How an Englishman won a one-year transcription contract with APEC, September 6, 2012
Photo: William Hacket-Jones

Photo: William Hackett-Jones

Why William Hackett-Jones decided to set up a business in St. Petersburg

William Hackett-Jones, 32, was born in the English county of Suffolk. His first experience in Russia was as a schoolboy, when he went on an exchange programme to study Russian in 1994. “At the time, we could select the language we would study at school. I already spoke French, German, and Spanish, so I decided to go for Russian as well. It just so happened that my mother met the scientist Prince Andrey Gagarin at a market in Cambridge after my decision to study Russian had been made. So I went to St Petersburg for a month. That was my first time living in an apartment,” recalls William, who grew up in a 500-year-old farmhouse.

After several more student trips to Russia, he went to university in Glasgow, where he continued studying the Russian language. During his third year, William returned to St. Petersburg. But this time, there was no student programme. He was on his own. He began to teach English, first at language schools and then privately.

The first venture

While preparing for lessons one day, William came across Hot English, a magazine published by some Brits in Spain. It was a glossy aid for English learners, offering basic grammar lessons and explaining popular idioms in an upbeat, accessible format. The idea appealed to him right away. He decided to ask for the right to launch a franchise of the publication. William contacted the Spanish office and went for a visit. “The negotiations went well: at first, the publishers wanted €10,000 for the franchise, plus a percentage every month. I bargained them down to €3,000 plus a percentage,” he recounts.

Before launching the project, William returned to Great Britain to finish university and give the plan another look. He now had time to come up with a business plan; he calculated that he would need £70,000. “My mother invested £35,000, which was rather less than I had accounted for. Still, I decided to go ahead with the magazine anyway, so I had to redesign the business plan.”

William returned to St. Petersburg and began working on the publication. He wrote some of the materials himself – English humour is popular among Russians. The remaining content came from the Spanish head office. “I had always wanted to run my own business, but I had no experience besides some experiments as a teenager. I had never even worked in an office,” the businessman explains. Many of his friends were willing to work on the project for free, for the sake of a fine idea. All the same, the money well ran dry.

With clear distaste, William recalls how distributors doubled the magazine’s price at sales counters, in addition to demanding pre-payment of €10,000 for shelf space until monthly sales of 500 copies could be proven. It was on these terms that he was ultimately able to reach an agreement with Metropress, which has a network encompassing 55 locations around St. Petersburg. Under the agreement, the magazine was to be sold at the 20 locations closest to universities. But a spot check revealed that the magazine appeared at only seven locations. Naturally, sales fell far short of the 500 mark: in the three-month trial run, only 360 copies were sold in the city. William had no money to continue partnership with Metropress. Hot English, with ten issues annually, was now sold at stores specializing in educational materials as well as by subscription. His promotional tactics were low-budget as well: instead of advertising, he directed his efforts at building a community through parties and events aimed at the target audience.

These efforts, however popular, did not pay off financially.

A second attempt

“I burned through the money in a year and a half. When I asked the Spanish office for help, they advised me to open a language school, saying it would be profitable and that it’s what everybody does. Opening a school was the last thing I wanted to do, however. I gave up on partnering with them and put out a magazine under a new name: Cool English. The Spanish office offered to send me materials for €300 per month,” he says. At the same time, an American business consultant came to St. Petersburg and began to help William with management in exchange for a 20% stake in the company. Now William could see to the editorial content personally.

More money was still needed. Who was the investor in this tiny publishing business? Peter Hambro, scion of a world-famous banking family and the founder of Peter Hambro Mining, a gold-mining company. How did William manage this? He had met Peter over a Christmas break back home in England. “A friend introduced us. I told Peter about the magazine, and he liked the idea, so he gave me £35,000.” But it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing from there. The consultant advised William to hire more people and find a spacious office. “It felt like we were onto something big, but that something was also constantly going wrong. Ultimately, we were spending the investor’s money not on sales, but on making the company bigger. So on one not-so-fine August day, I had to say goodbye to our American consultant and 13 of the 18 employees. We went back to another tiny office.” Hambro kept his cool, offering further funds.

