Interview with Anil Singh-Molares

singh-molares-webAnil Singh-Molares is CEO of EchoMundi, an international consulting, research and product development company based in Bellevue, Washington. Prior to founding EchoMundi, he worked for twelve years at the Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, where he was Senior Director of Vendor Relations and a recipient of the Microsoft Achievement Award. He is also currently a member of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. We met with Mr. Singh-Molares in Bellevue.

Kaizen: You are a successful businessman—yet as an undergraduate you majored in Philosophy and English Literature. That might seem a surprising background. Has your undergraduate education been relevant to your success in business?

Singh-Molares: Yes, absolutely. Philosophy in particular. English certainly gave me the ability to express myself succinctly and technically. But philosophy taught me how to think and taught me to appreciate that there are many sides to an argument, but that you have to make some judgment about what you think is the correct judgment. It has to be well-supported, it has to be well researched, well thought-out, but it should be grounded in common sense. And that’s why I, like you, am a big fan of the Greeks, Plato in particular, and Aristotle as well. So, it’s been very helpful.

Kaizen: You talk about making sound business judgments. In management or strategy meetings, do you find philosophy’s method of argumentative give-and-take useful?

Singh-Molares: Yes, the Socratic method is brilliant. It continues to be a good way to disarm people, and not just in business, but in various dialogues. Which is to say, “I do appreciate your argument but let’s take it a step further, let’s dig beneath the surface and see what’s really there—to see if what you think is there is really there.” And that’s been very useful.

Kaizen: So being able to probe for weaknesses, and then if you don’t find weaknesses knowing you’re onto a strength.

Singh-Molares: Yes.

Kaizen: You mentioned Plato and Aristotle. Are there other philosophers or literary authors who have been influential on your business thinking?

Singh-Molares: This has been so long now that I need to think back, but certainly the Greeks were key. I am a big fan of Eastern philosophy in general—we can talk about that a little later. But I was a big fan of Schopenhauer.

Kaizen: Why Schopenhauer?

Singh-Molares: I think because the nexus between East and West is easy through Schopenhauer, even though his appraisals of Eastern philosophy and Eastern thought were a little preliminary when he was writing in the nineteenth century. But I liked what I read there. I have to say, though, that I keep going back to the Greeks because the professors who made the most impact on me and the courses I took that made the most impact on me were about the Greeks.

Kaizen: Primarily Plato and Aristotle?

Singh-Molares: Primarily Plato and Aristotle. And Socrates and all the other Greeks, but certainly Plato probably more than any other, along with Aristotle.

Kaizen: And that is primarily for the method issues? The reasoning, presentation, rhetoric and so forth.

Singh-Molares: That’s right.

Kaizen: It is interesting because many students who are undergrads are wrestling with their career choices and are thinking in terms of practical education. They want, in many cases, to have a business career. For them, the importance of liberal arts education seems a little abstract. Is there advice that you could give to students who are wrestling with this choice between a narrower professional track and broad liberal arts education?

Singh-Molares: I think a well-rounded generalist is the best equipped. Something that I’ve said often is that common sense is the most uncommon value you can find in business. In Microsoft you have a lot of people who have a very narrow focus who don’t see the bigger picture. And so they cannot easily step back and say, you know, “Why am I wasting 50 hours on this, if in the grand scheme of things this is not a worthwhile endeavor?” A liberal arts education makes you a well-rounded generalist and allow you the option to stand back and take a look at all sides and see a much broader picture.

Kaizen: And if you end up in a field that requires technical education or technical career skills, do you acquire the technical knowledge on the job?

Singh-Molares: Yes. I came into Microsoft with my Philosophy and English literature degrees and my Theology degree from Harvard. Those degrees, even though they might not seem relevant, were the most relevant. With the language of [software] developers, whether it’s Windows, whether it’s Office, that’s two months worth of study. It’s terminology and it’s not rocket science. And you don’t need to be a developer to manage developers. You need to be a good manager. Those with liberal arts degrees, in my view, are going to create better managers than MBAs. We had lots of MBAs at Microsoft—very bright guys. But management was not their forte. Their education was very narrowly focused.

Kaizen: So you can make an argument for a liberal arts education in that it will help you become a better manager and you can always pick up the technical along the way. What if the person’s interests are in a narrower technical field? How would you advise them: Get in your major in what you’re interested in and then maybe pick up some liberal arts on the side?

