It is an old cliché that the world has shrunk. As a result, companies and individuals can operate and compete globally. These days, it’s a given, so no matter where you start as an entrepreneur, you can freely imagine that your business will succeed across borders in the long run. It’s a small world now, say the “coaches” who dominate the online stage. So your dream can expand in all directions, as much as you want. Granted, entrepreneurship has changed for the better over the last decade for ordinary entrepreneurs like you and me; see those who have no special assets or preferential access to funds.
This popular hypothesis makes some logical claims, like: “fast and cheap internet is available everywhere. No matter what part of the world you call home, chances are you are connected. Online collaboration tools are becoming more intuitive than ever. There’s an ocean of open-source, affordable software which ensures that no one is left behind. All you need is a laptop, and you’re ready to shine.”
Basically, they say, global success, fame and …the big bucks aren’t that hard to come by. Just put in the hard work and stay focused. Every day there is an overwhelming influx of mind-blowing stories to back that up: “From zero to hero” read the catchy titles: “How a three-person home business is taking the world by storm”. Earn up to $100K a month with this side-hustle”.
You get the idea.
Of course, as with all things in life, where you start from plays the definitive role.
We’ve seen startup entrepreneurs succeed and serve the world from every corner of the globe. These are the stories that make headlines on technology websites and social media. We tend to believe (or fool ourselves) that these are prevalent. They are not.
For the majority of startups (and I know this from inside), access to funding and venture capital is a midnight summer dream. Most of the time, it is a struggle to get on the radar of US- or UK- based venture capital funds or angel investors.
I’m sure several startupers can recognize themselves in this kind of story. They started with all green lights and tons of energy, drive and ambition. Lots of work went into creating the strategy. But after a few months, the “vision” wears off. The burning hot ideas become lacklustre, buried under piles of notes and emails. The “yes, we’re interested, let’s talk” response they’ve been waiting for so eagerly, is not there, sadly. It seems they are not getting very far.
A shockingly tiny percentage of new tech companies succeed and even fewer survive another five years. Founders, entrepreneurs, investors and analysts, all know this well. Once you gain maturity and experience — including ditching a few startup projects that didn’t make it after all-you get to a place where you see mistakes and decisions with clarity.
One day I was sitting at the waiting lounge of a prominent VC firm. They had funded dozens of successful companies and managed funds worth hundreds of millions. You get to meet “those guys” just once in a lifetime.
Their offices were a newbie’s wildest dream of success. One could imagine Gordon Gecko waiting behind the lavish, massive wooden door.
If you are a startup guy or gal, you simultaneously fear and worship Venture Capital, as if they were God: It can be your saviour or your slayer. You get to pitch, and despite the apprehension it brings, you eventually come to like it. It’s a form of acting, the only difference being that you have only your script to reference — you have very little clue about the audience’s expectations.
So you learn to pitch, pitch more and get better. If you’re lucky enough to have a good mentor, you gradually improve your presentation skills and keep practising for the next appointment and the one after that. Eventually, you become obsessed with the upcoming meeting. You actually spend more time practising than working on technical development or marketing.
Then the big day comes
The show is about to go live. The robust idea has been reworked a thousand times; Dozens of insanely polished PowerPoints, sent out to potential investors, are proof you did the hard part.
Now, standing in front of an unknown audience, You have to persuade people you’ve never met in person, to invest in you and talk them into believing in your idea. So you brush up on the skills you think are needed before you walk into the meeting room. “Make it short! Make it sharp!” the voice in your head says. “Show them the bigger picture. Focus on vision and scalability, skip the nitty-gritty”.
My business partner at the time leaned on my shoulder and whispered as if he had a top secret to share. — Are you good? he asked in agony .
- Sure, I said, and I must have not sounded convincing, judging from my cold palms and heavy breathing. ‘What about you?’ I asked back.
Yey, business, as usual, he said, trying to sound cool. I am cool.
And off we went as the assistant waved at us.
A few years later, we remembered that moment and others that followed. You can imagine we didn’t make the funding round that day. But man, was it big!
If you are one of those one-hit entrepreneurs, who have made it to the doorstep of those legendary Private Equity Houses, you live with unanswered questions long after that pitch: Where did we go wrong? you ask yourself. Was the financial plan unrealistic? Maybe the revenue model was too far-fetched? Did we overlook the caveats of our strategy? What areas do we need to improve first?
Now for the hard questions.
