Winning big by going global: When to do it

April 18, 2016

It’s funny (read: frustrating) to read the stats that localization companies have to use to get potential customers interested in localization. 56% of customers prefer to read in their own language! They’re 5x more likely to buy your stuff if it’s in a language they understand! Etc. It’s amusing that the idea of connecting natively needs to be sold. Do you “prefer” to see traffic signs in a language you can understand? Do you “prefer” to be able to read directions on medications?

There’s a big difference between your product being in 20 languages and your product feeling local to every user in every market. Having a global market opportunity doesn’t necessarily translate into success in local markets, but when localization is paired with a focused, intelligent global product effort, it can.

Savvy companies know that this global product buildout is a must: the question is when to do it. In a series of posts, we’re going to benchmark the go-global efforts of four consumer apps—Dropbox, Instagram, Foursquare and Pinterest—to try to answer the “when” question. In some ways, the number of languages these products are in are proxies for the number of markets that these companies care about: and that means localizing not just interfaces but also go-to-market, growth and partnership strategies.

First up: Dropbox.

Dropbox’s international user growth


1. When did they add languages?

Dropbox didn’t add any languages until a full four years after product launch. Given how intensely the Dropbox product team worked to perfect the user experience, it’s understandable. Today, there are products on the market that can help teams ship fast across languages, but it was much harder to be iterative and multilingual when Dropbox first launched.

In their first localization, Dropbox started with the languages of the countries they saw the most number of users from at the time: Germany, Japan, Spain and France.

The new languages allowed the company to pitch, win and benefit from a consumer deal with Samsung later that year to pre-install the Dropbox Android application on high-end smartphones.

The company couldn’t scale product internationalization until their first senior hire in July 2012. After a year on the job, the new team launched Dropbox into 9 new languages (Italian, Korean, Malay, Bahasa, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Simplified and Traditional Chinese), bringing the total to 14.

The company added 7 more languages about a year later. The two big jumps in international users as a % of total users happened after the company added the first 4 languages, and then the additional 9. International users are now 75% of total users, more than half of revenue and a significant source of new signups.

2. When did they add people?

The addition of the first 4 languages was driven by the Dropbox engineering team. The engineers sent software files to professional translators, who parsed the strings and returned software files back. The engineers built a feedback mechanism into the main interfaces that asked a French user, for example, what they thought of the translation. Suggestions back from the community of users were sent to the professionals, who could revise their translations with the most popular suggestions from the user community, who know the product better than most professional translators might.

The senior hire in 2012 seems to have been a key enabler of the subsequent scalability of the localization process, and in turn, the growth of the global user base (an additional 100M international users in the first year alone). Dropbox’s localization team is now ~50 people across the company’s US and global offices.

3. When did they seek global partnerships?

The short answer: at around 25 million users. Since the Samsung deal in October 2011 that pre-installed Dropbox on some Samsung smartphones (with free storage for those users to boot), Dropbox has also inked distribution deals with Vodafone and Ingram Micro, which broadens their reach into APAC and European markets.

In Japan, Softbank is the sole distributor of Dropbox for Business, a deal that’s expected to add a million enterprise users in Japan.

It’s a brilliant growth strategy, enabled by the ability of Dropbox’s teams to continue to pump out improvements that can quickly be marketed into dozens of languages and markets. On the enterprise side, these stakeholders will be hungry to validate the Dropbox partnership, so localized content that can help move the Dropbox for Business product will be key.

Growing from here

There’s no such thing as a cut-and-paste growth strategy. Every company’s path to acquiring international users is different. For Dropbox, timing of localization was about waiting until they knew their product was working; getting the engineers onboard with localization before scaling out the product internationalization team; and using partnerships to drive international user adoption. The result of Dropbox’s approach is one of the best localized consumer products in the world: simplicity and language that feels local to every user, and a product that, for many international users, was introduced to them via a trusted brand.

Growing the Dropbox product from 350M global users will not be easy, even with $1B on the balance sheet. Though it’s unlikely to be a blueprint for most companies, it will be fascinating to watch.