Singh-Molares: I would say a developer obviously needs to take four years worth of computer science courses and mathematics and logic and programming—very narrowly tailored. But also give that person a philosophy course, a very broad philosophy course, and a very broad history course, and English literature. And I know it’s not the proverbial well-rounded individual, but that person will have the ability to step back and say, “I’m not going to dedicate 100 hours to writing these lines of code because, if I look at the product overall and where it fits, that’s not a good use of my time.” And in order to have that you really need other points of reference outside of your narrow field. So, I would say, certainly do both.

Kaizen: So, if your interests as an undergraduate are more technical you might find yourself being a manager, but it also will help you manage your own technical work?

Singh-Molares: Right. It will give you perspective. This is something that I always say to all of my kids: you cannot change the thing in and of itself, but you can always change your perspective on it. And the ability to shift perspectives is invaluable, because you can turn every challenge into an opportunity. You can’t change the thing in itself but if you have that ability to change how you see it, how you approach it, that gives you a lot more creative ways to navigate—through management layers, through technical challenges of all sorts. I think it’s just the Renaissance ideal: the broader your vision the better you are able to deal with all of the challenges that are thrown at you.

Kaizen: So partly it’s a matter of being able to put the particular issue in a broader context, to evaluate its significance. But it’s also a flexibility-of-mind point—being able to shift focuses.

Singh-Molares: Right. Not being stuck in a particular set course.

Kaizen: And philosophy and literature make you take different perspectives.

Singh-Molares: It makes you appreciate different perspectives. You don’t necessarily have to agree, but it’s much easier to disarm someone if you understand what they’re saying.

Kaizen: Is this, at least implicitly, a point about toughness of mind—that if you’re dealing with a problem or situation that’s challenging you don’t always have to see it negatively? That empowers you to be able to put a positive spin on it or see another alternative.

Singh-Molares: Absolutely. Again I go back to my own children. My kid comes in and says, “Oh it’s the end of the world, this didn’t happen the way I wanted.” And I said, “Well, how do you know what’s going to happen next? Maybe this was the very thing that’s going to trigger you to some greater realization. So it’s an opportunity.” And when I was at Microsoft it was the same way—“My gosh the world is falling down, we’re not meeting these deadlines,” or, “We can’t fill this venue, we can’t sell enough of this product.” Well, how can we change perspective and look at it another way and turn that into an advantage? And I think philosophy and literature are critical for that.

Kaizen: Both your college years and early career were in the eastern United States. How did you come to the west and to work for the Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Washington?

Singh-Molares: That’s an interesting story. I’m a translator. My mother’s from Spain; my mother taught me Spanish. I grew up in Belgium, so French is really the language that I’m formally trained in. And English is the language I learned when I came here at age eleven. I translated my way through grad school—various books and various authors. The translation agency that I worked for after I decided not to pursue a Ph.D. at Harvard because I got married and started having children, said, “Well, why don’t you come in and work for us? Why don’t you run the translations?” I ended up taking over the company—the Boston Language Institute. My wife at the time was from Anchorage, Alaska and her mom had cancer and she wanted to move to the west coast. So she came in one day and said, “Have you ever heard of this company Microsoft?” This is 1990. And I said, “No, I haven’t” because I was with my Mac, like most of us in those days. And my wife said, “They’re really up-and-coming.” So she faxed them my résumé. We didn’t hear anything for six months. Nothing—not a word. Then suddenly I got a call from a recruiter, saying, “Oh, we’re very interested in your résumé.” They did a couple of phone screenings that week, they invited me the following week—this is how aggressive they were—to come here. In fact, I stayed just a block away from here—and did my interviews—a day’s worth of hazing. That’s interesting to recount because it was hazing: ten separate interviews back-to-back, one hour each, basically to gauge how tough you are, how able you are to react to various situations. And two weeks later they had relocated my entire family from Boston to here.

Kaizen: Two weeks. Wow, that’s fast!

Singh-Molares: After waiting six months, and in a three week cycle: interviews, relocation, everything.

Kaizen: And what did they hire you in as? What were your early positions at Microsoft?

Singh-Molares: They hired me—they wanted someone from the industry to manage the industry. So, translation, localization, what we at Microsoft called “localization,” which is translation but also cultural adaptation, and rewriting the code for various languages. Microsoft was just starting to realize the importance of international markets on a bigger scale. And so they wanted someone with a lot of translation expertise and management expertise—with translations—to manage that part for Microsoft, which is what I ended up doing.

