How Localization Skyrockets Growth

How Localization Skyrockets Growth
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July 6, 2016
Renato and Michael with Georgia Vidler
What happens when a young company uses localization as a primary growth strategy in its early expansion stages, instead of waiting until it builds greater brand recognition and a stronger global footprint? Georgia Vidler, localization manager for Canva, joins us to discuss how localization helped this Australian provider of online design tools gain 10 million users in a matter of months—and why localization continues to fuel skyrocketing growth.
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Speaker Transcript
Renato Hi. I’m Renato Beninatto.
Michael I’m Michael Stevens.
Renato Today we have a very special guest with us, we’re going to talk about a fascinating company form Australia.
Michael We’re talking about rockets, or something, right? Sky-rocketing growth, something like that?
Renato Well, the interesting thing about our guest today is it’s a company that went from 0-10 million users in no time, almost as fast as Facebook. And they decided very early on to put localization in the strategy. Why don’t we get Georgia to tell us about herself a little bit.
Georgia Sure. Hey, I’m Georgia and, yeah, I work in localization and marketing at Canva. And, yes, Canva is basically, our mission is really to democratize design and creation in total. So, the way we’re doing that right now is through our web application which is really easy online graphic design tools, actually. And we’ve grown really quickly.
Michael But, if you democratize it everyone can do it.
Georgia Essentially.
Michael But there are some problems with that, right?
Georgia Why?
Michael Because then what are designers going to do because they were the only ones who knew how to use other products that are very intensive and all of that.
Georgia Yeah. I guess we’re not trying to kind of steal designers’ work. We kind of want to leave designers to do what they want to do which is do proper design, professional design. This is for non-professional designers, people who have their own businesses, they want to make marketing materials, they maybe want to make birthday invitations, wedding invitations, that kind of thing so it’s like everyday people who want to do good design and haven’t been able to in the past.
Michael So give us a little background of the – what do they call it – the founding story of the company, too, because that’s interesting.
Georgia Yeah sure. Canva, I guess the idea started maybe three or four years ago and we’ve got three founders, Mel, Cliff and Kim. Basically, that was Canva as a business, maybe three or four years ago, three people. Canva was, essentially, Mel’s brainchild. She came up with it when she was teaching design; she was actually learning design at university and then was asked to come back into the design and figured that she realized really quickly when she was teaching that designing was really, really difficult to do well because becoming a professional designer is a really, really complex process. So, she wanted to create a product that made that a lot easier; it rolls a lot of different tools and industries into one, really easy to use product. And it’s grown in the last three years to be over 100 people in two offices, in two cities, one in Manila and one in Sydney, Australia.
Michael And for a significant amount of time with your growth you didn’t have many other language options other than English, is that right?
Georgia Yeah, we’ve been completely English speakers’ product focused on the US market, essentially, up until six months ago.
Michael The impact that you guys had had to that point was roughly how many users?
Georgia Yes, in that time we grew to, as you said, about 10 million users and we celebrated that growth. I think we were on our team trip in Manila a few months ago and we celebrated 10 million users.
Michael That must have been a really fun moment.
Georgia Which was really fun. It was really cool.
