Video chat without language barriers? KUDO makes it happenView transcript
Jaws dropped on social media when people watched Philip Crowther, a journalist for the AP, seamlessly report from Ukraine in six languages. But now a video conferencing app can do all that and more. KUDO, a cloud-based platform, provides for real-time translation, allowing meetings or conferences to take place without language barriers.
With more than 12,000 registered interpreters on call, KUDO can interpret more than 200 spoken languages. In addition to widely spoken languages like French, Spanish and Arabic, among others, KUDO also offers interpretation in languages like Basque, Uzbek and Navajo, along with multiple sign languages.
Co-founders Fardad Zabetian and Ewandro Magalhães launched KUDO in 2018. The company steadily scaled over the next couple of years until its pandemic induced explosion in 2020. “We went from basically 30 thousand minute usage, to 30 million minute usage, in about four weeks,” says Zabetian of March 2020, in a recent interview with The Business of Business. They scrambled to keep up with demand while maintaining quality services, a challenge according to Zabetian. KUDO has gone from 14 employees in March 2020 to 180 today, with 40 openings yet to be filled.
Zabetian, also KUDO’s CEO, is originally from Tehran, Iran and initially came to the U.S. for graduate school in 2000. After a stint on the West Coast, he was hired to redesign the technology used at The United Nations Assembly Hall for enhanced live interpretation. Zabetian has been fascinated with communication and technology since he was a kid growing up during the harrowing Iran/Iraq war. He wondered if the global news they were listening to was being interpreted correctly and if the awful circumstances were in part, due to communication barriers.
Based in New York City, KUDO has helped in diplomatic efforts. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly is a client, according to Zabetian, as are clients like Airbnb. KUDO has raised seed and series A rounds, its series A of $21M in March 2021 was led by Felicis Ventures; totaling $27M. Expansions includes products like KUDO Marketplace for easy automated booking and integration with platforms like Zoom, among others.
Despite workers trickling back to their offices, in-person events slowly resuming, and more frequent international business travel, Zabetian is not worried about multilingual video conferencing phase out. He thinks hybrid meetings and a globalized workforce are becoming the norm, and KUDO’s services will remain in demand.
“Without really having it in Polish or French or Italian or Chinese, how could you really claim that we have a fully inclusive work environment?” he said. Breaking down language barriers will also “help people grow and be happier.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is KUDO; Working with the U.N.; Growth during Covid; Helping with Ukraine talks00:00:00
Business of Business: Why don’t you take it away and introduce yourself and explain a little bit about what Kudo is.
I’m based in New York. I’m the co-founder and CEO of KUDO. KUDO is a language as a service platform where you can host meetings in different languages live using our KUDO platform plus, or marketplace, which is the network of professional conference interpreters being able to provide up to 80 languages.
Ok, and so basically, it’s almost like the UN Assembly meetings when people have earpieces, and they’re getting discussions that are happening on the floor in their ear?
That’s a very, very good comparison. We build a conversation or basically an experience in the cloud without all the planning and infrastructure that needs to be in place. Our goal and our mission is to make it very, very easy for users to be able to schedule a plan and host multilingual meetings and get access to this very talented pool of interpreters, independent from where they are and what language needs they have. We have built a product called Interpreter Marketplace, where we have 12,000 interpreters on our platform and hosts and meeting planners can source interpreters and bring them into Kudo meetings with a few mouse clicks, and providing the subject of the meeting date and time. We can over today about 80-plus spoken languages and sign languages on our platform.
And you have a history of working at the U.N. [United Nations]?
Yes, a U.N. headquarters project brought me from California to New York about 11 years ago. I was very fortunate to be part of the team that really designed and implemented the technology and all the 20 conference rooms, including the General Assembly Hall and Security Council at the UN HQ in New York. And of course, this is through my other business, the company I started about 20 years ago.
What were you thinking when you initially designed and launched KUDO for the private sector?
That was, it has been, and is still an area of opportunity and expansion. It’s a new market. When we launched KUDO, this was the end of 2018, and basically in 2019, and most of our customers were very early adopters. They were using KUDO for townhall meetings for large meetings that have a community in different locations and usually for short messages. And of course, the pandemic really pushed everybody to look at alternatives to be able to have business continuity. And we had a solution that was ready and very much designed from the ground up, based on their use case. So we went from basically 30,000 minute usage to 30 million minute usage in about four weeks.
And that was what time period?