Kaizen: After how long did you become Director of Vendor Relations?

Singh-Molares: I joined up in 1991; I became a full-fledged director by 1994.

Kaizen: And what did that shift to the Director position entail?

Singh-Molares: Running larger and larger teams. I think that was my fourth promotion in three years, so they promoted me very quickly up to director level. We had a large internal team of translators and terminologists, language leads and localizers, the people who actually were tinkering with the code for the foreign language version. And then managing all the external partners who were doing our translations was also part of my responsibility. By 1995 I was managing Microsoft’s entire localization budget, which was $200 million at the time. It’s much larger now. The management skills obviously came from my background in philosophy, but also from the real-world experience of being part of a large company—and Microsoft itself is the best training ground for developing these skills.

Kaizen: And then you rose to a Senior Director position. What did that promotion entail?

Singh-Molares: More scale, more responsibility.

Kaizen: At this point, how many people were you managing altogether?

Singh-Molares: I outsourced most of this work from Microsoft, so instead of having 400 people on staff or 1000 people on staff, which you did at the international product group in 1991, we pushed all of that out to vendors.

Kaizen: And the rationale for that was …

Singh-Molares: It wasn’t a core competence of Microsoft. We were big on core competences. The question we asked ourselves was: if you use a headcount measure for a translator instead of using it for a developer, does that make sense? Particularly when you don’t need to hire translators internally, especially because their productivity goes down if they have a $50,000-a-year fixed salary and they’re sitting at a desk, i.e., what’s their motivation to produce more than x number of words per hour? None. Zero. So their productivity goes down. If we outsource it, it is a better use of headcount, of our resources, and it also motivated our vendors to be extremely efficient—the more words they translated, the faster they did it, the quicker they would get paid.

Kaizen: You speak French, Spanish, and English fluently. For this position specifically those were essential skills. Did your fluency help you in other ways at Microsoft? Aside from being able to speak the language, were there cultural issues?

Singh-Molares: Yes, it was critical. Because they were looking for people who had an appreciation of what it meant to do business with different cultures: doing business with the French, doing business with the Germans, doing business with the Spanish, the Japanese, and so on—very different things. For example, things as simple as this: If you’re at a meeting in Germany, do not be late. Do not be even five minutes late, because they will take great offense. If you’re at a meeting Spain, do not take offense at their 45-minute delay, because that’s the way they operate. And so on. Things that are relatively self-evident for any European were not self-evident at Microsoft. And Japan is another big culture. My master’s was in theology, but really my focus was Buddhism, and so I had to speak Japanese and Chinese to study it as well. And there are many cultural challenges there. If you approach them in the right way, then you can make lifelong friends and you can get things done. But if you don’t understand the difference between—in Japan, for instance—saying, “Now is everyone clear on what I expect you to do?” And they all go, “Hmm. Hai!” That doesn’t mean they agree with you, that doesn’t mean they’re going to do what you say; it just means that they understood what you said. That understanding doesn’t necessarily translate into agreement. So understanding those nuances across cultures was very important and certainly my knowledge of foreign languages and cultures was very helpful there. And to my career.

Kaizen: You make that argument to students and many students will nonetheless still resist taking a foreign language. It’s a hard sell. They know it’s going to be a lot of work and they are not convinced of its practical importance. Is your case unique—or do you think foreign languages matter to anyone entering the twenty-first century business world?

Singh-Molares: It’s absolutely critical. Not that the US is going down the drain, but China is a fairly powerful economic engine, and yet they’re all striving to learn English. If you learn Mandarin, you have a competitive advantage over anyone who doesn’t, doing business with China. That hasn’t mattered as much in the past, but it’s going to matter a lot in the future when they start using that economic clout to their advantage and they start making demands of their business partners. And when you’re in a position of power you can make those demands. So anyone who speaks fluent Mandarin and who just wants to do pure business, pure capitalism, is going have a significant advantage over anyone who doesn’t. And you can propagate that example out … I grew up in Europe, my uncle lived in Germany for forty years; he’s a German citizen. So I understand how to navigate the German character to some extent, enough to make them understand that I appreciate their culture and their background, and so on. And that goes a very long way.

Kaizen: At Microsoft you worked directly with Bill Gates on some projects. What was that like?

