Laying the Foundation To Offer Your Services Internationally

10 Apr 2024

In order to grow, organizations of all sizes are looking to expand into new regions and languages, but localization isn’t always easy.  It generally requires working with translation and content management technology providers, language service providers, developing go-to-market strategies and international expansion strategies, and more.

Over the past ten plus years, I have built out and led the localization and internationalization teams at major web brands including Medium, Lyft and Notion, as well as a number of smaller startups. In the course of doing this, I’ve learned a lot about what companies get right and not right about this, and wanted to share a few lessons with BCStrategies readers.

I started my career as a telecommunications entrepreneur and software developer, and got into localization and internationalization as an outgrowth of that. Back in the aughts, I did a lot of work on VoIP products, and found that they almost automatically attracted an international user base due to the ability to avoid the usurious charges for international calls on traditional telephone networks. Seeing an opportunity, I pivoted to localization and internationalization and have been focused on that since 2008.

Making your service accessible in other languages can be a powerful growth lever, and it’s inexpensive compared to other initiatives. While English is widely understood in northern Europe, in other regions not so many people speak English, so if your product is English only, you are leaving potential growth and revenue on the table. At Notion, for example, 70% of our users were from outside the US, which would not have been possible if we had not localized the product into many languages (12 as of this writing).

One caveat before I continue. This article is most relevant to companies that offer online or mobile services that are not geographically constrained (think SaaS offerings). If your business has an on the ground presence such as a retail operation, there are a host of other issues to contend with ranging from local regulations to tax treatment and so on. Purely online services can generally be accessed by anyone with internet access, so making these services accessible in other languages is a powerful growth lever for unlocking international revenue.

There are several components to operating internationally. The first step is to figure out which regions and languages are most relevant to your product and company. I usually recommend that customers target languages that are widely spoken (such as Chinese, French and Spanish), combined with languages that are relevant to where they are seeing organic demand or where the total addressable market (TAM) is large. Even with a relatively small number of languages, you can reach a large percentage of the addressable market.

The next step is to lay the technical foundation to make your product and customer touch points localizable. Most companies tend to accrue a lot of technical debt in this area, so the earlier you start on this, the better. At Lyft, for example, the product had been built to operate only in English and US Dollars, so by the time they wanted to expand to new regions and languages, it required 18 months and over a million dollars in engineering time to retire that tech debt. If you don’t read anything else, be sure to read this tutorial on future proofing your apps. I usually tell clients to expect this to take 6 to 12 months unless they have already prepared for this.

While this work is underway, you’ll also need to decide on which content management system (CMS) and translation management system (TMS) to use. A TMS is essentially a platform that streamlines translation work, for example by combining machine (AI) translation with human translators and reviews. These have co-dependencies, as your choice of CMS will influence your choice of TMS and vice versa. One mistake I see a lot of companies make is to use a CMS that has no notion of multiple languages (WordPress is a good example of this). So it is important to get that sorted out, and if you do need to migrate to a different CMS, you have ample time to do so. BTW, Contentful and Drupal are two CMS platforms that deal with multiple languages really well. If you are stuck on a legacy CMS for some reason, there are tools like Javascript widgets and translation proxy services, but these are not ideal solutions for a number of reasons such as search engine optimization.

The next step is then to source translation service providers, or LSPs as they are known in the industry. The localization industry, unlike big tech, consists of hundreds of companies that specialize by region, language, or industry focus. It doesn’t have the economies of scale that led to the formation of giants like Facebook and Amazon. I typically recommend that companies source two different kinds of vendors. LSPs tend to excel at translation work, where the output is a direct translation of the input. However, I also recommend bringing in a company that focuses on transcreation. These companies hire professional copywriters who essentially rewrite content for the target language. This works well for marketing copy, sign up funnel, and other situations where nuance is important. If you have an active international user community, these people can also be recruited as contractors to review and fine tune the work product of agencies.

Lastly, you’ll want to think about how to staff the team. There are two basic options here. One is to build an in-house team, which will usually consist of a localization program manager and one or two localization ops managers (project managers). The other approach is to outsource this function and put a more junior person on the project in house. The former option makes sense for companies that are operating at scale and can afford to staff the department. The latter makes sense for smaller companies (start ups and scale-ups) and for companies that want a subject expert to handle it (much like companies that hire marketing agencies).

So what will all of this cost? That varies for each company, but it scales linearly with the number of languages targeted times the number of words to be translated. The more important thing to understand is that by adapting your application to new regions and languages, you unblock users and revenue that far exceeds the cost of the program. At Notion, for example, a large majority of revenue comes from outside the US, which would not have been possible if the apps and customer touch points had not been translated (currently to 12 languages). Localization doesn’t just benefit companies that want to expand internationally. If you do business in major urban areas, and especially Florida or the Southwestern US, you should think about making your services accessible in Spanish to cater to the Latino market. At Lyft, half of our drivers spoke English as a second language, so localization wasn’t just about preparing to enter new regions, but also about making the product work well for Spanish speaking customers and drivers here at home.

The bottom line is that the Internet has eliminated many of the geographical barriers that limited where companies could operate, leaving the language barrier as one of the few remaining obstacles to global growth.


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