Three myths about localization projects in tech startups

I often meet startup founders who tell me that ‘global markets are difficult’, ‘non-English speaking markets are difficult’, or ‘the Japanese market has a high entry barrier’. But I can assure you that none of these statements is true – and if you’re a tech startup founder who believes them, you’re not only wrong, but you’re also missing out on the opportunity to benefit from global markets.


Who am I?

I’m a Japanese localization expert with a strong background in digital marketing. My ten-year professional experience in Hong Kong, London, Tokyo, and New York covered a broad sector of industry, from mobile gaming through e-commerce to education. Since starting my own company three years ago, I’ve worked with multiple global enterprises in the tech space and helped them successfully enter the tricky Japanese market.

In this article, I’m going to discuss three myths about localization projects which circulate among tech startups, and oftentimes mean they miss an amazing opportunity to benefit from global markets outside the US. The point is this: As long as you find the right business partners, it’s much easier to get into global markets than you thought.

 

Myth 1: There should be tactics to generate a large profit in a short period.

I’ve met startup founders who’ve come to me and said: ‘I need to make multi-billion dollars in the Japanese market in the next two months. Can you tell me what tactics I should use for my product?’ My answer is: ‘Sorry, but secret tactics to make big bucks in a short period just don’t exist.’

To me, it seems that tackling localization projects is similar to incorporating a new habit into our daily routine. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, tells us that a habit must be established before it can be improved; in other words, you have to standardize before you can optimize. The rationale is that even a minor habit has a great impact in the long run, but not in the short run – such as the next two months. If you are considering entering global markets with your tech startup, start today. It’s going to take you a long time, so the sooner you get moving, the better.

 

Myth 2: It’s best to consider localizing our products in markets after we’ve made a profit with an English-language version.

This isn’t a matter of the chicken and egg conundrum. In some Asian markets, particularly Japan, you will very rarely see an app/product becoming popular unless a version in the local language is available. To be more precise, the general public in these markets doesn’t have a great command of English.

If you are a tech startup founder and you’re thinking about localizing your products in Japanese after you’ve made a profit in the market, you’re making a mistake. The ‘right’ time will never come. Instead, you will miss a great opportunity to enter the market and enjoy the advantages of being a first or second mover.

One point to bear in mind is that you should not confuse European and Asian people (for example, Japanese, Korean, and Thai) when it comes to localization. Generally speaking, European nationalities have a good command of English language skills and so will feel familiar with products created in English.

But a glance at the EF English Proficiency Index:The world’s largest ranking of countries and regions by English skills shows us that Japan, South Korea, and Thailand are ranked #49, #31, and #64 respectively, while Sweden is ranked #1. When it comes to considering global markets, you have to realize the differences in English proficiency, and consider each market separately.

A good indicator is the iOS/Android app rankings in each local market. When I worked for a mobile gaming company, we planned a global strategy to expand the company’s business into new markets by analyzing global iOS/Android apps across them, and it worked. This is a good example of a metric you can use to judge whether to enter the local market with a product in the local language or English. If you find more than half the app titles are in the local languages, you should definitely enter the market with fully-localized products.

Looking into iOS app rankings in Japan offered by Appannie, you may see a bunch of titles in Japanese. This means that most local people in the region still use apps in their local language, not in English. This is why an app which might be popular in the US cannot scale in Asian markets without localizing contents into the local languages.

 

Myth 3: Our product doesn’t have Product Market Fit in global markets outside the US.

This is a misunderstanding that often happens in an organization which only employs and networks with Americans. Staff only know the US market and thus think their product doesn’t fit other markets just because they don’t understand them. The rationale is that, generally speaking, the technology space in the US is far ahead of other markets in any industry.

This is a very wasteful situation.

If you are not sure if your products have Product Market Fit or not, the right business partner in the local market will be able to judge this for you. More concretely, they can suggest how to beat existing players in the local market, or how best to position your products.

Looking into global markets outside the US, you may easily find much more ‘blank space’ waiting to be filled than in the US. If there are few competitors in the market, you can become the first mover. If you find some existing players, don’t be pessimistic – you can still become a second mover – though bear in the mind the words of Adam Grant that while pioneers have to fight an uphill battle to create the market, second or third movers have to make the product better.

 

What can we offer?

Digital Havas is a localization/marketing agency specializing in the Japanese market. Our strength is that we can localize products with an in-depth understanding of tech space, including product management, blockchain/crypto, AI/digitization, and SaaS products. We can tailor your product or service to the needs of Japanese customers, rather than just directly translate keywords and phrases.

But more than that, we can offer the entire go-to-market strategy and find the Product Market Fit in the Japanese market, aligning with your existing business in the US or Europe.

Let us help you transition through localization into marketing. We’ll research whether your product has a Product Market Fit in Japan and create a marketing strategy to enter the Japanese market so you can focus on running your business.

We look forward to hearing from you. Contact us at digitalhavas.info and we’ll be in touch.

Global communications for tech startups: Entering global markets

Who am I?

