"Either you will be a global company, or you won't be a company"

By Sarah Lacy , written on June 24, 2013

From The News Desk

Our PandoMonthly with Fred Wilson was one of our most popular so far, and it was brought to you by Smartling -- a company that makes it possible to adapt your website into multiple different languages and manage all those versions quickly and easily.

It was a fitting sponsorship, because many of Wilson's best known companies like Foursquare, Twitter, and Zynga have massive, massive audiences overseas. Part of the explanation for consumer Internet companies' massive valuations this time around has been that they are more than a billion people online, and it's never been possible to reach such a large audience so quickly.

jack_welde Jack Welde, CEO of Smartling

That's true. But the majority of these people are outside the US, and most American consumer Web companies don't do a great job of reaching them. I saw this first-hand when I spent two years traveling emerging markets -- and hanging out in dodgy, smoke-filled Internet cafes -- for my second book. Indonesia is a particularly fascinating example. It's one of the largest nations on earth and one obsessed with social media, and yet almost no Internet companies have even considered trying to monetize there.

Today most startups want it both ways: They argue that global reach makes their companies way more valuable and that Western markets are all that matter, because they are the most easily monetized. But that's starting to change.

Smartling's founder Jack Welde saw this all coming, which was why he started Smartling three years ago. As part of our Art of Going Global series, I sat down with Welde to talk more about his company and what international trends he sees for startups.

PandoDaily: Do people finally get that going International is a priority? 

Jack Welde: Every company is a little different, but I rarely have the conversation any more of "I don't get it. Doesn't everyone speak English?" We live in a world where the rising global middle class will be billions of people in the next 15 years, and the US and Europe will drop down to less than one-fifth of that. They also have money to spend. We believe we are on the leading edge of this clear correlation between the success of companies and the number of languages they support.

In a few years either you will be a global company, or you won't be a company.

What role can machines play in this?

Google Translate isn't going to cut it. You need people to be involved. You also need flexible options. Computer translation may be okay for SKUs, but marketing and FAQs and all of that needs real translators.

It's expensive to buy from big translation agencies, because they just turn around and buy from smaller freelancers. 50 percent of the process and cost is project management. We make software that automates a lot of that. We can also handle all of the reporting: What if you knew you were spending $200,000 on translation, but you also knew that it was bringing in revenue that was directly attributable to that?

How'd you get interested in this?

My background is as a computer engineer, but I studied linguistics. I grew up in a military family and spent nine years as a military pilot living and working all around the world. I saw that language is so critically important to culture.

What has surprised you about building this company so far?

Companies of all sizes are becoming more agile. They want to move faster and deploy more features and content on a more rapid basis. If I'm pushing a lot of content in small batches on a regular basis all around the world, I need help managing that process. That's happened more quickly than I thought it would.

I've also been surprised at how quickly companies mobile first companies like Path are launching in 20 languages. There is such a connection between localization and mobile.

Why is that?

Around the world, 1 million people log onto the Internet for the first time every day. They say, "I just got this device. Let me check out what this Facebook thing is about." You know where that is happening? It's not here in the US, and the device they are using to do it is a smartphone. Pretty soon we won't even call them "smartphones" we'll just call them "phones."

Those people have money to spend, and they are going to spend it over mobile devices. It's surprising how quickly this has happened. The more languages you are in in the App Store, the more downloads you will get. That drives your App Store rankings, which is important to everyone these days.

The No. 1 thing you can do to grow your mobile business is to be in 20 languages right away.

Startups are resource strapped by definition. How much does that cost?

It depends on how much content you have. You may be able to ask your community for translation help. It can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $30,000 and anywhere in between.

Which languages are most important to be in and how is that changing?

The way to think about it now is which countries have money to spend. I know that sounds a little crass, but the correlation between the number of users who speak a language and the share of wallet isn't the same. The ones companies prioritize are still the ones you'd expect: French, Italian, Spanish, German. Portuguese is important, and the Olympics (in Rio) will solidify that. Japanese, because there is a disproportionate income level relative to the number of people. But Chinese, Russian, and Indonesian are all up and coming languages.

Does it matter what kind of Web company you are? If you are media versus ecommerce for instance?

It's early on the media side. One particular challenge is that international ad markets aren't where they are in the US.

Ecommerce companies are different. It is so easy to get around the world now and to fully internationalize shopping carts and payments. There's also a lot of international traction in social. When it comes to companies like Foursquare and Path and HotelTonight and Spotify -- the world latches onto these brands immediately. There is no barrier anymore.

There used to be this sense that if you mis-translate, you would damage your brand forever and the translation industry feeds on that. There are all sorts of horror stories in the industry about what a brand may mean in other languages, and almost none of them are true. [The fear means you need an agency, because] no one person is really qualified to manage this, because only a few people speak five or six languages well, and no one speaks 20.

What is starting to happen now that I'm excited about is that people are treating translation like software bugs. They fix it quickly and iterate rapidly. You translate, get input, fix it, move on, and that's the end of it.