In the US, there is a lot of compartmentalization — things are often on a “need to know” basis and this makes employees feel shut out and disconnected — it’s certainly not the way to develop a great working culture.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vasco Pedro, CEO & Co-founder of San Francisco-based 2014 Y Combinator graduate and scaleup Unbabel, a leading enterprise SaaS translation company that combines state of the art Artificial Intelligence with a global crowd of 100,000+ human translators to break down business communication barriers in customer service. Unbabel is helping companies like Microsoft, easyJet, Booking.com and Rovio “understand and be understood” by their customers. The first-ever Portuguese company to be accepted into the Y Combinator program, Unbabel recently opened its US headquarters in San Francisco and has been featured in the Financial Times, TechCrunch, and VentureBeat. Vasco has raised more than $31m in venture capital for Unbabel to date and has scaled the company from 15 to over 180 people.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by human cognition. It’s actually the path that led me to computer science, as a way to create and explore different aspects of human cognition, and my undergrad major in Artificial Intelligence, with a minor in linguistics. After that I went to Carnegie Mellon and did a masters in Natural Language Processing and a PhD in Natural Language Processing at the school of Computer Science. So, in one way or another, I’ve been involved is this field for most of my life.
Five years ago, on a surfing trip, my co-founders João Graça, Bruno Prezado, Hugo Silva and Sofia Pessanha and I discussed the AI dilemma: we were frustrated that technology had made this huge promise to solve machine translation, but was still very far away from realizing that goal. The biggest question we were trying to answer was, “What would the world look like if there were no language barriers?”
So, we started Unbabel with the vision of delivering seamless communication in any language, of disrupting an old industry by introducing a revolution in the way technology and humans collaborate in translation. Today we have more than 100,000 human translators working in harmony with our machine learning algorithms to remove language barriers for enterprises like Facebook, Pinterest and TomTom.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are a lot of great Unbabel stories — three stand out in particular:
One interesting story is how we came up with the name Unbabel, because when we started, we worked on a prototype to test the appetite of the market, but we didn’t have a name. We came up with a bunch of names like “Vakrit,” “Lingless,” and a few others that were equally awful. The next day we came into the office and on the whiteboard was written “Unbabel,” and we saw it and thought, “Oh, this is amazing.” It turns out that the guy in the next office in the shared space had come in and written the name on the board for us, as he’d heard us talking about our name and vision. That guy is now our VP of Marketing, Hugo Macedo!
We had the name, but when we got to Y Combinator, we didn’t have a .com domain, we only had unbabel.co. Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y Combinator, restated the importance of having a .com domain. He said, “All you companies that don’t have a .com name, and have a .co or something else, you know, you always say you’re going to get the .com, but you never do. It’s much harder than you think and it’s a big distraction.”
We told ourselves that we had one week to get the .com domain. We reached out to the previous owner and we told him we were making a serious offer, but if we couldn’t come to an agreement that week, we were going to change our name and it would become a moot point for us. And we managed to get the .com domain transferred, get possession, and do the whole thing in one week, so by the time we met with Paul Graham directly, we already had the .com and he was fairly impressed with it.
Lastly, there are so many great stories around our Unbabel retreats. We started thinking about our culture pretty early on, but at some point, culture becomes something that you do — something you need to codify. In order to do this, we went on a camping retreat to be completely disconnected from the outside world. There, we thought about how we could frame our culture and values, and we started thinking about what we could do to foster a great working environment. It reminded us a bit of the Declaration of Independence — except part of our thought process was that it goes both ways: as much as it’s about your rights, it’s also about your duties. If you want to be part of an amazing working environment then you also have to produce an amazing working environment. If you want to be surrounded by excellent people, then you have to be an excellent person to work with.
