You’re launching a venture. Things are happening fast. It’s all you can do to manage the day-to-day as your outlook veers from rosy to dire and back to rosy. Developments come at you like waves. In the chaos and exhilaration of the startup experience, globalizing your business might be the furthest thing from your mind. It shouldn’t be. If you attain the success for which you hope, you’ll want to think bigger than the domestic US market. Billions of customers await you in other countries, speaking other languages.
Long-term vision from the beginning
Most businesses consider international expansion only after becoming a vigorous mid-size enterprise. However, as you’ll see, international growth should be baked into your business strategy from the start. While business strategy is a science in itself — and outside the scope of this article — you will avoid a lot of wasted resources by creating yours early and thinking globally. And, when you create your plan, you’ll need to pay special attention to two aspects of multinational commerce: internationalization and localization.
Internationalization is contingency prep
Internationalization, essentially, is the thinking-through and allowing for the sorts of alternatives that arise when you port your offering to other ethno/linguistic/national markets. For example, how will that webpage handle Chinese symbols? And your revolutionary robotics hardware? How will its code integrate with a mainframe coded in Japanese? Or Arabic? Or Urdu? If you address these sorts of issues proactively (as opposed to dealing with them when you are forced to by some putative business opportunity), your internationalization cost will be significantly lower than it otherwise would. Your groundbreaking diabetes monitor doesn’t accommodate right-to-left languages? Whoops! Months of work flushed. Months of delay as you burn down your resources reworking your programs to fix the oversight. This is not the scenario in which you want to find yourself.
Localization is customization
Localization occurs when you enter, or attempt to enter, a foreign market. Your success in that market will depend, in large part, on your ability to successfully translate all of your communications to a vernacular and style that seems natural to your target demographic. Many a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign has failed spectacularly from a faux pas invisible to them but hilarious to their audience. Perhaps the most legendary such example, Chevy’s Mexico sales push for their Nova car, failed to account for the fact that the Spanish no va translates to “it doesn’t go.” Pepsi’s China campaign offers a less infamous (but perhaps more funny — unless you’re Pepsi) instance of localization gone bad. A poorly-adapted version of their slogan “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation” actually translated to “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave” in Mandarin. A goldmine for Chinese comedians. Not so much for Pepsi. A third cautionary tale resides in the photo accompanying this article. It needs no elaboration.
More than translation fidelity
Obviously, accurate linguistic rendering is important, as the Pepsi example demonstrates. However, the Nova anecdote illustrates the necessity of looking beyond accuracy to context. Chevy had no translation flaws in its messaging; rather, it overlooked that the Nova brand carried additional semiotic baggage for its target demographic. And that baggage did not work in their favor. A good localization program, then, will utilize experts in both the culture and the language. These experts will not only translate, but will also vet and adapt the messaging. For example, a literal translation of an innocuous phrase may hint at some unsavory slang in another language. A true localization expert will find alternative phraseology.
Partnering with an LSP
Language services providers (LSPs) specialize in helping other companies customize their product offerings for foreign markets. Which is to say that an LSP’s business is localization. And, to a lesser extent, globalization. A good LSP will use the very best translators and interpreters: fluent in both the source and target languages, knowledgeable in cultural nuance, and thoroughly familiar with your industry and its specific jargon. While many startups attempt to handle their translations in-house, or hire freelancers on a per-case basis, most find, at some point, that a good LSP will save them a ton of headache. The right LSP will go far beyond mere translation; they will advise you on your localization strategy and help you find ways to save money. They will help you navigate the localization/globalization process and avoid pitfalls. And, they can be your long-term growth partner.
Ultimately, the choice to go international is yours alone. It’s a big step. A potentially rewarding step. Do your research, ask a lot of questions, and take advantage of professional resources such as LSPs. You’ll be glad you made the leap.