Going global for startups: Play the long game

There’s a whole lot more to going global — and constantly improving at it — than just the language component. Based on 19 years of observing, analyzing and working with firms at the beginning of their global journeys, here are nine pieces of advice from Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research) that you’re not likely to find elsewhere.

View going global as just another business process. There are known practices for winning and serving international audiences, including how to set up a localization function, so avoid reinventing the wheel. At the end of the day, it’s always about allocating resources to match corporate goals.

Identify and recruit an executive champion. There’s no C-level executive automatically assigned to shepherd globalization, as there is for almost every other business function within the enterprise. Therefore, you will need to find your own champion to remove obstacles and consistently build awareness for local market perspectives at the upper echelons of the company.

Beat the drum of revenue enablement. CSA Research’s data shows that most companies only spend 0.03% to 1% of their annual revenue on producing multilingual content and code. This percentage is minuscule when compared to the amount of revenue that it drives. From day one, seize every chance to position your initiatives as “investment proposals” that require relatively small budget allocations for sizable opportunities — or even enormous potential returns — in local markets and global growth.

Determine the focus of your global expansion. Is it at the country, regional or city level? This makes a strategic difference in how your firm will build out its technology and personnel infrastructure. For example, most young companies will find that viewing the world through a country lens probably makes sense. However, if your company is rolling out a service by metropolitan area — think Airbnb, Postmates, Uber — you may need to focus at that level.

Integrate strategies at three levels: corporate, globalization and global content. Your corporate strategy determines the products and services that your firm offers, the audiences it targets and what makes it unique in its space. Your globalization strategy addresses how business functions globalize processes to support audiences outside of your home market. Your global content strategy focuses on which content, code and programs to localize, as well as how much. If these three strategies aren’t integrated or don’t exist, you’ll constantly have to remake the case for international investment. Evolve into a center of excellence for globalization. Though essential, translation and localization represent only one small component for going and staying global. In the early stages of winning and supporting international audiences, your team may be the only one consistently championing the perspective from local markets. However, until all teams globalize their business processes, your company will find it difficult to serve local audiences in a consistent, streamlined and cost-efficient manner. You can help by functioning as the go-to resource for questions and challenges related to international business for the company. Your team doesn’t have to have all the answers — just the ability to guide people in the right direction.

Develop globalization scorecards for each business function. Collaborate with other groups to develop scorecards or a dashboard to measure their progress in globalizing their business processes. Doing so at an early stage will keep globalization top of mind among middle managers who are the ones responsible for executing global strategies on a daily basis. These cards and dashboards will also focus executives on what it takes to generate international revenue and support local markets successfully.

Make friends with finance. As your organization grows, you need to understand how your team is funded, how its financial performance is measured, and how to pay for unforeseen activities or deliverables. At the strategic level, your financial colleagues can help you: 1) increase awareness of globalization; 2) ensure that your funding level stays in line with overall corporate growth; and 3) adapt corporate metrics and key performance indicators to measure translation and localization activities.

Brand your team with a view toward an expanding role. The name of the translation group and your own job title will play a significant role in setting expectations enterprise-wide for the group’s capabilities. These titles should also highlight the potential for supporting business globalization and contributing to market share growth and revenue generation. Therefore, choose wisely. For example, instead of defaulting to “Translation Services,” consider “Translation Competency Center” or “Center of Excellence for Localization (Globalization).” Print “Globalization Manager” instead of “Translation and Localization Manager” on your business card.

By introducing what you do as just another business process, you can guide your new company in allocating its resources based on the language function as a revenue generator, rather than as a cost center. Executives and colleagues will follow your lead and recognize the value of your team’s contribution. That should make working for a startup more exhilarating than exhausting.