I have a weird feeling. I am currently on a paradise island, sitting by the beach looking at the waves tirelessly massage the white sand. The sun is shining, things couldn’t get much better than this. Except, the internet is broken. I can’t get online.
The phone line is dead, and so is the DSL connection. Not only that – my wife took the kids to Four Seasons to have some lunch and do some shopping, and she took my iPhone. I’m in a remote villa, far away from even the nearest village, without any means of communication.
The world could end right now and I wouldn’t know. There is absolutely no way to get in touch with me and I cannot reach anyone. Mark Zuckerberg, with all his 600 million friends, wouldn’t be able to reach me no matter how hard he tried.
It shouldn’t be that weird though. I often travel and I am used to being disconnected during the flights. In fact, I often dream of going for a vacation somewhere with no internet at all. The biggest problem now is the fact that I didn’t expect the internet connection to die. Today was supposed to be business as usual and I was going to be connecting with a lot of people.
I can keep working to an extent. I can write some blogs, tune up a business plan, organize documents, etc. But sooner or later I need to be online. It’s actually quite scary to think how much I depend on the internet. I’ve organized my life such that I am almost completely location-independent. I can work anywhere in the world and I can move around freely as long as I keep my laptop with me. And as long as I get online.
Ironically, if you’re reading this post the internet is back and the world is connected again!
Update: No, the internet is still down at the villa, but in a show of Mauritian hospitality, I am typing this at a nearby villa where the friendly owners let me user their Wifi. Unfortunately the signal is not strong enough to carry to our side, but this works, too.
Here’s a question I’d like you to think about: what language do you prefer to be served? I mean in general, when shopping, calling the cable company, accessing government services or any other daily duties. Would you like to shop in your native language, or would you be OK with English? And if English is your native language, then how about taking care of your daily duties in Spanish?
The view on multilingual services varies greatly depending on where you are. If you ask a random American, they’ll probably say that English should be made a mandatory language and everyone in the world should learn to speak it. Except, if this person represents the 1/5 of the American population that is not natively English speaking. They would likely feel it’s important to be able to continue using their native language and stay in touch with friends and relatives in some other country.
Now, let’s go global and ask the same question from a random Chinese person. The first problem is that he or she will likely not understand anything we say, so we’ll first have to get the question translated to Mandarin (or Cantonese, depending on where you are asking the question). Once we get this part done, we’ll receive an answer and then get it translated back to English. The odds are our target person only cares for services in Mandarin or Cantonese, as one of those would be the only language they speak.
If we ask a Swiss, they’ll likely have a preference on the main language they receive service, but they will often be ok with German, French, Italian or sometimes English or even Spanish. Ask a Finn and you will hear mostly Finnish or Swedish. Currently I am in Mauritius and the locals here are comfortable speaking in English, French or Creoli, which is the native language for most of them.
The point is, if you want to reach a global audience, you need to be prepared to serve people in their own language, no matter how dominant you think English is in the internet. Facebook would not be at 500 million global users without the 70 or so languages the service supports. They could do a lot better job in supporting friendships between speakers of different languages, but the key is that at least they let people use their native language to access the service.
This has been true for retail sales forever, all kinds of products you can buy at your local market always have text on them in the local language (and possibly a number of others). For some reason we tend to forget it when we create websites. Most of the websites serve just one language group, even though the service would work equally well to people in other language groups.
The thing that caught me by surprise when we first built Xiha was the attitude from several venture capitalists that nobody needs a website that works in multiple languages. Why? Because everyone speaks English. Or French. Or Chinese. But not many languages. Let’s ignore the fact that this is not true (more than half of the world’s population speaks at least two languages) and assume that this is the case. Let’s over-simplify the situation even further and say that people in France speak French, and people in China speak Chinese. And I guess people in England speak English.
Now, even if everyone speaks just one language, you will still want your web service to work in as many languages as possible, or you will be limiting yourself to only a small portion of the internet users. According to Internet World Stats (www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm), just 27% of the internet users are English speakers (again, many of the non-English speakers might understand some English, but remember that we are now assuming each person can only speak one language).
Chinese comes at number two with 22% of the internet users, and the remaining languages each command for less than 10% of the total. The fastest growing languages in the past decade have been Arabic, Russian and Chinese, and in fact the number of English speakers in the internet is growing proportionally slower than the total number of internet users, so the percentage of English speakers will continue to decline even as the absolute numbers grow.
By offering your product or service in multiple languages, you can easily multiply the size of your potential customer base without any significant extra work. The technology is at the point where translations are accessible to everyone and neither the price nor the required technical skills are a real barrier anymore. There are services, for example PremiumFanPage which is a product of my company, that help you take your website in a number of languages even if you personally don’t speak any of those languages.
It may sound like a solid strategy to build your service in English first, and once it captures a good market share of the English speaking users, then expand to Spanish, then to French, and so on. The problem with this idea is that the technology is evolving really fast now and a lot of companies and individuals out there are really good at reacting to changes in the market. By the time your service takes off in the US and you prepare for foreign expansion, the Chinese, French and Swedes will have already saturated their local markets with copy-cat products.
What is a good solution, then? Go global, and go multilingual, from day one. Your customers will love you for serving them in their language. For a long time it has been a known fact that one of the best ways for a small startup to win customers from a giant market leader is by providing excellent customer service. There is no better way to get started with that than providing your website in as many languages as possible.
I’m writing this watching the Indian Ocean waves gently touch the beach in front of our rented beach villa in Mauritius. It’s really amazing how moving from the short, dark and cold days of Switzerland to the tropical sunshine of Mauritius makes miracles to one’s feelings in just a few days. We obviously need sunlight.
Something that I have learned of Mauritians so far is that they seem to have no sense of time whatsoever. Perhaps it’s the paradise-like environment where they roam day in and day out, around the year. Or perhaps there’s something in the water here. The locals told me they drink the local tap water, but I should not.
If a taxi drive in Mauritius tells you the drive will take 20 minutes, it’ll probably take an hour. If he tells we’re almost there, just five more minutes, be prepared to wait for at least another 20. And if you agree to meet someone at 5PM, they will arrive at 6PM or later.
In fact, being just about one hour late is so common here that I started to question if I really have the wrong time. It would be odd, since the iPhone gets the time from the mobile network, Mac gets the time from Apple servers and Google surely has some great place where they get the correct time from.
Still, I had to ask. Our maid told us she’d arrive 9AM, and sure enough it was just about 10AM when she showed up. I didn’t want to seem rude so I waited for another hour and then casually asked what time it is. She checked her watch – eleven! So, they do know the time but they just systematically arrive one hour late.
I would call it a coincidence, but we’ve been here for almost a week now and not once has anyone been on time. Even the room service at the hotel we first stayed at came after 1.5 hours of wait. Half an hour was the estimate.
The upside of all this is that the locals don’t seem to mind waiting, either. When we go shopping, the taxi driver is happy to wait outside, even if it takes several hours. I am guessing since it’s not the tourist season, they have no customers to drive anyway. Generally, there is no extra charge for the wait time as it is always cheaper to take a round trip than a separate taxi both ways. Obviously this goes well with the relaxed island lifestyle.
The most special taxi driver has been a guy who drives with license plate number one. His grandfather had the first car on the island and got the license number 1, which in turn was transferred to his dad and then to him. When the time comes, he will transfer it to his son!
When in Rome, and so on. From now on please excuse me if I appear a little sloppy with timing, I’m just trying to get accustomed to living in paradise!