How it all began
It all started with a phone call from my sister. She caught me at home one day (in the days before cell phones) and said:
“I want to set up shop as a freelance translator – would you like to join me? It would be much less boring than working alone and we could check each other’s work.”
At the time, I didn’t realize just how big of a question this actually was, nor the impact my response would have. I had just completed my preliminary degree in translation and had two weeks’ interpreting work under my belt, whereas my sister had been working in the translation department at Siemens in Munich for seven years by then. From that point on, there was no more talk about either of us being bored, and actually very little opportunity to check each other’s work, either!
I fast-tracked my graduate studies, gained my full translation qualification and moved to Munich a year later. Part of my sister’s plan was to no longer “check each other’s work” at her kitchen table, but in a proper office. So we rented one in Sauerlach that was far too big for just the two of us – something that would happen time and again as the company grew.
When I first saw it, I asked myself why we needed so much space (it had previously been a branch of the Kreissparkasse bank). We even had a whole spare back room in which we put a few pieces of furniture, including a wardrobe and a bed. Rumors persist that I would occasionally be found napping in the back during working hours, but honestly I used it far more often as a place to wax my snowboard!
The early years
Initially, we functioned as a freelancer team who subcontracted work to other freelancers, rather than a proper translation company. We never liked the term “translation agency”, and really it was never an accurate description of the way we worked. We didn’t actually have the option of acting as an agency because we could only afford to pay inexperienced translators.
Despite these limitations, we set the bar high in terms of quality: the Heike Leinhäuser gold standard was non-negotiable. The agreement we had with our customers was such that we could use whomever we wished as long as the quality of their work was on a par with my sister’s. Those in the know will be very aware of what it means to bring a 100-page document translated by a beginner up to scratch.
The volume of work may have been smaller, but sending and receiving documents was a nightmare: File transfer was on floppy disks, unless you were at the vanguard and had a modem. It goes without saying that we had a modem, of course!
This saved us quite a few trips to the post office, but it also added a few tasks to our to-do lists in the form of technical support. These could range from straightforward WinZip training to dealing with computer viruses. Macro viruses were a constant threat back then, and when I got a call one day from a French translator telling me she couldn’t deliver the job because her computer keyboard was infected with a virus, I broke into a cold sweat.
The deadline was fast approaching, so I hopped in the car and drove straight to her office in Munich to take a look at the keyboard. I had with me the full range of McAfee antivirus tools, but what I found there even McAfee couldn’t resolve. She switched on her PC, but kept her hand on the switch, and when the message “keyboard detected” appeared on the boot screen, she quickly turned the computer off again, saying in a panic, “You see, ‘keyboard defected’. It’s a virus.“ I left McAfee in my bag and recommended she have her eyes checked. She was grateful for my advice, and we delivered the job on time.
Expansion was not going to be smooth sailing by any means. The first salaried post we created in what we could now call “the company” was not in project management or translation, but in administration. We wanted to put the many weekends we had spent dealing with things like invoices and payments to better use – namely, to grow the company.
Looking back, this turned out to be a very wise strategic decision, but at the time we were just sick of dealing with the paperwork and following our gut. And as has so often been the case since, our gut instinct turned out to be spot on, and has been instrumental in helping us grow the company. (And our first-ever employee is still with the company today, by the way.)
I think it’s safe to say that it was also our gut that told us to take on interns. Was it luck or good sense? I’m not really sure, but one thing I am certain of: Were it not for the many very talented and motivated interns we’ve had over the years, Leinhäuser would not be the company it is today. Indeed, there were phases during which nearly all employees were former interns. Admittedly that is a long time ago now, but Leinhäuser still takes on talented young people who consistently help shape all facets of the company.
In 2000 we established Leinhäuser & Partner Ltd. in London. It is difficult to say now precisely why, but at the time we felt that it was integral to our growth strategy. In actual fact, it wasn’t (and I have learned this lesson many times since over the years), nor did we have a strategy (although this has of course now changed!). Be that as it may, we poured time and money into finding a suitable place to set up shop. And when I say “suitable”, I mean “affordable.” And so it was that we took up residence on the ground floor of a Victorian building. We repurposed the space into an office with a bedroom for me to stay in when I was there – once again I had a bed at the office, just the way I like it!
