When CBL Data Recovery Technologies Inc. decided to expand to Malaysia, it seemed only natural to feature the company's regional website in the Malay language.
Turns out that was a bad business move.
"We ran the site for a while, and the Internet was sort of friendly to us," says CBL president Bill Margeson. "Then one day my partner calls and says, in the region, business speaks English. So we switched the website landing page to English, with an option to switch to Malay, and that's when the phone started to ring."
For many small and medium-sized businesses, international expansion is a tall order. Language hurdles are especially common, so much so that a host of specialized services have been designed to take the headaches out of foreign markets.
With offices and labs in 18 locations, and dealing with 14 languages, CBL has faced many of these challenges head on. The company itself is no stranger to adapting. Founded as a hard-drive repair company in 1993, at a time when new hard drives sold for as much as $3,000, CBL was reshaped by its founders into a data recovery firm a few years later, when the price of hard drives began to plummet.
"We're the last resort guys – fire, flood and folly," says Mr. Margeson. "We make our own tools, seeing things no one else can resolve. Pretty soon, people start sending you projects from around the world."
Virtually everything about CBL is designed to cope with the cultural and technical challenges of international expansion. The company's regional offices are all arms-length companies that work together. This is especially useful in locations such as China and Brazil, where CBL is forced to reinvest much of its profits back into the local offices because local laws make it difficult to take profit out of the country.
"In Brazil it was very complicated," Mr. Margeson said. "I remember the tax consultant flipped a chart and said there were 58 different taxes we may have had to account for."
The Chinese government tested the company with a series of small jobs before hiring them to do multiple projects in Beijing and Shanghai. In India, CBL received some 900 inquiries about projects – only 100 actually materialized.
"They'll do a lot of tire kicking and 'is that your best price,' then they try to solve it themselves," Mr. Margeson said.
Today, a host of services help small-business owners set up in foreign markets. Google, for example, offers a translating service that lets companies put up mirrors of their websites in other languages. The tool is designed to save businesses the hassle of hiring a local Web designer and approving content from scratch in an unfamiliar language.
However, all automatic translation services are imperfect. In addition, some companies have gotten in trouble for content that, while perfectly acceptable in one part of the world, is considered offensive in another. CBL runs a considerable risk of doing just that, with websites that carry content in languages as varied as Arabic and Japanese.
The company uses a number of tools, including a virtual private network, to try to keep its branches on the same page. It also relies on video-conferencing, and runs a company Wiki to share information.
But ultimately CBL navigates the local waters using local help. In most of its regional offices, the company relies on people who know the lay of the land – from German speakers who can help with intricacies of the language to Japanese locals who understand why customers there are willing to pay a 500-per-cent markup for data recovery services, compared to their North American counterparts.
Indeed, the company has gone even further in its quest for expansion.
"We've abandoned the thinking of places as countrywide," said Mr. Margeson. "Now we see them as city-states – Beijing, for example, is a world unto itself."
But even with all the technical and operational tools the company employs to bridge gaps, there are some headaches CBL can't get rid of – for example, time zones.
"Day and night is still a problem," says Mr. Margeson. "I spent Monday evening at the lab speaking to Asia Pacific – a call at midnight is always fatiguing."