The first days of a new business are an exciting time. They can be stressful, yes, and invariably busy – but also new, dynamic and full of promise. After all, a startup isn’t a startup forever, which is why it’s fun to dream about how the business will grow and evolve over time. It’s more than just a matter of daydreaming though: the sooner you start planning for the future, and the more detailed your preparations, the easier you’ll find the next few years of growth and expansion.
A growing business faces a number of management challenges such as strategic decisions, legal requirements, new offices and supply chains as well as financial pressures and financial opportunities. With so many factors to consider, it’s no wonder so many businesses struggle under the pressure of sudden growth. Who hasn’t encountered a business whose customer services slipped under the pressure of training dozens of new staff members, for example?
As if all of this weren’t enough, you should also be thinking about how your business will grow and adapt from a linguistic perspective. Even if your startup only targets a single national market to begin with, going global is a natural pathway to growth; as such, it’s in your interests to leave that pathway free of obstacles.
For starters, you should think about your company name and any other product names or other trademarks you plan to use. Which is to say, think about them even more than you already have. You’ve probably agonized over these at some length, but it’s worth adding one more item to your approval checklist. How does the name sound in other languages? There’s a possibility it could mean something harmless – consider for example the difference between the English word handy, meaning “convenient,” and the German Handy, meaning a cellphone. This might cause a little confusion, perhaps – but at worst, a word that seems innocent or even meaningless in your native language could mean something offensive or inappropriate in another.
There are plenty of stories about companies (often car manufacturers, for some reason) that launched a product in a new country, only to discover that its name meant something disastrous which caused the product to flop. You may have heard of the Chevrolet Nova, for example, which was supposedly interpreted to mean no va or “doesn’t go” in Spanish. Sadly (or thankfully, for the auto companies), these stories seem to be mostly untrue: most companies are smart enough to focus-test products before launching them somewhere new. The stories persist, however, so if you don’t want to end up the butt of dinner-party jokes around the world, you should probably do your research and make sure that your company name doesn’t mean something else to someone in another country.
Even if any potential misinterpretation is basically harmless, it can be worth rethinking your name early on if it means you won’t have to change it later. In our globalized world, where customers use social media and other networks to communicate across national borders, maintaining a consistent identity can be incredibly beneficial in terms of carrying over existing brand loyalty and recognition when you expand your marketing and sales efforts into new territories. After all, why waste time and money on a rebranding exercise later on if you have the option of keeping the name you’ve always had?
This is the first step in thinking about your overall corporate identity in an international context. Ask yourself how you could internationalize yourself when the time comes. How would your brand identity be received elsewhere in the world? What changes will you need to make to grow beyond your current market, and how will you need to make them?
The most important thing is to start documenting everything from the very beginning. If you’re a small startup with a single marketing representative, for example, then it may seem unnecessary to develop style guides, glossaries and corporate messaging documents. The truth, however, is that they are essential. Although you may be the only one using them at the moment, you’ll be very glad you have them there and ready when you hand them over to a translation agency or other localization service provider. A lack of proper reference materials is one of the biggest causes of delays and blockages in localization projects, so preempt the problem and save yourself and your contractors many potential headaches further down the line.
We can see why it’s important to start thinking about branding and marketing early – but what about your products and services themselves? These, too, require forward planning for international growth. For example, a tech startup selling software should develop products with an eye toward multilingual support right from the beginning, even if they have no immediate plans to implement multiple languages. If and when the time comes to sell to a market that doesn’t speak your language, you’re going to want the changes to be easy to implement. This doesn’t just mean something like interchangeable language files — although that’s definitely a lot easier than going through the entire software package line-by-line, finding and replacing each individual string of text — but also support for things such as right-to-left reading directions, different character sets and even interfaces that can be resized to accommodate different string lengths. It’s not uncommon for translated text to be noticeably longer in terms of character count than the original string, so don’t hard-code anything unless you absolutely have to.
The previous considerations prepare your company for internationalization, but there is still localization to plan for. Once you’ve prepared everything for use all around the world – that’s internationalization, remember – you can then start adapting it for use in specific places.
Don’t feel like you necessarily have to scrub all traces of national identity from your corporate image as part of the localization process: there are plenty of examples of successful businesses that use the global perception of their home country to great effect. Imagine a new Danish bakery chain, for example, or a Japanese startup manufacturing electronic devices, and think of the marketing power these nations already possess in these fields. A canny startup could exploit that existing perception to help promote it.
Of course, the drawback if you go down this route is that you are likely to be competing with well-established existing companies that already market themselves based on the same strengths. Bear in mind as well that stereotypes and expectations about a given country will differ from place to place. For example, you should take care not to insult one country’s people by telling them that a product they’re proud of is made better elsewhere. “Authentic American pizza – the best in the world” might be a reasonable slogan in Austria or Switzerland, say, but it could potentially raise some eyebrows just across the border in Italy.
On the opposite side of the localization spectrum, passing yourself off as an entirely local business can be a risky proposition if your true roots lie elsewhere. Consumers are smart — they value authenticity, and they can spot fakery from a mile away. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fit in with the local culture — that’s what localization is all about, after all — but you have to be smart about doing so or you could be accused of insensitivity or cultural appropriation.
So what can a startup do to avoid making the wrong impression? It’s all about research. Every country has its own customs, norms and standards that play into the way local businesses behave. These unwritten rules may be invisible to outsiders but clear as day to natives, so the best way to meet those kinds of expectations is to take advice from local experts in each target country. Work with translators who are native in the target language (of course) and outsource marketing, consulting and other services from providers who really, truly understand the regions you’re targeting. With their wisdom and your company’s unique identity, you’ll be able to find your own middle way between total foreignness and faux-localism.
There is vast territory between these two poles, and every startup will reach a different equilibrium depending on its industry, target market, marketing style and so on. You can go hyper-local with highly autonomous offices rooted in national communities, or position yourself as an international, egalitarian company that makes every effort to treat every country the same. From a localization perspective, either approach, and everything in between, is entirely viable. What matters is that you respect local cultures, remain consistent in your approach, and that you plan ahead as far as you can.