Georgia So I guess when we say 10 million it sounds like this huge number and we’ve got three designs being created every second on Canva now but that is nowhere near where we want to be. Mel’s vision and the founding team’s vision is to make Canva a household product and a household name. And to do that we need to have grown a lot more than 10 million users.
Renato So, one of the things, there are many fascinating things about the story and product and one of them is that you’re an Australian company. And I wonder why you chose to focus on European languages and Latin America before you went into your neighbors, into Chinese, Japanese, which are big design countries to?
Georgia Yes, good question. Actually the first thing we focused on was Spanish and European Spanish. That was purely based on the fact that we had seen demand in that market. All the data that we had acquired up until that point, all signs pointed to Spain and Spanish speaking markets so that’s where we started. Then, naturally, we thought okay, if we’re going to do Spain and Latin American Spanish then it makes sense to do Brazil and Brazilian Portuguese, and then do French, German, Italian and Polish are the languages we’ve done. So, I think it kind of just because they are our first set of languages we wanted to do what was going to be easiest, so Latin derived languages, we wouldn’t have to solve as many problems with UI fonts and that kind of thing and we could learn as much as possible with what we considered would be the easiest languages to enter.
Renato Yes, it’s very interesting. Usually when we have conversations with clients about what languages to try, naturally, the Latin or Latin character set languages are among the easiest to try but if you want to really cover all of them you can choose one of the CJK, one of the double-bite languages, Chinese, Japanese or Korean and you should also try to get some of the bi-directional languages, Arabic and Hebrew. Are you going into this direction in any way?
Georgia We’re definitely looking at, we’re translating right now, actually, into traditional Chinese for Hong Kong and Taiwan. We’re also doing Japanese at the moment. Bi-directional, we did look into it and at first I don’t think we realized how big a task it was going to be to launch in bi-directional languages. We really want to get into the Arabic speaking markets, it definitely makes sense for us but the amount of development work required to completely flip our apps UI, just we didn’t actually have the resources at the time to commit to it. So, we’re looking at it now, though. We are definitely looking at it now.
Michael So, it sounds like it’s part of Canva’s DNA to be international.
Georgia Essential, yes.
Michael And it’s tied intimately to growth. So, when you guys decided to go international did you go according to a strict plan and follow that, of which you were thinking or did the plan change along the way?
Georgia Definitely changed. And, I think, actually everything at Canva changes all the time.
Michael That seems to be a tendency for growing companies.
Georgia I think so and I think you have to be like that. I think you have to accept that everything is going to change all the time because if you don’t and you’re failing and you’re too attached to a certain project or you’re too attached to a certain decision you’re just going to keep failing. I think you need when you’re this small and you need to grow, you need to be happy to adapt.
Renato So, you’ve been six months into this process, what is the biggest lesson learned that you’ve had so far?
Georgia Good question. I think one of my biggest lessons was that if you want to keep a small team internally, which we seem to be making decisions to keep our team small internally, we’ve kind of had to lean on partners and third parties to scale up the process and externalize the process. So, we don’t want to be constantly hiring more and more people to manage more and more processes and more teams internally. We want to lean on other people.

