Going global 101

According to Ethnologue, there are just over 7,000 languages spoken around the world. Though this number is not directly reflective of the number of written languages nor the addressable market, it certainly paints a colorful picture of how diverse your user base could be.

In a time of “global from day one,” it’s no surprise that startups and tech-focused companies will often see success outside of their original foothold markets, sometimes with varying degrees of effort. When this starts, it is common to bootstrap and look for cheap solutions or even existing internal employees for language support. Though these choices may initially bear positive results, with time, any growing company will realize that this isn’t a scalable practice. Once the decision has been made to focus on international opportunities, there are many considerations that must be made which can lead to a tailored and more manageable strategy.

Where to start

Arriving at the localization phase is exciting, but you may ask yourself, where do I start? It is time to directly address new members of your future community, increase the diversity of your user base, and potentially expand on your profitability. But how do you know which languages are worth it? Which countries or markets should you focus on? What are your key performance indicators (KPIs)? How will you track and measure your success post-launch? These are all important questions that you should be asking yourself. The answers are complex. The short answer: it depends.

Though launching internationally can be a daunting task, your efforts can be equally rewarding. Before too much work has been done, it is helpful to start with a localizability exercise. Likely your concept is already working or you wouldn’t have gotten to this point, but nonetheless it is valuable to think it through, as this may guide your decisions. During this exercise, define a set of questions. Some examples are: do we need to make customizations? Is our product culturally relevant?

If your product is not culturally relevant now, it may never be, or at least could take significant resources to get it there. The amount of customization required can help you to prioritize markets. Generally humans have similar needs around the world, so common services will be localizable. It’s the approach that changes. To accommodate for this, localization of the product or service will often be necessary.

In terms of user experience, localization goes far beyond just language translation itself, but languages are an integral piece of the puzzle. In order to decide which languages to support, first look internally at your current user base, but also look for potential in untapped markets. A defined amount of existing users in a specific language is an obvious indicator for opportunity and demand. Lack of users could simply mean that you haven’t been able to reach them yet. Is it possible that you aren’t speaking their language? Focus on traction markets, regional influencers, and markets where the volume of opportunity can be substantial. Also, understand that markets can be dynamic. Markets themselves can be multilingual and microcultures can often be found operating within larger ones.

As you decide where to focus your efforts, continue to think through the ways that you plan to reach those markets. How accessible are potential users? Will your existing go-to-market strategy and channel partners support their buying needs and requirements? How many users could you gain from localization efforts in a specific language? I personally think that it would be incredible to live in a world where we could support all languages, but unfortunately that’s not feasible, nor would it necessarily enable your product to reach more people at this time. There are many languages throughout the world, both written and spoken, which may not yet have the same access or exposure to the technology medium. That’s changing and evolving by the day, but it will still take some time for full accessibility and market penetration. Ultimately, consider if markets will be reachable through the medium that you plan to use.

Setup and implementation

Bringing your product to the international markets requires investment. Investment in tools, infrastructure, research, linguists, time, sweat and human capital, in no particular order. It doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive, but it certainly shouldn’t be done cheaply either. Doing things cheaply might be tempting in the short term, but if you are focused on meaningful success it will become evident why it’s better to do things right from the start. Think holistically.

If this wasn’t done in the past, you will need to spend considerable time and resources  internationalizing your content and systems to ultimately make localization more efficient and effective. Poor internationalization makes localization incrementally more challenging, sometimes even blocking proper localization. This phase will require adding libraries, tweaking design, and allocating more time in development cycles for feedback on future concepts in marketing, engineering and product features.

To manage this process, you’ll likely need to dedicate a localization resource. This could be one person or an entire team. Basically, you need to find someone who is passionate about language and culture. They should ultimately be a voice for all things international in the organization. Localization teams will fit structurally into different places at different companies, usually somewhere in the marketing, product, growth or engineering organizations (or some combination of several). Because localization is cross-functional by its very nature, the team will depend on close collaboration with all of these relevant business groups to be successful. Be open to this shifting over time, as what worked yesterday may not make sense for tomorrow.

Localization teams will require tools to be successful in their jobs. These tools, such as computer assisted translation (CAT) tools and/or translation management systems (TMSs) are integral for a successful agile workflow and more specifically, to continuous localization. Implementing these tools will help with consistency, quality and turnaround times. There are many tools commercially available, but you will need to be selective and find a tool that will ultimately accommodate your unique needs. At this point, all CAT tools should have project management capabilities, translation memory and terminology management features at a minimum. Yet tech is more demanding in that APIs, connectors and other integrations are necessary for a smooth operation. Depending on your resources, there is a spectrum of CAT tools, from open source to premium enterprise. Larger operations often pursue custom tooling, whereas companies with more restrictive budgets generally settle on a tool that suits them best.

To be successful in localization, you need either language specialists or a reputable language service partner — sometimes both. The team structure varies quite substantially from firm to firm. Often, limitations on resources can dictate structure whereas seemingly unlimited resources could open up the door to different possibilities. Regardless of the setup that your organization will choose, you need to focus on selecting the right partners and team members. In localization, there’s no substitute for quality language services.


After completing an initial pass on content, localization never stops. At least for most firms in the tech space. That’s one main difference between a translation and the localization process for a product or service. If you translate a book, after it is complete there is no further action required. This is definitely not the case for localization of a product or service. Technology is ever-changing and localization often needs to evolve with it. In the app world, new phones, styles, versions and gadgets can all mean changes to existing content. Software and websites are constantly being updated and tweaked, and are evolving to keep up with the times. The localized content itself might not always need to change, but the design and context might. To keep up with this constantly changing environment, agility and adaptivity are important skills to have both as an organization and as a team.

First of all, test. Try your products and services. Make everything work, both linguistically and functionally. In a perfect world we’d all have time for unlimited reviewing, extended conversations with our linguistic and in-market teams across time zones, but realistically things move a lot faster than that. You need to make sure you develop a system and workflow that can keep up with the demand. If your linguistic quality is good, turn your attention to functionality. Do you have consistent errors in spacing, overflow, truncation? Can your device be used on multiple platforms without error? How is the load time for the most commonly used features? It is important to consider these factors if you want your app to feel as local as possible.

Automate as much as you can. Automation is something that requires work up front but can lead to big increases in output if done well. Smaller teams can do a lot more with a lot less if the system works well. This is a crucial point to helping a team to scale up.

And last but not least, be thorough. It goes without saying that it becomes more challenging to treat all languages the same as you offer more. Most companies that offer tens to hundreds of locales will at some point think of a tiering system for their languages, prioritizing the effort that goes into them. If you have the resources, try to make it so that your system can better accommodate an increasing amount of languages. It is not an easy feat to accomplish but the users will likely appreciate the effort, whether you hear from them or not.

I doubt any startup truly knows that it will be successful on a global stage, until it is. The ones that plan internationally from the start are the ones that are likely to be best equipped for sustained success. Localization doesn’t always start on day one, but as the ship gets bigger and the speed accelerates, the harder it will be to change course.