I’m a Japanese localization expert with a strong background in digital marketing. My ten-year professional experience in Hong Kong, London, Tokyo, and New York covered a broad sector of industry, from mobile gaming through e-commerce to education. Since starting my own company three years ago, I’ve worked with multiple global enterprises in the tech space and helped them successfully enter the tricky Japanese market.

 

Global communications: How can I help?

In today’s global environment, it goes without saying that communications have moved on from a strictly by-the-book use of the English language.

One of my favorite concepts is ‘positive indifference’, advocated by Tsedal Neeley, Professor of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit at the Harvard Business School.

Positive indifference is the ability to overlook any cultural differences regarded as not especially important or worthy of attention, while remaining optimistic about engaging with ‘foreign’ cultures overall. It’s about adapting to work practices that may at first seem culturally foreign — such as having to wear an identification badge or file frequent key performance indicator reports — without becoming unduly troubled by them.

During my work experience in Hong Kong and London, when I was in my twenties, I encountered cultural conflicts and frustration many times. Communication in a lingua franca is sometimes tough: team-building skills and a ‘just-do-it’ mindset are required, rather than correct English expressions. Positive indifference was vital for success and peace of mind.

However, when it comes to localization tasks, including transcreation and translation in the tech space, the positive indifference mindset won’t do. For example, one of my former employers, a European company, always hires dedicated native speakers in each market for both marketing and sales positions. Their rationale is that native speakers can create better marketing strategy and contents because they bring an in-depth understanding of markets and products to the process. Outsourcing to translators is great in some scenarios, but if you really want to scale your business or product in local markets outside English-speaking countries, it’s not suitable for localization.

In the era of AI/big data, we all have to think harder about localization. In this article, I would like to explain the rationale for this, and what we can do about it.

 

Personalizing products, raising localization standards

Personalization is not only a major trend that provides the opportunity to improve the quality of product interaction and better reflect the uniqueness of an individual’s financial life – it’s also what customers increasingly demand. Mary Meeker’s 2019 Internet Trends report suggests that over 90% of customers prefer brands with personalized offers, over 80% are willing to passively share data in return for personalized experiences, and over 70% are willing to actively share data for the same purpose. This trend will likely continue to grow, given the explosion of data being captured, created, and replicated, and companies have to respond.

For example, Mailchimp has pivoted its business, creating a ‘platform’ rather than a simple ‘email marketing tool’, and has dramatically improved its function. Its marketing segmentation function has increased its segment criteria and thus become able to deliver personalized messages to end users and segment them more precisely.

Another great example is Wattpad, whose storytelling platform uses audience data to tailor its products. Originally a mobile app where writers posted free stories, Wattpad has introduced an entertainment division, Wattpad Studios, and a book publishing arm, Wattpad Books, to expand on the original stories consumed by its 70 million monthly users. When it adapts stories for film and television, it often uses audience data to decide which chapters to expand and even which characters to kill off.

Wattpad collects roughly a billion data points a day as users search for, read, and comment on stories, according to Allen Lau, co-founder and chief executive. Over the last two years, Wattpad has co-produced a Hulu show, “Light as a Feather,” and a feature film, “After,” both adapted from stories on the platform. Mr. Lau stated that the company relies heavily on engagement data — mostly in the form of reader comments — during the adaptation process, sometimes giving screenwriters feedback as specific as: “By the way, you can cut out the second male character. No one likes him.”

 

Difference across culture vs. difference across sector

In workplaces where global communication is required, Tsedal Neeley’s positive indifference concept as well as Erin Meyer’s book ‘Culture Map’ are helpful, as both describe cultural differences among countries, regions, and nationalities. Given the cultural bridge I personally straddle, I was particularly impressed with Meyer’s description of the difference in communication between Americans and Japanese. But when it comes to localization, global enterprises need to understand the cultural differences which are unique to each industry sector, not just to each nationality, if they are to expand their overseas business successfully.

Let’s take an example from the mobile gaming industry sector, where I know from personal experience that subtle but striking differences among nationalities are seen. For example, the differences between Japan and European countries are not only to do with the language used in games, but also with design/UX, narratives, in-app incentives, and more. Interestingly, the differences between Japan and China are even greater, maybe because Japanese people are familiar with consumer games while Chinese people aren’t.

KPI is another important factor — for example, Japanese people are far more nervous about privacy issues than other nationalities. This means that applying the same KPI across global markets often fails to measure the right outcome. Understanding people’s culture entails setting different KPIs across regions in the process of localizing products and acquiring lead generation.

 

What can we offer?

Digital Havas is a localization/marketing agency specializing in the Japanese market. Our strength is that we can localize products with an in-depth understanding of tech space, including product management, blockchain/crypto, AI/digitization, and SaaS products. We can tailor your product or service to the needs of Japanese customers, rather than just directly translate keywords and phrases.

Let us help you transition through localization into marketing. We’ll ensure you reach the right audience with the right messages, so you can focus on running your business.

We look forward to hearing from you. Contact us at digitalhavas.info and we’ll be in touch.