High school friends Matt Conger and Phil Kohn first visited China on separate business trips, but it didn’t take long for them to both realize that this is where their futures lie. The two friends wound up returning to study Chinese, Conger in Beijing and Kohn in Guilin, and eventually recognized an opportunity to disrupt the traditional interpretation market. After three months of continuous effort, the two launched SeekPanda this week, a two-sided marketplace matching up interpreters with consumers.

Initially, SeekPanda interpreters are only available in four markets: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Taiwan. The founders have already given some thought to future expansions, though.

SeekPanda co-founders Phil Kohn, left, and Matt Conger, right. Before moving to China, both worked in financial services in the United States.

SeekPanda was originally conceived as a means of helping business travelers by taking care of many of their needs before they arrive in China. After realizing this was not a scalable business model, according to Kohn, the idea morphed into a marketplace where bilingual Chinese and English speakers could sell their services.

“The inspiration of the idea was let’s just connect these two populations… the way Airbnb connects different populations with apartments,” Conger said.

Uber, which allows consumers to hire independent drivers, was another inspiration. Conger and Kohn reached out to Uber for advice on operating in China and possibly expanding to other countries in the future, which Uber does by working with local partners.

Conger is a graduate of Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school. When he heard the school’s semi-annual conference would be held in Beijing this month, he called them up and asked the administration what they were paying for interpretation services. They were prepared to pay $25,000, but Conger told the school that if they use SeekPanda, the company would provide interpreters free of charge.

That is exactly what happened. Several of SeekPanda’s 33 registered interpreters, or Pandas as the company refers to them, showed up to donate their time to help launch a startup that until that point had no brand recognition.

The website ranks Pandas according to skill level and subject matter experience. The skill levels are labeled according to corresponding traditional business positions: analyst, associate, manager or managing director. Managers and managing directors are considered the most experienced, having done more demanding interpretation jobs in the past.

SeekPanda profiles feature a visual resume quickly outlining an interpreter’s skill level and past experience. This resume belongs to Betty Chen, one of the more experienced interpreters registered on the website.

Fortunately for SeekPanda, the company has registered many professional interpreters with impressive resumes. They were able to get several of their managers and managing directors to attend the conference, doing simultaneous interpretation for business leaders–including CEOs from Sina, Dianping and New Oriental–and government officials, discussing topics such as Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” and using jargon like “aggregate demand.”

How it works

Currently, all the Pandas are vetted by Conger and Kohn personally for quality control.

“We’re the gatekeeper to say, ‘Yeah, this person is reliable,’” Conger said.

For now, this means scaling the business is more labor intensive than what Airbnb offers, where users verify their identities automatically using Jumio (a service SeekPanda uses when seeking new interpreters) and are then able to immediately list residences for rent. The SeekPanda founders, however, meet and vet every interpreter, helping to fulfill the promise of their motto, “Would you let a stranger into your business meeting?”

Once verified, Pandas on the website are allowed to name their own price as long as they have flat rates for part of a day, one day or multiple days. The interpreters are guaranteed whatever price they set and the SeekPanda sets a listed price that gives the company a 20 percent commission (for example, if a managing director interpreter asks for $1000 per day, SeekPanda will charge $1250, keeping $250 or 20 percent of the listed price).

What makes the model disruptive is that traditional interpretation agencies can take well over 50 percent commission (Conger relayed a story about a woman named Daisy who only took home about 20 percent of what a client paid to the agency). By marketing themselves, there is a potential for customers to pay less and for interpreters to make more.

The founders understand, though, that users may not be able to make a living from SeekPanda immediately after launch. Many of the interpreters have not quit their day jobs, but by syncing an Outlook Calendar with their SeekPanda profile, they are able to let customers know when they are available.

To help the Pandas improve their interpretation, SeekPanda has an internal wiki called Bamboo. Registered users can go in and offer suggestions for certain words and phrases, a means of crowdsourcing solutions for thoughts that can often lose much in translation.

“This is kind of another innovation we’re bringing to this relatively old fashioned industry,” Conger said.

Idioms can often be tricky in the interpretation business because they generally rely on cultural background and make little sense when interpreted literally.

Jokes are another area that can be difficult for an interpreter. Gavin Shen, one of the Pandas at the Wharton conference, said if not translated in just the right way or if the receiving party just doesn’t find the joke funny, it is the interpreter who gets blamed as a convenient scapegoat.

Conger and Kohn said interpreters will often just tell the listening party that a joke is being told and ask the person to laugh at the end. This is important, they said, because Westerners like using jokes as icebreakers and if a joke falls flat, it can make proceeding with a business meeting awkward.

SeekPanda co-founders Matt Conger, second from the right, and Phil Kohn, far right, pose with the interpreters who donated their time for the Wharton Global Forum at the Park Hyatt in Beijing.

The future

Conger and Kohn have given some thought to expanding to other languages and markets in the future. They’ve discussed Thailand as a potential future market and said Russian, Korean and Japanese people make frequent business trips to China.

SeekPanda already has people registered with the website who speak Korean and German. The German speaker, a British citizen named Matthew Bailey, is accredited by the United Nations for simultaneous Chinese and English interpretation.

The two founders appear to realize their company’s greatest strength is its ability to get top-notch translators excited about the SeekPanda concept. Conger said getting people to the table is usually not an issue.

“It’s a name-your-own-price platform and that alone gets them interested,” he said.

The real issue in expanding is finding those quality interpreters. Many people who look good on paper (or on social media like LinkedIn) are not the kinds of people who should be sitting in on high level company meetings, Conger said.

This is not universally true, however. One of SeekPanda’s manager-level interpreters was found via LinkedIn in Taiwan. Betty Chen works for Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, interpreting for many high-level officials, including President Ma Ying-jeou. She has interpreted at events attended by Barack and Michelle Obama and for National Basketball Association star Jeremy Lin. Chen must not have disappointed at the interview.

It is too early to say whether sifting through the many interpreters on social media will become burdensome. If the company becomes more successful and word-of-mouth buzz grows, the founders may be able to rely more on recommendations from the people they have already vetted and trust.

For now, though, Conger and Kohn are focused on simplifying business travel in their existing four markets. One incremental service improvements the founders have discussed is supplying their interpreters with Beijing Everyday Essential Requirements (BEERs), which could include things like pollution masks, hygiene products and medicine, used as a kind of care package for a client as soon as he or she arrives in China.

SeekPanda has not yet received any outside funding (a product of being a “capital-light” business, according to Conger), so big expansions in the near future are unlikely. However, the two entrepreneurs are not wanting for ideas for improvements to the existing model as they seek to upend an old and stale industry.

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