In this Small Business Spotlight, we highlight Henry Clough, founder of Asian Absolute, a language services provider.
Name: Henry Clough
Company: Asian Absolute.
What does your company do?
Asian Absolute is a Language Services Provider covering more than 121 languages and working with individuals and corporations on five continents but specialising in South Asia.
Why did you choose your business?
I spent most of the 1980s and 1990s in Asia. When I returned to the UK, I was surprised that so many UK companies – which I knew produced excellent English communications – were happy with Asian communications which were nothing of the sort. I founded Asian Absolute in 2000. We now have offices in London, Singapore, Beijing, Varna and Panama City.
What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
I’ve always been interested in becoming an entrepreneur. I founded my first company in China – a global recruitment agency – when I was 24.
Why did you choose to initially focus on Asian languages?
Firstly, it was that gap in the market I noticed on my return to the UK.
But also, in large part, it was my decades-long experience of the richness of Asian cultures in general and China in particular.
My first Chinese language teacher at university, Li Ruru, had a wonderfully sympathetic yet pragmatic vision of China. She helped me come to love the language as well as develop a positive attitude to an extraordinary country.
What has been your biggest challenge?
The Great Firewall of China is a challenge that’s ongoing. We’ve developed a multi-tiered solution to manage it.
We’ve redirected China users to special login pages which use Google’s ReCaptcha (because Google is blocked in China). Our global server, which is used by everyone outside China, is mirrored in our Beijing office and replicates in real time with the main server. We have FTP servers with different providers in Beijing and in Hong Kong. We transfer files via WeChat and QQ. We’ve used VPNs.
I wouldn’t say that we’ve overcome it – the political wind can simply change direction one day and what worked yesterday suddenly doesn’t anymore – but I would say we’ve mastered our risk management.
What advice would you give to other business owners who want to do business in China?
Team integration is really important. It’s easy enough for your China team to feel a little cut-off – both from online collaboration by the Great Firewall as well as by the special nature of the Chinese domestic market. Proper integration gives everyone the chance to benefit from exposure to different markets and cultures.
You should also take time to learn the history – but be wary of falling in with bad business practices like verbal contracts just because someone tells you it’s “the way things are done.”
But I think, perhaps most importantly, I would advise anyone wanting to do business in China to bring their sense of humour. China can be an infuriating place to do business, but it’s rarely boring. Especially outside of the top-tier cities, you will meet fascinating people with viewpoints you never would have been able to imagine and encounter truly bizarre situations.
I’ve been flash-mobbed by a staring crowd, had conversations which have left me scratching my head at the sheer strangeness of it all and been inside an authentic Chinese recreation of a French château.
If you let yourself see the funny side, China will leave a lasting mark.
What’s the next big thing on your horizon?
On a global level, we’re expecting a growth in the amount of Bengali and Vietnamese translation work we’ll be doing in the future.
But harnessing AI to allow Machine Translation (MT) to support the skills of our human translators is the thing I’m most excited about at the moment.
There are a huge number of MT engines on the market already. We currently help clients choose the best one for their needs and then train the machine so that it can actually provide output of the quality they need.
All the gathering, cleaning, structuring and processing of the high-quality bilingual data we do results in a custom engine for the task at hand. Then it’s over to our human experts for post-editing and measuring the productivity boost which we’ve achieved.
Whatever the future holds though, we’ve got the expertise and the experienced people we need to meet it.