Singh-Molares: That was fascinating and challenging. “Scalding hot” is the way I would describe it. Brilliant, brilliant intellect, very sharp, very focused, very impatient with arguments that he considered weak or poorly thought-out, and he could skewer you if you weren’t well-prepared. But a wonderful education. Most of us would prepare for six months to deliver a ten-minute, fifteen-minute presentation that was basically three slides because that’s all we were allowed. If you couldn’t make your argument in three slides or less, there was no argument to be made and you were wasting his time. So part of the education that I received at Microsoft was to get to the point very quickly, to understand what the bottom line was—not just for me, but for him. The key was how to drive an effective business, how to make the most amount of money while spending the least amount of money to get our objectives without sacrificing quality. That was a very interesting part of my education.

Kaizen: Many entrepreneurs are successful at starting businesses, but they struggle with transforming themselves into leaders of large enterprises. What made Gates successful at both the startup and big-corporation stages?

Singh-Molares: Well, he had a lot of help. This was a culture of very aggressive young people—when I joined Microsoft in 1991 I was 29 and that was the average age of all the people in the company; Bill Gates was three or four years older. We were all very driven, very committed, a very aggressive culture. That was part of what you were signing up for when you signed up for Microsoft—a pretty brutal pace and demands on your intellect and demands on your capacity to discern a good argument from a bad one. So it was very much part of the culture.

Kaizen: I have read that Gates encourages debate and argument among those he works with and is willing to be convinced and change his mind—unlike some CEOs who prefer to surround themselves with “yes-men.” Is that true?

Singh-Molares: To his great credit he always encouraged vigorous debate, and he would be the first one to challenge you on any point that he felt was worth challenging. He could be pretty tough to convince, but he could be convinced. You had to know what you were talking about, you had to have some insight that he didn’t have or some twist on an argument that he hadn’t realized, but he could be convinced. He didn’t make it easy. And I think that was part of his management style, to say, “Okay, you really have to be able to stand the test of fire,” the test of some fairly aggressive counterarguments. If your argument was good enough and it prevailed, then he would accept it. And not only would he accept it, he would empower you to run with it.

Kaizen: Were there special ethical challenges working in a high-stakes, high-pressure organization? Did the corporate culture encourage achievement and competence or were there regular temptations to take inappropriate shortcuts?

Singh-Molares: Sure. Because you have a lot of very aggressive people who are elbowing each other to come out ahead. The great thing about Microsoft in those days—the mid-90’s—was that the playground was big enough that a lot of us could play. And so I was focused on outsourcing, translation, localization—that was my sphere of expertise. Yes, there were probably 50 or 100 managers who were in that space as well, but the company was large enough and the challenges were large enough that we could all be accommodated. That’s not to say that there weren’t office politics, that there wasn’t back-stabbing, that there wasn’t careerism of all kinds. That was part of it, too.

Kaizen: When those things happened, how were they dealt with? In effect, how did they not spread and infect the whole corporation?

Singh-Molares: Even though we were reasonably flat from a management standpoint, it was a very hierarchical structure. So if you were a manager, your manager’s manager would make a decision, and that’s what you would live with, and you would orient yourself and go there. It was not a democracy—you put your best efforts, you put your best arguments; sometimes you won, sometimes you lost. When you lost the argument you kept going and implemented whatever needed implementing.

Kaizen: But weren’t there opportunities for those who had, say, lost an argument or who didn’t have a good case to make to back-end other people or find circuitous routes to get what they wanted anyway? Did those individuals typically succeed or fail?

Singh-Molares: Sure. There were attempts, but there wasn’t a lot of patience for that because the goal was always, “Let’s get these products out to market as quickly as possible, let’s increase our sales.” It was very results-driven, and results speak volumes. So if someone did a back-handed maneuver and it turned out to be the right thing to do, then they were heroes. But if they did a back-handed maneuver after a decision had been made and it turned out to be the wrong thing, then they wouldn’t last long in the company. There were a lot of casualties at Microsoft. We used to count Microsoft lifetimes in terms of stock vesting, which was four and a half years. Because a lot of people burned out after four or five years and they left.

Kaizen: Which might have been the best thing?

Singh-Molares: Yes. For them and for the company.

Kaizen: You mentioned there was a hierarchical element. Part of the manager’s job is to assess the arguments, weed out the weak ones, stop the office politics, and so forth. But it’s also partly to encourage people who are creative and driven. Were there any basic management techniques that were used by managers to keep the creative spark going and focused in the right direction? The financial incentives that you mentioned before are important ones, but people also work for other reasons. Were managers attentive to those other issues?

