U.S. startups need to remember that not only is there a world outside Silicon Valley/Boston, there’s a world outside the United States as well. By ignoring it during the crucial phases of gaining early adopters and transitioning to the early majority, they’re costing themselves millions in lost value. Don’t believe me?
Facebook Failing Abroad
Facebook, one of the hottest topics in social network news today, has failed miserably at gaining a notable international presence compared to other services. Friendster… yes, Friendster… has more than 5x the number of users in the Asia Pacific than Facebook. True, those users are 89% of the entirety of Friendster’s users, but it proves the point that there are users for your service in many more places than most startups are looking for them.
In Germany, a straight-up clone of Facebook called StudiVZ was acquired for over $100,000,000. The value lost to Facebook is even greater, considering that if all of those users and increased advertising opportunities was worth $100,000,000 by itself, combined with the rest of Facebook it surely would have been worth even more. There have been other Facebook clones acquired as well. No extra innovation would have been required on Facebook’s part to reach those markets. Just extra effort to make their presence known.
Facebook isn’t the only service losing out. A twitter clone called frazr received funding back in May, aimed at French and German users, and a German Digg clone, Yigg.de, received funding in June. There are many others.
How to Take Your Startup Global
I say startup rather than ‘business’, because that’s truly the point at which the effort needs to begin. Traditional business expansion into foreign markets is a well-covered subject, primarily noting the difficulty in overcoming entrenched local versions that developed while you were still focusing on more growth at home. Here are some points to help you bring more users from over the oceans:
- If you don’t want to, you never have to learn a foreign language. English is one of the most widely-known languages on the planet. If you’re worried about language barriers preventing you from going global, at least don’t ignore Europe. Besides the United Kingdom, English is one of the most commonly learned languages in European countries. German students begin learning English in the 3rd grade. While localized versions of your service in local languages are excellent, they’re not necessary to gain many more users than you could by only focusing on the U.S.
- User evangelism is more important than ever. Before funding, or even after, most services won’t have the money to open up foreign offices for some time, if ever. While most successful startups have founders that are active in participating in their community, you should put special effort into getting to know users from countries you want to grow your presence in. They’re willing to help you if your service is good and you show them you want more people like them.
- Plan ahead for interaction between different cultures on your service. Orkut, Google’s social networking service, became hugely popular in Brazil. The many English-speaking users became very upset at the influx of Portugese-speakers posting content they couldn’t understand in what they considered to be their communities. Orkut eventually introduced language controls for groups, simple indicators of which languages were allowed/encouraged in user-created groups, aimed at avoiding negative reactions to other users.
- Design your service to best serve different language groups. There are better solutions to serving speakers of different languages than handing down arbitrary rules of which languages can be spoken in which areas. Offering a localized translation is one of the most common options. Even then, it needs to be decided if user-generated content is separated by language, or available to everyone. Creating a parent company and offering custom versions of the same software to different regions is another excellent option. See Sulake, the parent company of Habbo Hotel, for an excellent example of this.
- Encourage innovation in translation technology. Finally, I’m issuing an open plea for someone to innovate in creating better translation tools. The sad fact is that to the best of my knowledge, the best tool for translating that’s publicly available is still… Babelfish. We need better tools for this, and we need better implementations for those tools. I want a one-click button that automatically determines the language a comment on my blog is in, and translates it to the viewer’s native language based on their IP.
These are only a few ideas to encourage entrepreneurs, technologists, and other businessmen in the U.S. to stop thinking your business’ growth stalls at the borders, and start thinking about ways to seed your service all over the world, to get grow in foreign markets from the beginning.