Startups: To Localize or Not to Localize?

Dimitris Glezos
December 9, 2015
6 min read

Wells Fargo’s recent International Business Indicator Survey indicated that 69 percent of businesses in the U.S. are conducting business internationally and 54 percent of mid-size U.S. businesses see international markets as increasingly important to their financial success. But where does that leave startups and early-stage companies?

Setting the startup stage

We can all appreciate the startup mentality: having a scrappy, can-do attitude that fuels the desire to create something special, something that fulfills a universal need. And while many startups dream about the possibility of international markets, going global probably isn’t a priority on a startup’s list of to-do’s. Why, you might ask? While optimism, agility, and ingenuity are abundant in almost any startup you walk into, most have an unproven business model and limited resources in regards to time, money, and support.

Why startups should keep localization in mind

Now that we’ve set the startup stage, we can also recognize that we live in a new digital age. The barriers that once held companies back from going global – like the inability to communicate beyond our own borders or slow shipping processes – have been eliminated thanks to technological advances. What this means for your startup is that it’s easier than ever to adopt a global mentality from inception, and doing so allows you to minimize hardships once you’re ready to take your business to international customers and users.

And you’re probably already global

Many startups, especially those in the tech industry, are international from the outset, whether they want to be or not. Launching an app in the app store or selling a product or service on a website gives international customers the opportunity to connect with your startup and purchase your product or service. With time, you’ll naturally gain global customers who may be willing to make a purchase even though your digital content isn’t localized for them. However, as you grow and mature, these early adopters will likely become your brand enthusiasts, and you’ll not only want to support them by providing content in their native language, but you’ll want to reach out to their peers. These customers already identified a need for your product or service in their area; all you have to do is deliver it in a language that speaks to them.

There’s so much opportunity abroad

Dave Goldberg, the late CEO of SurveyMonkey, shared in a 2013 interview that “if you have a product and you aren’t focused on international, you’re missing out on two-thirds of your potential customers.” Now, more than ever, this statement rings true as e-commerce is a growing market in the United Kingdom, China, France, and Germany, just to name a few. Customers are becoming more accepting of making payments and purchasing online, and concepts like free or fast delivery make this channel of buying even more appealing. As the e-commerce market shows great potential, a survey conducted by Common Sense Advisory reports that more than half of consumers are willing to pay more if you’re willing to give them information in their own languages. Armed with this information, it’s easy to see why startups should keep localization in mind.

Investors appreciate a long-term plan

There’s a basic list of requirements that investors consider when looking at potential startups, ranging from uniqueness of your product and your business expertise to the size your target market and number of competitors in the space. Aside from these line items, investors are also looking for projects with growth opportunities, ones that are scalable on a regional and global level. Including localization as a step in your roadmap shows that you’re planning for the long-term and that you recognize your international opportunities.

3 things that will help you down the road

What we’re trying to get at can be said simply — whether or not you launch as a global startup is irrelevant. You might not be ready to localize today, but the potential of foreign markets is only going to get bigger. Adopt a global mentality now so when you and your product are ready, you’ll be in a good position to reach new markets. Other things you can do now:

    1. Internationalize your software. Always be prepared is a motto that is often heard and rarely followed. Making sure your software can support international character sets (Unicode), allows for text expansion, and has user-visible text and images separate from executable code, are just a few of the steps needed to internationalize your software and ultimately be prepared for global markets. Internationalizing your software from day one ensures you don’t have to go back through your code (a time consuming process) and make changes (a developer-involved and costly process).


    1. Strive for simple, relevant branding and messaging. Startups that have an amazing product often rise up in a competitive landscape as they provide a simple solution to a common problem. Not always, but in most cases, it’s the product that does the selling thanks to a beautiful design and UX, and ease-of-use. The step that’s skipped is branding, messaging, and marketing. Startups that key in on their branding and messaging, thinking of a universal theme that can be shared across borders, are better able to translate and localize in later stages. You don’t want to choose a key message now and pivot later when you realize you want to go global. Keeping language simple can reduce the complexity of translations and their associated costs in the future.


  1. Think about localization in phases. Budget is often a localization blocker for startups, but localization doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, a one-and-done transaction. Think about localization in phases and plan for what you can afford today and what you can afford in the future. For instance, some companies may use in-house translators or machine translations in the early localization stages, and plan to have native reviewers revise the content for mistakes when budget is more flexible. Companies can also prioritize content by what’s most important to their users. Some companies start with localizing their help desk, then expand to their marketing website, or documentation. Planning to roll out the localization process slowly can be a big budget saver for startups with limited financial resources.

Democratizing localization

In an effort to create a dialog about localization among startups and other entrepreneurs around the world, Transifex has created a flexible and scalable localization platform that enables companies of all sizes – and with all budgets – to expand to new markets. Whether you’ve been thinking localization from day one, or you’re maturing to the point where going global is the clear next step, we’re here to help. See how Transifex works in a personalized demo or visit our website at for more information about our API and Git-like command-line client, powerful integrations, and so much more.

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Dimitris Glezos
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