Insights February 18, 2024

Living Word turns 20

By Living Word

This February, it is 20 years since Living Word first saw the light of day. So where did the idea come from, and how did Living Word grow to become what it is today?

Founder and Managing Director Katharine Marr reminisces and shares the company’s story.

First things first, how did it all begin?

I’d always been fascinated by how language works and studying linguistics with French started me on the path towards the translation industry. I then went on to do a range of different jobs, from marketing and accounts in publishing to agency work, and eventually a very perceptive recruitment consultant found me a position at a translation agency and it suited me perfectly. It was the most interesting work I’d ever done, I enjoyed the environment and felt I fitted in. Everyone was passionate not just about languages but also different cultures.

Increasingly, though, after experiencing how it was to work in more than one translation agency, I started to feel that there was a lot more I could do. There were particular areas I wanted to develop, but I couldn’t do that where I was. With that motivation and my background in accounts, running a business was a bit of a no-brainer, and my experience at the agency crystallised the kind of business I wanted to run. In 2004, I got started. It was just me, a computer, a desk and the yellow pages.

Where did the name Living Word come from?

At the very heart of what fascinates me about languages is the fact that language is never static – it constantly evolves.

Over the last few years, for instance, we’ve seen how language develops with technology. There’s text speak, the way people talk to each other has filtered down to how content is written online, some of the grammar that would’ve made no sense a few years ago now suddenly makes sense. That’s what’s fascinating, how people react to the world and how that comes out in language, written and spoken.

What was it you wanted to do differently with Living Word? What was the USP from the very start?

I really wanted to focus on creative translation – that was always what I wanted to do and found the most interesting. The way we did that was that we started to work across lots of different industries, but whenever there was something more creative, we tried to focus on developing that skill.  

But the USP has always been our size. I always think of us as a big small agency – a small agency with big ideas, managing big projects for big clients.

We’re boutique. We don’t take on more than we can handle or too many staff, so any client who comes to us will always recognise who they work with. That’s even more niche now than it was back in 2004, as agencies are getting bigger and bigger and small agencies are being absorbed by bigger ones.

We’re determined not to give in to the stack-them-high, sell-them-cheap attitude. That’d be fatal for an agency like Living Word – it’s not our game.

How did things grow then, from the start?

It was like a snow ball, and grew exponentially. Once a handful of clients trusted me with a few important projects, the reputation of the company spoke for itself, and we very soon started to get most of our work through recommendations. I’d made sure to get my processes into place before I started anything, so I knew how I wanted every single bit of the business to run. As soon as I pressed go and sales started to come in, generally everything worked really well. 

We’ve tweaked things many times over the years, naturally. Our business barely resembles what it was then – avoiding standing still is the main thing. There are lots of challenges in business and you’ve got to deal with those, but you can never be scared to look ahead.

What were the toughest lessons at the start?

The most difficult thing was getting credit control into place, because translation agencies are so far down the food chain when it comes to getting paid for the work they do.

Our linguists are our lifeblood and because the majority of them are sole traders, if they don’t get paid they can’t live, and then they can’t work for us. So getting the cash flow sorted to pay people on time, that was crucial to the business.

Other than that, getting the right staff is always a challenge – and I guess it always will be. It’s a very specific kind of job that requires very varied skills, partly because we’re small and everyone needs to put on lots of different hats, but also because of the industry we’re in. No two days are the same.

How would you describe Living Word’s continued growth over the past two decades?

The growth has been interesting to manage but also a challenge. Organic growth was always what I wanted, but it’s something that has to be managed – that there’s not too much and not too little. It’s definitely the most difficult thing about running a small business and probably why a lot of small agencies sell to bigger firms. You can’t stand still, and it can be a bit like a ship in a storm sometimes.

That all said, it’s certainly been a good thing for me, because I enjoy the challenges and having to be very creative with the solutions. I was never very comfortable with jobs where you do the same thing every day. I like the variety.

My initial passion was for the language, but I’ve discovered that I also really enjoy figuring out and learning to understand how business works.

What does the future hold?

Things have changed a lot over the last few years in terms of people’s attitudes towards getting a better work-life balance. People’s priorities have changed, and one of the things that’s up there is an interest in wellness and looking after your mental health. That’s coming out in the work we’re doing, and it’s a direction I’m really keen to push the company in.

Also, the Middle East is set to see rapid growth in the next few years, making it an area of interest for us, particularly as we’ve got a really strong background in languages such as Arabic and Greek. It’s definitely one we’ll be keeping our eye on.