Singh-Molares: Yes, they were. Microsoft is lots of different companies at different stages, and in those days if you won the argument and were empowered, you were given a lot of latitude to implement your objectives. And other people in the organization understood that—you had been blessed and anointed by Bill Gates to do a particular activity—people didn’t really stand in your way, because that wasn’t tolerated; there wasn’t much patience for it.

Kaizen: And that became attractive to the person who had been given the green light.

Singh-Molares: Sure. That is very empowering to the person who had been given the green light. Absolutely.

Kaizen: You mentioned the four-and-a-half-year issue; you were there for twelve years but at that point you decided to leave. What brought that decision about?

Singh-Molares: The company that I left was very different than the company that I joined. The things that I loved about the Microsoft that I joined were: aggressive, very entrepreneurial, very driven, empowering individuals, no patience for red tape, no patience for obstacles—and I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about the company as a whole, which has some public downsides. That’s well-known. Sometimes we were a little too aggressive. But the company that I left in 2003, five years ago, had become a big bureaucracy, where decisions were made more and more by committee. So if you’re an entrepreneur, that’s very frustrating. Even though I was comfortable, I had a good salary, I had made good money, I was working from home Mondays and Fridays, telecommuting, it was a little too comfortable. In terms of my personal development and my personal goals, I wasn’t achieving those anymore. So the company changed. And a lot of that change is inevitable, because as the company grows you have to standardize more and more, you have to limit creativity. You can’t have people running all over doing their own thing. It becomes just a much more standard approach.

Kaizen: You are now in the fifth year of your entrepreneurial venture, EchoMundi. What is its core service?

Singh-Molares: We do international services. So it’s translation, localization, cultural adaptation, but also international market research, international product development across all types of products. “International in a box” is how we describe it. Right now, we mostly work with American companies and help them take their products or their services internationally.

Kaizen: Much of what you do is internet-based? What are the main advantages of that?

Singh-Molares: The business model that we use is the freelance model. That’s why we don’t have large offices. And it’s very much by design. After managing vendors for Microsoft for ten or twelve years, we saw that the largest translation company in the world—Lionbridge—had 5,000 employees and forty offices, big office in Germany, big office in France, Spain, and so on. And that infrastructure is not necessary. Because this market is mostly a market of freelancers—translators like to work on their own schedules, they like to work nights, they like to work weekends, they don’t like to go into the office, and they don’t like nine-to-five. That is the nature of our business anyway, so why do we need these large offices, why do we need this infrastructure? So we eliminated that infrastructure, and replaced it with the internet, which by now had become quite secure if used properly. Ten years ago that was very difficult to do because the internet wasn’t far enough evolved. These days it’s very easy to do: we have very fast connections worldwide, we have great security protocols, we can assign project managers for any project from anywhere in the world where the clients want them. So communications costs are low or non-existent. We use VOIP Skype for most of our international communications; that works wonderfully. And so we built a business model where we can reduce our costs and therefore we’re more competitive. We appeal also to that target crowd of freelancers because they can work for us for a project for three months, and then they can go and trek the world for six months and come back. And we’ll still be there. You can’t do that if you’re nine to five.

Kaizen: Is this a growing market that you’re tapping into?

Singh-Molares: It’s a huge, huge market. International sales, depending on who you speak to, is either a $10 billion to $20 billion a year market. It’s enormous, and the largest single player controls about $400 million. Everybody wants to take their product internationally—everybody—the Chinese, the Germans, the Americans—we all do. And I don’t see that diminishing, I see that increasing.

Kaizen: You mentioned China earlier. Are there other parts of the world that, from your perspective, are growing rapidly, with a lot more product launches?

Singh-Molares: Certainly the two biggest are China and India. And India has become a technological capital. In fact, Microsoft has big campuses in Hyderabad and Bangalore and other places. And then a lot of those developers come to the US from India and China. Those economies are growing very rapidly and their educated, professional workforce is increasing dramatically as well. So those are two big opportunities. Having said that, the big players that we named—France, Germany, and the U.S.—continue to be economic powerhouses and will continue to be.

Kaizen: How about Latin America?

Singh-Molares: Latin America as well, even though they struggle. Argentina is a perfect example—an economic powerhouse, but it was artificially sustained, and once reality set in it came crashing down and now it’s rebuilding. Brazil is the same thing—people have been talking about it as the economic powerhouse of Latin America for twenty years at least, and it gets close and it pulls back, gets close and it pulls back … Mexico—same thing. They haven’t had the growth I would have expected to see.

