shopify localization leader giulia greco
Localization Leaders

Localization Leaders: Meet Shopify’s Giulia Greco

Localization Leaders

This month, we sat down with Giulia Greco, Head of Localization at Shopify. Shopify is an international ecommerce platform that serves 4.4 million ecommerce websites globally. Their platform is currently available in 22 languages. Read on to learn what brought Giulia to Shopify, how Shopify approaches localization, and how to overcome the challenges of growing into new markets.

Can you tell us a bit about your career path and how you ended up in this position?

I am a certified translator and an interpreter by education. I’m originally from Milano, Italy, which is where I studied. When I was very young, I was a freelancer. I liked interpretation more than translation — I actually interpreted for Pope John Paul II, which I would say was the highlight of my career…it was an insane experience.

Anyway, at some point when I moved to Canada, I stopped being a freelance translator and interpreter because there wasn’t a lot of work in Italian which is my mother tongue. I ended up working in more marketing-related positions at different companies doing different things like project management, account management, and event planning.

In 2016, Shopify was hiring a team of translators, including an Italian translator. I applied and got the job. From then on, it became clear very quickly that the translator job was much more than just being a translator. It was the act of translating, but also establishing Shopify’s presence in any one of these given markets that they selected.

The growth marketing department did this as a bit of an experiment. They were running a very successful blog that still exists today. Back in 2016, it was being read by over 2 million people, mostly in North America and other English-speaking countries. And they thought, “What would happen if we translated this blog in a number of main languages like German, French, Spanish, and then Italian, Brazilian-Portuguese and then Japanese?”

And obviously, what happened was growth because we were providing something that didn’t exist there before. Leads started coming in from these other markets and from then on, we grew the program into something big.

We, the translators, started flagging the fact that a blog is good, but there should be a website first. So, I translated and localized the website in Italian and then we started with the blog. Then, we realized that our backend wasn’t translated. We’re bringing in all these customers, they’re signing up for the free trial because of our marketing efforts, but then when they sign up and try to use Shopify, the backend is in English. So now they’re churning because they can’t get past the language barrier. Eventually, about a year later, the company put in the effort to create an international product line and began doing internationalization properly.

I slowly transitioned out of being the Italian content marketing and localization expert, and I took over more of a global scope. Shopify technically was no longer a startup because we were already public, but the mentality was very much the mentality of a startup, so it was normal to wear many hats. I built the international content marketing for the Netherlands and the one for Brazil with the help of freelancers.

It was a beautiful thing; I had a lot of fun. Eventually, I just gravitated more toward localization. We got a new Director of Localization who was very well respected in the localization industry, Daniel Sullivan, and he said to me, “You’re a bit of a unicorn. You need to pick either international content marketing or localization, you can’t keep on doing both.” And he was right because it was like a tug of war, it was unsustainable in the long run.

I decided to go with localization because I loved it and I wanted to learn more and really the majority of what I know how to do, I learned it on the job at Shopify and I learned it because of my wonderful boss Daniel, who is an incredible coach and mentor.

What a story! That leads us to the next question, how do you handle localization at Shopify today? How is your team or department structured?

Because Shopify grew so much so fast, we ended up having three and then four different teams doing localization at Shopify which meant that we were fragmented.

There was the growth marketing localization team, the team I’ve always belonged to, and a smaller product localization team that is responsible for translating the backend of Shopify, all the apps, and the web properties. We then added the support localization team. We now have a fourth team that handles the buyer-facing content, like the Translate & Adapt app at the service of our merchants.

This setup might have made sense at the beginning because we had a lot of work to do and everybody was focused on what they had to do with very different mandates, efforts and KPIs. But it eventually became apparent to us that the fragmentation was actually more of a hurdle than a good thing and we started thinking about centralizing localization.

This idea wasn’t initially well received, but eventually, when you talk to everybody who actually does localization on the ground, you realize that everybody agrees on centralizing it because fragmentation leads to duplication, of course.

