No Matter Where You Are In The World, There’s No Place Like

October 30, 2006

Rick Segal is one of my favorite venture capital and a must-read for anyone with a startup or considering  joining/starting one.  After a recent trip to Estonia, he just posted an article where he asked the following question during his trip:

“Does it bother or concern you that English appears to be the native tongue for the Internet.”

From what we’ve read, the statistics have remained rather consistent since 1999, about 70% of the textual content on the web is in English and about 30% of web users use English.  Rick poses some questions that in some ways form the basis of the rationale behind forsalebylocals.com – my attempt to paraphrase his posting would be “is there sufficient interest in localized content to make the extra work worthwhile “. He goes on to note many of the same issues that we noted when started our company and have discussed in other blog articles. is a useful metaphor for being what I’m term “globally local”. For the non-technical folks, it represents is the IP address for what’s known as localhost….the internet address for within your own machine. No matter where you bring your computer in the world, it will always respond to as being local.  Since English speakers can almost always find local content regardless of location they are by default both local and global users of the internet and much like, “globally local”.  On the other hand, non-English speakers are not necessarily always global users of the internet.  The level of penetration for the language matters as does one’s ability to navigate otherwise poorly translated sites (machine language translation simply isn’t at a point of being useful in a lot of cases).  

Rick wonders about various issues associated with how he’ll provide global content in an efficient manner for a recent investment in B5 networks and provides some observations of web sites that he has visited.  The concept for ForSaleByLocals started with a similar, very mundane observation: after searching for international properties, we noticed that web sites that presented information in listing formats often had translation available for the relatively static site information but hardly ever had translations for the more dynamic listings.  We’ve seen a number of sites fully translated into 6 or more languages with the listings in [insert German, Turkish, Bulgarian, Spanish, etc. here]

We set out to validate the idea that one might be able to build a viable business around the “long tail” of international users that would prefer to view content in their language, currency, and units of measure of choice.  We also believed that there was a set of content providers out there that  wanted an easy way to manage their content across languages (and contexts as well but thats a different article) and tie into an actual human translation workflow. Rather than try to “boil the ocean”, we choose a single listing format style area as our focus (real estate because we like it and invest in it, but it could have been any listings based product). We spent 6 months building a web software component that manages content, geolocation, and determining user context for things like advertising. We’ve built (and are continuing to build out) some automated network infrastructure for more globally applicable tasks like rendering video/audio content. We were able to exercise many of our processes in our alpha phase with the assistance of a number of real estate agents and sites that provided content. As a result, we think that we now have an efficient methodology to tie into team processes like translation and media post-production that (still) require humans for best results especially when production is required in volume.  Though we have not yet fully validated the idea, we’ve already seen enough interest to believe that we can build a viable business.

We’ve also learned a lot since starting this project. We are certainly willing to share our observations. Keep in mind that we have been focused on English, Spanish, and Portuguese (with Japanese and French following in a few short months) so your mileage may vary with the below comments in your particular locale and language area.

 Here are some of the interesting things that we’ve found so far:

– Certain organizations “get it” and are finding opportunities for growth right in their own backyard without even having to go international. This year in particular, I’ve noticed sports shoe ads and National Football League commercials on my US cable system that are completely in Spanish. We’ve had particular interest from a few forward looking companies that want to get ahead of the wave.  Even the US Government is beginning to recognize the need to provide content for those with limited english skills.

– Many Americans and companies don’t recognize the rising economic power of certain non-US born populations. If we look at real estate as an example, the New York Times has a recent article about how 2nd generation immigrants will likely provide the buying power behind the next housing boom. Many Americans also don’t realize that US real estate has become about 30% cheaper over the past few years for those with euros that can take advantage of a weakening US dollar.

– Not Serving Entire Populations Leaves Money On The Table. With so much emphasis on “eyeballs” for startups, huge numbers of interested people and potential revenue are being ignored because of the web 2.0, web 3.0,…web n.0 business strategy that seems to focus on the Silicon Valley as a customer base. It seems as though most business models can benefit by chasing international users. Ad-based business model? All eyeballs count as visitors regardless of location and Google can even serve up localized ads.  Subscription model? Most payment gateways including Paypal accept international credit cards via their APIs. Affiliate business model? Amazon ships just about anywhere in the world. 

– Usage habits on our Spanish and Portuguese blogs seem different than on the English blog. Almost all of our site hits happen Monday through Friday…very few hits come on weekends or in the evening. This may or may not be indicative of anything worthwhile (especially given our vistor numbers) but it has been very consistent since the beginning of publication of both blogs.

– Americans tend to think of China and India when thinking about tech and markets outside of the US. India and China are amazing tech centers and growth areas but certainly aren’t the only tech savvy fast growing web populations. From what I understand from friends with access to worldwide user data for various well known online services, the growth in Brazil and other parts of South America are just as fast (in some cases, faster) as Asia. I’d love to btter understand why many US startups have a business plan that may require them to average $N from the web 2.0 crowd but ignore the ease that they could gain needed eyeballs and advertising revenue from other populations just by making their content available in other languages.

– Accessibility is a huge issue. Many tools simply aren’t available to or known to international users. Most of my developers in South America have never heard of many of the online tools and sites that are common in the US.  Actually, many of these tools are not really known outside the A-list blog echo chamber either, but again, different issue.  Does not knowing about these tools portend of some fundamental lack of interest?  Of course not…geeks are geeks regardless of location. I’ve gone so far as to ask Robert Scoble to let us translate some of the more interesting video interviews that he has (at no cost) simply to make the information available to a larger audience…After several attempts at contacting him and only a one line email response in return. I’ve concluded that I’m either somewhere deep in his backlogged mail pile or he just isnt interested. Hard to know…

 Online mapping is another glaring example of a lack of accessibility. Though Google maps is available just about worldwide at a decent resolution, their geocoder that translates physical points into longitudes and latitudes only functions in Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the US. The rest of the world is apparently out of luck as far as generating longitudes and latitudes via their online tool. It isnt like the API doesnt work for locations outside of these countries..it does. The result? we had to build our own basic geocoder for the rest of the world (full story is here). Even more surprising personally as a former Microsoft exec, for all of the globalization work that Microsoft does in Windows, there isnt a usable resolution on the Windows Live mapping service outside of North America.  Try even getting data for hotels in a popular travel area such as Costa Rica using their service.

So, do we believe that the work will bring positive results? Until a few days, I could only answer based on anecdotal evidence.  Now, there are actual study results that show what each of us should already know.  Ask yourself two questions…”if the dominant net language was something other than English, 1) would you prefer to spend your time at sites in your own language if sufficient content existed and 2) how much time would you spend online at all if there were minimal content in your language?” Therefore, results that show  that customers are even willing to spend more money at sites in their own language should not be surprising.

See the problem? What are your thoughts? 

One comment

  1. I have posted a few things in spanish on my blog, but I would love it if I could provide a presentation for any language. I know how difficult it is for me when I’m using sites that are not in English. Was it a Star Trek movie where they had a device that translated for everyone so that no matter what language was spoken, the receiver would here it in their own language? I would LOVE something that worked like that.

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