A Must Read True Story - How Small Companies Can Go Global

With the advent of the internet era, businesses of all sizes can go global with nothing more than a networked computer and a touch of entrepreneurial savvy.

A small bedroom business in Kent can communicate with a client in Australia or Canada as though they are in the next street, thus the boundaries of time and distance have diminished thanks to digital communication and the World Wide Web.

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Christian Arno is the founder and Managing Director of UK translation company Lingo24. Armed with a degree in languages from Oxford University and a passion for the flourishing e-business boom, Arno founded Lingo24 as a fresh-faced 22 year-old in 2001, from a spare bedroom at his parents’ home in Aberdeen.

With the help of a £5,000 loan from the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust, his main aim was to create the ‘top online brand’ in translation services, through running his business entirely from home. Arno says:

“Whilst there was the obvious advantage of having a short commute from my bedroom to the office, the main benefit of running a home-based business was reduced overheads. I was able to offer major clients prices up to 30 percent cheaper than our competitors.”

For companies that are trying to get a foothold on the domestic business ladder, working from home is certainly a good starting point. When an organization has only a handful of people on board, paying for premises is a needless expense.

Furthermore, with digital, web-based technology such as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOiP) software like Skype, instant messaging, email and telephone conferencing services, almost every business activity can be arranged remotely. Communicating with colleagues and clients across the world can happen with nothing more than a computer and an internet connection.

Indeed, whilst keeping costs down allowed Lingo24 to grow a lot quicker than it otherwise may have, Arno made the decision to launch virtual offices elsewhere too, with several key home-based personnel being taken on board in New Zealand in 2003 and China in 2004. But the big change came with his decision to open physical offices, starting with Romania in early 2005 and then Panama and Edinburgh in 2008.

“There are strategic reasons why I opened all these offices where I did”, says Arno. “The skill-sets in these particular locations combined with the multiple time-zones means we can literally operate around the clock. Plus, running a home-based business gets a lot more difficult when it gets over a certain size, so having people working together in offices is vital after a while. This really helped us to communicate more effectively both internally and externally.”

Web technology also helps Lingo24 run a paperless office system. “All our documents are stored remotely in a secure central hub in cyberspace. Our staff across the world all have access to the same customer database and online ordering system, meaning we never have to post, courier or fax any documents anywhere. This creates substantial savings for us”.

All companies can use the same application, Arno believes. “Remote storage saves on office space, furniture and staff time. With encryption it’s just as safe as physical storage, if not safer. Then there are tools such as Google Documents which enable real-time collaboration on spreadsheets and text-based documents. There’s no shortage of free resources”.

But how can small businesses market themselves abroad? Tackling international markets may seem daunting at first, but laying the foundations to tap into new markets abroad isn’t as bad as it first seems.

“Ideally, you would always want to speak to international customers in their own language, but with limited resources, this may not be possible initially”, says Arno. “So try your luck in English at first.”

English is spoken to native standard by 13% of the European Union, but it is spoken to a reasonable standard by over 50%, and if your service and prices are good enough, many customers won’t mind doing business in a non-native language.

But Arno advises: “Because standards of English will vary greatly across Europe, it’s best to keep your wording simple, avoid colloquialisms and avoid any references that could have different implications in other cultures. Once you get some initial success, you can start to think about translating your website into another language…one that you know will bring you a lot of additional business such as French or German, which are big business languages in Europe. However, if there is great demand for your service in another country, you should prioritise accordingly.”

So what countries should businesses target abroad? “Well, the best way of knowing this is to research the local competition in a number of countries”, says Arno: “If there are similar organisations operating in the market already, that’s a good sign, as it demonstrates a genuine demand. However, you must be wary of too much competition, as market saturation makes it very difficult to make inroads.”

Website localisation is a cost-effective way of tapping into new markets. The majority of the internet is written in English, yet the majority of the internet users’ first language isn’t English, so there is a clear gap there.

Lingo24 launched a Danish-language microsite in early 2008, costing only £100. “Sales in Denmark increased significantly, simply because our online visibility had improved”, says Arno. “We then recruited a Danish-speaking Account Manager to manage the new influx of orders and saw a 350% rise in Danish sales in the six months to April 2009.”

Lingo24’s global expansion has seen turnover rise to £3m in 2008 and is expected to rise to £4m in 2009. With an increase of 6,000% in turnover since those early home-working days, Arno has this final advice for entrepreneurs seeking to grow their business:

“Take things slowly at first – don’t dive head first into anything that will cost you money. Spend a little money gauging the efficacy of your online marketing strategy and if it shows success, spend a little more money taking it further. Carefully managed growth is the key to success – don’t try to get too big too quickly.”

So there you have it. Companies of all sizes can go global without breaking the bank, all that’s needed is a networked computer, some entrepreneurial know-how and a touch of patience. And remember...take things slowly at first!

About Lingo24

Lingo24 is a global translation company that also specialises in website localisation. It has over 100 employees based in the UK, Panama, Romania, China and New Zealand, and a network of 4,000 translators. Its projected turnover for 2009 is £3.7m.

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