The following post originally ran in Forbes.
The world is changing. “Crowdsourcing companies” like ours didn’t exist ten years ago and the concept of the “large multinational” truly only came into our lexicon at the end of WWII. Today, the combination of the internet, global markets, and a rising international middle class, have allowed a company of any size to compete globally. The world isn’t just flat— it’s completely open. Small businesses should take notice.
Ninety-six percent of the world’s consumers live outside the US, and they account for nearly two-thirds of the world’s purchasing power according to the US Small Business Administration. Despite these shocking statistics, only one-percent of American companies currently exports its products and services overseas. What was once a game reserved for multinationals is now open to anyone. Why haven’t small businesses gotten the memo?
Several roadblocks—some perceived and some very real—are holding back small business owners from capitalizing on the growing global marketplace.
As a crowdsourced translation platform, we’ve been forced to meet this demand head on and have grown from a small start-up to a global company that serves customers all over the world. Based on previous roadblocks of our own and our customers, here are three recommendations we have for small businesses looking to take a bite out of the global pie.
1. Be Laser Focused
As a small business with limited resources, chasing down any and every market opportunity that seems attractive is not an option. Narrowing down which markets you want to approach and why is critical when taking your small business global. Develop a disciplined method to expanding your business and ensure that every new market you explore offers at least one of the following advantages over others:
- A larger customer base, potentially with a higher willingness to pay
- Access to cheaper supply of labor or raw material, leading to cost efficiencies
- Legal, regulatory, or other systemic factors that make it easier to do business
2. Be Contextually Sensitive
Starting a business takes pivoting (lots of pivoting). Starting a business overseas with cultural, language, or legal barriers, requires even more iterations. Companies can drastically steepen their learning curve and avoid catastrophic mistakes by leaning on local experts.
As we grew to support customers and translators in foreign countries, we found ourselves in a unique situation with brand evangelists all over the world. Rather than look at each of our translators as a number we put each and every one through a survey to better understand them and the culture they are from. This led to thousands of meaningful global data points that inform how we approach international markets. Small businesses can achieve the same goal through simple online survey tools like Google Forms, Wufoo, or Survey Monkey.
3. Be Multilingual
Language barriers are by far the biggest challenge in going overseas. Yet they are often a secondary thought when looking to expand globally. With only eighteen-percent of Americans speaking a second language, it’s difficult for American small businesses to appreciate that English is not the primary language for doing business overseas.
In fact, if you are targeting one of the top fifteen emerging markets, there is asixty-percent likelihood that your customers speak little to no English. Couple that with the fact that more than seventy-percent of customers say that they would be more likely to buy a product with information in their own language and the importance of being multilingual magnifies.
The language translation industry runs the gamut from free and often unreliable machine translation to large expensive call-centers. Small businesses looking to expand globally need to work somewhere in between where they can pivot quickly without committing to long-term contracts or risk alienating new customers.
When the time is right, focus in on your new market, be sensitive to their culture, and go beyond English. The multinational game isn’t just for Fortune 500 companies anymore, the rules are changing.
Co-founder of VerbalizeIt