Andrew Dafoe

Founder of TNOLA Languages

A graduate of Tulane University, Andrew Dafoe received his certificate in Healthcare and Legal Translation and Interpreting from Loyola University New Orleans and became one of the first of 10 Louisiana Supreme Court Certified Spanish Interpreters. He is also a Certified Healthcare InterpreterTM, fluent in English and Spanish, with a working knowledge of Portuguese. He is a founding member of the American Association of Interpreters and Translators in Education (AAITE). He has worked providing direct interpreting and translation to medical providers and consumers throughout the region, but his passion for language access was too great to limit himself to only freelance work. In 2014, after recognizing the need for high quality language services and a better way for interpreters to select projects and focus on their technical skills, he founded TNOLA Languages, (then TraduccioNOLA, Traduccion = Spanish for Translation, NOLA = New Orleans, Louisiana) which has been steadily growing since. As the company grew and expanded beyond Spanish language services, they outgrew the original name, and rebranded as TNOLA (Pronounced TEE- noh- la) Languages. He has also co-founded TNOLA Learning, an interpreter training provider, which provides training and resources for folks looking to further their skills as an interpreter. Today, TNOLA Languages, from locations in New Orleans and Houston, offers comprehensive language services in more than 100 languages to both public and private clients throughout the gulf coast and beyond. TNOLA offers remote and onsite interpretation across a variety of specializations. TNOLA also provides written translations, subtitling and transcription services. In his spare time, Andrew enjoys spending time with his family, tending to their small flock of urban chickens, and slacklining. As a transplant to New Orleans (in 2005) he fell in love with the culture, music, and food of New Orleans and has called it home ever since.

Where did the idea for TNOLA Languages come from?

TNOLA Languages was founded (originally as “TraduccióNOLA”) to provide a better way for translators and interpreters to work and maintain a high standard of service for clients.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Being a small business owner means you have to wear a lot of different hats. On any given day I may be handling finances and billing, sales activities, managing interpreters and quality assurance tasks, handling HR responsibilities, or even interpreting myself. There’s never a shortage of things to do, but in order to “make my time productive,” I have to continually be focussing on activities that will help the health and growth of TNOLA as an organization. It’s easy to get bogged down in the daily minutiae, but as our team continues to grow, I’ve really appreciated the increased opportunity to focus on strategy and tasks that are a little more zoomed out.

How do you bring ideas to life?

It starts with strong visioning which then must be paired with lots of research and planning. But for me the crucial element is working with a team that believes in the ideas as well. Between vision and realization, there’s a ton of heavy lifting that has to happen, and you need a group of people that can share the vision and put in the work to turn it into reality. I’m very grateful to work with a group of folks that excel at this.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Recent events have brought about an expanded use of Remote Simultaneous Interpretation. We are pleased to be able to offer this very specialized service to expand linguistic accessibility for our clients. We love New Orleans and all it has to offer. It has a big city feel, but in actuality it’s fairly small population wise. Orleans Parish (which is like the county for non Louisiana residents) has an estimated population of under 400,000, with the greater metro area encompassing closer to 1.3 million. The ability to deliver services remotely has allowed us to greatly expand our pool of interpreters and translators, which has kept us improving both the quality and breadth of services offered. Remote Interpretation, especially in the simultaneous mode, has always had added difficulties. Sound quality is something that has to be continually monitored and actively pursued, but advances in bandwidth, conferencing tools and more accessibility of high quality consumer audio devices has really solidified remote interpretation’s permanent place within our industry.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’ve always been very social. I worked in the service industry as a way to pay for school, and then for many years following that. In truth, it’s how I was able to grow my business. I’ve always thrived on making connections, and that has been crucial to our growth. I’m curious about everyone, what they do, and how we can help one another. I believe that’s the real basis of networking and is something I never stop doing.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self to have courage, and that no one really knows what they’re doing until they’ve done it. I was raised with the lense that adults and professionals in particular were all experts who knew exactly what they’re doing. I think there are in fact experts out there, and we have the pleasure of working with many of them. But it took a long time to learn that no one becomes an expert without daring to step outside of their comfort zone and beyond their past experiences. You have to continually be stretching yourself just beyond your limits in order to grow and thrive.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

This is a tough one, as I’m usually pretty agreeable….I think there are folks that agree with me, but in the business/entrepreneurial world it’s much rarer. I believe very much in the concept of abundance. Folks may call me naive, but I think there is more than enough work for us and for everyone else to do. I think capitalism often reduces things to a zero sum game where any clients that you get are clients that I have lost. I struggle to buy into that mindset, especially in an industry like ours. There’s so many areas where I wish we’d see improved language access, as long as someone is doing the work and providing the service (assuming the service is good) then we all win.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Check yourself. You need to be constantly monitoring feedback in all its forms. Key Performance Indicators, client feedback, responses from within your team, and self-assessment. For TNOLA Languages, I am always checking the data, checking in with our team and our clients. An executive’s role is sort of like steering the ship, and in order to do that well you have to reflect on where we are going, where we have been, and where we could go next.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Our business (and I would argue almost any business) is made up of people. We have the people that work on the HQ/admin side, the people that are our linguists, and the people that are our clients. If you really focus on and take care of the people, then the business parts tend to take care of themselves. Without our people, we would be nowhere, and it’s that person centered approach that has set us apart and allowed us to grow.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

As an entrepreneur, you constantly experience micro failures. It may be a new service offering, a marketing campaign, a proposal, an employee that didn’t fit. The key is to reflect, learn from the experience, and keep trying.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I think the first business Idea I ever had was one I still believe in. If we could just capture energy from lightning, we could have abundant naturally occurring energy. I have zero experience in electrical engineering or physics, and I’ve been told “it’s not possible.” But I think the omitted word is yet. Nothing is possible until it is. If someone can figure that out, we can solve the climate crisis, cut carbon emissions, and improve quality of life through access to power worldwide. So please, let somebody work on that idea.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I can’t think of a specific instance, but it surely was something that saved me time. Time is the only non-renewable resource, and I think often I’m inclined to DIY something that will take me 4x as long as someone who specializes in that. So any tool or service that accomplishes the goal in ¼ of the time, and better than I can do it, is always a good investment.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I’m a big fan of The workflows are extremely helpful for a variety of aspects of our business. We use it for a lot of different aspects of project management. I’ve learned if it doesn’t get written down, it may as well not exist, or not have happened. So having a tool like that allows us to capture our activities and efforts.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

On the entrepreneurial side, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things,” by Ben Horowitz is one of my favorites.

For a general creativity spike or change of pace, check out “Entangled Life,” by Merlin Sheldrake; it’s pretty mind blowing and a great reminder of how little we know and are still discovering.

What is your favorite quote?

“This is the real secret of life—to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” –Alan Watts

Key Learnings:

  • Take care of the people first, and everything else comes easier.
  • There’s more than enough work to go around; align with your strengths, keep trying, and you’ll find your market.
  • You can’t become an expert without trying new things, so keep trying!