Internationalization is one of the top issues of the start-up scene. These days, for a company to be successful, they have to expand past the limits of their domestic market to reach audiences around the world. This global communication, however, can pose communication challenges.
99designs is the largest online marketplace for graphic design. We connect more than one million global designer with clients from around the world. Established in Australia and with headquarters in Oakland, California, we have offices in Berlin, Brazil and Japan. But it gets even deeper than that: the team in our Berlin office is comprised of people from seven different countries.
Because of this, our everyday work is full of both internal and external communication challenges:
A variety of different languages makes exchanging ideas with colleagues, designers and customers a tricky endeavor. Content on our websites and in our marketing materials requires intensive translation work (Google translate just doesn’t cut it).
Time zones and distances
In a global company, well-organized communication is essential. Working in multiple offices across large geographical distances and time zones makes it difficult to find meeting times, let alone maintain a consistent corporate culture.
Language is only one part of communication, culturally-rooted behavior is the other. Europeans can be reluctant to make big moves, and repeatedly rethink decisions, whereas in the US, everything is bold, fast and optimistic. The Japanese, on the other hand, tend towards extreme politeness and modesty.
Laws regarding privacy, copyright and usage rights, trademark rights, etc. vary across nations (and even states) and can complicate corporate communications. A 1-to-1 acquisition of campaigns and content in all countries is almost always excluded.
Having a company based on the internet means you don’t have to limit your business by geographical boarders, but you’ll face a whole new set of communications challenges. Based on experience, here are our 7 tips for optimizing international business communication:
1. Hire an international, multilingual staff
To make things simple, 99designs picked one official language—English—to use for internal, corporate communications. But it’s also indispensable to hire professionals from the countries your business is targeting, who are not only fluent in another language, but also know the local needs of the area, and can contextualize your external communications to avoid possible cultural missteps.
2. Create different language versions of your website
One of the best things you can do is have your site translated into local languages (rather than rely on Google translate’s epic skills). Luckily, there are some great services out there—like Smartling, a translation management platform—that make it possible to quickly roll out websites in different languages and keep costs under control.
3. Establish a regular meeting culture
Emails cannot replace face-to-face communication. Establishing a regular, real-time meeting for sharing between teams in different countries is important for a smooth workflow. Video conferences with Blue Jeans or Google Hangouts contribute to a healthy corporate culture. If time differences are a problem, set this meeting up to occur on a regular day of the week/month, and allow your employees to flex their schedules to accommodate it. This leads to less resentment if they have to come in early or stay late occasionally.
4. Come up with an effective data flow
Knowledge is power. Cloud storage solutions—such as Dropbox and Google Drive—make it easy to share data and documents with colleagues all over the world. It’s easy for these systems to get messy, so it’s also important to map out some best-practices for what needs to be shared with whom, and come up with a shared file-structure. Similarly, web-based project management systems—like Basecamp, Atlassian and Trello—simplify collaboration. They allow the easy assignment of tasks, and commenting to keep everyone organized.
5. Have a real-time communication solution
Not everything requires a long email or face-to-face video chat. When things are urgent, or there’s a quick question, chat programs, like Slack, offer a great solution. The social component of these types of messaging systems (burrito emoji definitely included) also bring your team closer together. It’s pretty validating to post an update and wake up in the morning to your counterpart in Australia reacting to it with a unicorn.
6. Offer customer service in the local language
Speaking a common language generates feelings of closeness and trust. It is important, therefore, to offer reliable customer service in the local language, both on the phone and via email or chat. Customers really appreciate this small detail and it allows you to build relationships.
7. Budget for travel
With video conferencing and all of the other above-mentioned technology it may seem pointless and expensive to have your employees travel halfway around the world to meet their international colleagues (where we all know they’ll spend their entire per-diam on beer). However, the value of travel cannot be underestimated. Not only will employees create relationships—and relationships mean better collaboration— but they’ll have a better understanding of the different cultures in which your business operates. At 99designs, employees regularly visit worldwide offices and temporarily work from these spaces. It’s amazing how much more can be accomplished in one week in the same place than in months or years of telecommunications.
International communication is always going to be a challenge for business, but with a good strategy it can be enriching for all, and lead to more effective collaboration and faster growth.