So, we created a “Declaration of Interdependence,” based on a set of ten articles and ideas, and we asked each person throughout the retreat to discuss them at every chance they had. The articles that were there were just the base, so we could rewrite them, erase them, create new ones, do whatever. But, by the end of the retreat, we were able to take a piece of paper, write down, and come to an agreement on a set of principles and write our Declaration of Interdependence. This really amazing retreat and discussion lead to nine fundamental values that everyone who was there signed. It’s framed and lives in our main office.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The whole idea of using a translation layer to enable non-native speakers of a language to provide native speaker support in that language is extremely exciting and helpful to the world.
This is especially exciting in regions where the average education level is lower, and where there are fewer job opportunities. We’re creating more job opportunities for people, and more valuable job opportunities. What you’re effectively saying to agents in places like, for example, India and Manila, is that they are suddenly much more useful and that their value has increased, because now it’s not just English that they can give support in, but that they can now support customers anywhere in the world speaking almost any language. This is really making a big difference in these agent’s lives.
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
I would say there are a few fundamental issues. One is the lack of agency. I think it’s important for people to feel agency in their work and agency comes from the ability to have an impact, having decision-making ability in the way they’re doing things and feeling passionate about what they’re doing. When you don’t have that, you don’t get the satisfaction.
The other is feeling unrecognized — so not getting rewarded, or feeling underpaid. But I think it is kind of all tied together. It’s feeling that you have an impact on a company whose mission you believe in, doing something at that company that you feel passionate about, and feeling rewarded adequately by your work — whether through recognition or through compensation in salary.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
I think it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy because when you have an unhappy workforce you have an unproductive workforce, and that means the company is less likely to be hitting its goals. It needs to then hire more people to achieve those goals and doing that becomes much more expensive as you have to pay more people to achieve the same goals. Then I think the work also suffers because if you’re somebody not motivated, you’re less likely to care about customer concerns, because you’re seeing that as a burden on top of the work you already have to do.
What we’ve seen is that it leads to lower health quality and employees feeling more tired and stressed. There’s a whole theory that burnout is not related to the number of hours you work, but the hours you work doing something that you’re not passionate about.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
1. Add lean processes to help foster career progression. This is especially important in rapid growth businesses like start-ups and scale-ups. Unbabel is a great example. Like many start-ups, in the beginning we were like a close-knit family with a “we’re all in this together’” feeling, which helped us move along and achieve great success without a lot of process. But as you grow, you need to start adding process not only because you have so many more people, but because the people that started in really junior positions are often suddenly faced with really fast-moving projects and a lot of responsibility, and therefore they need everyone’s support. So we’re introducing lean processes to help people manage their career paths so that they have structure around their goals, how they are recognized and what they need to in order to get move to the next level of their careers.
2. Managers also need to create clarity amongst teams, that is to say, they need to help define and understand the goals of teams, as well as the objectives of team communication.
3. Inject energy into your team. Having a great work culture really comes down to having managers who take it upon themselves to inject energy into teams and drive excitement about what people are doing, as well as personal and career achievements.
4. Be results driven: A good work culture is one that is results driven, and managers should be leading the way in this respect. A good manager will make time for a team to pause and see if they’ve hit their intended results, and to celebrate if this is the case. If not, then it’s down to managers to lead their team on a deep dive as to why this didn’t happen, and to re-group to have another try with what they’ve learned. If teams aren’t results driven, the work culture will suffer.
5. Laugh: Teams that laugh together are the most effective teams!
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
In the US, there are a couple of things. One simply comes down to transparency. If you look at it, there is a certain correlation between happiness and understanding more of your company, as in, how are you involved? Employees are asking themselves, “can I see where we are headed, what is the purpose, and what are we doing?” In the US, there is a lot of compartmentalization — things are often on a “need to know” basis and this makes employees feel shut out and disconnected — it’s certainly not the way to develop a great working culture.
The other thing is — increase the amount of vacation. In the US employees often only have two weeks’ vacation whereas, in Europe, you often have four to six weeks. One of the reasons Americans travel less outside of the US is because of the limited vacation time. It’s a big country and it takes while to get anywhere, which just doesn’t work if you’ve only got two weeks. More vacation time would mean a little more time to rest, and would also enable people to see a little more of the world and to get a bit more mental breathing space. It’s important to have those breaks to re-charge and come back to work refreshed.
