Trabing([0:52]): Kunal is co founder and COO of verbalize it.com. “Human powered translation for business.” The genius of verbalize it is, it is a technology platform that connects those in need of translation with a global community with a just in time human translators. Kunal is an engineer by training, speaks four languages, a Wharton Alumn. and has traveled 28 countries. Last year Kunal and his co-founder Ryan Franco, appeared on Shark Tank and turned down two offers of $250,000.
Kent Trabing([1:37]): Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and a little about your company verbalize it?
K: I am Kunal Sarda the co-founder and COO of verbalize it. Verbalize it is a platform that provides businesses with on-demand access to human translation. We build a global community of 20,000 translators around the world who collectively speak over 150 different languages. We have technology that allows us to embed these human translators across all mediums of communication. So if you are a business that is looking to go global and you need your website, mobile app translated, or your marketing department needs your documents or videos translated or your operations group wants to talk to customers on their health support line across multiple languages, we have the ability to embed human translation to allow you to do that.
Kent Trabing([2:27]): Tell us about yourself?
K: I was born and raised in India. I am an engineer by training. I moved to the US in 2003 to get my masters in operations research. I worked for a few years in healthcare consulting with companies ranging from early stage startups to fortune 500 and helping them figure out the commercial strategies for their products and realized I was much more interested in being on the other side of the table and being an entrepreneur myself. I went back to school to get my MBA in 2009 at the University of Pennsylvania. I started with the idea verbalize it while i was in school with my partner and have been building the business since.
Kent Trabing([3:09]): Have you heard of Wharton when you were in India?
K: Absolutely. The Indians place a huge emphasis on the quality of education. Wharton is definitely a name that is very well recognized and well respected in India.
Kent Trabing([3:27]): When you were coming from India to America were you wide open with your ideas?
K: I was pretty young when I came over. I think I was about 20 years old at the time. I am sure I had ideas about what i wanted to do, but those ideas changed pretty quickly. I came over for my masters in operations research, which is very engineering and math focused. I ended up working for an early stage consulting company where I was exposed to a lot of things beyond just strategy consulting. I knew pretty quickly within a year or two that I wanted to start my own company. Very much came over as an engineer but decided that I wanted to become a businessman pretty quickly.
Kent Trabing([4:08]): Talk about a typical customer with verbalize it.
K: If you are a business that has a website, you are obviously servicing your American customer, but then you look at google analytics and you say wow I am getting a lot of people who are visiting my website from Latin America or China and you think what can I do to better service or aggressively go after these customers. Verbalize it is the platform that allows you to do that. You can transmit your website into any of hundreds of languages within 24-48 hours. What that allows you to do is to speak with this new customer base who has been finding your website despite the fact that the website is in english. 35% of customers only search and buy in their own language. You have the ability to translate your website and content into the local language so that people can find you, search for you, and can interact with your product a lot better than they have been able to before.
Kent Trabing([5:15]): Is this like when you go to a website where you can change the translation on the top of the browser?
K: That is exactly right. We are the engine that is powering translation for those kinds of websites. We think of ourselves as Google translate, except we are powered by 20,000 people around the world. Machines, typically when you visit a website that is in a foreign language, you might try to use Google translate to see what the website says. But for a business, the content on the website is the product and it needs to be perfect and it needs to capture the tone and context of their business in a way that machine translation does not allow you to do. Verbalize it is the platform that allows you to serve your content to the international customers with an experience that is very close to machine translation or Google translation, but it is the quality that is powered by people around the world.
Kent Trabing([6:19]): I guess you would be sensitive to cultural cues if you have a translator than a machine.
K: I think both you and I have seen several examples of machine translation gone wrong. We typically see on menu cards across the world. Obviously for a business it’s a lot more important to get every word right.
Kent Trabing([6:39]): How did you two start the company?
K: Verbalize it was very much born out of a personal unfortunate experience while traveling overseas. My own experience is, I found myself at the back of a taxi in France at two in the morning without my wallet and I was still in the process of learning French so I had no way of telling my driver what had happened. I got pulled over to the side of the road, was harassed for a few hours before, eventually, I had to call a friend of mine who spoke French and ask him to communicate over my behalf over the phone. That’s when the lightbulb went off for me, which is the number of people traveling overseas and probably faced these situations very frequently. I met up with my partner Ryan, who had a similar experience in China, where he found himself really sick while traveling in China and could not explain to the pharmacist what medications he needed across the language barrier. Verbalize it was very much born out of the idea that international travelers face language barriers and what kind of solution can we provide them to have, not just to overcome these barriers, but to have experience that they never had before.
Kent Trabing([7:52]): Do you still serve that customer, that over sea traveler that finds himself in a panicked situation?
