A costly translation error led an entrepreneur to an EC enterprise plan.
It cost £2 million to teach Giles Trentham the value of European language skills. During the mid-1980s he was involved with an, until then, highly successful British software company which was just starting its first serious attempt at Continental expansion. The £2 million that vanished was the value of the contract the company lost with Philips of Eindhoven when they carelessly failed to check the translation of the explanatory literature that went out with the product, and sent it off riddled with embarrassing errors.
It was a painful and cripplingly expensive lesson at the time, but it made him think very hard about what had gone so disastrously wrong, and, even more importantly, persuaded him there must be a business opportunity for anyone who could guarantee to get such projects 100% right.
The result was the setting up of Wordbank, now in its fourth year of activity. Its aim, quite explicitly, is to become the UK brand-leader for high-quality multilingual documentation and translation services. In Trentham's laconic summary, it has negotiated the first two stages of small-company start-up, survived the launch, and achieved some initial market impact. Finally, it is now braced for the crucial take-off phase.
That summary may, however, be somewhat on the modest side. Already Trentham, as managing director, and his partner and head-of-marketing Andrew Brackenbury, command an international network of 500 professional translators, embracing between them all 20 of Europe's everyday-use languages, as well as Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Japanese. The translators are linked by fax and electronic mail to the West London head office, where an elaborate electronic publishing set-up turns out a stream of high-quality material for a client list stretching from American Express, Arthur Andersen and BP to Thorn EMI, Wiggins Teape and Young and Rubicam. Turnover is already well over the £1-million mark, and, until the recession started pegging it back a bit, has been doubling every 12 months.
Wordbank's arrival has not gone unnoticed. Last February Trentham was picked by the European Commission in Brussels as one of 25 Community entrepreneurs to take part in the Euroleaders programme, which aims to put small and medium-sized businesses like his on a fast track to exploiting opportunities offered by the single market.
Euroleaders was the brainchild of Eneko Landaburu, who is the Commission's director-general for regional policies. He thought it up as a counter-balance to the belief that only major multinationals could extract real benefit from those much-touted 340 million customers with their £3.3 trillion of aggregate annual income. His aim is to stimulate even very young enterprises into undertaking European-scale 21e projects. And while entirely recognising the high risks involved, he is convinced that these can be effectively minimised by the provision of appropriate knowledge and strategic planning tools.
Beneficiaries of the programme are picked on the basis of the business they have already developed, the innovative nature of the products and services involved and, above all, by their growth potential in the single market.
Once selected, the participants are told to prepare themselves to attend two intensive, one-week courses - one in Belgium, and the other either in France or Italy. There, they and their plans will be exposed to a relentless barrage of expertise from the pick of Europe's business schools, management consultancies and venture capital specialists, all co-ordinated by the many-tentacled accountancy conglomerate KPMG.
But before they report, each of the participants is instructed to contact six other candidates - none of whom he or she has previously met, and with whom it is unlikely they will share more than a few words of common language - and devise a team ready to undertake a first-day project as soon as they arrive.
In Trentham's case it involved building a miniature raft capable of crossing a half-frozen Belgian river, in company with, among others, a Swede, an Italian and, most usefully, a Polish woman who, it turned out, ran her own construction company. Despite sundry communication disasters they achieved the objective, and by the time they had beached the craft on the opposite bank, the ice was well and truly broken, both literally and metaphorically. At the end of the course the raft-builders had laid the foundations for a cross-cultural business network that could well be running half of Europe in 20 years' time.
Meanwhile, though, their individual corporate blueprints were getting a thorough going-over from the experts. Professors from the innovation departments of both Harvard and INSEAD (The European Institute of Business Administration) were in attendance to pick holes, suggest refinements and identify potential pitfalls. KPMG itself provided guidance through Europe's maze of tax regulations. People from many of the 100-odd business and innovation centres, which Brussels sponsors throughout the Community, were on hand to pinpoint local susceptibilities and opportunities.
And at the end of the second seven-day session an impressive panel of investment bankers and financial institutions was assembled to make the crucial economic decision: which of the suggested business plans would they be prepared to back with real cash, and if so, how much?
Wordbank itself is not in immediate need of such support. Trentham is an accountant by training, not a professional linguist (though he does speak both French and Spanish, and once spent a year at Grenoble doing advanced French studies), and his earlier career, which included building up a substantial Spanish tile-exporting enterprise, armed him against most of the standard hazards, like under-capitalisation and over-rapid expansion.
But he found the experience of preparing a full-scale prospectus and presenting it to the sceptical scrutiny of the international money-providers - both of which are mandatory elements in the Euroleader programme - gave a major boost both to his own longer term thinking and, equally importantly, to his conviction that he and his company were on the right lines. Furthermore, one of these days, when he does need a serious capital injection, he has a notebook full of the names and telephone numbers of people who have already heard and approved his pitch.
But more immediately, the main gains from his Euroleadership experience have been twofold - a useful joint venture already under way with one of the Belgians he met on the course, and plenty of confirmation that efficient translation will long continue to be a key element in realising the European vision. After all, it is worth quite a lot to get things right, when a word out of place can cost you £2 million.