Developing products from concept through to launch and international market adoption can be among our most rewarding achievements. But while commercializing, marketing and supporting technology products in multiple regions can be a dream come true, it can also be an extremely daunting challenge. A growth strategy that includes eventual international expansion requires planning. Every industry has examples of companies that, when finally pursuing new global markets, were constrained by strategic shortcomings, product design limitations or insufficient resources. The challenges that come with the internationalization of a product can significantly impact time to market, inflate product development costs and diminish a product’s perceived value. And anything that hinders your ability to access new markets in a timely fashion will evolve into increased competitive risk—especially if your competitors planned better. Here are some considerations that can help lay the foundation for your product to catapult onto the international scene, even if such expansion plans are not yet on your roadmap.
Think Global, Act Local
Often underestimated, if not completely ignored until late in the process, the structural differences and cultural nuances of various target markets can easily become the Achilles’ heel of even the most promising products. “Think global, act local” was originally coined as a phrase for environmental stewardship—but it can also be used to represent the need for local adaptations when taking products to the global market. Japanese economists created the less-known but more apt term, “glocalization,” which entails the need to adapt to the particularities of local markets. But no matter how you refer to it, there are some key things to consider when it comes to these differences.
Distribution and support. The first such contextual consideration is the structure of the target market’s distribution and support channels and the value they are expected to add. While the development of sales channels may not necessarily be your responsibility, the difference in the partner ecosystem (OEMs, value-add resellers, system integrators, distributors, support providers, etc.) can have an impact on the ability to customize the product, integrate it with other offerings, change packaging or implement different pricing.
Cultural differences. Each market introduces a set of nuances that can apply to nearly everything, including product design, packaging, perception of value, pace of adoption and the actual use of the product. These local interpretations can range from product-quality perception issues (e.g., a Taiwanese early adopter client may be eager to test a prerelease version, but a partner in Japan may find software defects in a beta version quite insulting) to differences in the process for adopting new solutions (the decision-making process can differ greatly between a German medium-sized business and one in the United States). Having participated in the take-to-market efforts of new software products in various parts of the globe, I have experienced both the success of a product that fit the purchasing flexibility of small manufacturing clients in Germany and the extraneous efforts required to save face after a “buggy” service pack was sent to a reseller in Japan. Without an advanced degree in social anthropology or direct exposure to target markets, how can the product professionals tasked with crafting requirements gain insight into those issues? One approach is to tap into the diversity in your own workforce or social circles. Products and services that are geared for the global market would naturally benefit from others who have gained international experience or been exposed to other cultures. So if it seems premature for you to gauge the voice of the customer from a market you have yet to serve, why not grab a coffee with the team member who just joined your company after living in France for 3 years? Another option to get such valuable cultural insight on the path to world domination can be through partners, new or existing. Since a scalable international expansion requires the cultivation and support of channel partners anyway, why not gain valuable regional input from them early in a product’s lifecycle? These partners have a vested interest in your success.
Watching your language. Localization is often top of mind when thinking of international markets, but is not always a low-hanging fruit. Whether your product is hardware, software or a combination of the two, the labeling and user-interface elements (both inputs and outputs) are directly affected. You are well advised to decouple language from the product design—thus extending your flexibility to add new languages and modify the presentation as needed.
Many of you may have come across products that require extensive development and quality-assurance efforts to adapt them to languages such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean. Only two decades ago, the norm for many technology companies was to focus on the United States as a primary growth market and add Asia later. I worked quite closely with a dedicated team of Japanese software engineers who painstakingly adapted and tested our product for close to a year before it was ready for that market. Nowadays, with major growth markets in Asia, software products designed for internationalization are typically developed to incorporate Asian languages from the start through double-byte support.
Supporting bidirectional text in languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew—which are written right to left (RTL)—is not a trivial undertaking either. And the potential rewards from these markets cannot always justify the engineering (development and testing) investment required. Such cases may benefit from early exploration of that market to find a partner or marquee customer who is willing to fund these hard-to-justify development efforts.
A third example of why language should be planned for is the amount of characters that words or phrases in a language require, the “real-estate” needs of that language. If you haven’t been exposed to this issue before, consider extra room in your user-interface design (and for software, sufficiently long strings and database tables) for French and German text.
