Localisation is usually not high on the priority list of North American and European companies. No doubt, an English-only product can take you far. It’s the lingua franca, understood not only in its native lands but throughout most of the developed world. What works in San Francisco or London might work just as well in Berlin, Paris or Mexico City. You can add a few Asian markets like Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines, as English is well-spoken there.
Unlocking a market of 2.3 billion
So how about China, the biggest market missing from this equation? English is definitely spoken by the thin elite in China, but not widely understood by common people. China has its very own ecosystem of apps and services you probably never heard about; and while you might think this is because of government censorship (see Facebook), the main reason is the language barrier.
There are more Internet users in the Mandarin-speaking markets than the total population of the United States, doubled.
People's Republic of China
Population: 1 370 800 000
Smartphone penetration: 42%
Internet penetration: 48%
Smartphone users: 574 200 000
Internet users: 658 000 000
Population: 23 470 000
Smartphone penetration: 65%
Internet penetration: 80%
Smartphone users: 15 255 500
Internet users: 18 776 000
The language barrier is a lower in countries with more Western influence, but it’s still there. The biggest markets in this group are Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and to some extent Malaysia (although you might have success there with an English-only service). The total number of Internet users equals to the total population of the US, and it's exploding especially in Indonesia and Vietnam.
Some markets might be less lucrative at the moment, but they have a huge potential. Getting a foothold in Myanmar or Cambodia today will pay off enormously in just a few years. Internet penetration in Thailand was 26.5 percent back in 2012; now it's 54 percent. If these two countries reach Thailand's Internet penetration level (and they certainly will) that's a new market comparable in size to Canada or Italy.
The best kept secret about localisation
Localisation has an amazing return-on-investment. There’s simply no better way to unlock a market of 2.3 billion potential users, especially if all you need is translating and adapting a product like a smartphone app. It’s getting more expensive if you want to provide localised services (customer support, etc), but it’s still very affordable.
So what if your idea is an ad-supported to-do list app for iPhone and Android? Well, good luck with that in the US or Europe. There are so many that even productivity geeks lost track of them years ago. Let us tell you a secret: you will find very few designed for Thai-speaking users. The market is simply less saturated. Or did you know people are making a fortune in 2015 by creating the first used car classifieds website in Myanmar? It’s an even less saturated market.
These markets are there to conquer for the bravest and most adventurous. Are you one of them?