At that moment, the company had one of their own who knew her way around finances. Tatyana Kuznetsova had spent two years at the magazine and knew all the ins and outs of the company. William entrusted all management-related matters to her. She, in turn, pulled the company out of crisis. The English First chain of language schools began to place regular orders for issues. The company planned a second publication, Business English. “All was well. Here I was, doing what I loved, and it was finally starting to turn a small profit,” William smiles.

But by early 2009, the economic crisis was already making itself felt. English First stopped its purchases. Advertisers began to pull out, one after another. The magazine had a longer-lived online presence, but the company’s attempts at a comeback ultimately proved fruitless. William was forced to let go of the remaining employees. He even had to borrow money to pay off salaries, debts to publishers and developers, and rent. He needed another two years to close his business debts, for which he was personally liable. “It’s a small city,” he says. The magazine was no more.

Third time’s a charm

Now there was just the translation work, an endeavour which William had begun in December 2008 along with Thatcher Mines, an American. The initial plan was that William would have two companies: Cool English and Eclectic Translations, as they had dubbed their translation agency. The magazine had folded, though, so all efforts went to translation. “We had almost no money. What saved us was Thatcher’s credit card, with its $3,500 limit. That was enough to pay our overheads for the first two months until clients started to pay up.”

The company’s first client was Baltika, at a time when the Russian brewer had recently joined the international Carlsberg Group. Baltika needed translations of a multitude of press releases and internal documents, as well as interpreting at meetings.

Business took off. “We were friends with a few good translators. So they started to recommend us to other professionals.” Quality first was their mantra, assured by sticking to three key rules:

  • Rule No. 1: Translate only into one’s native language;
  • Rule No. 2: Always give feedback to translators so that they can learn and grow;
  • Rule No. 3: Every text must pass through a translator, an editor, and a proofreader.

Thatcher edited and William proofread. William also took the occasional job dubbing films into English. The Englishman often found that the English texts given to him for voicing were full of grammatical mistakes. Eclectic Translations soon began to receive requests to translate scripts.

William himself acknowledges that times were tough. Some months, they did not draw a salary. Clients did not always pay up. They didn’t advertise, but word of mouth brought results. Gregarious and cheerful, William loved to be at the centre of the action, meet new people, and attend society events. Soon after, the opportunity to work with the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) presented itself.

Eclectic Translations transcribed audio recordings of Forum events. The duo seized the opportunity, although they had never done anything of the sort before. “Of course, we assured the client that we were well experienced in what we were doing.” Their task was to transcribe each session within 24 hours. They reserved 30 seats in an internet café for their freelancers, who were ready to start hammering away at their keyboards as soon as the files arrived. Technical glitches on the recording end, though, meant that the recordings were not delivered to Eclectic on time. This meant that the company was unable to deliver its transcriptions on time. The client was understanding, however. Eclectic Translations’ revenue for the first half of 2010 was RUB 633,000, an incredible sum for the translation team. The company continues its work with the Forum to this day.

In addition to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Eclectic Translations works with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which awarded the company a one-year transcription-services contract. The St. Petersburg International Gas Forum and St. Petersburg International Legal Forum have also numbered among the company’s clients. Above all, William glows with pride about his cinema work. The chance to take part in the arts has been a so

urce of great pleasure: he even enjoys putting on impromptu skits in the office. “We translated the subtitles for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena. It was such a great feeling when it won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival.” His team also worked on the translation of the script for Stalingrad, by Fedor Bondarchuk. The company’s office recently had a visit from Renata Litvinova, who came to discuss the translation of the script for her new film, Rita’s Last Fairy Tale. The company’s revenue for the first half of 2012 was RUB 19 million.

“We are trying to improve the image of Russia, so that it becomes more open, accessible, and enticing to the West. We want Russian cinema to be better understood in the West as well. This is why it is key that all cultural nuances are captured in the scripts we translate. As for doing business in Russia overall, it might sound strange, but the slogan ‘Russia: Country of Opportunities’ has a lot of truth to it. We found an untapped niche and are reshaping the translation market. Back in England, I would have needed 20 years in the industry in order to get clients of the calibre of Baltika and SPIEF. This way, I’ve saved myself a good two decades,” William concludes.