As an American living in Warsaw, I’m faced with having to struggle my way through language barriers every day; simple tasks leave me wondering if I successfully ordered food or inadvertently insulted someone’s mother when I get silence and a frown as a response. As a consultant to startups in Warsaw, I’m well aware of the challenges and insecurities that non-native speakers face when it comes to communicating in English.
It’s a Challenge for Europe in General
As the European startup scene booms in cities like Berlin, Paris, and Warsaw, the need for better international communication will become one of the most important factors for success. For any European startup to be huge, they will eventually have to step beyond local borders and into the international marketplace. In many cases, the largest barrier to entry will be the language barrier, and will come down to how you get your message across in English.
For example, startups in Berlin have overcome some of the hurdles by recognizing the need for international talent. They are eager for outsider advice, and aren’t afraid to incorporate foreigners in their team structures, or outsource projects to native English speakers.
Many French startups as well are recognizing the need for a “Resident American”, someone who can help navigate the business over cultural gaps and bring European startups closer to American markets. (http://pandodaily.com/2012/08/31/why-french-startups-want-an-american-touch/)
Get a Native
In general, Polish startups should start thinking about hiring more international talent.
While working with successful Polish startups, I’ve noticed that they have one of two things in common. They either have a consumer-facing business presence in the U.S., or an executive team which have spent a length of time in a major U.S. city.
Of course, not every startup has the luxury to either of these scenarios. The good news is that there are other, cheaper, and effective ways for making sure your message is clear. Sites like odesk.com make it easy to find native English technical writers and copywriters who can offer affordable and efficient services to get your materials and communications vetted before you send them to recipients.
In addition, European startups in general tend to wait to bring on quality English copywriters, waiting for the product or service to be locally successful until they see the value for fine-tuning the English communication. The problem is that this method prevents American media from picking up on your idea, excluding potential foreign investors or clients the longer everything sits unedited. The English-speaking blogosphere communities will pass on reporting something which may seem unrefined, or unfinished upon release.
Your startup’s English is not a luxury that can wait until the right moment—it is a critical fundamental for building an international brand.
Why It Matters
When I was working in Silicon Valley, an international co-worker of mine politely asked my boss over the phone, “Can I nail you down in the conference room?” Which, unfortunately, means that she wanted to have sex with my boss in the office. Of course, what she meant to say was “Can I nail down a time with you in the conference room” in order to schedule a meeting, but it was too late, and we were all laughing hysterically.
The truth is that mistakes like these don’t always make such good stories, and the person on the other end might not be so enthused. In fact, most mistakes are pretty boring and only serve to trip up the reader or listener. At the best these mistakes are awkward and embarassing, at worst they can make your startup’s image seem immature and unprofessional.
You Can Start Right Now
Don’t be afraid to start asking native English speakers to check your English materials and communication. Start with the most important documentation first (e.g. website, decks, user guides, and whitepapers) and then move on to things like improving email communications, practicing public speaking, and other realms which rely on communication.
If you absolutely need to do documentation by yourself in the early stages of your startup, always use Google to search for key phrases and check your grammar. If the results return the grammar construction, chances are good that it’s safe to use. If you are writing documentation which you are unfamiliar with, check online for other businesses’ public whitepapers, user manuals, etc. and borrow ideas from them. You’ll find that most of the documentation out there looks quite the same and structures information in a similar way.
Eventually, you will want a native English speaker to help you out, whether it’s a friend, video game buddy, or a paid consultant, you’ll be grateful when they return with all the red marks and save you from putting up the equivalent of a naked ass on your home page.
Check out the video below for one of my talks that covers some general tips and common mistakes that Polish speakers make.