K: We have customers who are still using our service on the consumer side, but as of six or seven months ago we have formally moved towards servicing businesses that have bigger and more recurring needs around translation. This is primarily coming from our initial customer base. We had people who were using us for international travel, but a lot of our customers started saying, my needs are around my business, which I’m usually traveling, are much more important. The fact that you already have a community and technology in place, what else can you do to empower my business to be able to communicate across the language barrier. For us the move towards business is very natural, driven by the feedback that we received from our existing customers. So today we are a platform that powers translations across all mediums of communication, not just the spoken word and primarily being used by businesses to do so.
Kent Trabing([8:58]): In case listeners are saying “boy I can be a translator”, what is a profile of a good translator that you hire? And how does that work?
K: Obviously first and foremost, as a translator, you need to have impeccable language ability and really good attention to detail. When you apply to become a translator for verbalize it, every translator goes to a language proficiency test, which is then crowdsourced back to expert translators within our community and is vetted by these translators. If you pass the test, you are able to start translating for Verbalize it. Beyond that, we also look for, what I call, really important cues around, the translators who are most successful in Verbalize it truly understands our vision on making the world a smaller place and really feel associated to that. Translators who are living in Brazil are really proud of their culture and language and they want to make sure that they go a step further than just translating to make sure they are representing their country and their culture appropriately. The combination of excellent language ability, but also an eye for global citizenship really makes for a strong translator.
Kent Trabing([10:10]): Having a good intent is crucial.
K: Absolutely. We are in the world of what is called the sharing economy today Kent, where you are uncovering new sources of demand and supply everyday from everyday people. That is a fantastic opportunity, but the problem with that is people are not like servers. So when you need to add additional capacity, you just can’t add additional people. Every person has their own idiosyncrasies. As a person powered business, how you screen for that and how you account for that becomes really important.
Kent Trabing([10:45]): Tell us about Shark Tank.
K: Shark Tank was a phenomenal experience for us. We applied for Shark Tank while we were still in school at Wharton. I believe that was the first season where the producers of Shark Tank thought, why don’t we go to business schools and find entrepreneurs there. We were a little bit of a case study for Shark Tank. The producers reached out to a few professors, we heard about it through the grapevine, and ended up cold emailing the producers. It started a six month interview and pitching process where we were on the phone with the producers. Basically every week, we were finding a story, pitching to them, and all of this before we were invited to the show and pitch in front of the sharks. There is actually a lot of prep and interviewing.
Kent Trabing([11:38]): How did you prepare for it?
K: More of the same Kent. We went through this incubator program called Techstars, which is a technology incubator program. We were in the process of refining a pitch and pitching to potential investors everyday. For us, it was more of that but also T.V. requires you to be a bit more animated and a bit more dramatic than real life. We were definitely being told, lets liven things up a little bit. A few red bulls, a few bigger smiles than we wanted to. It was a great experience.
Kent Trabing([12:18]): Can you talk a little about your funding? The process or any advice?
K: For us, every startup has it’s own path that it curves, but for us, we were fortunate to be accepted into Techstars. A part of that program is, it’s a three month really intensive program which starts with refining your product and solution strategy. At the end you go on stage on what is called demo date to present in front of a lot of prospective investors who have been following your journey of the last three months. We went to Shark Tank while we were still in Techstars. We got two offers from the sharks during the show. We were advised by our advisors at Techstars that the valuation you are getting from the show is not in line with technology companies like ourselves. We had to graciously turn down those offers. We ended up raising a round coming out of Techstars from investors whom we met during demo day. My advice for entrepreneurs who are doing this for the first time, the best advice that I have ever received is, there is three kinds of money you can go after as an entrepreneur. There is value add money, neutral money, and there is destructive money. What that means is, there is certain investors that will, not just bring money to the table, but add value and increase the size of the pie for you. That is the kind of investor you really want to go after. The kind of investor you want to avoid is that investor who actually eats up your time and destroys value for your business despite bringing money to the table. The third kind are investors who don’t take away, don’t add much, but bring money to the table. As a company at a really early stage it is ok to have neutral capital. It’s obviously great to have value as capital, but in the early stages when you are simply looking for resources to really prove out your business and to scale your business, do whats needed to get money as long as its not destructive.
Kent Trabing([14:29]): Coming from India, what kind of different perspective did that give you coming into this country?