I guess we figured that out firstly when we started working with some freelance translators. So, we were managing them all separately; they were a kind of a team but we did have to manage them all separately. That was just for Spanish when we first launched. I realized that if we were going to be doing 20, 30, 50 languages this year I definitely wasn’t going to be able to, myself, manage that many freelancers for that many languages.
Michael A lot of paperwork.
Georgia It’s non-stop. It’s a lot of paperwork. We were still kind of figuring out our translation management system and that’s been a massive journey and figuring out how to track everybody’s word count and invoicing and all that kind of thing, that just wasn’t going to work.
Michael So you had to prioritize things about that. Since you’re not doing that, what is it that your internal people have spent time on related to translation?
Georgia We like to automate stuff. A lot of people I’ve spoken to at LocWorld, actually, aren’t automating stuff. So, even just like the handover between the translation into our web app, I’ve spoken to a lot of people and they have people manually doing that, copy and pasting strings into their web app every time they do a new release, or whatever. We’re releasing to production once a week and soon it’s going to be twice a week. So, yeah, it was really important for us to automate that whole process.
Renato It’s very interesting because the difference between a legacy organization and a brand new organization is that you don’t have the legacy, the challenges of the past and “this is the way we do things here”. So, you can be creative and innovative. So, the first thing that you notice is that you didn’t want to be managing process and tasks, this is something that is repetitive that can be done by an outside partner, an LSP or another organization. How about your role internally? Besides being the bridge between the organization and your localization partner, how do you spend your time inside Canva?
Georgia I guess I work with the team so my role, essentially, is coordinating the team. We’ve got a few developers on the team now, we have a designer, and we’ve also got an international growth person.

