We had the opportunity to interview Sayed Ali, President and CEO of Interpreters Unlimited (IU). We began with Sayed himself, and his journey as an entrepreneur.
Q: Can you tell us your story?
A: After immigrating from India and earning an electronic engineering degree, I became a design engineer for a company owned by the conglomerate International Telephone & Telegraph. I rose quickly to director of operations and helped get the company back on the right path, eventually saving it. With orders for components topping 1500 units/day, production was half of that. I met with 1200 employees, organized a detailed study and flow chart of every fix, and had them done now. The contributions of the many outweigh those of one leader.
I left this company to begin Creative Host Services, a groundbreaking bakery-deli concept that led to a quick acquisition. For my second venture, I chose airport concessions. Millions of dollars were needed to enter this highly competitive market, so I defied business logic and went public right away. In 2006, with $186 million in sales, the company was acquired. With each venture, I was the groundbreaker: I was the first to champion healthful ingredients in bakeries and delis and to franchise the concept (business #1); the first to introduce high-end services to local airports (business #2); the first to service those in danger interpretation- and translation-wise: emergency room doctors; border patrol; police etc (currently with IU).
In 2007, I acquired my current business, Interpreters Unlimited, and successfully expanded the company nationwide. I created IU Group, the parent company which is now comprised of Interpreters Unlimited and four other companies that I acquired in different territories throughout the US under its umbrella. I continue to grow the business through strategic marketing and operations efforts and by consistently implementing new technologies into the business model.
One new technological venture is the new Interpreter Marketplace smartphone app that just launched, an affiliate to IU. It is an app that matches foreign language and American Sign Language interpreters with the limited English speakers and Deaf individuals who require their services on a daily basis. It is available for use for both personal reasons from doctor appointments and court hearings to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), weddings, etc. to company use by hospitals, school districts, corporations in any industry, etc. One thing that makes it special is that it uses actual intelligence over artificial intelligence, it uses real interpreters, sending them right to the client. Another is the option to browse interpreters by location, pricing and background. Clients can navigate through the available interpreters and compare them all to choose the one that best fits their needs. It is available in San Diego County, California right now, and we plan to expand throughout the rest of state and nationally. I am really proud of this new venture.
Q: Tell us more about IU Group and Interpreters Unlimited.
A: Interpreters Unlimited provides professional foreign language interpretation including American Sign Language, written document translation, transcription, localization and non-emergency medical transportation services to businesses throughout the United States.
For IU’s most popular service, in-person interpreting, we contract linguists for on-site interpretation appointments for our government, healthcare, education, legal and corporate clients. Examples of the types of appointments include depositions, meetings, medical appointments, parent/teacher conferences, and events.
IU’s other services, video remote interpreting (VRI), over the phone interpreting (OPI), document translation and non-emergency medical transportation which are fueled by client demand. Right now, during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, we are seeing more of a need for these services and are glad that we are able to provide video remote interpreters, phone interpreters and medical transportation to those who require it. Document translation is also really important and in high demand right now, companies need to be able to communicate their Coronavirus updates and operation information to their Non-English Speaking communities in their own language quickly.
Currently, IU’s national presence serves all major industries in 200 foreign languages and American Sign Language. We work with over 9,000 contracted linguists nationwide. IU’s comprehensive service offering eliminates language barriers to provide effective communication and understanding between English speakers and those with limited English proficiency and/or who are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing.
Q: How have you grown IU into the company it is today, including some obstacles overcome along the way?
A: I feel that one of my strengths is calmly making high-risk decisions that grow companies so that employees grow, too. I have steadfastly grown IU from $2 million in sales in 2007 to projected sales of $16 million in 2020. Introduced to the business by a former board member, I flow-charted every aspect before saying “yes” to acquiring it. By 2008, financing was difficult; the market had crashed; and California, IU’s new home base, had a budget crisis. For eight months, IU wasn’t paid for critical services to the many government agencies we served. We borrowed from a factor at exorbitant interest rates and services continued uninterrupted. We provide a very essential service which is needed in hospitals, in family situations where women are being battered, a child is being taken into custody. Patients needing transportation to and from hospital “interpretation sites” received it. We couldn’t say ‘no’. With a family and two young sons, it wasn’t easy.
Through the years IU Group grew through acquisitions – first IU, the “core”; then in 2007, Arkansas Spanish Interpreters and Translators (ASIT); in 2010, the Florida-based Albors & Alnet, a language services company; then Accessible Communication for the Deaf (ACD), a sign language company; and in 2018 GlobeLink, LLC, based in Colorado, services provided there are interpretation, which is on-site and accounts for 90%; and then document-oriented translation. I was a pioneer in offering video services which are more essential now than ever as businesses adjust to operating during social distancing and the coronavirus pandemic; and in growing IU niche by local niche in order to build a powerful national reputation.
We have developed a great reputation and are one of the highest rated language service providers in the US according to Yelp, Google, Facebook, Indeed and Glassdoor combined. That creates growth through word of mouth, recommendations and in being seen as highly trusted and reliable. We pride ourselves in that along with doing everything organically. Our websites www.interpreters.com and www.interpretersunlimited.com are built and maintained organically, we focus on SEO and expanding the information that we make available online so any questions about services and industries can be answered there, it is a great resource for businesses and interpreters alike.
Q: What are some of the things you are proud of and some plans for the future?
A: I consider myself an artist among entrepreneurs, successfully creating new businesses from scratch, differentiating myself each time. I am proud of staying on top of trends and technology, typically investing in it before the rest of my industry. In 2007, I was the first to bring software development to an industry where to this day it is largely absent. In 2019, I introduced the industry’s first mobile app, the “Uber” of the business, our affiliate Interpreter Marketplace. Now, clients enter an emergency request and within seconds a list of appropriate interpreters and translators comes up. Always B2B, this app now opens up the B2C market. A new proprietary software system added a text-messaging feature for appointments. With each company, I add contracted linguists, now totaling 9000. As for the “credibility problems” for which the LSP industry is sometimes known, through our recruiting procedures and methods we have a 99% fill rate so we do not have an issue with that.
For the future IU is moving away from acquisitions after revenues for IU itself surpassed all acquisitions combined. The future of IU is with IU; with meeting every new level of “need”; and with a goal of $25 million in revenues. Future plans also include expanding the affiliate Interpreter Marketplace app throughout California and then nationwide. Always keeping an eye on the trends and tech that can help in the industry, new technological ventures beyond the app may also a part of the future.
We are starting to put more focus on video remote interpretation and telephone interpretation during COVID-19 and social distancing and are looking at partnering with video service providers to expand even more in this area. In order to continue business, the world has switched over to remote and “work from home” models and we have met that challenge with uninterrupted services through video and phone. We feel this remote need is going to continue to grow through the coming years so we are going to continue to invest in it after the pandemic has ended. As we push our remote services more, we are going to also expand beyond the United Stated and begin to offer our remote language services globally. We are also looking to push more localization, document translation and transcription. To me, the word “retirement” does not exist, business is a passion and we are excited about the future.