Startup: Born Global or Die Local (1/2)

Published in Inside Nelio.

Translated by Núria Adell.

When you create a new startup, one of the many strategic decisions you have to make is where you’re going to sell. That is, you have to decide if you want your business to be focused on a local market closer to you, in which you think it will be easier to get the first customers or, conversely, if you want “the whole world” to be your market from the beginning.

It is clear that nowadays you can easily offer products and services to everyone through a website on the Internet. And that is very tempting. But as a business strategy, is that really what makes the most sense? Or is it better to focus on selling locally and then expanding globally?

At the talk I presented in the WordCamp Barcelona 2016, “My first 100,000€ in WordPress“, I said that it wasn’t until we established Nelio before a notary that the partners had the first brainstorming meeting about the type of business we wanted to create. We weren’t sure of what we’d be doing, but we did establish some criteria to narrow down the area of exploration:

  • Software development. We liked it and it was what we were best at.
  • Open source. From the beginning we appreciated the importance of contributing to a community.
  • SaaS (software as a service). We wanted a solution that would provide a recurring revenue.
  • Scalability. Our goal was to get away from classic business-like custom development or consulting.
  • International market. The bigger the cake, the better, right? 🤔

Taking into account the criteria above, and after a prolonged brainstorming, we decided that developing WordPress plugins was the best possible project for us. And here we are! But should we focus in Barcelona/Spain or should we go global? Tough question. One of the most complex to answer, probably. And it’s because of its complexity that I have decided to split this post in two parts.

Today, I will look at the implications of deciding to embrace this international market from the start. Next week, we’ll talk about the consequences and the reality we have come across.

International Market

At first, it may seem that having an international business is as simple as putting together a website and letting the “Internet” be responsible for making it available around the world. Unfortunately, the reality is a bit more complicated.

Languages

The first and most obvious difficulty is that of languages. The languages in which you offer your services are the ones that will limit the level of internationality and the population that you will be able to reach. Look at the most spoken languages in the world.

Speakers in the world
Total number of speakers by languages (source: Wikipedia: List of languages by total number of speakers)

It is clear that the team’s knowledge on languages will limit the capacity for internationalization. When we created Nelio, we decided that, initially, we would offer our services in our mother tongues (Spanish and Catalan), as well as in English, in which we felt comfortable enough (this includes, of course, the development and service of spoken and written support).

Apart from the English-speaking countries, English is the basic language of communication in Europe, which allowed us a high level of internationalization.

Percentage of knowledge of English by country
Percentage of knowledge of English by country (source: Wikipedia: List of languages by total number of speakers)
Number of Spanish speakers by country
Number of Spanish speakers by country (source: Wikipedia: List of languages by total number of speakers)

Once the decision is made, what do you have to consider in order to sell in more than one country and in more than one language?

Time Zones

The next critical issue when internationalizing a startup is your location and your time zone. It’s great to have a website that is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for all your customers. But you and your team will have to take a break at some point…

For us, giving a great support service to our users is essential. Therefore, to the issue of language, we must add the problem of being in different time zones. If you decide to start with a local market that has your own schedule, everything will be simpler. But if most of your users or clients have a different time zone than yours, in many cases the response time to any question or problem will not be immediate and will take longer than you’d like.

What should you do in these situations? Ideally, the best option would be to have the different members of your team located in different parts of the planet in order to cover the 24 hours of support. Another option would be to hire a company that would give you this service.

In our case, knowing that it is not a perfect solution, we prefer to give the support service directly ourselves. We use a support platform that automatically informs the user of the hours of service we offer (we’re located in Barcelona). Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t answer outside of this schedule (we often do). But this way, the user knows that his message has gone through and that we will soon take care of it.

The Product

If you offer a software product following a SaaS model, as we do, the physical location of the buyer is quite irrelevant, since you won’t have any transportation or similar expenses. However, offering your product in more than one language does indeed condition the development; this is something that you have to keep in mind from the beginning.

If you offer themes or plugins for WordPress, don’t even think of developing them first in Spanish or any other language other than English. Look at the graph below:

WordPress languages (source: WordPress.org statistics)
WordPress languages (source: WordPress.org statistics)

Almost 55% of websites in WordPress have their installation in English; 6% are in Japanese; 5.2%, in German; 5.1%, in Spanish; 3.5%, in French; etc. It is very important, therefore, that you begin your development in English and that you prepare the code in a way that can be internationalized to other languages. If you don’t know how, don’t worry: David explains the secrets that you have to keep in mind when internationalizing your plugin right from the start.

With the vast amount of volunteer plugin translators, WordPress allows you to offer your plugins in many languages without a titanic effort on your part; you just need the help and acceptance of the community 😇

The Websites

Developing websites in several languages multiplies the work of creating and maintaining content considerably. If your resources are limited, you have to decide whether having a multi-language site compensates the extra work.

As I explained in a previous post, in our case we used to have several pages (and blogs) in different languages. The first site we created was migratetowp.com, where we offered to migrate services from any CMS to WordPress. We chose to develop the website just in English and to only state that we also spoke Spanish in the contact form, since we didn’t have the resources to maintain everything in more than one language. We did the same thing with our corporate website, offering it only in English, and with the site of our first plugin, Nelio A/B Testing (a service that helps you to easily optimize the conversion of your website through A/B tests and heatmaps). Shortly after, we decided to create a blog in Spanish (WPrincipiante) with the aim of contributing to the community in our own language.

As you can imagine, managing so many websites and blogs in different languages required a lot of resources. Therefore, when we decided to launch Nelio Content, we realized that we had to put in a bit of order and simplify everything to be more efficient. The result? Our corporate website, neliosoftware.com, became available in two languages (English and Spanish), we unified all of our blogs there, and WPrincipiante disappeared.

Social Networks

Something else to take into account when you want to be international are social networks. Here, the question is again a matter of language. Should you have a different account for each language or publish in all languages on a single account? In our case, we decided to have a little bit of everything:

Again, we encounter the same problem as before: the more accounts you have, the more work and dispersion there will be, but also the more your information will be focused on your target audience.

Payment Management

Finally, another issue that can be quite complicated in businesses that want to have a presence in different countries is the management of invoices and payments and non-payments taking into account the taxation and regulations of each different country, currency, language, etc.

The complexity inherent in this drives many startups to simplify their businesses and initially limit themselves to their own country, leaving the expansion to other countries for later stages of development. Fortunately, there are currently several solutions for SaaS that handle the full management of this topic. We have decided to use FastSpring as a payment and subscriptions management platform, because, apart from covering all the needs we have with our different plans of subscriptions to our products, discounts, etc., it also allows our clients to pay with the currency they choose, while receiving all the notifications in the language they select without any additional work.

To be continued…

So these are the main points you should consider when deciding to make your startup international from day one. Don’t miss the following entry in which I will tell you the result of having applied this strategy in Nelio. You will be surprised by some of the results!

Before you go though, let us know what your experience is! Do you think we should add any other points to those mentioned above? We would love to hear from you!

Featured image by Slava Bowman.

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