Kaizen: Did you have the idea for EchoMundi before you left Microsoft, or did you leave first and then investigate possible entrepreneurial projects?

Singh-Molares: Basically I left Microsoft and took a year off and tried lots of different things, and think groups, and we had four or five different ideas. We said, “Okay, fine, those ideas are good, but why don’t we do what we know, because we have all the contacts, we have the pedigree, we have the experience, we have the reputation.” And we started the company with $5,000. Because, what do you need? You need an office, you need a couple of laptops, you need a phone line, a server, and even these days, with a laptop you’re all set to go, because you can do all your communications through that. So the barrier to entry was extremely low and we were well established.

Kaizen: Who is the “we”?

Singh-Molares: My partner, Mario Tuval Kuperwajs, and I. Mario managed one of the big vendors for Microsoft. It was a company called Bowne Global Solutions, which has since then been acquired. But he was managing about $50 million worth of Microsoft contracts. So he and I run the company.

Kaizen: What were the first key steps you took in starting EchoMundi?

Singh-Molares: You reach out to all of your contacts. Many professional contacts that I had developed in my years at Microsoft, other companies that were doing international business, certainly vendors that we had relationships with. So a little bit of marketing, a lot of word of mouth, because we were so well-known—I’d pick up the phone and say, “I’m starting my own international services company.” And the response was, “Oh, gosh, and who else is with you?” “We have Mario, and we have a few project managers,” and they’d go, “Oh, here’s a project.” And it was a small project, and then from there, very quickly, we built up. So, reputation, capital, contacts …

Kaizen: What was the biggest challenge? Finding enough customers? Hiring the right talent? Defining strategy?

Singh-Molares: The obstacle that we have is capital, at this point. We’re at a very good point from a revenue perspective, particularly for a “small” company. But scaling from a couple of million dollars to twenty to fifty million dollars is going to require a capital infusion—a significant one. We resisted Venture Capital because we wanted to prove the model organically, which I think we’ve done. I think running a two million dollar company with two full time managers—and various other project managers—is a good accomplishment. We’ve proven the model. And now the step that we’re at is: how much venture capital do we go for and under what conditions? I don’t want to create a monster, but we do need some capital infusion.

Kaizen: What would a monster be?

Singh-Molares: I think it would be back to the twenty offices worldwide, a hundred fifty employees, and we’re not going to do that. But we do need some infrastructure to take it to a much larger level.

Kaizen: How do you approach venture capitalists?

Singh-Molares: There is a great deal of hunger out there for great ideas. The beauty of this industry is that it’s well-established, the parameters are known, and it’s not a gamble. It’s a well-proven model, and our tweak on it—which is to say we don’t need this massive infrastructure—we’ve proven it in two or three years. So we are in touch with four or five venture capital firms in Silicon Valley and here—there’s quite a few here [in the Seattle area], many of them run by ex-Microsoft people as well. And they’re quite interested but obviously we’re negotiating, we’re seeing how much capital we want and we want to put it to use.

Kaizen: Starting one’s own business always involves risk-taking. What were the biggest possible risks you foresaw before starting up?

Singh-Molares: We decided that if it all came crashing down it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but we act as if our lives depend on it, and I think it’s important to have that mindset, that every sale counts, that every contract counts, that every project counts, keeping our customers satisfied counts. And so that work ethic we hold very dear. We say, ”If you don’t raise enough funds this month we’re not going to be able to pay everyone’s salaries”—freelance, in this case, but we have salaried individuals who make six figures, and cash flow was an issue. Especially when you are dealing with large corporations and they pay 90 days, 120 days, 150 days, and you have small freelancers who depend on this stuff for a living. So they need their $8,000, $10,000, whatever they’re making per month, they need to get that on a regular basis. Cash flow was a big concern.

Kaizen: Was that unforeseen?

Singh-Molares: No, not unforeseen. We knew that. When I was in Microsoft I made sure we paid everybody in 30 days, but by the time I had left that had changed to 90, which is still standard for most major American companies—60 to 90 days. So we knew we were going to run into that.

Kaizen: As an entrepreneur, have you had to develop new skills in addition to those that enabled you to do well within an established corporation like Microsoft?