Too many tools and not a single point of contact leads to confusion for our internal stakeholders too — the rest of Shopify doesn’t necessarily fully understand what localization is, so it was confusing for them. “Why can’t I come to you for this thing? I found these problems; can you fix them?” And I have to say, “Actually that’s not me, that’s the other team.” It’s not ideal.

We’re undergoing an effort to centralize right now. The marketing localization team has joined forces with the product localization team. We’re learning about each other and figuring out how to work as one team instead of two different teams. The hope is that the other two teams will join us soon. I think that we first need to get properly organized and set up the two big teams, show the benefits, and then it can happen naturally.

Can you tell us more about the marketing localization team?

The marketing localization team is the largest team and the team with the most specialized roles. We have a terminologist, a data analyst, and a vendor manager on staff. These specialized roles are key components of a mature localization program that companies usually don’t have in the beginning. It has made a tremendous difference being able to hire people for these positions and having someone who’s dedicated to vendor management, data analytics and terminology.

The terminologist works within all the teams, including teams that have nothing to do with localization, like technical writers, copywriters, etc. Let’s say we have a new feature, and we need to name it. The terminologist works with those teams to ensure that whatever new name is chosen will be something that’s going to be easy to translate and localize so it doesn’t create a problem in any country that is important.

How many languages do you support today?

We have 22 languages on the backend and support, 14 languages for marketing and then 33 buyer-facing languages, so they’re not all at parity. This is because we were not one centralized team.

That’s interesting because usually, the marketing team supports more languages than the back end. Why is that?

Yeah, we decided to be very intentional with launching any new languages. We wanted to make sure we could support the ones that we do have properly, rather than being spread out too thin with too many long-tail languages that don’t necessarily have in-country teams. There are a few languages that we support in marketing that had one or two Shopify employees that were in-country. We no longer have that, which has been a big problem. I find it very problematic when you’re supporting languages and there’s nobody on the ground in that market or locale to verify and review.

At the end of the day, you need someone who is internal to Shopify who fully knows the strategy and the tactics and what each type of content is supposed to be doing so that they can inform the vendor.

Now, we don’t really have that. It’s not necessarily that the translations are wrong, but we may be missing the mark if the translator doesn’t understand how the specific project that they are handling is supposed to convert or whom it’s supposed to convince. We also may need to adopt a certain type of voice and tone that’s slightly different than normal, but that’s something that only someone who’s internal can know and can adjust. We don’t have that for all the languages, and that’s a challenge so we decided not to expand to more markets.

If we cannot get a guarantee that we have headcount to hire an in-market content marketer, an integrated marketer or a linguist, then I don’t feel like I can properly support the language the way it needs to be supported.  We do have Denmark, Korea and Vietnam, but we don’t have anybody on the ground anymore. So, we consider those our long-tail languages, and we don’t make a lot of effort there.

What do you think is Shopify’s greatest localization strength?

I think that our biggest strength is the fact that the entire company is supportive of localization. We’ve been very lucky. Nobody thinks that we shouldn’t localize. If anything, we have the opposite problem.

We have too many people, too many teams coming to us and saying, “We need localization, we want to do this, we want to do that.” And I’m like, okay, hold on for a second. Let’s think about this. Let’s be strategic.

Our biggest strength is the fact that we have informally done a good job at explaining what localization is, explaining that it is a growth engine and making that accessible and easy to understand for everybody so that we do have that support.

There’s such a strong appetite and a strong enthusiasm from our colleagues who don’t necessarily fully know localization, but they just embrace it. That allows us to be cherished and respected as a team that is known to work well with others.

We do work with everybody, and we feel like we’re not ostracized at all. And I know that’s not the case for everybody who works in localization. There are people in companies where they’re treated poorly and they’re not appreciated, and that’s not our case.

Did you find that you had to educate your colleagues about localization a little bit?

It’s an ongoing effort. Some people already know localization from past experiences, some people don’t. When they don’t, we have to do a little more hand-holding. It’s usually an effort that’s shared by everybody on the localization team.

Any of our localization program or project managers are well equipped to explain our processes, our systems, what we do and why we do it. That is usually welcomed and appreciated.