K: As you mention I am from India. I grew up in Delhi, which is where I lived most of my life, then I moved to Agra for college which is where I spent 4 hours before coming to the US. To me I think beyond the specific country you are from, immigrants that arrive in a new country have a certain kind of perspective. I almost call it a chip on their shoulder. I have left my infrastructure, social network, and professional networks behind and I came looking for a better opportunity and nothing is going to come easy. With that idea I knew I had to work hard and that is something i believe that makes most immigrants successful in this country which is the understanding that nothing is going to come easy and you have to work hard. I fundamentally believe that hard work, as an entrepreneur, there is nothing that is more important than hard work that leads to success. I think my biggest thing coming from India is, coming from a country that has over a billion people, I always thought of people as an underutilized asset. What can we do to connect people in a way that generates more value for society. For me verbalize it is very much a response from that idea, which is that you have billions of people around the world who speak a second language and you have amazing technology today that allows you to connect them. To me, coming from a country that size, I have always thought of new ways to engage people who haven’t had means to sustenance as the internet allows today. To me Verbalize was very much born out of that perspective.
Kent Trabing([16:30]): What is the biggest demand for a language?
K: Two sides. COmpanies in the Us that are not thinking about going overseas for the first time, because US has been a huge market of over 300 million people. For companies in the US the biggest markets today are represented by the brick countries. Brazil, Russia, India, China represent really big demand both on the manufacturing but also retail side. If you are a company in Europe, Europe tends to be slightly different market because countries are a lot smaller and you tend to need to go international very quickly. For European countries it tends to be, let me go to other countries in Europe and then most companies are trying to get to the US market as quick as possible.
Kent Trabing([17:27]): Can you tell a story about what you first did when you came to America?
K: My most fun story that I think about the most is my first job when i first came to the US. Mind you I have led a very good and fortunate life in India. I never held a job during school. I come to the US and the first job when I came to grad school was a Philly cheesesteak shop. I joined this shop and I was working with one guy who just got out of jail and this other guy who was a raging alcoholic. We were serving people anywhere from students to latenight, all kinds of characters that would roll up. To me that was the job outside of verbalize it that i’ve learned the most out of my life just because coming into a country where language is not much of a problem but culture was still a little bit of a shock to me. Just learning how to interact with people from all walks of life. It’s a skill i developed making cheesesteaks that I still find tremendously useful and served me really well as an entrepreneur. I used to earn I think 7 dollars an hour, then got a raise to 7.25 and I was so happy. That was a fantastic job.
Kent Trabing([18:53]): What surprises you about doing business here?
K: Two things i found really surprising coming in Kent, one thing was the ease of which you can start a business here. I always think of the US as a place where it’s a perfect storm for entrepreneurship. You’ve got schools like Wharton that are giving you world class education and access to a network. The fact that I found my business partner who is phenominal. Phenomenally smart, phenomenally talented. The idea that you are able to get such a good education and access to talent so easily, is great. Access to capital is so frictionless. Obviously raising capital as an entrepreneur is hard, but it is so much harder overseas. The number of options for capital raising from incubators, to angel groups, to institutional investors, you have a lot of options as an entrepreneur. Even simple things like getting your company setup which literally takes you 30 minutes to set up on legalzoom is hard to do overseas. The infrastructure that is available to you as an entrepreneur is amazing. On the flip side though, I was surprised to see how hard it is for immigrant entrepreneurs to be successful here. Just the legal system and the immigration system in the US makes it incredibly hard for you to scale a business. I struggled for a fair bit about a year and a half, when I was leaving school and making a choice between needing to go the corporate route, which requires you to get H1B Visas which is a much more streamline process versus going the smirky route of being an entrepreneur where there is literally no legal immigration process in place for you to do so. I was able to get my process in shape, but I know there is a lot of people like me who are extremely intelligent, that are driven for success, but the legal system does not allow them to chase after their passion. It is kind of contradictory where I found it really easy for companies to be successful unless you are an immigrant entrepreneur to the point that is a huge percentage of people today who are leading extremely successful companies. So it seems surprising to me that it is so hard to do so today.
Kent Trabing([21:09]): I read about this and it’s astounding that when entrepreneurs are driving job growth, we don’t want people coming in taking our jobs, we want people coming in creating jobs. Yet the legal system pushes immigrants to work for corporations rather than creating jobs.
K: Immigrants will be entrepreneurs and there is plenty of resources, but the one thing you don’t want to be entrepreneurial with is the legal system. Having a clear path for success there is pretty critical to make sure that you can, as a country, can retain and engage the talent that you need for job growth today. A lot of countries are going on the offensive now. You’ve all heard about the reverse brain drain, where countries are essentially luring talent back to their home country or another country by making the visa process a lot easier. That is a very dangerous place for us to be as a country where the smartest and the brightest people are having a hard time generating jobs and are finding it a lot easier to do so. That is not a very good long term outlet for the country.
Kent Trabing([22:23]): What has been your biggest challenge of failure and what did you learn from it?
