1. Opinion

Spanish translations? Decipher ancient Ottoman? Tampa's Sean Hopwood will translate anything

Sean Hopwood's interest in languages turned into the type of small business that underpins our economy.
Sean Hopwood, founder and president of Day Translations headquartered in Tampa. (Courtesy of Day Translations
Sean Hopwood, founder and president of Day Translations headquartered in Tampa. (Courtesy of Day Translations
Published Jan. 17, 2019

The relationship began on a visit to the Galapagos Islands. She spoke English. He, mostly Spanish. They got by using parts of both languages.

After she returned to the United States, the letters started arriving. Some long, others more like notes. Fifty words here. Another 100 the next week. But she couldn't read Spanish. She needed to understand every nuance, vital in matters of the heart.

She turned to Day Translations. The job wasn't expensive, just $5 for the short ones.

And it worked. After a year of letters, the couple met again.

"I don't know if they lived happily ever after, but I like to think so," said Sean Hopwood, founder and president of Day Translations.

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Hopwood runs the company from an office across from International Plaza in Tampa. These days he makes much more money from law firms that need contracts translated or programmers who want video games dubbed into 50 languages. But he'll still take the small jobs, the clients who pay $40 to get their Haitian, Mexican or Polish birth certificates translated into English.

Describing his business with machine-gun intensity, Hopwood moves from topic to topic with nary a breath. He stops to apologize for talking so much, then leaps into a description of how technology is influencing the translation industry. Passion, vision, guts — he's got the entrepreneur's trifecta.

Day Translations is the type of small, relatively unknown business that underpins so much of Tampa Bay's economy.

They won't all be successes. Some might be one bad decision away from failing or picking up the pieces after an epic collapse. But their stories give us a glimpse into the entrepreneurial spirit and what makes our economy tick.

• • •

Hopwood, now 39, stumbled into his startup. It helped that he had an early interest in languages. Childhood friend Kon Champavannaraph remembers 12-year-old Hopwood standing in his kitchen speaking to his Laotian parents, a Lao-English dictionary in his hand.

"He'd make up these crazy sentences," said Champavannaraph, "and everyone would laugh."

Hopwood never mastered Lao, but he picked up Spanish in grade school. As an undergrad at the University of South Florida, he added Arabic, cementing it with an intensive program in Morocco. Later he learned French.

In 2003, he graduated with an international studies degree and went to work as an interpreter and translator for a local law firm and Moffitt Cancer Center. But he wasn't earning much money and had an itch for business, which drew him back to USF, where he earned an MBA.

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Hopwood joined an import-export business, but got laid off. As he looked for work, he did odd jobs to pay the rent, including delivering flowers. He also went door to door asking businesses if they needed translations. His first client, a church, hired him to translate a pamphlet into Spanish. It paid $50.

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"Get the door closed in your face enough times and you learn a lot about rejection and salesmanship," he said.

About a month later, a company that manufactured a crepe maker asked him to translate its manual into Spanish. He earned $6,000. The entrepreneurial lightbulb went off.

Daniel James Scott was an adviser at the Small Business Consulting and Training Resource Center in Tampa when Hopwood walked through the door in 2007. He described Hopwood as "an absolute sponge," someone who soaked up everything he could about marketing, human resources and leadership.

Scott was skeptical that a translations startup would succeed. Technology was starting to make online and digital translation much easier, even if the results were clumsy.

"To his credit, Sean had already wrapped his head around the importance of not just understanding each word, but the overall meaning," said Scott, now chief operating officer at Tampa Bay Tech, a regional technology advocacy group. "He saw a niche for precise interpretations, the kind that can make a big difference to how a document or person is understood."

In the first couple years, Hopwood built his website, landed more clients and created what would become a worldwide network of translators. Annual sales increased, and increased again.

And then Google struck.

Nearly a decade ago, the technology giant cracked down on schemes intended to improve a company's searchability, including creating excessive links to and from a website. In 2011, Google determined that Day Translations had too many suspect links and removed the company from its index, essentially banishing the company from the most popular search engine in the world, Hopwood recalled.

He hired people to clean up the links, but Google didn't budge. Hopwood wrote the company and even traveled to its California headquarters in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to get answers.

Months went by, sales slowed and Hopwood lost sleep. He and his girlfriend broke up. Years later, he chokes up talking about it.

The day Google lifted the penalty "felt like the happiest of my life."

• • •

Today, Day Translations has small walk-in offices in several cities including Paris, Tel Aviv, Boston and one on Madison Avenue in New York City. His 64 employees don't include the network of translators who work on contract.

Spanish is the top request. But his company has translated everything from Bengali to Farsi to Twi, a dialect of the Akan language spoken in Ghana.

One client asked Hopwood to translate the names of ancient roads that extended out from the center of the Ottoman Empire, what is now Turkey. His team could only find two people who understood the Ottoman language, and one of them had recently died. The lone survivor made the translation.

Scott isn't surprised that Sean still takes small jobs, and the less profitable ones.

"He's always had a massive heart," he said.

Could that get in the way of making cold-eyed business decisions? Scott thinks unyeilding passion is worth any tradeoff. "If you take away that heart, are you going to have the same vibrant company culture, the same buy-in from employees, the same degree of motivation?" Scott said.

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Like so many entrepreneurs, Hopwood is optimistic, but not satisfied. Last year, sales hit $3.8 million up from $3 million the year before, he said. His goal this year: Double it.

Industry behemoths like Lionbridge and Transperfect, he pointed out, measure sales in the hundreds of millions.

"I'm happy with where we are at," he said, "but we can do better."

Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.

Sean Hopwood

Age: 39.

Job: Founder and president of Tampa-based Day Translations.

Education: Bachelor's in international studies (2003) and a master's in business admistration (2005), both from the University of South Florida.

Personal: He grew up in Bartow and now lives in Town 'n' Country, where he recently bought a home. He's single and has no kids.