Working out of a small, cramped dorm room may not be the most comfortable way to start a business, but that didn't stop Phil Shawe and Liz Elting. With a rented computer, homemade brochures and a bevy of resources at their fingertips, the two then-NYU grad students dreamed their 1992 start-up, TransPerfect Translations Inc., would be among the largest service-oriented translations firms in the industry.
The partners spent virtually every waking hour promoting and marketing or calling and mass-mailing to long lists of businesses and executives-efforts funded solely on their student budgets and an eventual $5,000 credit-card advance. "There was no difference between living expenses, food expenses and business expenses," says Shawe. "We put as much as we could into the business, then we paid the utilities, then the rent-only then did we feed ourselves."
Within a few weeks, Shawe and Elting landed their first project and eventually started seeing repeat clients. Using contacts from a translation company that Elting previously worked for, they acquired a vast network of subcontracted professional translators and handled all their development, marketing and accounting functions from a couch in their desk-void dorm room. Four months into the business, the mother of all projects arrived: a 600-page mining feasibility study requiring Russian translation within nine days. Knowing the project had to be done in-house and right away, Shawe and Elting somehow persuaded several Russian-speaking geologists to fly to New York City and work right in their dorm room. "I don't think either one of us slept for eight or nine days," says Shawe. "Our room was like a casino full of rousing Russian geologist translators. It was amazing!" The translated study was on a plane half an hour before the client left for Russia.
Their company has been thriving ever since. Long gone are the dorm days: Today, this $15 million firm has 14 offices on three continents, a network of 3,300 subcontractors, and big-name clients like American Express and Coca-Cola. The Stern Business School grads attribute their success to a blatant business philosophy: hard work.
"We went right into business after college, so we were used to living like students," says Shawe. "It would have been nice to have some money upfront, but I think learning to get by without excess helped us later on."
Adds Elting, "If we could do it all over again, we would do it the same way."