While Esperanto may still be the aspired-for politically neutral language and English is still the most common business language, one cannot assume that English words are accepted as standard by even the most technical or forward-thinking audiences. Language is a matter of cultural and national pride and should not be underestimated. There are numerous examples of companies that named or marketed products in ways that didn’t translate well. In Belgium, “every car has a high-quality body” from Ford translated to “every car has a high-quality corpse,” for example. One quick and cost-effective means to vet your product design and avoid a potential branding gaffe during early phases of the product is to tap into the diversity of cultural and language skills in your organization. Seek the observation of your colleagues on how your product would (or should) appear in their languages. While imperfect, it should be sufficient to buy you some time until your product is ready for your chosen localization service provider to translate—or if you so choose, your regional partners.
The following may be one of the better kept and often ignored secrets in the technology product domain, but the return on investment is guaranteed. Whether your organization creates technical product documentation (e.g., user manuals) parallel to product design or waits until the product is near completion, you will benefit greatly from the expertise of technical writers (even on a contract basis) who are proficient in authoring content in a concise and structured manner. This would not only provide artifacts that are easier to translate, but also potentially save money as localization vendors charge by the word. Bonus points should go to technical writing professionals with experience authoring in advanced tools that could support the use of translation memory systems (leveraging XML standards). This could significantly increase speed to market and reduce costs when you pursue new languages or need to revise existing documentation. Looking for double bonus points? Seek writers who are experienced writing with Simplified English, a limited and standardized subset of English.
Pricing for profit. It’s been said before that product pricing is part science and part art. And it is all the more nebulous in an international context where the stated price or packaging of a product might differ regionally due to structural and cultural nuances or currency fluctuations. One strategy is to segregate some of the markets by creating a local edition of the product that is not only tailored to (and potentially optimized for) that market, but is priced differently. This will allow you (or your resellers) to charge a premium in markets where investments made in the effort to adjust the product need to be recouped or where perception of value is highly correlated with price.
Standards, regulations and hidden barriers. Depending on the type of product and its applications, new-market entry will likely require adherence to a new and potentially unanticipated layer of standards and regulations. You should perform preliminary scanning of the target market for such hidden elements and avoid surprises that may handicap you later. The myriad standards and regulations can potentially span every conceivable area of your product, including:
- Required interfaces with other systems—compatibility, inputs, outputs
- User interface and interaction requirements—expected and popular operating systems, browsers and smartphones to support or comply with disability requirements
- Documentation guidelines—availability in multiple official languages or dialects, safety instructions
- Material content due to environmental or human rights reasons—restriction of hazardous substances and conflict minerals
- Security and handling of data—encryption privacy, transaction logging
You should also consider security, privacy or trade issues that stem from product support or manufacturing in certain regions, especially when your products serve government, health and financial industries that are particularly sensitive to such issues (e.g., European and Canadian clients are especially sensitive to the U.S. Patriot Act and related surveillance). Technology originating or supported from certain countries also may be deemed untrustworthy or subject to scrutiny. So while you may find it compelling to develop software or provide technical support from certain regions, some customers may consider these a deal breaker. For example, in separate decisions last year the U.S. and Australian governments banned Chinese-made computer technologies from being selected by government agencies. The manufacturing of goods in regions that have questionable labor standards also could have an effect, as with Apple’s scandal involving supplier Foxconn’s excessively long work weeks.
Potential channel partners in the market may again be an invaluable source for such insights. Another tactic, although it doesn’t guarantee a complete picture, is to review competing products and what they have implemented (and may have addressed through their product literature) on this front.
Plan for Flexibility
For some product categories, such as packaged enterprise software, customers expect the ability to tailor the product or service to their needs without jeopardizing product quality or future compatibility. Such flexibility is usually represented as a fundamental set of requirements. The same approach would be invaluable when applied to internationalization, allowing for the product to be adapted to a particular market without requiring a completely separate assembly line (or in software, the “forking” of your code base). At the risk of stating the obvious, this would include provisions in the product design for labeling, support for regional settings (such as units of measurement and date formats) or the adjustment of a software system’s user interface. Other areas of flexibility could include product branding and allowing for white-label rebranding or integration into other products and services fronted by your channel or OEM partners in the region. The more flexibility is built into a product, the more opportunity is given for international partners to do some of the heavy lifting and tailor the product for their market–by creating interfaces, prefabricating configurations (e.g., templates and kits) or even creating documentation and training materials. The benefits of such forward thinking are clear, not only in terms of speed to market and scalability of your business, but also because it presents your partners with opportunities to create sustainable value add and remain engaged and committed to your product and your organization. The strategic value of such flexibility is bountiful.
Finding Your Way
There is no error-free GPS for taking a product to the international market. Hopefully this article—based on close to two decades of experience (good, bad and yes, ugly too) in developing, delivering and supporting technology products in several continents—has shed light on how to navigate an efficient path for your product to go places. Bon voyage!