Bridging the Gap: An Interview with Matt Conger of Cadence Translate
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
Did that get lost in translation? When the stakes are high in international business, every word counts.
My interest in international business led me to come across a translation company called Cadence Translate in 2019. Cadence was founded by Matt Conger and two other co-founders in 2014 and offers translation services in 29 languages for meetings, conferences, and documents. Cadence has over 100 active linguists and its clients include corporations, consulting/research companies, and private equity firms. From following its content marketing, what I find most interesting about Cadence is how it seeks to go beyond language to bridge cultural gaps as well.
I recently caught up with co-founder and CEO, Matt Conger to discuss the inspiration for Cadence and his outlook on international markets. I find Matt always has fascinating insights on US-Asia business relations, so I’m very excited to share some of them here.
What was your background before Cadence and what inspired you to start the company?
Before Cadence, I worked in renewable energy investing at Hudson Sustainable Investments. Hudson was planning to open a China office, so I asked if I could be one of the people sent there to help open the office. I was excited for the move and thought China was the best destination that I could go to work in renewable energy. China was and still is the largest producer of renewable energy in the world. In the end, there were complications and Hudson’s China office never actually opened, but I decided to move to China anyways and look for other work. I had never lived or studied abroad before and I figured this was as good a time as ever to make the jump.
I was choosing between moving to Beijing or Shanghai and I ultimately choose Beijing for the networking opportunities. I wanted to challenge myself and go straight to the belly of the beast. Living in Beijing as an expat is like playing a video game on hard mode; I knew I’d need to adapt quickly.
When I got to China, I met several expats who were sent to China to help their companies perform due diligence. I saw that they all faced the same dilemma. They needed translation services, but didn’t want to pay an investment bank or a law firm to do the basic translation work. I spotted this gap in the market for high quality translation services, so I decided to start Cadence Translate.
How did you learn Chinese?
When I first arrived in Beijing, I studied for one year with a private tutor, then got into an immersive course called Inter-University Program (IUP) offered by Tsinghua University. IUP is an advanced program for expats who want to learn Chinese for business. I didn’t end up attending because I was already launching my company by that time, but I think that would have been a great opportunity to accelerate my Chinese skills even further. I recommend any expats in China to check out the program. It’s a rigorous course with a 3 to 1 student to teacher ratio to optimize for personalized attention.
Why did you choose the name “Cadence Translate”?
We choose “Cadence” to refer to the rhythm of language. We wanted to choose a name that focuses on the spoken word. Other names we considered were “Echo” and “Ping”, but those had existing brand recognitions within tech. “SeekPanda” was actually our name when we first launched, but that turned out to be too sino-centric as we expanded to other languages, so we switched to Cadence.
How has the demand for Chinese language services changed since Cadence’s inception?
Today, only about 40% of our work has to do with Chinese (either translating into or out of Chinese). Demand for Chinese to English translation has noticeably declined over the past few years. I think the weakening of the geopolitical climate and regulatory crackdowns of Chinese companies on US exchanges have a lot to do with this dropoff.
Speaking of regulatory crackdowns, what was your reaction to Luckin Coffee’s delisting in 2020?
I was disappointed! I actually liked Luckin Coffee as a consumer and thought their growth story was impressive. In hindsight, it seems like those executives were good at keeping 2 sets of books and snuck past so many diligence checkpoints. I follow the research firm Muddy Waters and I’m impressed with how their forensic accounting led them to call out the company as fraudulent very early on. Their method for collecting data on Luckin was interesting. Muddy Waters suspected something was awry, so they hired hundreds of Chinese college students to stand outside their coffee shops to tally the number of customers. Muddy Waters extrapolated the data and compared it to Luckin’s reported financials. They were convinced that there was no way the reported numbers were correct.
Cadence employs hundreds of talented linguists from around the world. How are these linguists finding you?
Graduate students in Translation and Interpretation at universities like MIIS (Monterey Institute of International Studies) are a major pipeline for us. I go to these institutions to pitch Cadence as an employer. Many of these graduate students dream of working in diplomatic interpreting at the UN or WTO, so it can be challenging to make the case for working in corporate due diligence. I explain to them that in corporate due diligence, they will be uncovering the truth about how multi billion dollar companies operate and occasionally exposing fraud. This is rewarding work and it also tends to pay higher than diplomatic interpreting.
All of our linguists enter the company at the same level and advance in the interpreting levels based on their ability to grasp various finance concepts. We find that the people who personally love investing, reading the Wall Street Journal, or viewing threads like Wall Street Bets are the ones who excel most rapidly in the role.
That’s interesting to hear that these are linguists by trade, but you trust their personal interests in finance to help them excel.
Yes, but we are also exploring recruiting people with the opposite background: business school or finance students who speak a second language. They would have to undergo intensive training on interpreting, but they would already have the business knowledge covered. The question is, is it harder to train interpreters in business or businesspeople in interpreting? (Author note: both sound challenging!)
Aside from linguists, you also employ Associates to help run operations. What do you look for in Associates?
We have 12 Associates today across our 3 offices who help with finance, marketing, and client relations. We take a somewhat radical approach to hiring in that we hire all of our Associates directly out of college and only promote from within. We really value the chance to train them and show them the Cadence way of doing things. I also think this is the best way to establish a strong culture and common DNA among our team members. Cadence maintains an alumni network and we support Associates who choose to pursue other jobs after working here.
With the easing of international travel restrictions, to what extent have in-person meetings returned?
I have seen demand for in-person meetings pick up specifically for hedge fund investors wanting to meet with portfolio company management teams. During the pandemic, many investors had to invest in companies based on relationships established over Zoom. As investors look to rebalance their portfolios, they are eager to get in front of company management to build more personal relationships and reassess these companies.
You were scheduled to teach a class at Stanford called "Doing Business in China". Can you tell me about that?
I was excited to be selected to teach a course in Stanford’s continuing education program, but the course unfortunately was canceled with the onset of COVID-19. The course, Doing Business in China would have covered topics such as office culture, fundraising, and the government’s involvement in business. If I had the chance to teach the class in the future, I would probably broaden the scope as a result of the coronavirus and recent geopolitical affairs. I would focus less on how to do business in China and more broadly on what we can learn from studying Chinese business models.
In closing, how do you think the average American’s perception of Asia has changed over the past few years?
I think Korea’s soft power in pop culture has created a positive impact on Americans’ perceptions of Asia. It’s impressive that groups such as BTS and Blackpink have been able to promote cultural exchange and influence many young Americans. However, the rise of anti-Asian sentiment amidst COVID-19 means we’ve also taken several steps backwards. I am very aware of rise in discrimination and violence that is occurring against Asians in the US. To address this, Cadence hosts bystander intervention trainings in an effort to raise awareness about anti-AAPI harassment.
Founder Fun Facts
Kāng Míng Yuǎn (康明远) is Matt’s Chinese name that was chosen by his second Chinese teacher.
Spicy Lamb Skewers (羊肉串儿) are Matt’s favorite Chinese street food.
Yuja Wang (王羽佳), the pianist, is a musical artist that Matt enjoys listening to.
About the Author
Bonnie Young runs the Amplified blog. She shares her insights on market trends from the US to Asia and interviews founders shaking up the tech scene. For new articles directly in your inbox, subscribe to the Amplified newsletter.