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|Who We Are|
By Craig Buckstein
Following the events of September 11, 2001—the worst domestic attack in U.S. history—the language industry found itself at a crossroads. The 42nd Annual Conference of the American Translators Association in Los Angeles in October of that year was the setting for many conversations about the changing domestic industry and for the creation of the Association of Language Companies (ALC).
Throughout history, some of the greatest ideas have emerged over a few drinks, and the concept of ALC was no exception. Just outside the meeting room at the Millennium Biltmore lobby bar, a group of nine language company owners recognized an opportunity in an underserviced niche, believing that a new association for Language Service Company (LSC) owners and executives would help raise the professionalism of the industry. This group of leaders carved the framework for a new association and was motivated and excited to make this idea come to life.
The devil was in the details. The next few months involved endless back and forth emails and conference calls. After much discussion, the group agreed on a mission statement, which began: “The Association of Language Companies has been established with a primary goal of promoting quality business practices in the industry.” All of the initial activities were seeded by the founders, and in August 2002, ALC was incorporated in Portland, Oregon, home to one of the association’s most active members, Bill Graeper, affectionately referred to as “Uncle Bill.” (Read more about Bill Graeper in this tribute.)
The house was built, and it was time to start filling it. The group put on their guerilla marketing hats and organized a conference in Portland in June 2003, which was attended by 35 companies from around the country. It had begun. The conference schedule was simple, but the interactions among companies were complex and full of energy, and they would serve as a starting point for great things to come. This experience was unlike any in the industry, and it seemed so collaborative and open that it took on a life of its own. For the first time, LSCs were not working in a vacuum, and the message was geared toward executives and owners of language companies. They were collaborating, networking, solving corporate problems, addressing industrywide quality concerns, and making—in hindsight—lifelong friends.
That spirit from the Portland conference became contagious, and in an effort to have year-round association activity, committees were formed (Membership, Conference, Marketing, PR, Newsletter, Norms and Best Practices, and Advocacy). Conference participants joined the committees and began reaching out to potential new members by phone and email to start filling the ranks. These were the missionary days in practice, led heavily by Uncle Bill.
Even in the early days, it was clear that technology would be a crucial component in keeping members engaged, so a listserv was created for owners to pose challenges and/or opportunities online. Any conversations that started online would eventually become the topics of breakout sessions for future conferences.
In January 2004, ALC enlisted the help of an association management company. Adding an association professional helped the founders continue to focus on membership without getting caught in the weeds. 2004 was a busy year, and to fundraise for the next wave of growth, ALC created a “charter member” category. The 16 charter members were willing to seed the association on spec because they saw the value, and their investment would bring on the next pillar of growth—the organization tripling in size in a year’s time.
Gaining Industry Insight
With more members participating, ALC’s leadership realized there was a market for collecting industry information from a company owner perspective. This information was crucial but missing from the industry. With this idea, the first ALC Industry Survey was created by charter member Randy Morgan, who worked tirelessly to keep the survey afloat for years. We later outsourced the administrative functions, while retaining the data review by a team of volunteer leaders. The Industry Survey results would end up becoming a significant member benefit.
Another Conference, A New Mission
With a good financial base, a passionate founder and charter group, and a survey to unveil, the second Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., was the stage for the next wave of progress. The post 9-11 world had created new job opportunities for LSCs through the federal government, and the newly created Department of Homeland Security and National Virtual Translation Center were front and center at the ALC conference. What better place to attract new company members than to D.C., among a hotbed of potential business? The conference had close to 100 participants and focused on marketing, industry norms, and best practices. Independent contractor status, even back then, was a big draw, and many were buzzing about the benefits of getting on the GSA schedule, which was, at the time, a short list of agencies.
After a gangbuster second conference, the membership doubled from 50 to 100 members by January 2005. The association was viable and starting to gain recognition from others in the industry. ALC refined its mission statement to further reflect its target members. The new mission statement, “The ALC will represent and further the interests of U.S. language services companies,” took over 10 hours to develop. I was in the boardroom that day, and trust me, it is a herculean task to get owners in the language business to agree on a 13-word hook.
The volunteer leadership had grown and had become a mini association unto itself; there were too many chefs in the kitchen. After mulling about the large group’s inefficiency, the ALC president abandoned the committee structure and created task forces around our main missions, fluid and able to change at the direction of the board.
A Show About Nothing
At our 2012 Annual Conference in New Orleans, we employed a brilliant strategic planner to help refocus our efforts. At the end of our strategic session, and in the rich tradition of ALC, several board members were having drinks and thinking of ways to improve touch points with members. In something out of a Seinfeld episode, I quipped that “we should create a conference without any sessions, you know, just like a show about nothing.” What if we had a conference that had no content? It would be an UNConference. No speakers, no sessions, just all of us in a room doing what we do, coming up with solutions to whatever problems are on our minds at the time. It was a true throwback to the founder days, but that is the exact experience we were going for: Come to that session with problems or opportunities you have in mind, and we won’t let you leave until you have a solution (or until the bar tab is paid).
Less than a year later, in 2013 we held our first UNConference in Palm Beach—with sold-out attendance. We now had touch points for two different types of learners: those who prefer a traditional conference environment with speakers and sessions, and those brave enough to sit and stare at one another in a room with hats in hands, bearing their business souls. It was unique, and no one else was offering anything like it. And with just C-level executives, we were able to say the things we wouldn’t be able to say with vendors, buyers, and linguists.
Here We Are
Fast forward to today, and the new board of directors asks, “How do we connect even more with one another and keep the conversations going year-round?” The answer? Technology. And here we have it—our new, fully immersive website. With embedded forums and deep levels of engagement built into the design, this website will revolutionize how LSC owners and the association interact. This is the next generation of collaborative learning.
Nine brave LSC owners took a chance and created ALC. Where we go from here is entirely up to you. If you have a passion for your company, want to help raise the visibility and professionalism of the industry, and are looking to collaborate and stay relevant in a fast-changing technological world, then get involved and help us grow. Or, take a play out of ALC’s guide book for success and find a board member at the bar after a conference session, and we can come up with the next great idea together.
Craig Buckstein is the CEO of Geneva Worldwide, Inc.—a charter member of ALC. He served on ALC's board of directors from 2006-2016 and as ALC's president from 2011-2014.