Another thing is maternity leave. Some US companies are starting to adopt it, but it’s not standard at all. Across Europe, parental leave can often be shared and ranges anywhere from six months to 1.5 years. Having some amount of time, even if it’s just 3–6 months, for mothers to be closer to their babies without it impacting their careers would make a big difference. And the same for fathers for paternity leave, which isn’t very common in the US.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I try to surround myself with people who are much better managers than myself and who have a lot of experience at what they do. This is the first time I’ve managed such a large organization, so I try to do the opposite of micromanaging. I try to recruit and convince the best people to join me, and then managing them is really about supporting them to do what they do best, giving them autonomy and agency to make that happen. That means:
1.) Having a balanced team — having different opinions and diversity of opinion and diversity of people in a room.
2.) I tend to create close relationships with the people in my leadership team: trust is the most important fundamental piece, and building trust is not straightforward. It’s not just building trust between me and them, but between them and the teams within.
A lot of the time, I think to myself: these people know how to do the technical bit. The part that we need to work on is that we need to make sure they have trust between me and them, and between themselves. So a lot the stuff I do is geared towards building that trust: spending time bonding, discussing, having that face time together as much as possible. I’m not a very process-oriented type of person — I’m much more intuitive, and I think getting to a point where the people throughout the company feel they can have honest and sometimes vulnerable conversations is very important.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One person I’m incredibly grateful to is my advisor at the post-grad level, Jaime Carbonell. He was not only brilliant, but would always have an openness of relation and support that made all the difference to me. It went from intellectual support to, when I started my first company, actually investing in that company. He had started a few companies before, so he really helped me not only on the scientific research end of things, but also on the people management and process side of things. He opened a lot of doors for me and helped me in a lot of ways, and I’ve always been deeply grateful for that.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Unbabel has also in the past offered free high-quality translation services to NGOs and charities worldwide. It’s important because there are nearly 50 million refugees in the world, and one of the biggest challenges they face is not being able to communicate effectively because of language barriers. Among other companies such as Speak, a language and cultural exchange program that connects migrants and locals and helps refugees create new networks, we helped refugees to exchange information and ideas more effectively, and to express their needs so that they can communicate optimally to better their situations. It was about breaking down barriers and building trust, and making people feel at home in their new countries.
I try to mentor as well: I’m part of Beta-i, a non-profit for entrepreneurship. I think it’s important to try to help other entrepreneurs, just as many people have helped and inspired me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
For me it’s got to be, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” by John Lennon. When I did my Master’s degree, I thought, “Life will start after this.” Then I thought, I’ll do another two years of my PhD, and then life will start. Then I helped found a start-up and began to think that life would start once we “made it,” and then finally had to face the fact that life is now, and there is no point in making plans for when things happen because they are happening now. So now I remind myself of this daily. Life is in this moment, and you need to embrace it and not think you’re going to sacrifice this year or the next to live your real life. Don’t wait for later. Your life is now.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think one of the key ideas we’re focusing on is what we’re calling the “quality of customer service gap,” or, if you like, “democratizing customer service.” There’s a situation happening in the world right now where, if you’re born in a country where you don’t speak English, you often end up with inaccessible or poor-quality customer service. So for example, if you’re in Portugal and want to talk to an international airline, you can do it 9–5 Monday through Friday. But if you’re in the US, you can do it 24x7. In other countries, if you’re trying to access customer service regarding something you’ve bought, you might just find that there isn’t any customer service available in your language.
What it means is that you end up having a worse level of customer support or even no customer support. Having access to high-level, adequate customer support should be a right for everyone that buys a product. At Unbabel, we’re trying make it non-issue. Companies should support every customer in the world equally, not just those who speak a specific language. It’s time to democratize customer service.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.