Intended initially as a platform to attract new business in the booming London market, time constraints meant that in essence it became a production site for our German office. Due to considerable overheads gobbling up most of the narrow margin we had on translations into English, we closed the company after two years. Lessons learned!
Consolidation, expansion and gut instinct
We set about consolidating business at our German HQ while reflecting on our London experience, but we did not mope for long. We were very fortunate to have loyal customers, employees and service partners and we were able to grow at a steady pace, taking on more and more office space along the way.
Starting from one main office and one side room, we then took on an additional office room and kitchen on the same floor. Soon this was too small, and we expanded to the floor above. This had, fortunately for us, been empty for a long time, and the landlord took over a good chunk of the renovation. Initially, we were sharing the upper floor with our IT service provider (who still manages our IT but is now a Leinhäuser employee), but we soon outgrew this setup as well.
We intensified our search for a suitable new space and found it on Inselkammerstrasse in Unterhaching, where we are still based today. Different location, same story: we moved into 180 m2 worth of space, and over time we spread out to the almost 1200 m2 that we now occupy. When we relocated from our small provincial office in Sauerlach to the much larger site in Unterhaching, we weren’t sure whether we had grossly overestimated or were merely anticipating what was to come. Probably neither – we were just following our gut once again. And it wasn’t long before we were presented with our next opportunity to expand.
The other tenants on our floor moved out, and we scurried in to annex their office space. Yet again we thought we might have overdone it, but our foresight turned out to hit the mark again. We barely had time to move any desks into the new space before we learned that our first and biggest client, one of the Siemens in-house translation departments, was going to be shut down due to restructuring.
This was a huge shock for us and for our colleagues at Siemens – many of whom had worked there for decades and now suddenly were out of a job. We decided to offer those colleagues who were interested (along with some of their customers) a job with us. Many of the customers were just as surprised as we were that a department that had been going since the ’50s was being closed down with just 4 weeks’ notice.
Some customers were not at all happy about the situation, and we went to great lengths to explain that we were not the instigators. This was probably the biggest risk we had ever taken: We doubled our workforce overnight in the hope that customers would come with us. We wouldn’t have survived long if they hadn’t, but our gut was telling us it would all be ok! And it was.
To be fair, though, gut feeling alone would not have been enough – it took a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, too. Shortly before this, we had rented more office space and upgraded our IT platform. As ever, we had erred on the side of caution and gone bigger on both so that doubling in size did not present a problem on either front.
We had also recently changed the company name and legal structure: Leinhäuser und Partner Fachübersetzungen became Leinhäuser Language Services GmbH – and this was a timely move to usher in a new era all round.
On to pastures new
In 2013 I was ready for a new challenge. I sold my shares in Leinhäuser Language Services and set up a new company. With my recently acquired private pilot’s license, my ambition was to write and self-publish travel guides for private pilots.
I wrote two books about flying in Florida and California, but when it came to marketing them, I quickly realized that the specialist shops and particularly Amazon had cornered a hefty chunk of the market. Which meant I needed to start my own web shop. And so it was that I entered the world of online marketing, or rather content marketing, Google ads and search engine optimization, because without traffic even the best online shop will fail!
The more I looked into it, the more I realized just how important language skills are for online marketing, too: How can you conduct even basic keyword research, let alone optimize texts, if you are not familiar with the language of your target market?!
And just like that I came up with my next business venture.
The timing was perfect. I saw my future in search engine optimization, or more precisely, international search engine optimization, iSEO – and iSEO.works was born.
My idea gained some good traction, and right from the start, it was Leinhäuser who trusted in me and believed in what was then a service in its relative infancy. After a year working from home (long before COVID) I was ready to be around people again, plus I needed space for employees. This was around the time Leinhäuser doubled their office space, so they had room for me and my team. I went from Managing Director to subletting tenant and service partner.
Far more importantly, Leinhäuser had direct access to my expertise, and I in turn had their vast linguistic resources on hand – a win-win all round.
So, what will the next 25 years hold? Who knows. But one thing’s for sure: We’re trusting our gut that there are good things ahead …