From the October 1998 issue of Startups

Can you explain "appendectomy" in Gujarati? Translate fire safety instructions into Serbo-Croatian? Speak Amharic? Horton Interpreting Services Inc. can.

An international company needs a safety manual in 20 languages. A hospital patient speaks only Cambodian. A welfare agency wants to reach immigrants. From the third floor of a renovated Victorian house in Providence, Rhode Island, Juana Horton fields their calls, draws up contracts, recruits and trains consultant-interpreters, and schedules assignments. Her kingdom includes three offices, two computers and two omnipresent pagers, by now almost melded to her body. Last year, Horton Interpreting Services grossed more than $250,000.

Her mantra is "Why not?" Horton, 45, didn't train as an interpreter. Born in this country of Venezuelan diplomat parents, she was bilingual but spoke Spanish only at home. Nor did she study business--during two years of college, she took liberal arts courses. Yet Horton has succeeded because at critical junctures, she asked "Why not?"

Breaking Away

The first "Why not?" came in 1981, when Horton was 27 and working in Brown University's human relations department. Although she wasn't hired (or trained) to interpret, she often helped Spanish-speaking job applicants fill out applications.

The second "Why not?" came after the birth of her daughter in 1984, when Horton wanted more flexible hours. She worked as an independent consultant until 1991, when she joined a Providence, Rhode Island, company that helps immigrants acclimate to the United States. After two-and-a-half years of interpreting, bookkeeping and the like, Horton grew tired of the steadily increasing hours without the paycheck to match. "I was burnt out," Horton recalls. Yet burnout led to an epiphany: "I can do this all by myself. Why don't I try?"

On Her Own

It was January 1994. The next step was to clear the dining room table of her East Providence home and transform the room into her office. Her husband, Jeffrey, installed her computer, and with a dedicated phone/fax line, a Macintosh and a stack of newly printed brochures, Horton Interpreting Services was born. Her first jobs came easily: Previous clients called to request her services--and kept calling. When Horton had too many requests to fill, she hired consultants. And before long, she decided to expand beyond Spanish.

This one-person business, though, entailed inordinate administrative time. A client might schedule one emergency session and never return. Horton needed contracts: a guaranteed number of hours of interpreting per month.

Horton knew hospitals, businesses and state agencies all put interpreting contracts out to bid, but she didn't know how to get into that loop. So she called purchasing agents she'd worked with before and asked what contracts they were putting out to bid. "[Agency staff members were] excited to hear I'd gone into business for myself," says Horton. That one-on-one contact served her well: By the end of her second year, she had an even flow of contracts and enough consultants (50 to 60) to respond to requests for up to 35 languages.

The Crisis of Success

But success, Horton recalls, temporarily turned into a nightmare. Working to run the business, she left billing for last--a big mistake. Typically, clients took two to three months to pay--yet Horton had to pay her consultant-interpreters monthly.

Her first recourse was to seek a bank loan to cover cash flow. Because she lacked collateral, though, she was refused--three times. The situation forced expansion: In March 1997, Horton moved into her current office. Unwittingly, she found a godparent: the South Providence Development Corp., a nonprofit employment development firm that happened to be one of Horton's co-tenants.

Funded largely by three neighborhood hospitals, the company was working to revive the neighborhood by spurring the employment of residents--mostly in the sponsoring hospitals, but also through the "incubation" of new businesses. By settling at 550 Broad St., Horton Interpreting fell under the New Village Industries umbrella, which enhanced Horton's clout with hospital purchasing agents. At last, Horton got the larger contracts she needed.

Business continued to pick up from there: By 1995, client requests for written translation had become so common, she decided to make it a priority. This service is more difficult to price, though: Horton charges by the word, but she must estimate for clients in advance a price for consultants fees and computer time. Computer glitches can eat up hours, like when she runs across incompatible computer programs. A "simple" translation can take days. Some jobs have been disasters, Horton admits, because she priced them too low.

Yet Horton has persevered, learning through trial-and-error pricing. Today, written translation accounts for 25 percent of her business. She has more than 200 consultants who can respond to requests for up to 70 languages. And next year, when her Web site is up, she expects clients, consultants and her company to connect via modem, as she moves her business's reach beyond Providence and into cyberspace. Why not?

Words Of Wisdom

1. Know your product. Before starting her own business, Juana Horton learned the ropes at her former job: how to recruit consultants, schedule sessions, follow up with clients and do bookkeeping. She gained not only the confidence that she could do the business by herself, but also the knowledge necessary to do so.

2. Love what you do. "You can't work 65 hours a week doing something you don't like," says Horton, who works longer hours than she did as an employee. "I love what I do."

3. Find "incubators" that foster young businesses. Horton found allies among her co-tenants. Her building offers common training and conference rooms. The nearby Bryant College Business Information Center has a bank of computers she uses. And employment development company South Providence Development Corp. took her business under its New Village Industries wing, giving her preferential status in bidding for hospitals' contracts.

4. Be grateful for assistance. Purchasing departments and the Social Security Office were helpful, says Horton: "When you approach state and community agencies in a grateful, appreciative manner," she says, "they go out of their way to help."

5. Expect a few lean years. During her first year in business, Horton netted less than her prior salary--consultants' wages pared her profit margin, and she priced some translation jobs too low. Today, though, she earns triple her previous salary, and she expects her business, her earnings and her enjoyment to grow.

Joan Retsinas is a writer in Providence, Rhode Island.

Contact Sources

Perspective, 3 Byron Rd., Natick, MA 01760, (508)?50-5766

The Shoe Fits, 8528 Moller Rd., Indianapolis, IN 46268, (317)?71-8880

Short Game Inc., P.O. Box 2616, McKinney, TX 75070, (800)?91-7888, (214)?20-9576