If you want to build a global SaaS business, you have to understand how to connect with your customers in a way that feels natural to them in their local context.

The demand for software is on the rise worldwide. With fast-growing companies looking for ways to scale predictably, global expansion is the natural next step.

Your business doesn’t need to open new locations overseas, but launching in new markets will mean making changes to your product and to the way you operate. 

Your product stands the best chance of success if you adapt it to fit each new country or region. Essentially, you need to localize your product – make it feel “local” to international users.

Many founders assume that localization means translating their product into a new language.

However, if you’re serious about scaling, it’s important to distinguish between translation and localization.

Understanding this difference will have a monumental impact on your success abroad.

Translation is only part of the process

Translation simply changes text from one language to another, creating a result with the same semantic meaning.

It’s a key first step to selling your product abroad, but it’s only part of a much bigger process.

Even this basic step can be fraught with challenges.

And some companies stumble at the first hurdle.

Take Pepsi’s move into China, for example. Their “Come alive with the Pepsi generation” campaign was successful with English-speaking audiences, but a direct translation into Chinese resulted in “Pepsi brings your relatives back from the dead”.

Needless to say, it didn’t go down too well.

So if translation is just one aspect of localization, what else you do you need to think of to get it right?

Read on…

Localization 101

Localization is about adapting your product to fit the culture and norms of the market you’re targeting.

It’s often referred to as l10n: the 10 stands for the number of letters between the first letter (l) and the last letter (n).

So we mentioned earlier that localization was about making your product “feel local”.

How so?

Let’s put this into practice – close your eyes and imagine yourself as a native person from the nation or culture that you’re targeting, and answer these questions :

  • Do you measure distances in miles or kilometers? Inches or centimeters?
  • Do you use a 24h clock or format time with am/pm?
  • Does the date 01/02/2000 refer to the 1st of February or the 2nd of January?
  • Are there lucky/unlucky numbers to avoid?
  • Which currency do you use, how is it formatted?
  • Is the first day of the week Sunday or Monday?
  • What is your sensitivity to colors, to imagery?
  • Do you have a more masculine or feminine style of communication?
  • Is your society collectivist, or individualistic?
  • How do you address your peers or your customers – is it formal or informal? Is there a difference between the two groups?

These are just a few examples that clearly go beyond simple word translation.

The impact of localization

Done correctly, localization is invisible to the end-user – they don’t even think about it, and their experience of your product is perfectly frictionless.

This is the ultimate goal of the process and the path to creating engaged and committed customers who are delighted to spend their money with you.

But some seemingly small details can break the user’s experience and shatter any trust or good-will that you may have built up.

For example, imagine a form that requests a user’s details :

  • Are you asking for a mandatory ZIP code? Your Irish customers won’t be able to fill the form in; they do not have ZIP codes.
  • Do you require a first name and a last name? Most people in Indonesia don’t have a surname.
  • Are you asking specifically for a landline number? Most users in India only have cell phones.
  • Can you offer a payment method that your user is likely to have? VISA is very common in Belgium, Mastercard not so much, American Express hardly at all.

It’s easy to take things like this for granted and to just expect that other cultures will have the same practices as us.

But sometimes, only seeing things through our own cultural lens can go horribly wrong….

NASA’s $125 million localization error

In 1999 NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter satellite was due to reach the martian planet and be the first observer of the weather on another world.

However, global cooperation and localization mistakes made the whole project come crashing down in a ball of fire – quite literally.

The satellite was using navigation software created by a team from JPL in the metric system of meters and centimeters, while the units specified by Lockheed Martin who built the spacecraft, were in the English system of inches and miles.

Effectively,  the onboard instruments were not localized to the same units of measure, and the resulting calculation error brought the orbiter crashing down into Mars’ atmosphere.

Millions of dollars and years of effort were lost in this scientific tragedy. (NASA has standardized on the metric system since then).

Back here on Earth, the implications of localization are not always quite so dramatic.

But still.

Get it right and unlock global success

While localization and translation are often seen as interchangeable terms, translation alone can’t create an experience that feels truly familiar and “local”.

It ignores the cultural nuances that are a vital part of connecting with international audiences, which are in turn, an essential element of growing in new markets.

A localized product can help you increase market share, connect with customers and avoid cultural misunderstandings.

Simply put, the better you adapt your product to fit users in a new country or region, the easier it will be to scale.