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Starling Portrait Series – Lotuly: Breaking down the language barrier

More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, a digital bank for personal and business current accounts. Starling was born out of her determination to give customers control over their money, and provide a real alternative to the banks of the past. Starling strives to be fast, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.

In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, just like Anne, are pioneers of change.

Our next entrepreneur is Starling customer Mariona Bolohan, co-founder of Lotuly, a translation agency run ‘by people, for people’.

Even today, many news reports, political discussions and everyday conversations are charged with a distinct, potentially harmful focus on a person’s origin, ascent or grasp of the language. According to an examination by Triangle Investigations, “linguistic racism” is all too prevalent, causing disadvantage to those that may not have a native grasp on the English language in all facets of their lives including simply being talked over by their co-workers.

Twenty-four year old Mariona Bolohan, co-founder of Lotuly alongside her husband says: “I know how it feels to be judged”. Moving can be jarring for anyone, let alone to a new country, Mariona knows exactly how it feels to be in an unfamiliar environment surrounded by an unfamiliar language. While now fluent in English, Mariona decided to dedicate herself to bridging the gap between communities and breaking down the barrier through her love of language itself. 

Love language

From early on, Mariona realised the inherent prejudice one might face based on something as simple as how you sound from early on. The native Spanish and Catalan speaker says she initially struggled with “fear of rejection” and had a hard time fitting into society in the UK after moving here with her husband in 2015.

Initially discovering their love for language (and each other) after jogging alongside one another in Lleida, Spain, the couple decided to make their passion a profession after a period of selling antiques came to an end following a life-changing car crash. 

Moving to the UK and vowing to “do things properly”, the duo built their business from the ground up, branching out from simple freelancing to the creation and expansion of Lotuly.

Primarily using people to break down those barriers between societies, Lotuly boasts itself as a translation agency with all the convenience of an online service, but with that much needed human touch.

Strong start during trying times

Starting a business at any time is always difficult, but Lotuly began life at the beginning of 2020, in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the challenges, nothing could stop Mariona and her husband. “I realised the business needed something to pull it together, we needed something more than just a network of freelancers,” Mariona explains.

If launching at what was the end for many businesses wasn’t tough enough, Mariona raised the bar even higher. She says: “We’ve not been successful at securing any funding from the government or any schemes offered because we couldn’t find any suitable ones for what we do.”

Despite the troubling times, lack of funding and prejudice faced by the two, Mariona and her husband’s leap into the language business went very well.

Mariona mentions that her clients loved was the “human aspect” of their translations. The business itself made an effective transition to being what is now primarily an online service, though Mariona assures us that despite its migration to a less face-to-face model, Lotuly is still very much a “people first” business.

Judgement day

While it’s not quite The Terminator, Mariona and Lotuly have celebrated victory over the machines time and time again. The ‘human aspect’ of any business is important and it can do wonders for an industry that is predominantly populated with automated services.

In their current state in the translation industry, machines make mistakes. The Lotuly website even goes as far as to cite a few examples of damning language blunders that cost a few companies a good portion of cash.

Mariona explains the value of the rare, but appreciated, human touch: “The way we are different is that no matter the package they choose, we offer the same level of translation quality. We don’t use machine translation, only human qualified translators and we don’t compromise on quality.

“Some of our competitors offer machine translation in exchange for a cheaper rate but that won’t ensure efficient human quality.”

Post-pandemic pondering

Even for language experts like Mariona it might be hard to put into words just exactly how impactful the pandemic was for everyone involved, which was of course everyone. Despite the challenges, Mariona and Lotuly went through the fire and flames and came out on the other side. 

Catching up with Mariona, we asked her how she and Lotuly has fared during the pandemic and plans for the future.

How have you and the business fared since the start of the pandemic?

“We are a bootstrapped translation agency and it literally started in our studio flat in London. Due to the pandemic, we had low turnover months but overall in the last 6-8 months, we’ve turned over a profitable amount despite the lows during the first months.

“We’ve not been successful at securing any funding from the government or any schemes offered because we couldn’t find any suitable ones for what we do. The ‘’translation category’’ is always classed as ‘’other’’, whenever you have to choose the industry of your business. But that’s not stopping us from growing. 

“It all started with my husband and I freelancing over seven years ago as translators and we’ve grown a remote team of over 300 translators based all over the globe. It’s been very hard and it’s still being very hard but with a positive attitude you can do lots of things.”

What has been the biggest factor in your success?

“Our biggest achievement is when we are able to educate our clients to see the value of human translation, rather than machine translation and the damage to their reputation that the latter can bring on their company. That and the fact that we’ve been trusted by Fortune 500 companies at such a young age gives you the push you need to overcome any challenge.

“Also, being able to pay our translators upfront, in the translation industry you normally get paid 60-90 days after you finish a project so this is a big change we aim at maintaining in our business to break that mould and disrupt the translation industry.

“You know what they say, take care of your team and they’ll take care of your company.

“We also love that we are able to plant trees for words we translate and this way we help the environment and also gain clients thanks to this initiative as they share the same values as ourselves.”

What are your immediate and long-term plans for the business?

“We plan on growing our business while increasing our sustainability goals. With the right marketing approach we’d like to plant 5,000 trees by the end of 2022, set up a referral program with marketing agencies that we can partner up or even implement our instant quote tool through our API into their websites and grow together.

“As founders we are looking to invest and give opportunities to young people and we are always on the lookout for creative ones because we know getting a chance is quite hard to achieve and having gone through the same experience we want to strive to improve.

“Our ‘aha’ moment is every time a client says that they are satisfied with our services, it makes us proud of what we’ve achieved and it’s very easy to get the impostor syndrome and feel like you have not accomplished anything or that it could be much better but from a co-founder point of view we have to learn to be content and appreciate the achievements we’ve got so far and just enjoy the ride.”

A sustainable future

Things are looking very sustainable not just for the business, but for the planet, thanks to Lotuly.

If compassion for the customer wasn’t enough, Mariona and Lotuly are aiming for “one tree per 500 words translated”, playing their part in the fight against climate change. And in offering a human touch, they’re bringing down blockades between communities through language, helping to build a more sustainable society.

The future is seemingly bright for Mariona and her husband and even brighter for their barrier-breaking business.