Recognizing where to be the expert and where to work with the experts was key to our success. An interview with Amir Helzer, CEO of WPML

Recognizing where to be the expert and where to work with the experts was key to our success. An interview with Amir Helzer, CEO of WPML

With the expansion of a global economy the world is becoming a smaller place, and translation and localization services for websites are a growing demand. We sat with Amir Helzer, Founder of WPML, to find out how he grew his company from a niche localization service to one of the most widely used multilingual plugins on the web!


HostAdvice: Tell us how you got started.

Our company, OnTheGoSystems, grew slowly. There was a lot of figuring out as we went forward. This was not a linear process.

We’re talking about 2008-2009. Nobody was selling anything for WordPress, a few commercial themes and that’s it. There are tens of thousands of products for WordPress today. At that time there were a few dozen. When we started Drupal was more popular for full websites and WordPress was used mainly on blogs.

We wrote a module which was able to manage translation jobs for Drupal at that time. Then we did the same for WordPress and eventually noticed that WordPress multilingual plugin became a product by itself. This product is WPML.

HostAdvice: What is ICanLocalize?

ICanLocalize is our translation service, from which we started the company. It has its niche market. It is intended for people who want to manage their translation work by themselves. It is a good alternative for when you want to work directly with the translators but want to have the convenience of the automation. You don’t want to send and receive files via email, you don’t want to worry about billing, etc.. All this overhead is not for you but you still want to work directly with your translators. This is what ICanLocalize was created for. We use it ourselves because we like to work with a specific translator, explain the business to him and he translates accordingly.


It’s not convenient for everyone. If you are too small, for instance, you have a very small translation job of only 500 words, it makes the overhead of explaining everything to your translator too high. On the other hand if you are too large and you have millions of words to translate every month also this stops being convenient because you need a larger organization to take care of translation. You need to have a project manager, maybe several, you need to have someone balancing and integrating work. ICanLocalize has it’s sweet spot, companies that are our size. We built something that we understand.

HostAdvice: If ICanLocalize is it’s own translation services marketplace then what is WPML and how is ICanLocalize part of it?

WPML is open to translation services. At the beginning ICanLocalize had privileges at WPML, it got better integration, support, etc. At some point in time we realized that this makes no sense. We understood from clients that the integration is important but it is more important to have an ongoing relationship with the translation service. So they would not move to a different provider because of the integration. We said, okay, this is the situation so we will work with different providers.


Today all translation services, including ICanLocalize, appear and work the same way in WPML. We use the same methods for ICanLocalize, that everyone can use at WPML. This is working out well. So we have new friends now and new partners and especially clients are happier because we don’t force anything on them. They get to chose who they want and we make sure that it works for them. At some point in time expertise is very important. We realized we are an expert in this part and we don’t want to be an expert in everything else. I want to make it convenient for other experts to work with me, not against me.

HostAdvice: How has opening up WPML to a balanced marketplace affected your partners and clients?

Since we have opened WPML to all kinds of translation services it’s become a lot easier for many different clients to get professional translation from inside WordPress. Now we are working with translation partners who do very low cost translation work, but still good because they have good algorithms to do that. Very fast turnaround at very low cost is appealing for a lot of WordPress customers. We are also working with other partners who focus on the enterprise. They have a more complex project setup but then everything just flies, they can deal with volumes. We decided that it is going to be unrealistic to take over the entire translation business of the planet. It does not make sense. We are never going to have the expertise for it. We are better to focus on the integration and make it possible for other translation services to get the projects that they are good at.

HostAdvice: You make another plugin called Toolset. Can you talk about that?

Toolset is intended to make it easy for people to add custom content to their sites without having to write it in PHP. Around 80% of WordPress sites today use custom content but it’s not easy for everyone. It can be a lot of work for people depending on the themes so the purpose of Toolset is to lower the bar significantly.


HostAdvice: How does it work?

Look at WooCommerce for example. The items that you sell are WooCommerce products. This uses the custom post type “product” from WooCommerce. Now let’s imagine you want to add some new content to your site, like “holiday.” You could use a standard WordPress page to write about the holidays but you’d be missing out on stuff. For example, a holiday is associated with a date and other fields that are not present in pages. So it would make sense to create a custom post type called “holiday” and add the fields that describe the holiday. So when you edit these “holiday” posts in the WordPress admin you see a list of fields, just like you have the “price” and “sale price” and all the custom fields in the WooCommerce products. So you would have all these custom fields for holidays and it will be very easy to fill out the information. This is “Types” plugin.

Now you need to display it on the frontend. For this we have the other component in Toolset, that will help you do that. The most basic one would be “Views” that pulls the data from your database and displays it. And another component is “Layouts” if you want to design how it looks visually, like a visual page builder. You can do all that in HTML and CSS but not everyone knows how to build that. Even if you know how, it’s convenient to work with a visual tool. This is what Toolset does. It lets you add to the WordPress admin, so it is easy to manage the content, and it will display it on the front end correctly for you. It works with any theme.

HostAdvice: How did you get to Toolset from WPML

We saw that many of the challenges for WPML clients related to adding custom types to their sites because adding it in an incorrect way makes it very difficult to translate. So we said we could build the plugins that will help you edit correctly without code and it will also help it to be automatically translatable.

HostAdvice: You are selling the WPML plugin directly from Why are you not selling WPML in marketplaces like Evanto?

We started the project before Themeforest existed. People building WordPress sites recognized WPML before they knew Evanto. So people who were looking for ways to build a multilingual site couldn’t look on Codecanyon because it didn’t exist. By the time Codecanyon became known we had enough recognition in the community so it wasn’t a problem for us.

HostAdvice: What does it mean to localize a website?

Basically it is to make it fit for someone in a different country. So you need to change the language of the text. If pictures have any meaning you should change the pictures. You need to change currency, in many cases you need to change units. If you are looking at google maps for instance, in the US it will say distance in miles and in canada it will say in kilometers, even though it is the same language.

HostAdvice: Do you deal with currency?

Our WooCommerce Multilingual plugin allows you to adapt everything in WooCommerce. Translate the products, change the currency, the currency symbol, currency conversion. Everything related to running different payment processors. It let’s you assign a different payment for different countries, some payment processors are only available in certain countries.


HostAdvice: How has your previous career in chip development helped to manage a company like this?

I came to this job after I worked in an office environment for 20 years. I was responsible for small and large project and teams. I had a manager and I had people I’m managing so I mostly knew what I was getting myself into.

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