March 1 through March 1 2020. WE host a meeting that we have called a “marketplace,” which is a B2B business to business managed marketplace for users to be able to schedule one source, book and pay for professional conference interpreters, and bring them into KUDO meetings. Of course we launched a few new products that connect and integrate marketplaces to other meeting platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
“So we remove all these friction points and make it very easy.”
So we remove all of these friction points and make it very easy. For somebody who needs a Korean interpreter, you'll be able to book it for tomorrow morning at 9am and have that interpreter ready. That interpreter has confidentiality in place, and has the right setup with the right connectivity to sound great in the meeting. Yeah, all of that we take care of that this product has been a very successful product for us since the launch of April of last year, and it got recognized by Time Magazine as a top 100 innovations of the year.
How did you make sure that you were able to deliver what you promised you could. There was just such skyrocketing demand.
I was learning as we went through this experience. I think there were days when we had 250 incoming requests for a demo, and I think about how we were a startup of 14 people, and 10 of us were basically engineers, coders, so we really didn’t have the infrastructure to be able to respond to this many inquiries. We were just going through like the most recent requests and trying to respond to them. LIke any other business, we had to adapt to a new way of working, families working from home, and being in a lockdown. It was quite challenging and really the team was a very small team.
But we went on to be quite successful. We still have a lot of new hires, but we had an average of 10 people starting every month. So every Monday, there’s a new email coming in, “these are the five new members joining the company,” and getting them computers, and getting them access, getting them set up. Sourcing laptops became a lot better in 2021. but in 2020, there was quite a struggle.
So you started with 14 employees, and now you have 120? Or how many employees do you have?
We are at about 180 today.
Wow. So are you expanding? And your clients, what percentage would you say are private sector, or let’s say NGOs, or think tanks and governments?
When we looked at our Q4 of 2021 and Q3 and Q4 of 2021, we signed up more enterprise logos than government logos. And it’s a whole new use case for the private sector for the business. And it’s all about really kind of overall accounted for budgets of different applications. And these could be training, product training, townhall meetings. This is mainly for internal applications. Then you have the whole customer success, which is about training for communicating to customers and partners. This is another use case.
“Basically we are doubling our revenue every year, and as far as meetings and the number of customers, we are also doubling our growth.”
But basically we are doubling our revenue every year, and as far as meetings and the number of customers, we are also doubling our growth. Our pricing is simple. We have three different plans based on the usage of our platform, per year, and based on that we can start with a very entry level, which is like 100 hours of usage. And they can go up to 1,000s of hours of usage.
So how do you ensure privacy for your clients? I’m sure if you’re talking about legal matters, board meetings, and obviously politics, and diplomacy, how do you ensure from a technical standpoint that nothing can get hacked? Or also that the interpreters are careful about who’s listening?
Great questions. As you know, privacy is a process. So it’s a process, it’s a continuous effort, especially when you are referring to online meetings. So one of the great investments that we did at a very early stage was within our information security department, and of course now it’s expanded. We have a lot of initiatives and compliance that KUDO is really focusing around privacy.
Some of our customers have their own basically private cloud that they’re hosting meetings on, with dedicated encryption keys. We have different servers. WE have servers in the U.S., servers in Europe. We have servers in Asia as well. Then we also have servers for specific government entities that it is designed for. So there are servers that are dedicated to them based on their compliance needs.
“All our interpreters are bound by confidentially. So when a customer books a meeting, you already have a confidentiality agreement.”
So interpreters, we have our KUDO certified interpreters, they go through a process of becoming KUDO certified, which is more of an online process of getting familiar with the platform and having the right setup. Of course, we go through a series of verifications as well. All our interpreters are bound by confidentially. So when a customer books a meeting, you already have a confidentiality agreement.
You mentioned something about KUDO helping with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly? How are you working in that environment?
So NATO has been using our product for some of their meetings where they need language support. and of course, NATO has been part of the headlines in recent months. And we see KUDO was at the center of diplomacy, and being able to enable clear communication amongst different stakeholders. And when I see our platform being used for finding ways for diplomacy, it’s always such a rewarding moment.
Ok, were they using KUDO for the recent escalation between Ukraine and Russia [which has now become a war]?
Yes, they’ve been using KUDO for the last two and a half years.
And you’re originally from Tehran, Iran?
So I was born in Tehran, and lived there and pretty much grew up during all the bad, difficult stories of war, and as a teenager I was always listening to radio and watching TV and it was all about the Security Council, whether they pass a new resolution for peace between Iran and Iraq or not. So at the end of the day, when I was able to do something in my professional life, I decided to focus on this very big problem which is communicating.