Singh-Molares: The beauty of being a small entrepreneur and running your own company is that you get to do what you want to do, so you don’t have the political pressures that you did at Microsoft. Especially the Microsoft that it became, where you had a lot of people elbowing each other and got a lot of decisions by committees, which are impossible, because the result is very poor decisions that get made in an attempt to satisfy everyone on the committee. And so the upside was: a lot more nimble, a lot more flexible, a lot more able to respond—and respond quickly—to challenges.

Kaizen: So it has mostly been sharpening up skills that you had in the earlier days at Microsoft?

Singh-Molares: The interesting thing is that I thought after twelve years at Microsoft I was prepared for anything. Because I’ve run a lot of these vendors virtually from all over the world, built them up—a lot of them—from very small operations of $100,000 to $10 million in the space of two or three years. So I’ve seen this explosive growth and I thought, “Oh, these are entrepreneurial skills and they can be applied.” But the reality is different being outside of a big corporation where you’re protected. When you’re running your own company the downside is not protected, or if it’s protected it’s protected by you, and your resources, and your house, and your finances, and so on. That’s a huge change. The reality was that the gulf between what I expected and what I had to work with was much bigger than I thought it would be.

Kaizen: What is the most challenging part of your job as CEO?

Singh-Molares: Staying true to our organic vision. We really want to grow this company organically, and we’ve gotten it to the stage where it is organically self-sustaining.

Kaizen: And by “organic” you mean …

Singh-Molares: Without putting a ton of money into advertising, a ton of money into infrastructure, a ton of money into other things. We say to ourselves, “We need to be nimble, we need to be flexible, we need to be adaptable, we need to use the internet to gain translators,” and that’s actually worked very well. But those were unique challenges.

Kaizen: At what point in EchoMundi’s development did you know that it was going to succeed? What achievements or benchmarks did you reach?

Singh-Molares: First of all we wanted to fund our generous salaries and distributions. We started out saying, “Well, we want to make $250,000 a year, and that’s milestone number one.” Now the challenge is to not get complacent and not remain comfortable, but to scale up one more level. That’s to the $20 million level—that’s the next milestone. So multiplying this company times ten. Obviously we can’t do it quite the same way because we need to have some infrastructure. And determining exactly where that is—obviously sales and marketing is an important component, operations we’ve got under control, production we’ve got under control. But really, sales and marketing and cash infusion for the basic things that need to happen in a large company.

Kaizen: And you mentioned that you don’t want it turn into a huge conglomerate, so is $20 million the upper limit?

Singh-Molares: No. I’m happy to have a $100 million or $200 million company, there’s no question about that! But doing it in a way that preserves the model that we’ve developed but yet allows for that big growth. So we need to duplicate ourselves. And that means we need to train people, we need to trust people in order to tether them close to us, and we’ll need employees—a few of them, in various countries around the world. So it’s moving somewhat away from the model of freelance, but not to the other extreme, which is a traditional hierarchical organization where you go into the office and you have twenty employees. Finding that middle ground is what we’re still thinking through.

Kaizen: You mentioned financial goals and the kind of infrastructure that has to be developed. What are you most looking forward to, what job satisfaction are you hoping to get in continuing to work that?

Singh-Molares: Well, I’m a competitive guy, and so I like the idea of beating our competitors, but in terms of quality and in terms of cost. I love the idea of working in a community with a lot of these eclectic, eccentric translators—a very creative bunch, very interesting, a lot of them fascinating individuals with great life stories. So being in a community with them is a personal reward for me, because they’re a really, really interesting lot of people.

Kaizen: Your business success has also enabled your considerable philanthropic efforts. You are, for example, the Founder and on the Board of Directors for the Preeclampsia Foundation. What is that organization’s purpose?

Singh-Molares: Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-induced hypertension, so of course it affects women, and it can have devastating consequences. My ex-wife had preeclampsia with three of our children, so this was a concern that touched us very closely, very personally. And the challenge there was that when we started the foundation we wanted to save at least one life, and I think we’ve saved far more than one. It’s basic education about Preeclampsia that needs to happen—e.g., if you have a headache and you’re seven months pregnant, it’s not okay for the doctor to just give you a couple of aspirin and send you home. He or she needs to look deeper than that, at blood pressure, and there are a number of tests.

Kaizen: So the foundation’s purpose is educational, to get women who are pregnant aware of certain symptoms so they might press a little harder when they’re dealing with their physicians?

