Meet Unbabel’s New CFO: A Conversation with James Palmer

May 3, 2021

Unbabel is very proud to announce the hire of James Palmer as Chief Financial Officer. Palmer has spent over 30 years advising and leading global technology companies through growth and development, and he will be instrumental in propelling Unbabel into our next phase of category-defining excellence. 

His past leadership roles include serving as the CEO of the largest private company in Panama, Móvil (previously known as Cable & Wireless Panama), the head of sales and strategy at Achilles Information Limited, and the head of marketing and product management at C&W Global Businesses. 

We recently sat down with James to get his thoughts on joining Unbabel, the future of Language Operations (LangOps), and the role of executives in driving digital transformation and technological advancements. 

On his motivation for joining the team 


Unbabel: Why did you decide to join Unbabel?

Palmer: I’ve interacted with many technology businesses over the years that were clearly special but had a key component missing. They grew to a reasonable size but then stalled as a result. However, Unbabel is one of those rare businesses that has all of the key components in place.

When I first met our CEO, Vasco, it was immediately apparent that he has a clear vision of the problem Unbabel is addressing and a unique perspective on how to approach it through Language Operations. I know from my own experience of running global organizations how much cost and complexity is tied up in having to deal with customers and colleagues in multiple languages.

I’m here because I believe we are creating a substantial company that can solve one of the key problems facing businesses today.

Unbabel: Have you ever been in a situation in the past where Unbabel’s AI-powered Language Operations solution would have been useful? 

Palmer: Yes, absolutely. At one point in my career, I was in charge of running a team of 300+ inside salespeople, which involved hiring and onboarding people around the world. At the time, the only way we could do that was to have native-speaking teams across many different countries. 

As you might imagine, it was quite difficult and inefficient. There was plenty of miscommunication and going back and forth to try and smooth things out. Unbabel would have been perfect for solving that problem much faster and making multilingual operations more structured. 

Unbabel: Where do you see the company headed in the coming years?

Palmer: To become a large and successful technology company, you must have three pieces in place. First, you need a clear vision of the problem you are trying to solve. Next, you must have innovative technology that reliably and profitably delivers the solution. Third, you have to be solving the problem in a fundamentally better way than your competitors.

Unbabel is clearly delivering technology that addresses our customers’ needs. I know the economics of delivering that technology work for us — as well as for our customers. That makes the product a win-win. Unbabel’s approach is genuinely different and provides a better, more cost-efficient solution for our customers.

With those essential building blocks in place, the growth potential of Unbabel is vast and our success will come down to leadership and execution. Unbabel has a remarkably experienced team for a company of its size, as well as supportive and skilled investors. I think we are well-positioned to turn AI-powered Language Operations into a standard practice for international organizations, no matter the size. 

This is the best opportunity I’ve had to build a substantial company and invent a market that did not previously exist. 

On the power of executive decision-making 


Unbabel: From your perspective as a CFO and seasoned executive, how do you view the executive’s role in making technology decisions at a global corporation? 

Palmer: I think CFOs in large organizations have historically been involved in any new tech decision if the investment is large enough. As you might imagine, they are largely focused on whether the investment drives ROI.

I don’t think this has changed much in recent years. The main difference is that 10 to 20 years ago, the CIO would have justified the business case for technology. Now technology procurement has been assigned to individual departments. That means the CFO must be able to financially back up the business case made by department leads.  

Unbabel: We obviously work with many enterprises, but how might a midsize company looking to go global evaluate its options for language translation?

Palmer: For a company looking to expand into new markets, the CFO or finance director is going to look at the revenue potential of the proposed expansion, as well as the associated costs. A big part of that is evaluating the cost of providing local language support through full-time native-speaking agents vs. using a solution like Unbabel. Because expansion includes marketing, sales, and customer support, there’s a higher level of coordination required from finance.

Unbabel: Can you talk more about Language Operations being a practical option for international expansion?

Palmer: Sure. Typically, international expansion takes place in three stages:

  1. Try it remotely — I hire local language speakers in my home market to sell to and support new customers in a new country. This is fairly small scale but still requires hiring or redeploying a few people.

  2. Land and expand — I decide that I need to do it properly and put resources on the ground.  This requires critical mass (five to 10 people), a space to flexibility work, and establishing a legal entity. This means there is material investment and risk for smaller companies. 

  3. Full-scale operation — I have enough proven demand to establish a fully functioning business in the country. There is additional material investment, but I’m much more confident about the revenue potential by this stage. 

A solution like Unbabel is extremely useful during those first two expansion stages, because it allows me to minimize my up-front investment. It effectively delays step two until I am much more confident about demand. If I were an executive at a scaling company, I would love this solution because it requires far less risk than committing to hiring full-time employees.

I’d probably still need to hire some native speakers, but could use spare capacity within existing teams and wouldn’t need to pay a premium for language skills. It also allows me to test several new markets at once with lower risk overall. In our post-COVID, remote-first working world, this means companies may not have to employ people in an office in-country until much later on, if ever. 

Overall, I think Unbabel could really change the game for businesses of all sizes who recognize opportunity in new markets that they can’t tap without language. The technology is incredibly powerful, but the growth opportunities it unlocks are what really drew me here. I’m so excited to be on board.

Primed for growth

As James said, the future success of Unbabel will largely be driven by strong leadership and execution around our vision for AI-driven Language Operations. We firmly believe that James’ advisory experience and background in global operations bring great depth to our leadership team and will help fuel our growth. Together, we’ll be able to empower even more companies to use language as an asset when conducting international business. We look forward to seeing what the coming years hold for Unbabel with Palmer on board. 

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