Preparation is key to international success

If you’re the head of a true start-up company, one with limited resources and an unproven product and/or business model, going international is probably not at the top of your agenda. Nevertheless, in the tech world, many products have international potential and undoubtedly many tech entrepreneurs dream about the possibility of international markets. And you will more likely realize that potential if you keep localization in mind from the very beginning. (This kind of long-range planning can also impress potential investors who look for indications that a business has good growth prospects.)

Even if localizing and translating your product and marketing materials seem to be things for the distant future, you may be surprised how quickly the time will come when it will start to make sense. There are steps you can take right away to get a head start by preparing for localization.

Internationalize your software

Software Internationalization is the process of designing a software application so that it can be adapted to various languages and regions without engineering changes. Internationalization means design and development that prepare software for later localization, for example, by ensuring that foreign character sets are supported and that local differences in date, time and currency formats will be accommodated, or by adding support for left-to-right or vertical text. The practices involved can have value even if the software is never actually localized, and they are invaluable when it comes time to localize. Some of the biggest problems in localizing software come from having to re-engineer code when a supposedly localized version of the software refuses to operate as needed due to a lack of internationalization.

Write and design for translation

Make sure that your documentation, website, and marketing collateral are written and designed with translation in mind. Writing for translation involves practices like simplifying vocabulary and grammar and avoiding idioms and jargon. Like internationalizing your software, writing for translation is a good practice regardless of whether the materials ever do get translated.

As Val Swisher points out in a recent article in Intercom (“Writing for Translation: Even If Your Company Does Not Translate,” Jan 2015), many Americans don’t read well, many of them have English as a second language, and customers will translate your materials anyway using tools like Google and Bing Translate. Materials written for translation are easier to read, especially for those whose first language is not English, and will give better results when run through machine translation tools.

Materials that are designed for translation avoid complex layouts, use common fonts, leave plenty of room for text expansion, and don’t use graphics with text embedded in them—practices that are also very helpful in responsive web design.

Choose the right translation partner

We realize that, when money is very tight, as it is initially for most start-ups, you may turn initially to the cheapest possible option for any translation that needs to be done:

  • Using machine translation is tempting, but this is the worst option. It’s not just that the translation won’t be fluent—it may in many cases be simply wrong or totally mangled, and you won’t know it.
  • Another option is using bilingual employees. At least employees should know your business and its terminology well, and this may give reasonably good results as a short-term measure. This really isn’t a sound long-range strategy, though, because those employees have other work to do; translation either takes them away from that work or gets done very slowly. They are also not professional translators with all the helpful tools and writing skills that involves.
  • You can also contract directly with freelance translators. You may get great results this way if the translators are chosen carefully, but it does mean having someone in-house who locates and screens the translators and manages the process. This can get very burdensome, especially if you get into translating multiple languages. There is also no independent quality check.

Ultimately, the best route is to locate a reliable agency to become your language partner. A good agency will have a process in place to screen and assign the right translators; can handle translation into multiple languages at the same time; will perform quality checks; and can provide other services such as website and software localization, multilingual layout, and localization of other media such as video and audio productions. They can also ensure consistency and save you money over time through the use of translation memories and other translation technology that makes the process more efficient.

And don’t wait until the last minute to pick out your language partner. With an international network and wide experience in localization and culture, they can also provide good advice along the way.


Translation is not the end of a global strategy. It is often the beginning. For example, implementing foreign language landing pages and tracking their traffic can be one way of spotting potential overseas markets. As your business gets to the point where you get serious about an international strategy, there are all kinds of other considerations to take into account and many other resources available to help you successfully make the move.

But being prepared for localization will put you ahead of the game and save you lots of time and money in the long run.