So, we’re doing lots of growth projects, we’re doing some engineering projects because, actually, when we started localizing we thought “how are we going to make Canva…” we had lots of different admin systems and part of our engineering timeline for the year has been to roll those admin systems into one and actually create a kind of CMS for Canva so that we can manage completely localized versions of the product. So, I think down the line the vision was to have the way Canva looks in Japanese or in Japan might be completely different to the way it looks in Spain and managed potentially by completely different people; the designs might be different; even the UI could be different.
Renato That’s a very interesting point because being a visual product there are a lot of cultural elements that are associated with visuals and also calendars and festivities, who does that part of your localization process, who adapts that element of, let’s say, you’re in Mexico, you have a Quinceañera, you’re in China you have the Chinese New Year…
Michael White Day in Japan.
Renato Black Friday in the US!
Georgia Yes, we’re definitely still working that out. That is not something that we’ve got a whole department working on or anything like that. Right now we’re just testing stuff, testing to see what works, testing to see what makes a difference and we’re doing that in a few key markets. And then, hopefully, once we’ve got this admin system built we will actually be able to facilitate this kind of…
Michael It’s beautiful to see the flexibility being built in from the beginning for that vision, you guys are thinking so far ahead of where you’ll be, it’s encouraging.
Renato This is a historic problem. I remember the first time I saw this was with HP when they started selling this ink jet printers and you received some simple photographic paper to make cards. They would ship printers with software to print the image of Abraham Lincoln; who cares about Abraham Lincoln in Argentina or in Germany? So, they had a project to localize images, or icons, they weren’t called emoticons or icons or things like that at the time; I’m talking about mid ‘90s and that’s when they started doing these acculturalization projects. But, this is very interesting and I wonder if you have a community or if you use a community of users in giving you feedback for this kind of stuff?
Georgia Yes, we definitely want to; that’s definitely something I want to do. We’ve got users in 179 countries and up until now I’ve been using a product in English but I’m sure I can leverage a lot of the knowledge that’s out there already.
Renato it’s very interesting that you are already in 179 locales and who are, just out of curiosity, who are the most active, do you track that, do you know what communities are the most active?
Georgia I’d say probably still right now the US is our most active because that’s what we’ve been focusing on; obviously, because we launched Spanish next that’s one that’s definitely skyrocketed. I mean, we’ve got almost half a million people on Spanish now, on that app in Spanish. So, because we’ve only just launched the next six or seven languages, it’s still super early days but we’re definitely tracking it all.
Renato And is there a big difference in the process and localization or your web platform and your app?
Georgia Our web is our web application and the app is just the iPad app. We haven’t chosen to localize that just yet so we’re basically just focusing on the core web app right now. Then, depending on demand and, I guess, different competing priorities within the business we’ll see if we can localize the iPad app.
Michael Let’s talk a little bit about brand because that is important to you guys. How would you describe the Canva brand for those who don’t know?
Georgia I would describe the Canva brand as a young brand. It’s accessible. Friendly. Somewhat unassuming. And, yeah, that’s probably how I would describe it.
Michael Have you had any changes to it since you focused on international? Have you had any surprises that you’ve had to maybe recalibrate a bit or how you communicated things?
Georgia Not really. There’s been lots of different challenges with the way we phrase things and how we translated certain things and phrased, because we use a lot of like, in our UI we try to be quite playful so there’s lots of like puns and funny things that are…
Renato Those are the hardest to translate.
Georgia … maybe from movies or quotes or something and they are the hardest to translate so I’ve had quite a few challenges with trying to localize quotes or puns because the way we write, not just in the app but in quite a lot of our content is quite quirky.
Renato Part of the puns and the word plays, the important thing from a localization perspective is that you want to have a pun or a word play there, not necessarily a direct translation of the pun or word play and this is something that translators, very often, have a hard time understanding; that if you have a pun or a word play that’s a placeholder telling you “localize this to your culture”. Make it fun, you don’t need to use the exact equivalent. And the best translators, some people will call this transcreation but the best translators are the ones that are capable of understanding that a pun in an app or in a device means “this is a place to put a pun; have a creative one in your language”.
Georgia Sometimes they don’t even realize it’s a pun and they just translate it.
Renato That’s not a good translator, then. But, Georgia, you communicate the launch of your product how, through emails, social media…
Michael How do people receive it when you…
Georgia We had a great reception, actually. We did a bit of a press launch as well so we got quite a bit of buzz around simply just the launch because we are now available in languages of about over one billion people worldwide, which is pretty cool. But, yeah, I think that I did have a little bit of a ‘stuff up’ when I did the launch of… it was actually seven languages.
Renato The eighth language is English – translate ‘stuff up’ from Australian.
Michael ‘Stuff up’ is my favorite new term.
Georgia Is that not a thing for you guys?
Renato I think it’s Australian!
Michael No, it’s not and it’s lovely. The other phrase I’ve picked up is ‘sticky wicket’. I like to use that as often as I can because typically in the US it’s cricket reference, a ‘sticky wicket’ and it’s when you can’t knock down the wicket. But, ‘stuff up’…
Georgia Is that meant to be an Australian thing, I’ve never heard it?
Michael No, it’s British. So, ‘stuff up’ is now going to be on my list.
Georgia Okay, what do you say?
Michael Every time I make a stuff up… screw up, that’s the nicer of the two.
Georgia Okay, I screwed up a little.
Michael You had to go nasally, like an American, okay!
Georgia So what happened was, we were launching in all these languages; I was sending out this email, it was like a launch email “Hey, to all of our existing users, hey, we’re available in German, we’re available in Portuguese, Polish, French, Italian” and I was managing these translations - not through our translation management system that we normally use in the normal workflows and stuff - I was just doing it over email. And translations got lost, most of them turned out fine but, unfortunately, I used the wrong translation for the Polish email that I was sending out and so I, basically, set up all these emails, sent them all off, scheduled them, went home for the day, and then I get a message from Mel, my boss the CEO, on Slack being like “what’s going on with Polish, there seem to be a lot of people tweeting, going a bit crazy online about some issue with an email, some translation, can we just stop the email right now?”