In the end, was it “us” they didn’t like, or the business model as such? Or perhaps both? What if we had come across as more confident and bold? These questions keep surfacing over time.
Looking back at this and other (non) deals, I can’t help but isolate this one burden, weakening “our” side versus rival teams.
I know you guessed already: The Language Barrier. Elementary, right?
You see, our team invariably had to pitch, present, elaborate, document, negotiate and explain in English . No exceptions. Each and every meeting ever was held in English. Period. The problem is, not-one of us was a Native English speaker. Yes we were advanced, even proficient. But nowhere near Native.
All other things “equal”, that must have been the deciding factor. But stating the obvious is not the point I am trying to make.
No matter how many years you study English as a second language (or any language for that matter), and even if you get a chance to live overseas, can you really become a native speaker, ever?
Let’s say you have the will and persistence to learn and practice for years as you should. At some point, you will eventually become proficient. But “native speaker?” Nope.
Although a dozen different nationalities came together in our various projects, we really seemed to miss that skill .
What kind of colleague did I crave then? Well, how about someone who would be able to ignite a conversation out of nothing. Someone who would throw a funny, spot-on joke, naturally, even when surrounded by “strangers”. Someone who would build a natural rapport with the ‘judges’’ sitting on that VC meeting.
So I am asking you, the reader, if you happen to be Australian, Canadian, Briton or American: Have you ever interviewed for a job, in a language other than English? Has there been a case for you at work, where you had to prepare proposals, bid documents, research papers or reports, in any language other than English? How often do you get to deliver a client presentation or produce a company video, speaking another language? Very rarely, if at all, right? Do you often join a cocktail or networking event where no English is spoken? When was the last time your colleagues from another corner of the world, welcomed you at their branch office expecting you to speak their language?
If you are coming from outside of the Anglophone world though, whatever you’re up to in life, you will have to vie against native speaking rivals sooner or later. They will have the upper hand in nine out of ten cases and will be able to dominate the conversation whatever the context. They will express themselves sharply and effortlessly. They will improvise at will and throw the latest and most relevant buzzwords in the discussion.
To this day, I see this disparity prevailing in nearly every sector: Consulting, Finance, Arts, Research, Science, Education, Media, Advertising, Law, Banking… you name it.
If one is to be selected for an important presentation, the non-native speaker does not stand a chance. Unless they are a geek assigned to explain technical concepts or algorithms to other geeks, in which case verbal competency might be deemed less important.
On the other hand, for Anglophones, this is absolutely normal. They don’t have to try nearly as hard as everyone else. The world is full of possibilities for them.
“Whatever your circumstances, chances are they won’t feel an urgent need to take lessons in a foreign language to survive. Good ole’ English is all they need. They ’ll verify that for a fact well before college. And even if you don’t make it to college, depending on your other qualities, you still have the option of starting out with a menial job, say at your local McDonald’s or Tesco.
I can’t imagine they ask you to speak German, Dutch or French for that, do they?
This is not to say that it is easy (or hard) to land such kinds of jobs. But you have one barrier-less to tackle. And its a huge relief, whether you acknowledge it or not. Granted, Spanish is more common in some places, or even French, Italian and Russian. But do you absolutely have to speak those, in order to survive?
Will your daily tasks require you to spend hours searching through dictionaries or translation tools? No.
In other parts of the world, however, where languages are “a thing,” people actually have to learn English as a foreign language. Unless they were born into mixed-race families and English was predominant, they are certainly up for a challenge. They will start off as beginners to later become intermediate then advanced and so on. It is an exciting, yet very long journey, which entails serious effort, absolute commitment and a lot of money. Even then, there is still plenty to learn, e.g. business or financial terminology, medical vocabulary and so on, while new parameters come to play all the while, including local accent and idioms. The list is endless.
Unsurprisingly, AI companies have taken steps to solve the language barrier. Once again, in most apps that have popped up recently, English is the “reference language, the bridge between phrase A and B, whether machine-generated or human. It’s pretty similar to what the US dollar stands for in currency exchanges.
While I am no expert on literature or linguistics, my prediction is that Machine Learning and AI technologies still need time to get to a point of natural, imaginative translation in any context or topic. Until then the business paradigm in the Western world and beyond will be driven by English speakers. No reason to bemoan or be jealous. It is what it is. But it can’t stop me from calling it by its name:
“The most unfair business advantage of our times.”
Thank you for reading, following and giving me a hand.