Paratrooper CEO aiming highSave
By Matthew Theunissen
From high-school dropout, to paratrooper, then a chief executive reinventing the $40 billion translation industry, Grant Straker's journey to the business world has been anything but conventional.
His ideas about translation technology were once laughed out of meetings, but the 51-year-old Aucklander now leads an army of some 40,000 translators around the world, through the company he and his wife own, Straker Translations.
After acquiring two new businesses in the past year, the company has an estimated annual revenue of $20-$30 million, and with plans to go public next year, Straker sees huge opportunities for further growth.
Straker spent his childhood between West Auckland and Rotorua before his father, who was in the Air Force, was deployed to Britain and the family migrated.
"I was quite a bright kid in maths and things like that, but I left school when I was about 15 without any real qualifications," he says.
"Some of the guys I grew up with out in Henderson actually put me down as the one most likely to go to jail. But you change as you grow up."
Referring to the Maori entrepreneur Bailey Mackey, Straker says some people's skills just aren't recognised in the schooling system and he found that when left to his own devices, he excelled.
In his late teens, his father arranged for him to sit a test for an airline apprenticeship, gave him a stack of books and left him to it.
"I was competing with guys who had done aeronautical degrees and stuff to become aircraft engineers. But I studied those books and things and I actually passed the test."
He landed an apprenticeship with low-cost Laker Airways and was there for a year or so before the company went bust.
"But that's really how I set myself up in life - I taught myself how to get knowledge. For me, that's how I've always learned things: you just figure it out yourself; you get material and you learn it."
Coming from a military family, Straker felt compelled to follow his father and joined the British Army in the mid 1980s, becoming an elite paratrooper.
"Being a soldier, doing some of the things I did was amazing and I wouldn't want to change that. It wasn't about money or anything else, it was about those experiences and doing it with a load of mates and getting to do some crazy stuff," he says.
But just before the First Gulf War, Straker was involved in a motor vehicle crash which nearly cost him a leg.
"It was only because I was so fit at the time that I got through it, but that stuffed me up for a couple of years."
He never returned to the military, instead making a living driving trucks and playing guitar in a pub band around London.
I taught myself how to get knowledge. For me, that's how I've always learned things: you just figure it out yourself; you get material and you learn it.
In 1994 he returned to New Zealand, at something of a loss about what to do with his life. "I got a job with an engineering company with sales and I went and completed a certificate in engineering," he says.
"I'd never even really turned a computer on until I was 30 but when I was working for this company I was writing programs to help me in my job.
"After a while I had other people asking me if I could write them programs ... eventually even the IT guys were asking for my help."
When the internet came of age in the late '90s, Straker thought he'd better have a go at that, too.
"I just bought a book and started to write web programs and then I thought, 'Right, maybe I should do a course on all of this'. What I found was that I knew more than the instructor."
The company that ran the course asked if he would work for them but, knowing his nature, he turned down the opportunity and went at it alone.
"I followed my heart," he says. "I knew I wasn't a corporate-type person. I knew I wasn't going to go up any corporate ladder because I'd just piss everybody off."
With demand for websites and people with computer expertise soaring, Straker started doing independent contracting and landed some lucrative gigs, including one for Tourism New Zealand which involved translating its site into other languages.
With his wife and business partner, Merryn, he realised this was a technology they could commercialise. They sold it to global organisations such as Tourism Queensland, the European Commission, universities and large American corporations.
"At that time it was really tough to support it globally because you couldn't get capital. I always think, with some of these start-ups now, if you took away the cloud and told them they had to deploy stuff on different platforms and onto hardware and with no capital ... to do it, you have to be pretty bloody good," he says.
"Rod Drury and some others did it; people who went on to be successful who had that grounding in achieving really hard stuff."
Around 2010 the husband and wife team realised that machine learning in conjunction with human translators was going to play a big part in the industry, so they went about building a platform that used both.
"We would go to conferences and people in the industry would just treat us like complete idiots. They were like, 'This will never happen, machine learning won't play a part in the translation process'."
In a nutshell, the technology works a bit like Google Translate, with an automated process that translates documents. The company's vast team of translators then tidy up the content to ensure it is grammatically and contextually accurate.
"If a traditional agency, say, has a translator working at 200 words an hour ... if we make that translator go at 400 words an hour we've just halved the supplier cost. So our technology enables translators to go significantly faster and produce the same quality outcome."
And, as the translators work, machine learning enables the technology to translate more accurately and quickly with every project.
"Then we have this framework for managing these thousands of translators, paying them around the world and tracking their time and their efficiency."
The company has been called "the Uber of the translation industry", with translators able to log on, work from home and earn a good living.
Straker Translations has had about 40,000 translators, but 5000 a year on average, and 2000 to 3000 on a more regular basis. They can translate about 100 languages.
My view is the Maori tech sector is in a great position to become the leading tech sector in the economy, with the right focus.
Last year the company acquired Dublin-based language service Eurotext and earlier this year snapped up Elanex, another such company based in San Francisco.
Straker says the company aims to buy two more translation services this year and plans to list on the Australian Stock Exchange next year.
"There's not really any bottlenecks to our growth right now. We're in a great position where we can grow as fast as we can do integrations," he says.
"We think that we'll get really good pricing in terms of our evaluation and that gives us a much better framework for growing to becoming a $100m revenue company."
Straker is of Ngati Raukawa descent, which he says has been a major influence on his approach to business, and he sees huge opportunity for Maori in the tech sector.
"I think a lot of young Maori don't fit into a certain category ... like I didn't," he says. "My view is that the Maori tech sector is in a great position to become the leading tech sector in the economy, with the right focus. That's due to Maori entrepreneurship, iwi involvement, and some of the amazing young people coming through.
"They are also the sector of our society which has the most to lose with automation and technology, in that a lot of Maori do manual jobs."
Straker and his wife have three children aged 6 to 12, one of whom has cerebral palsy; a challenge the family meets with the same can-do attitude they've learned to embrace.
"We have the resources to pay for some of that [treatment] whereas some other families probably don't. So work life balance is a hard one, but the tradeoff is you get to live here and you get that balance in your friends and your family and the things that you love doing," he says.
While he won't be jumping out of any more planes, Straker seems a man for whom no obstacle is too great and the sky's still the limit.
• Age: 51
• From: Raised in West Auckland, Rotorua and Britain
• Role: Chief executive, Straker Translations
• Qualifications: Self-taught computer programmer, certificate in engineering, "school of hard knocks"
• Previous: British paratrooper, truck driver, pub band guitar player
• Family: Married with three children aged 6, 10 and 12
• Last book read: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
• Last Film: Patriot's Day
• Hobbies: Welding, building stuff, fishing, mucking around in boats