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Spence Green of Lilt: “Just keep pushing”

“Just keep pushing”. The greatest organizations just keep pushing and, in some sense, that’s how you achieve success. You don’t just stop — and there are many times where things just didn’t seem like they could work, but you just need to keep pushing through. As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things […]

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“Just keep pushing”. The greatest organizations just keep pushing and, in some sense, that’s how you achieve success. You don’t just stop — and there are many times where things just didn’t seem like they could work, but you just need to keep pushing through.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Spence Green.

Spence Green is Lilt’s Co-Founder and CEO. Prior to founding Lilt, Spence was a fellow at XSeed Capital and a software and research intern at Google, where he worked on Google Translate. He received a PhD and MS in Computer Science from Stanford and a BS from the University of Virginia. He has published papers on machine translation, language parsing, and mixed-initiative systems and given talks on translator productivity.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was always interested in languages. I got an engineering degree at UVA and went into consulting, but wanted to go back and get a Ph.D. at some point in CS. My work brought me to the UAE, where I lived.

Although I had traveled lots, this was my first time living abroad for an extended period, and I was struck by the realization of how big of a barrier language is not only for interacting with people but for access to information

For example, there were huge sections of the book store that had books that had never been and likely would never be translated into English. What do we lose by not having easy access to this information available in our native language?

When I went back to school at Stanford to study for my Ph.D., this question of how to solve this really stuck with me.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

In terms of technology, we’re building machine learning systems that work and improve over time. There aren’t very many of these available — most machine translation systems are trained once, deployed into use, but they don’t learn from mistakes and improve over time.

This technology is being applied to language translation, which has been a problem for a very long time. We’re specifically focused on language translation for publications. We have a quality standard and we’re using the technology to make that radically more affordable and efficient for companies of all sizes.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

At the beginning of Lilt, one thing my co-founder John DeNero and I were naive about is just how difficult it is to hire your first employee. Few people, if any, are willing to join a company that has zero employees that’s just an idea. We were actually in that position for about a month and a half — it was very difficult to bring on the right people.

By that point, we had raised money — so technically, we had a company. We didn’t have any people in the company. And I remember going into the first board meeting with our investors, and they asked what progress we had made with hiring. It was a real focal point for John and I, definitely a learning experience. We didn’t appreciate just how hard it is to get the first few people to join.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My parents are definitely two of my mentors. I had the greatest gift, which is that I was born into a family that values education, which helped me learn and grow as a person.

Another important mentor is my advisor from graduate school. I didn’t have any background in linguistics or natural language processing, and he gave me a shot to start from scratch. That’s where I really learned to be a researcher, and he gave me the time to do that. I don’t think that I would be able to do what I do and help this company do what we’re doing now.

He always told me to make big bets in life and focus on the things that you’re uniquely good at. And while you might not think that there’s a straight transition from research to starting a company, I found that there is. Starting a company has a lot to do with managing uncertainty, running good experiments, and learning from each one of those experiments. That’s what you wanted to do as a researcher.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

When I hear “disruption”, I think about the phrase “creative destruction”, which is attributed to an Austrian economist. That phrase comes from an economic principle where one person or company earns a profit doing something, which then attracts competitors that will try to take some of that profit. Competition is generally useful and productive.

But there are people involved in that disruption. And as that creative destruction happens across an industry, people get relocated, and they then need to be retrained and re-equipped for other jobs. That’s a difficult weight to hold, and it can really impact the individuals involved and society as a whole.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Just keep pushing”. The greatest organizations just keep pushing and, in some sense, that’s how you achieve success. You don’t just stop — and there are many times where things just didn’t seem like they could work, but you just need to keep pushing through.

“Find a way”. A coach of mine from high school always used to say that phrase. In parts of life, you can easily get backed into a corner. But if you keep searching for a way, right up until the last second, you always have a chance. Both of those have always served me well in life and I think about them all of the time.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

Recently, we have been moving towards an “Account-Based Everything” approach, where we find potential buyers as efficiently as possible then create a personalized buying experience for them. They’re typically bigger companies that have very specific requirements, so it’s important to show them the value you can provide them specifically.

Sales is naturally more account focused — they are trying to close deals. But marketing often is not, since they’re trying to get leads with less of a focus on accounts. The nice thing about the account-based approach is that sales and marketing are aligned, allowing you to focus your marketing efforts on the accounts that matter.

Most of our best leads have come from a more direct, personalized outreach to accounts. Once you have this account-based approach in place, the question then becomes: how do you scale it to reach more accounts and close more deals?

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Product wise, there are a couple of things that I’m really excited about.

One of the big problems for companies right now is that they don’t really have a great way to make decisions about what to localize. Often, you have a user come to your website with their browser set to Japanese or an IP address in Japan, and you serve up an English page. Depending on what you’re trying to get them to do, you might be better off serving them a partially or fully machine translated page rather than just serving up in English page.

For a lot of companies, though, they don’t have a good understanding of how to make that decision. As a result, localization is an ad hoc cost center where they do a few pages here and a few pages there. But with Google Translate offering users the ability to translate a page on the fly, companies no longer have control over the fidelity of the translation. We’re working on a solution for that so companies don’t have to worry about what their visitors see.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

When you’re starting a company, especially in the early stages, you’re doing everything. You’re writing code, trying to do sales, coming up with marketing copy, and so on. At some point once you’ve grown a bit more, you start to become a manager. Many have never done that before, so you have to teach yourself or get some mentorship.

The writings of Peter Drucker and Andy Grove have helped me a lot as the company has grown — I actually have two of their books on my chair right now because I referred to them just this morning. When you transition to becoming a manager, you have to switch from evaluating your performance and your worth based on your own output to evaluating your performance and your worth based on the organization’s output. And so you have to learn to fight this tendency to do things yourself and instead equip the organization to do those things. That can be challenging to overcome, especially early on.

Grove was a scientist, and he helped me understand that there are management systems that can be learned and put in place — systems to set objectives, get feedback, encourage communication, build architecture, and so on. I’ve been building software systems since I was a young kid, and while a human system has different characteristics, you can still think about it as a system. And that systems-based approach was something that I could latch onto, and helped me understand that I could use the skills and training that I had from the other parts of my life to learn how to manage people.

I personally think that everybody should read everything that both of those two people wrote.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The world belongs to the discontented.”

On the surface, the quote sounds negative, but there’s a positive and entrepreneurial spin to it: things can always be better. So many builders and entrepreneurs want to make the world better in some way.

The quote itself is a favorite of Robert Wooddruff, former President of the Coca-Cola Company. I’m from Atlanta, so that quote has been in my life since I was pretty young, and it’s one I always go back to.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think information access is one of the great human problems. Language is slightly different than some other demographic factors, in that you can learn a language. But actually, past the age of six or seven years old, it’s very, very difficult to learn a language. And unless you have the money or the exposure to be able to be taught later in life, it’s even harder to learn at a professional level. So, for most of the human population there, they’re born into one linguistic community or another. And that has an enormous impact on the trajectory of life. If you’re born into one linguistic community but need to learn another language just to get into the line of work you want to be in, it’s just one more barrier that you have to overcome simply because you were born somewhere else.

We’re trying to do part of it for enterprises, but there’s work to do in consumer applications and speech applications. This lack of access to information for a lot of the world is just an overlooked human problem.

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