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SMALL-BUSINESS MAKEOVER

Axiom Translations looks to talk up services

The Torrance firm hopes to increase sales. An expert's advice includes having the owners network and become a certified female-owned business.

July 07, 2009|Cyndia Zwahlen

Lori L. Anding drew what she considers the short straw when she and Marlene Gomez were setting up their small business that uses independent linguists to provide translation services.

When it came to dividing up responsibilities, Gomez got accounting and production. Anding ended up with sales -- an area she just doesn't like.

"I find salespeople very annoying, so I have a huge problem if I am really trying to sell translations," says Anding, 44, co-owner of Axiom Translations in Torrance. "I have a hard time meeting the mold, becoming that mold of a salesperson I think I should be."

Sales have flattened at the small business that uses more than 100 independent linguists to translate English manuals into many other languages, create subtitles for videos and interpret legal proceedings, among other services.

After peaking at $246,000 in 2006, sales slid to $196,000 last year. The recession hammered the business in the first half of this year, but several promising contracts are looming.

The 5-year-old company is keeping busy with small jobs translating academic transcripts for students. The slump has also pushed the owners to work harder toward their longtime goal of becoming certified as a minority- and female-owned business.

"We want to be able to open different doors," says Gomez, 42, a Costa Rica native and Spanish speaker.

They believe they have already won business from major companies such as Sempra Energy of San Diego, the parent of Southern California Gas Co., because Axiom is female-owned. They won a recent contract from the city of Los Angeles as of one three vendors approved to offer interpretation and translation services for the city's dozens of neighborhood councils, based in part on their good-faith efforts to get certified.

Other potential customers, including a major pharmaceutical company, "won't touch us until we are certified," says Anding, who has been researching the requirements.

In fact, many minority-owned and female-owned businesses looking for an edge in today's tough economy are exploring becoming certified, says John W. Murray Jr., president and chief executive of a major certification group, Southern California Minority Business Development Council Inc.

Although public agencies may not be allowed to award contracts based on race or gender, many private corporations strive for supplier diversity. They often rely on databases of certified firms put together by nonprofit business development groups.

Murray's nonprofit council, one of 38 nationwide overseen by National Minority Business Council Inc., certifies minority-owned firms, offers business development services and maintains a database of certified firms.

To access these corporate clients, Anding shouldn't worry about her lack of sales and marketing experience, he says.

Certification as a minority-owned and female-owned business can be a part of their strategy to find sales in new markets or with new clients in existing markets.

After talking with Anding and Gomez, Murray offered recommendations.

* Be strategic about sales. Anding should drop her fear of being seen as a pushy salesperson. Remember instead that Axiom Translations is selling a professional service, not snake oil.

"The kind of suede-shoe salesperson you allude to is not who you are," Murray says. "So it's OK if you don't talk fast and wear white shoes and white belts and funny-colored pants."

Learn instead to think of sales in a strategic way, he suggests. Determine how to segment the marketplace. Then decide how to prioritize the sectors where translation and interpretation services are most in demand and the potential clients in each area.

Put together a message to attract clients in that sweet spot, he says. The two owners' passion and knowledge of the business can continue to be an important part of their sales efforts.

At the same time, they could benefit by thinking through the core competencies of their business, Murray says. That information can be the meat of their sales message.

* Consider getting certified as a minority-owned business. To qualify for certification as a minority-owned business, Gomez would have to take a majority stake -- at least 51%, in the company as well as have the majority voice in management and control and the top executive title. The women are 50-50 partners.

"Clearly that is a very personal decision, as well as a financial decision that the partners have to sit down and do a benefit assessment of," Murray says.

Lauren Knight, a certification specialist at the Southern California council, said Axiom Translations could expect a site visit, requests for certain pages of its income tax returns, corporate structure documents and proof of the owner's U.S. citizenship.

That last requirement is a temporary hurdle for Gomez, who has a green card but is just starting the process to become a U.S. citizen. She thought the process might take a few months. Murray warned that it could take much longer.

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