So, I rushed home, tried to figure out if I could pause it but, no, it had been sent out to thousands and thousands of people, unfortunately. So, she was like “why don’t you send an apology; that’s actually perfect, that’s probably the best thing to do in this instance is just apologize to people” and say how embarrassed we were and try to rectify it by saying “why don’t you get involved in helping us with the Polish translations in the future because you’re our Polish users, why don’t you help us make Canva really great in Polish.”

And so, obviously, this email that I was about send out that’s an apology to all our Polish users needed to be in perfect Polish because if I stuffed that up, if I screwed that then that would have just been pretty ridiculous, you know, doing it wrong again. So worked overnight with my translator and proof readers and QA people, to make sure this email was perfect and what I did was just before I sent it out I was like “I’m just going to pop it through Google Translate, just to double check” that’s like my last gate. So, double checked and it kind of started off like I had written an email and it was like “Hey there, really sorry about that crappy translation”; but the translation that I had been given said “Dear Users” at the very start, so I kind of like freaked out, right, that’s not the type of email I wanted to send out.
Michael And kind of not the tone of the brand.
Georgia Not the tone of the brand, yeah; we’re normally a really casual kind of brand, not too casual, we’re still professional but we like to be friends with our users. And yes, I thought “this is completely way too formal, it’s really not on brand”, contacted the translator and they actually wrote me this great kind of breakdown, two paragraphs of text just about this “Dear User” which was really great, really put my mind at ease and it was kind of going in Poland “you don’t want to be that informal, you are going to piss people if you’re that informal”.
Renato Especially in an apology, yes.
Georgia Trying to apologize, culturally, you actually want to be a bit formal, you want to say “we take this really seriously”… I’m not Polish, I don’t know cultural norms in Poland, so that was actually really great to someone, a native speaker, explain that.
Michael Yes and as a business you can’t know everything about your customers, no matter how much you care for them, to be able to get that kind of cultural education and insight demonstrates even a professionalism and greater care for your end users; then what was the response like?
Georgia It was great, it was a really good response. So, I sent it out; it was perfect and we got lots of people back on twitter being like “oh, we love you; it’s so good; don’t worry about it”. Some people were like “is this a hoax, were you just trying to get a bit more publicity”.
Renato It’s too good to be true.
Michael You’re like, “but now that you’ve mentioned it… Sorry Germany”.
Georgia Needed to do that for all of them!
Renato it could become a strategy, yes!
Georgia But actually, our apology email got twice the open rate of the original email so, you know, so, apologies work.
Michael What does that say about the psychology of people!
Georgia I don’t know, yes!
Renato Yes, but you see, here you have a couple of very interesting lessons from a globalization perspective. First of all you checked before you sent it; second you have a great partner, the individual translator who took the time to explain to you and you worked in conjunction with the translator. One of the complaints that professional translators have is that they’re not heard and we know thousands of professional translators who put a lot of effort and care into the things that they’re doing and the fact that you’re able to be matched with a professional translator that was willing to give you that feedback in a short period of time.
Michael And for them to have the direct business impact for their client.
Georgia Yes, and we sent it back to them as well saying “this is great”.
Renato And the third lesson is that communication generates business and one of the things that I love about the concept of globalization and localization is that we see this as, I call it “the enabler and multiplier”. So, if you offer your product in multiple languages you enable access to people who don’t speak English, and you definitely because you have more people using your product, you are multiplying your revenue. So, localization as an enabler and the multiplier is something that people should think about strategically but one of the great things that you have is also your speed. You are going at the speed of light…
Michael Skyrocketing.
Renato Skyrocketing your localization, your growth.
Georgia We are trying, we’re trying to grow fast. So, it’s been about six months and we’re already in eight languages including English now. And it seems like a lot quicker than a lot of other companies are doing it, actually.
Renato Yes, one of the challenges of waiting for localizing in today’s environment where start-ups used to take years to flourish, now they take months. So, if you wait too long and your product is successful you get a ton of copycats. So, localization is also a way for you to defend your product and your brand.
Georgia Yes, definitely. We don’t really like to focus on competitors at Canva, it’s just really not in our sights. We like to focus on our own product, innovating our own product and building our own team. So, that’s definitely not like our driver for localization but it’s a great bonus that we’re getting into markets quickly, a lot of the time we can be first to market and we can eliminate, not necessarily competitors that are there, but anyone who’s going to come in and copy us; if we’re the first ones there then we get that first to market advantage.
Michael I think there’s some conversation out there that you can’t go international fast enough.
Georgia Yes, and that’s kind of the sentiment that I think we’ve found, well at least Mel, Cliff and Kim, the founders at Canva found before, even before I started, I think they had a lot of advice from advisors and investors and different people in similar situations, in similar businesses, and said “yeah, we wish we did it quicker; we wish we internationalized quicker” because not just getting into markets more quickly but the changes you have to make internally and to the product, if we had to do that a year or two down the line the process would just be 10 times more complex. So, now that we’re starting to think internationally, now, we can deal with all of our new products with that in mind rather than having to come back and backfill everything two or three years down the line.
Michael That’s wonderful. Georgia, we can just continue to talk all day, it’s great. I’m sure people can listen to more of you; you guys did a great launch video when you released these languages; you are first and featured in it, you are speaking Spanish, it’s fabulous. So, if you want to see and listen to more of Georgia, check out the video, it’s going to be in the show notes, we’re thankful for this time, thanks for joining us.
Georgia Thanks for having me, it was great fun.

End of conversation

Georgia Vidler

Georgia Vidler
Georgia Vidler is the coordinator of internationalization at Canva, Australia’s fastest-growing tech startup. With the help of her team, Georgia is working to put the power of creation into the hands of billions of people this year by localizing Canva into at least 20 languages.


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