ccording 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.