7 Tips for Startups That Want to Expand Globally

August 7, 2013
5 min read

In today’s hyperconnected world, your customers can be located anywhere. If you’re launching a technology company, you probably know this already. Unfortunately, the world is not flat. Some countries are exceptional at incubating young startups. Some offer unfriendly confines. And others are a mixed bag of pros and cons.

  • Argentina boasts a ton of talent but stiff competition.
  • Australia enjoys a comfortable AAA credit rating but suffers from stifling bureaucracy.
  • The infrastructure in France is reliable, but the tax codes are not.
  • Malaysia hosts 2 of the 3 largest IPO’s recently despite lack of a developed workforce.

World at night

It is possible to live and work on a different continent from your target market. Here’s how to go about it.

Plan internationally from day 1

Look for customers in unexpected places. The Arab world is home to 60 million smartphones and 90 million internet-connected consumers yet less than 1% of apps are available in Arabic. There’s huge opportunity outside the traditional first world. Whatever you’re building, more people can use it in Dubai, Munster, Kampala, and Seoul than in Duluth, Tuscon, Charlotte, and Bangor. Build it for them, make it awesome, and they will buy it. Your competition, the big established player in your market, has been resisting an overseas push for a long time because it’s scary for an established company to break stride and explore new markets. That’s good news for you. You don’t have a stride to break.

Make your first steps in the market with international goals, and even if you’re 12th to market in English, you can lead the pack in Mandarin, Spanish, German, and Arabic and experience all of the first mover advantages when you open those new markets.

Hire language skills

Your first 10-15 hires will likely be made on referrals. They are usually made to meet a very immediate need. Once you begin to expand globally, include language skills in your hiring criterion for jobs like customer service, marketing, and sales. A bilingual team of translators working in-house isn’t necessary (especially if you use a platform like Transifex), but since you’re planning to build a customer base in a culture other than your own, you need people on hand who can support those customers, empathize with them, and answer their questions when they call.

Start with low risk

Start with the languages and markets that represent the smallest amount of risk. Translate from English-US to English-UK, for example. Virtually all of the vocabulary remains the same, and the text is highly readable for everyone on your team. It might seem like a waste of time to translate your product into a different locale of the same language, but this will give you the chance to work out all of the kinks. You’ll be able to test your workflow process, and since the only differences will be nuanced spelling and word changes, there’s little risk of a major faux pas.

British vs. American English

Do serious research

Translation is just one part of global expansion. Before going into a new market, know its landscape. Does your target market use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram or a regional equivalent such as VK in Russia? What are the the written and unwritten laws and regulations that you will be subject to? In the European Union, for instance, websites must ask visitors for their consent before most cookies can be installed.

Study the companies that have managed to be successful where you’d like to go and talk with the people involved. There will be bumps along the way, but doing your homework beforehand and creating a plan will minimize them. One place to start is the Department of Commerce.

Make decisions based on potential return

Once you have a successful launch in a different locale or dialect, choose the next project based on potential return. Move to places where you’ll operate an effective monopoly. You can be first to market in these places, and you can grow faster. A virgin market allows you to learn the customer tendencies apart from the bias of standing industry norms. All first-mover advantages will belong to you. You can set price, service expectations, even the business model.

Do it right the first time

Translations are an investment. You have options ranging from machine-based translations similar to Google Translate (use sparingly) to full-service professional translation. If you’re just starting, and don’t have a large enough user base yet to support community translations, you should pay for professionals who can deliver consistent and high-quality results.

Your product, website, and marketing pages are the lifeblood of your company and directly impact your bottom line. Saving money by cutting corners will come back and haunt you, not to mention affect your customers’ user experience.

Translator cartoon

Stay involved in the process

It’s wise to delegate project management duties to someone on the team. Build a localization workflow that acts as a natural extension of your development process, and build in plenty of windows for you and your key staff to see what’s going on. A continuous localization platform is the easiest way to accomplish this.

Look for a cloud-based platform that supports a variety of localization file formats, provides a RESTful API, and offers analytics while protecting your intellectual property (i.e. doesn’t touch your source code).

Do you have tips for companies and startups that want to go global? Share them in the comments below.

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