Swedish Startup Space

Should your startup work in Swedish or English?

Written by on August 22, 2013

“Localisation is important to build customer trust, but English is the only way to go global”

 

This is a sentiment spoken about a lot within the startup community and of course, English is indeed the only way to go global, but how does running your startup in another language affect the company locally? Will not having Swedish alienate Swedish users for example?

It would seem that the majority of startups I met in Stockholm conduct their internal and external communications in English – as to not alienate non-Swedish employees and of course, most startups are aiming to find a global audience.

Something to consider though, is how does the language-spoken affect customer adoption and trust in local markets? I met with a number of companies who expressed concern that, if they didn’t have their service in Swedish – local customers wouldn’t trust it. I’m confident it has a lot to do however, with the industry in which the company is working. Interestingly, Carl Waldekranz – CEO and co-founder of Tictail has stated that Tictail in Swedish was one of the most requested features from users – interesting because one would’ve thought that Tictail users would be more than comfortable using the service in English.

I set out to talk to some of Stockholm’s hottest startups and find out which languages are used in the office and with customers.

Sabina Schött – head of marketing at Virtusize

“We speak both English and Swedish at the office, however our working language is English. About 90% of our time is spent on partners and clients outside of Sweden and we also have colleagues that doesn’t speak fluently Swedish. It’s also much more time-efficient to have all documents and emails in English so we don’t have to spend time on translations in the future”.

Petronella Turesson – marketing and communications at Magine

“At Magine we work in English since a big part of the staff are non-Swedish. And all job postings are in English. However, TV is local and out service needs to be localized to have a chance to reach a broader audience and go mainstream, which is why we communicate with our customers in their local language”.

Lindsey LaMont – marketing at Truecaller

“Well you already got my two cents on this one. At Truecaller, we have been global since day one, hiring people from both inside and outside of Sweden. All our copy is in English, so we reflect what we market. Therefore, our startup works in English. We send our emails in English even if it is from one Swede to another. This is so if the email gets forwarded, everyone can be in the loop. However, if two people of the same language are having a conversation, they can speak in whatever language is more comfortable. But if another non speaker of that language is present, we keep it to English so everyone is included in what is going on around them in the office. I think we bond a lot better if we all speak the same language because then there won’t be any ‘cultural cliques’ that develop. No one is left out. I feel though, that if you want your market to be global, you reflect that and speak in a global language; which is of course English”.

Micael Widell – CTO at Fyndiq

“At Fyndiq we switched the official language to English on the same day we hired our first non-Swede. The switch was pretty simple and undramatic, only felt weird for a couple of days! The rule is that all written and spoken communication which might reach a non-Swedish employee must be in English. If I discuss something with Swedes within the company it is of course okay to do that in Swedish. We were a bit afraid of starting to hire people who do not know Swedish at first, since our whole business is in Swedish. But it has worked very very well and we are very happy with recruiting outside of Sweden now!”.

Charlotte Grahn – communications and marketing at iZettle

“At iZettle, our company language has always been English–but with staff from at least 18 different countries (that’s how many I can think of off the top of my head) you can expect to hear a number of different languages being spoken around the office. Externally, our main language is also English but we do try to localise as many parts of our service and communications as we can since we’ve seen that this is something our customers really value”

 

  • Siam Choudhury

    Nice article on an interesting topic. For internal communication it makes complete sense to use English widely, especially if the team is internationally diverse.

    For external communication, or offering a product in local languages, it becomes a more interesting challenge. For small, growing companies, English is a great way to get started. They can grow quickly into new markets, grabbing the low-hanging fruit (customers willing to at least start to test the product or service in English). But eventually the demand for in-language support/product will grow and the speedy growth gained initially by using English, will be smaller than the opportunity for local growth. See Germany as an example. It’s a huge market and it’s possible to make an entry into the market in English, but if you really want to have a foothold there, you will need to localise.

    I guess it’s a question of when it comes clear that resources need to be put in to gain that further growth.

    More of these kids of discussions. :)

    • Alena Rybik

      Yes, agree completely with you Siam.

    • jamespember

      Great discussions guys.

      Great point regarding the local issue Siam – and that’s what we’re hearing from a lot of companies here – to really get high penetration in a local market, the local language can be necessary.

  • Alena Rybik

    Good topic, thanks for bringing it up. I think it definitely should be English, mainly for recruiting purposes. With Swedish startups growing like mushrooms after the rain, it’s getting harder and harder to get hold of well educated and highly experienced people. Many companies are losing amazing specialists coming from other countries, just because of the Swedish language, which is a shame for both parties.
    At Freespee we try to stick to English during meetings and in company emails, because we have employees who don’t understand Swedish. But chit-chat mostly happens in Swedish of course.
    When it comes to customers though, communicating in their language is important, especially for German speaking countries. You can’t really expand to Europe if you don’t localise.

  • Jonathan Bean

    Excellent discussion and topic. At the end of the day each startup is in a battle for three things – customers/users, investors and talent…and the size of the Swedish market makes this a challenge on all three fronts. Let’s not get into the discussion of the reality of “born global” companies as evidence suggests that even though we may think the web has made it easier to both create and do businesses across markets – the political, legal and regulatory environment as well as customer/user habits make “going global” a challenge. In terms of talent and investors – English is the only option but to build significant user/customer market share local language is key. As with any organisational decision making diversity of thought and therefore language and nationality – aids better decisions….so the more the merrier in my book. Don’t have any evidence but feel that this issue ie language as well as timing of first international hire, customer, office, investor, manager is a key success factor for a Swedish startup to go “global” or at least achieve success outside of Sweden. I will publish some more research on this next year…James will be coming your way to get your views…keep up the great work with SSS.

    • jamespember

      Great feedback Jonathan! Would love to talk more about this in person sometime.

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