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Breaking the language barrier in business

Jai Kumananthaa Raaja
19th Nov 2016
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With the fanfare over Indian startups now becoming more commonplace, the focus is now turned to keep the old horses among them running. Newer entrants into the field have taken cues from the blunders of their elder counterparts during the Indian Startup Boom.

India, as unique as it has been through the ages, has been a tough nut to crack for any business, especially in terms of truly becoming a pan-Indian brand. A large part of this is attributed to the myriad languages the country is bestowed with. The sheer fact that the nation is yet united despite this eclectic mix should make every Indian feel blessed and proud.

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A question then arises as to how the startup uproar could happen with language being a pain point. It should be noted that all the brouhaha has taken place only in the major cities of India where the foreign language, English, has been the savior. Only when the market in these tier-1 cities, as they are called, has saturated, have firms come to understand the real face of Indian demography.

Interestingly, three startup founders, with humble origins in tier-2 and tier-3 cities, found themselves put in a tight spot due to their difficulty in English during their early days: Ram Prakash Hanumanthappa of Tachyon Technologies, Rakesh Kapoor of Process9, and Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm.

What this reiterates is the fact that a vast majority of people in our country are still uncomfortable in the supposedly universal language called English. A change in mindset is what is required to take the Indian startup growth story forward. As Jeff Bezos of Amazon said, “People who are right a lot of the time, are people who often change their mind. Consistency of thought is not a particularly positive trait.”

Now what has been done, and what could be done, to traverse this so called barrier? As the famed Irish Poet, William Butler Yeats put it, “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” To give a few examples, there are many who have woken up to this fact and taken steps to use it to their advantage. The following is applicable for both the product-based and the service-based startups.

Make hay while the sun shines.

Many new firms have come up to provide solutions and turn this opportunity into a business. It seems that such firms are here to stay as long as we find a common language for every Indian. Since this seems a remote possibility, the sky is the limit for startups which aim to broaden the reach of different languages to a vast majority of our countrymen.

Get your hands dirty and research

Startups should define their audience and have a thorough understanding of their needs and preferences. This is as good as any marketing research, but the difference lies in getting to know their linguistic tastes. A good number of firms have come out with flying colours through their meaningful adoption of regional linguistics into their businesses. Although it may seem very trivial from the outside, considering the fact that web and mobile applications can be translated to local languages, the technical demands to achieve this make it a gargantuan task.

Turn to the traditional ways and vouch safe

Although mobile penetration is rapidly increasing even in smaller towns and villages, precisely our ‘problem areas’ here, there are still millions of people who are yet to graduate to using smartphones. Hence startups, especially those in the product category and also a few in the service category, could still make use of conventional media of print, radio, and television to spread the word. But be sure it is in the vernacular. Also take it slow and steady, testing waters before taking the plunge. Pilot studies provide a lot of insights.

Also give a shot at the digital medium

Although there are many who still remain happily ignorant of the rampant technological advancements, there are others who aspire to be tech savvy and have an affinity for everything digital. So get them onboard while they wait to embrace you with open arms The sheer untapped potential is elucidated through GoDaddy’s attempt at localisation. As highlighted by Tuck Lye Koh, founding partner and CEO of Chinese venture capital firm Shunwei, “It (referring to language) complicates scaling up opportunities and alienates a lot of potential users.”

If you ever want to solve the puzzle that is India, be one among the local people. Do not make them feel like you are aliens trying to conquer their territory while executing on a global scale. David Oglivy, the Founder of Oglivy and Mather once said, “I don't know the rules of grammar... If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.” Echoing this view, Lee Iacocca, the legendary executive from Ford, and later Chrysler, has this to say – “Talk to people in their own language. If you do it well, they'll say, 'God, he said exactly what I was thinking.' And when they begin to respect you, they'll follow you to the death.”

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