Singh-Molares: Yes, but that’s not all we’re doing. We founded medical research, so we have Tom Easterling, who’s a well-known expert in the field of preeclampsia. He’s here at the University of Washington doing a lot of research, and he is still our medical director, for about ten years at least, since we started the foundation. We did a lot of research and supporting—we’d give grants to various doctors around the world.

Kaizen: You are also active in Seeds of Compassion. What does that organization do?

Singh-Molares: Seeds of Compassion is an effort to foster compassion in our children—our very young children. There are many scientific studies now that conclude that by age five, you are who you are—all 85 percent hardwired. So you can look at your five-year old and basically predict, more or less, how they’re going to turn out later in life. And before that age there’s a tremendous opportunity to influence that outcome. Seeds of Compassion was initially focused on that zero-to-five crowd, both in terms of scientific research, educational research, spiritual communities and connections. It’s gotten broader to include basically fostering compassion as a reflex, not just in children, but in all of us. That’s hard to do because we’re in a society where that’s not valued, because here we need to get ahead, we need to be more aggressive, we need to be more competitive than anyone else to get ahead. And that ethical compass is lost somewhat.

Kaizen: At the same time, if you are aware of your coworkers’ needs and wants and aspirations, and vice versa, then you’re going to work together better as a team, there’s some understanding of that as well. And the same for understanding what your customers and vendors are going through.

Singh-Molares: Yes.

Kaizen: Do you see strong connections between your business career and your philanthropic efforts, or are they more like parallel tracks?

Singh-Molares: In my case they are separate tracks. I think the philanthropy makes me a better, rounded human being, hopefully a better manager, a better coworker, more understanding, more accommodating. There is a deeper connection between the Preeclampsia Foundation and Seeds of Compassion: they’re both about children and how to foster compassion in them. I did this with my own children. When I was a young man I took karate and I was a brown belt; the philosophy there is you meet force with greater force—someone tries to hurt you, you counterattack aggressively to prevent that. The martial arts that my kids take is Aikido—you use your opponent’s force against them, but you make sure that they’re not hurt in the process, while you make sure that they don’t hurt you. That’s a very big shift, and that’s something that I’m trying to impart in my children.

Kaizen: You have an extremely busy life. You work hard and have all these other activities and a very full family life and you’re comfortable financially. So it’s a natural question: Why work so hard when, presumably, you could opt for a less complicated and less stressful work life?

Singh-Molares: Well, I think there are several reasons. One is that you want to keep accomplishing, you want to keep raising the bar, and if it’s something that’s close to your heart … You have a Ph.D. in philosophy, you’re a professor, you’re tenured—is that enough? No. There’s always some other book that you want to write or some other lecture you want to deliver, or some other threshold that you want to cross—same thing for me. Translation, localization is what I’ve been doing for twenty years or more. I’ve been very instrumental in developing that industry, and I want to continue to do that. And I want to continue to prove that it can be done in different ways—and that excites me. I love languages, I love foreign culture, and I love the challenges of product development. I need to keep busy. I did take a year off after I left Microsoft and that was nice. I got to spend time with the kids, I got to play my guitar, I got to do lots of other things, but that’s not enough. Same thing with Bill Gates. He became a billionaire fifteen years ago. That didn’t stop him, I can tell you. Because it’s not just about making money; it’s about accomplishment and constantly pushing the boundaries and your expectations of yourself and of others.

Kaizen: At the same time, there are people who reach their middle years and are burned out. What would you say to young people, who have 20 or 30 years ahead of them before their middle ages, to make sure that when they are in their middle years they’re still excited, wanting to grow, interested in the world, and all of the things that you’ve accomplished?

Singh-Molares: I’d say keep reinventing yourself. Certainly that’s what I’ve done, even though I do translation, localization, international services professionally, there’s lots of other skills that I’ve built up. I love music, I love art, I love literature, I’d love to write a book, I love academia, and that’s been kind of stagnant for twenty years, which is why I’m doing this, and I have four other universities on my roster before the end of the year, surprisingly. So keep expanding, keep broadening your horizons and you’ll be fine. If you get stuck in a rut, if you get to the stage where I was at Microsoft after twelve years, where you go, “Okay, this is very comfortable, but I’m not growing personally,” then it’s time to change. Then it’s time to say goodbye. Which is what I did.

This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks. To learn more about Anil Singh-Molares and EchoMundi, please visit www.EchoMundi.com.

© 2008 and 2013 Stephen R. C. Hicks. All rights reserved.

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