The catch-22 of startup localization

Rain, Guinness and startups — three things that have become synonymous with Dublin. Over the past 15 years, the small and medium enterprise environment in Dublin has dramatically altered, hopefully for good. Soaking up experience and expertise from the dazzling myriad of multinational tech companies that have settled in Ireland (owing to our favorable corporation taxes), the startup scene here is a bubbling pot, boiling over with ideas, solutions, spin and hard graft. 

In contrast to this, the number of companies actually localizing their products in the startup scene is at a low simmer. Looking through the endless one-to-watch startup lists at the beginning of a year, only a handful of upcoming and promising startups are planning to expand their customer base beyond the English speaking world. This is perplexing indeed when you look at the wealth of native speaking linguistic talent working in this sector. Contrast this with other sectors in Ireland and the question of whether or not to localize starts to seem redundant.

That said, there are a number of very legitimate-sounding reasons not to localize your startup. Perhaps your product consumers are already local to the startup, particularly if it’s a locally-based service. It could also be that the industry you’re targeting with your product operates with English as the lingua franca, such as finance or data science. Maybe it’s because the product is only taking shape and it doesn’t make sense to divert funds from product development to localization. For some startups, this could also come down to a lack of experience in localization, or building a company where the workforce is already stretched across several roles. Regardless of the reasons, most startups will cite one major roadblock: cash. It boils down to the definition of what it means to be a startup: starting up. When you’re starting up and have an expensive wish list of á la carte needs, localization can seem just a bit too rich of an undertaking.

Another ubiquitous feature of startups is investment funding. In the majority of cases, startups wouldn’t exist if it were not for the help of growth-focused, venture capital funding. It is logical that if your balance sheet is based on the aid of parties who want to grow a company as quickly as possible, taking a punt on new markets can be a hard sell. Quite frankly, it may seem more prudent to focus on growing the home customer base that is already speaking your language. And yet, if you look at the growth path of the most successful startups out there, that is exactly what they did. Expanding to new markets allows you to replicate your successes with a fraction of the original investment.

Why to localize

Even if your potential new user speaks English, there is little doubt that connecting with them in their mother tongue gets results. Consider this: nine of every ten internet users will visit a website when it is provided in their own language, so there is no faster way to cement your first-leap advantage. Added to this, 73% of customers are more likely to make a purchase when it is presented in their own language. There are millions more internet users in Europe than in the United States. These are statistics that are only too familiar for some startups. For them, localization can seem like a catch-22: you need to grow and engage with new customers in order to make money, but they lie just beyond your grasp because you don’t have the money to sell to them.

So what can a startup do to localize without gobbling up valuable capital, just when they’re trying to stretch every penny? First, let’s dispel the myth that localization comes with huge overheads right from the very start. Doubtless, it is a booming industry, where companies spend a lot of money. The decision to localize comes from solid gains in a new market. If a company is spending thousands to translate their help content, it is only because it already has customers in that locale. It makes perfect business sense, however, that the first localization efforts for that country started out very small.

So start structural. By designing the product in such a way that text strings are easily extracted for translation, quality assurance and testing will run more smoothly. It all starts at the project beginning — if you have your sights on expanding into new markets, try to brand globally. Don’t pick a company or product name that’s too localized. Stick with something that will be easily understood and remembered. The English speaking world often takes second language speakers for granted. If you expect them to be your brand ambassadors, brand simply.

Following from this, the process of designing marketing materials can be instilled with the idea that, at some point in the future, the number of characters you need to display will grow. If this is factored into the design process, imagine how much simpler it will be to recycle designs that were made for the home locale when you grow into new markets. A good rule of thumb is to allow text expansion of about 20%, which will cover most languages, although each language varies. The best way to guarantee quick desktop publishing is to design loose and clean. Uncluttered designs allow for plenty of text expansion. Adding information such as character limits for boxes can also really help translators.

When you start to translate, it’s okay to start small. You don’t need to translate everything at once. Pinpoint the area that your nonnative speakers are engaging with the most — this could perhaps include marketing materials, or could be the user interface (UI). Carefully store your buttons and pop-up text in a database that is easily extracted for translation. To start off with, you could even provide them with a gist translation by offering an option for machine translation (MT) on your site — just make sure to admit this to your customers! Adding a button to the UI to report errors and suggest improved translations can be easily integrated. One option is to use the Google Website Translator plugin for the site. This is a useful way to engage new customers while you test the waters in new markets. It should only ever be a temporary measure, though, as customers will always want a seamless experience in their own language. Please don’t turn this on automatically — customers will prefer to opt in and opt out.

By creating a useful product, you will invariably attract customers who speak a lot of languages. To adopt the fairly tired concept of community, treat your users like a community and you can reap the benefits from a crowdsourced translation — regular communication, interesting articles, jokes on a Friday. These can all be used to tap in to your customer base. Not only will they be more likely to recommend you to other users, it will make them more likely to help you in the future. Everyone likes showing off their skills, and everyone is an expert in their own language. A crowd sourcing platform can be set up easily with Mechanical Turk. You can incentivize this with competitions, leader boards and badges. To kick-start the process of crowdsourcing translation, you may even like to adopt an open source MT system, and ask your community to edit, not translate.

No doubt there are many heads shaking and mouths agape at the suggestion of crowdsourcing MT content — the inconsistencies, the errors, the flagrant violation of translation norms and rules! Despite the audible gasps from linguists reading this, there is also an automatic solution to this. Try using quality assurance tools such as Verifika or Xbench to ensure translation consistency, number handling, spell checking and to point out any potential terminological issues. While crowdsourcing will get you 90% of the way there, its highly advisable to have at least one professional linguist take a look. Their trained eye will see things that even a native speaker will overlook.

Lastly, each translation should be viewed as an investment. Look after your linguistic assets. At the beginning, this can be stored in a simple spreadsheet. As you move on to translate greater volumes with translators, always ask for the translation back in TMX format. This can be used across all platforms. Consider also separating your translation memories as they build — keep your marketing content separate from your help user assistance materials. This kind of meta-information on a segment is invaluable for developing accurate statistical machine translation — and for making the choice of which computer-aided translation tool to buy when you do choose to invest. Take advice on the various features and make your selection based on what suits your content type the best.

Running a startup is an exciting and challenging business. The days can often lurch from highs to lows. Some days are a huge success, perhaps from recognition within the startup community or from landing new customers, yet other days may come with crushing panic, when you see your competitor take a leap forward or find your bank balance is once again hammered by an unforeseen circumstance. It is definitely an uncertain and thankless industry, which is perhaps why people who work in startups are so good at building alliances, relying on each other and connecting with their customers. Localization unlocks new markets and multiplies these connections. While it isn’t possible for all startups to be a success, those that form bonds beyond the English-speaking world will have a better chance at it.