K: We are in a very exciting time where, 2014 has essentially been called the year for internationalization. A lot of companies are realizing that there is a huge world out there. The internet is enabling them to go after a huge population that they never had access to before, but the big challenge for these companies is not knowing how to get started. That challenge relates to us at Verbalize it, which is, we are the engine that powers translation, but the number of companies that don’t know how to get started require us to, it almost becomes a two step process where we first need to train people and companies on the value for going global. Almost train them on the process or the way to think about going global even before we start talking about translations. To us that has required us to really hone the way we interact with our customers. We take more of a consultative approach in being the information asset for our customers explaining the value of internationalization and the process for doing so even before we talk about our own business.
Kent Trabing([23:36]): So you are not just giving information. You are helping to kind of transform them to where they think about going overseas.
K: That is right. As a technology company it is easy to try and sit back and say, let the customers roll in, but on the other hand, to generate true value for customers we found it is tremendously important to be an information asset for them about what is happening around the world as opposed to just focusing on translation.
Kent Trabing([24:06]): Kunal, you got into Wharton which is an amazing feat, found your company at Wharton which was from your genius and efforts. What would you do if you had arrived without any MBA schooling?
K: I thought about that a little bit. Probably the same as it was 100 years ago. As i mentioned, they have a chip on their shoulder. They are leaving behind the infrastructure and resources they had in place in hopes for a better life and they would do what is required to get a better life for themselves, but more importantly their own family. I have a really great story of my uncle who first came here in the 60s. He was actually very well educated, but the system had a lot more friction back then, than there is today. The perspective towards immigrants towards India was a little different back in the day than it is today. His first job was, he was sitting under a streetlamp, fixing up drunkards who had gotten into fights and got their faces smashed in. That is how he made his first, as a doctor who was well educated in India, but didn’t come here, didn’t receive the schooling for the infrastructure that I did. He found ways to get himself off the ground. I believe I would have done the same. There is plenty of examples today of people who are coming in from India, they might not have access to the same education as I did, but we are as immigrants are entrepreneurial by our nature and we find our way to make a better life for ourselves.
Kent Trabing([25:50]): What resources do you use that help you succeed?
K: I think my biggest resource has always been, I try to surround myself with friends and adventurous people who are way way smarter than I am, that make me look smarter, but also constantly push me to do better and better.
Kent Trabing([26:08]): A lot of people say this but it is not easy to do all the time. How did you go about doing that?
K: Part of it is, I do consider myself to be fortunate. Wharton was a fantastic environment. A great example where everyone around you had amazing experiences. Amazing different experiences and a lot of the people I met at Wharton were a lot more accomplished than I was. Just sitting at a table soaking in ideas but also making friendships that last a lifetime. Now i have a huge network of people that I can, not just my immediate friends, but my extended network at Wharton where I am able to pick up the phone and reach people like yourself and ask for advice and guidance. I had been very fortunate that Wharton has provided me that network to start with. Thereafter at our own company at Verbalize It, we take a really long time to hire each of our employees. Some people will say painfully long, but the idea that every person you add to your team, especially a team our size can add or take away so much value, culture, and intelligence from the business. We take a long time in finding the right candidates. People are probably the most important asset. My answer is I have taken time in finding those people and I have always been fortunate in being put in situation where I found those people.
Kent Trabing([27:35]): Even before grad school, how did you have the confidence to seek out those that are smarter than you?
K: I think I would say it’s the confidence, but I would almost say the lack of fear of failure. I have failed so many times in my life I can’t count it on fingers. Probably more so than I have succeeded and it is the idea that every interaction that you have with someone, when I first came here for example, from a different culture it was tremendously hard to get out of my shell and have a conversation with people that were tremendously different with me and eventually you have a couple of weird conversations and learn from every failure and eventually grow as a person. I have this saying on my wall, it says, “I don’t lose. I either win or I learn.” To me it’s just learning from all the experiences that i’ve had, trying to become a better person than I have, and just trying to be a better person and eventually you find people who you connect with on a personal level and you can add value to it and return it someway or another. Those are the kind of people that you want to be around. My experiences thus far, we have been on a really great journey in Verbalize It, but to me it has been a fantastic learning experience. We fail everyday and we learn a little better everyday as people.
Kent Trabing([29:11]): How about books? Do you look to books?
K: I do look to books. These days I find myself reading biographies more and more. My favorite book in recent memory has been Einsteins Biography that has been written by Isaac Wartonson(can’t find author). It’s really interesting to go deep into what people considered geniuses. When you scratch below the surface you see the amount of struggle and the amount of doubt from people themselves and from others around them. You see these people come through that and really change the world. It is really interested to see that journey. It is really inspirational.
Kent Trabing([29:49]): Kunal, how can people find you?
K: If you are in New York, I am a face to face person. Anyone who wants to really talk to me can talk to me at Kunal@verbalizeit.com. Happy to connect through email or grab a coffee about anything and everything that is interesting.