Nataly Kelly is VP of Localization at HubSpot, and has worked in language services and technology since 1996. She is a former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, and an avid writer. Nataly is a longtime contributor to the Harvard Business Review on topics of globalization and the author of multiple books, including Found in Translation (Penguin) with Jost Zetzsche.
Early-stage companies tend to fall into one of two categories in their approach to localization. Many startups say, “Let’s worry about international later on,” opting to focus on their home market instead. This is common for US-based companies, because they have such a large market opportunity to begin with. The second group of businesses tends to say, “Let’s go into lots of languages at once,” usually armed with some basic knowledge of the availability of machine translation tools, thinking, “How hard can it be?” It’s not exactly an all-or-nothing mentality out there in the startup world. It seems to be more of an attitude of companies either being overly reluctant or overzealous.
Here’s the problem with each of these common scenarios: both of them presume that you need to actually be ready to sell into international markets in order to even begin thinking about localization. A common misconception is that the moment you begin working on localization, you’re ready to start delivering your entire customer experience in other languages and countries. From a business perspective, these are actually two separate and very different decisions. Do you want to go into other markets today? No? Fine, don’t actually invest in localizing your product yet. But, if you want the option to easily go into other markets someday in the future, then you need to start thinking about, and planning for, localization immediately. Building a global-ready infrastructure from the earliest days, and from the ground up, will ensure that your company can scale later on into new markets, whenever that may be, and into however many languages and countries you choose.
In the case of the companies that say, “We’ll tackle that later,” what commonly happens is that they build in “tech debt” — in other words, they solve an immediate problem in a way that will create problems later — in the form of product processes and frameworks that lack internationalization. By the time they decide they want to target markets that speak other languages, require other currencies, and so on, they’ve hard-coded so many features and functionalities that aren’t global-friendly that it makes it costly to consider reengineering. When you ask product teams if they want to spend time building new features and products or refactor old code to get it to work for multiple markets, they will always pick the former.
Product teams will usually ask, “How many users is this requested change going to impact?” Often, the answer is just a tiny percentage of the user base. This results in a chicken-and-egg scenario. Your users in a given market might not have a great experience unless a product team makes the product global-friendly, so that it can be truly localized. If the product isn’t global-friendly, it might not get great adoption in a given country, causing the brand to suffer, and that country’s user base will never truly be able to compete on equal footing with that of say, US English speakers, unless this painful cycle is broken. The monolingual, monocultural bias is built into the product development from the beginning when companies choose to sidestep the localization conversation.
What about the companies that say, “Let’s do 20 languages at once?” While I love these dreamers and the global-friendly attitude this displays, my first concern with such startups is that they don’t actually have any real international strategy, let alone any local strategies for how they intend to grow in specific markets. When there is no clear prioritization of markets, and instead a random number of languages set arbitrarily, determining what gets localized can become a free-for-all, create internal friction, and lead to a tug-of-war mentality within a company as it grows. It’s critical to prioritize markets early on. Yet, few startups have the bandwidth to do this while they’re still getting their head around product-market fit.
My advice to startups? Commit to building a global-friendly product from day one, and make sure internationalization principles are there from the beginning. Seek out people on your engineering team with this expertise from the very start, to prevent “internationalization debt” from ever forming. But also wait until you have a solid international strategy to actually invest in localization. Otherwise, you might find yourself spending money too soon just to get your product into a bunch of languages that no one is going to spend marketing or sales budget on, limiting the number of users who can even engage with it.
A suggestion for localization vendors? Don’t position localization services as an easy way to unlock international revenue. It’s actually not so simple. Companies don’t just localize a product and watch users flock to them and make tons of money from new markets overnight. Having a product in a new language is useless if not backed up with a strategy for taking that product to market in a new part of the world. Products have to be marketed, sold, and supported in each language. End-users require training content, onboarding services, and implementation support in their languages, and in a relevant time zone, usually from humans who speak those languages. Localization is just one tiny piece of the puzzle.
Most early-stage companies lack an international go-to-market strategy. As a result, when they take on too many languages at once, they end up providing broken, partially-localized experiences to customers outside of their home market. Don’t allow this to happen by focusing merely on one aspect of international expansion, such as Product UI. Companies need to think beyond just the product UX and through the entire customer journey. That gets harder and harder as you grow, but it’s vital for companies that want to avoid the pitfalls of either ignoring global readiness until it’s overly painful, or on the flip side, rushing too soon into too many markets they’re unprepared to support.