When people are not sure how to talk about localization, I think that it’s never a bad idea to bring some examples that show how localization maps to growth because inevitably, if you didn’t have something and then you have it, it’s going to bring some results.

For example, if I don’t have my website in German and French and then suddenly I have it, then obviously people in Germany and France are going to notice and you’re going to get more sign-ups. It’s inevitable. This is just pure logic, so it’s not astrophysics. That’s what I always tell people. You can propose it as an experiment. You can keep it as a pilot to do something small, but because there was nothing there, it will for sure show some results and then you can build upon that.

That’s true, but don’t you need more than just a website? Don’t you also need SEO, promo, social media, campaigns? You need the entire flow.

Oh yeah, you need the entire flow. Even when we launched the blogs back in 2016, we had to do a lot of SEO work and then we started promoting the blogs on Facebook. I ended up running social media in Italy. When I was in charge of the Italian market, I founded a Facebook group that had insane growth. It was an ecommerce Italian Facebook group for people that were interested in Shopify, which I found very effective because I was the Shopify person. Any Italian who was interested in Shopify would join the group. They were also using the group as tech support, which was not ideal because I’m not tech support so I had to constantly redirect them. But in terms of creating traffic and community engagement, word of mouth, all of that, it was incredible. It really worked.

Canva is doing the same with local communities around the world, and they are very strong because users want to engage with the brand, they want to ask questions, and they want to see what’s new.

Were there any markets that were particularly challenging to break into for any reason? You mentioned not having someone on the ground, but do any other challenges come to mind?

I want to say Brazil because Brazil is so big and you have so many people there, so at first when you do marketing efforts, you get an immediate return and there’s a lot of interest.

But from an ecommerce standpoint, Brazil is very complex and requires a lot of internationalization first and a lot of product market fit work that needs to be done to ensure that your product actually works there. The way they are set up in terms of payments and compliance requirements is very different from any other places where we’ve been. And because it’s so big, if you win, you win big, but if you lose, you also lose big. I feel that we went into Brazil without fully realizing the internationalization effort that was necessary.

It’s since been deprioritized a little bit because I feel that we needed to make a deliberate, conscious decision to go in and fix all the friction points first before building successful localization on top. From a marketing standpoint, I know that we have a ton of sign-ups and a lot of leads, but I also think that we haven’t solved all those terrible friction points that the Brazilian merchants are struggling with.

There’s a high churn rate, basically. And the ones who stick around with us, they stick around, but they have to find workarounds, other ways of making it work. It’s a patchwork of solutions and none of them are ideal. They’re very cumbersome, they’re not streamlined.

I think you need to adapt the product before you even localize the language. I mean, if I could have a do-over and I was in charge of everything, I would say let’s not even try Brazil until we make sure that we internationalize our product based on what Brazil needs first. Then, we go and do localization. At that point, your growth is sustained and should be long-term.

Any piece of advice that you would like to give to people in localization and those who are just starting their career?

That’s a hard question because I fell into it in a way. I mean, I do have a translation and interpretation background like many people who end up in localization, many have started as translators. But I kind of fell into it and then I fell in love with it. I was lucky enough to find mentors and people who were willing to share their knowledge with me.

If it’s something that people are interested in and passionate about, there are a ton of free online resources these days, from reading your blogs, to podcasts and free online events like Loc Lunch.

I think that’s the silver lining of the pandemic — it really democratized access to all these resources and made learning almost always free. People can learn a lot just by networking, reading and self-teaching themselves things. I know that there are formal programs, and I don’t want to take away from them, but they’re not always accessible to people. Not everybody can afford to enroll in Middlebury Institute or attend LocWorld, and luckily there are a lot of other free options too.

If you are a translator or someone that works in the world of languages and you’re interested, I think that you should just start by trying to network and talk to people to figure out an entry point.

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Corinne Sharabi

Corinne is the Social Media and Content Lead at BLEND. She is dedicated to keeping global business professionals up to date on all things localization, translation, language and culture.

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