Mark Lancaster doesn‘t consider himself an entrepreneur, but he did see a gap in the market, and had the personal ability to found and create a £260 million turnover business which now leads the world in integrated translation software and customer experience services – not forgetting his innovative approach to the use of cloud technology.
At heart, SDL‘s CEO Mark Lancaster is a creative software design engineer – ”I‘m a techie but not a nerd,” he quickly points out.
When Lancaster founded SDL, he already had significant skills and experience with leading software companies and realised that trouble-free translation software would benefit international trading. ”Translation was becoming a logistical nightmare for businesses, particularly SMEs.”
Ironically, the first client for SDL‘s innovative software in1992 was not an SME but Microsoft, which has been one of its 1,500-plus enterprise clients ever since.
For more than 23 years Lancaster‘s SDL has successfully surfed the waves of breaking business trends from developing multinationals to ‘global village‘ trading, Internet usage to multi-device communication and omni-channel marketing, and today the need to understand and optimise digital customer experience (CX) in consumer-driven economies.
Not that Lancaster hasn‘t fallen off the surfboard on occasion.
Having gained mid-1990s venture capital support to boost SDL growth – ”We moved from consultancy service to language technology development” – he aimed at more finance by floating on the London Stock Exchange.
There was a huge boom in the share price. Then the dot-com bubble burst and share values plummeted from pounds to pennies. ”That was the best learning I ever had.
”Material stuff is not important; life is all about people. I focus a lot on the business, but I don‘t regret spending time with my family and friends.
”No-one‘s more special than anyone else. We all have something to offer.” That regard for others talent is reflected in his executive team at SDL – ”I‘m super-proud of them; best-of-breed experts in their fields.”
Entrepreneurs tend to learn quickly, react positively to misfortunes, and Lancaster rapidly set SDL back on its surfboard. ”We realised we needed to own the whole lifecycle of content creation.”
SDL‘s B2B growth and operational scope was accelerated through significant R&D – ”Always be innovating in the right areas” – and a long series of astute acquisitions – ”I‘ve always built relationships with the principals before agreeing deals.
”My strategy has been to buy companies that have high-quality IP, but haven‘t managed to market it successfully.” Too many businesses are ”siloed” by their national cultures and boundaries, Lancaster believes.
One such purchase in 2009, of Dutch e-commerce company Fredhopper, opened the door to Customer Experience Cloud, SDL‘s innovatory integrated technology solution for clients. ”We were doing CX three years before it became the buzz-word.”
Last year, SDL, which competes with global giants such as IBM, SAP and Adobe, achieved record results: software bookings 35% up, highest-ever new customer take-up, and 50% of new business involving Customer Experience Cloud (CXC).
CXC solves the complexity of managing a brand‘s digital footprint as it grows across multiple languages, cultures, websites, devices and channels, while also providing an integrated cloud solution for content management, analytics, language and documentation. SDL can now bring its clients‘ brands to the world, and the world to those brands.
”The Internet is far more powerful than we first envisaged, and actually, as consumers of it, we are now only just figuring out how to use it.”
Has Lancaster‘s leadership ability been important? Perhaps figures speak for themselves. SDL provides language translation software and CX solutions for companies worldwide, 79 of them top-100 global companies. It has operations in 40 countries and 3,350 employees (around 700 full-time translators, nearly 10,000 freelancers globally).
Also when Lancaster ‘semi-retired‘ from SDL, the business faltered. He spotted the problem, came back in 2012 and reinvigorated SDL‘s global offering by focusing on cloud technology and CXC solutions.
”Cloud enables technology consumption very easily without getting involved with an IT department.”
Confidence drives success, so does choosing the right team and developing collaborative employee engagement. ”SDL is not about me, it‘s about good leaders in the business. If you are able to communicate well in this world, you will go a long way,” said translation guru Lancaster with unintended irony.
SDL has undoubtedly been a B2B success, and last month Lancaster got involved in another one – a Buckinghamshire to Barcelona charity bike-ride in aid of the SDL Foundation. This supports worthy causes and disadvantaged communities worldwide. SDL staff can take five days paid leave to actively get involved.
Lancaster‘s tips for aspiring entrepreneurs:
- Everyone can be successful in some way
- ”People have good ideas, but are they brave enough, with the ability to execute them?”
- Get the right people to work with you
- Be prepared to take more calculated risks
- Younger people adapt and adopt quickly – do it now.