Yesterday we flipped the calendar not only into July, but into the second half of 2015. A really short post for today: assess how you’re doing as compared to the goals you set for this year. Most importantly, what has to happen between now and December 31 in order for you to feel successful? If you want a public record of your goal, you can post it in the comments! Mine= publish the third edition of How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator before the 2015 ATA conference.
These topics have been on my mind lately; it’s summer, I have more time to think, and I have some airplane rides during which to listen to podcasts that are good food for thought. So here we go: a few thoughts on multiple revenue streams, “productizing,” and passive income for translators.
Way back in 2009, I wrote a post on diversifying your income through multiple revenue streams. I’m still a fan of this strategy, and when I ran my numbers for 2014, I found that my income is divided into three fairly equal pie slices: about 1/3 from working for direct clients and individuals, about 1/3 from working for agencies, and about 1/3 from teaching, consulting and book royalties. To me, this means that I’m diversified, but not too diversified. As Walt Kania observed in his post on multiple revenue streams,, “A few prongs is good. With twelve prongs you have a manure fork.” I’m happy with my three prongs, for various reasons:
- Sometimes when one thing is down, another is up. Or you feel really jazzed by marketing one of your services, but not so much for the others. With multiple revenue streams, it’s harder to let yourself do nothing. Here’s a non-work parallel: a while back, I ran two marathons. Part of the reason the training was a grind was because it involved one thing: running. Then running some more. Later I did a couple of triathlons; it turns out that, for me at least, it’s a lot harder to talk yourself out of swimming, biking, and running, so I trained a lot more. The same is true of marketing multiple revenue streams.
- You can experiment a little, without too much risk exposure. For example I recently launched two new online courses. I had some questions: would people sign up? Would the new courses draw students away from my existing, more expensive courses? So far the answers to these questions seem to be yes (for #1) and no (for #2), but the point is that I’m not make-or-break dependent on the classes: they’re one component of the 30% of my income that comes from teaching and writing. I translated two books this year: same deal. I couldn’t afford to just translate books, but as one component of my direct client income, it works.
- You don’t have to deal with all of your frustrations all of the time. Every client base (direct clients, agencies, individuals, publishers, etc.) has its frustrations. Whether it’s price-sensitivity, or not knowing anything about translation, or wanting to know whether translators charge for “the little words” (an actual example!), it can be hard to stay helpful and patient all of the time, and I firmly believe you need to do that if you want to succeed as a freelancer. But with multiple revenue streams, you get to juggle your challenges around a little bit, and that helps.
Which brings us to two associated topics, “productizing” (a word I just learned!) and passive income. On a trip last week, I listened to the Smart Passive Income podcast on productizing your service-based business. Basically this involves taking one service that you offer, and creating a streamlined, repeatable way of delivering it. Productizing it (which is different than commoditizing it). For example let’s say you translate official documents: maybe you create a way that people can see a fixed price for the translation, then upload their document, then pay you, all before you ever have any contact with them. This eliminates the time you’d normally spend talking to the client about their needs, giving a quote, negotiating about the quote, settling on a price and then collecting the client’s payment. Definitely something to think about if you translate documents that lend themselves to that type of thing. Maybe this would work with patents, or real estate leases, or other kinds of documents that are relatively formulaic. The podcast episode is excellent if you’re interested in “productization.” Note that here, I’m referring to the non-translation aspects of the project (quoting, assessing the client’s needs, payment, etc), not to productizing the actual translation (don’t do that!).
Then, there’s passive income. When many people think “passive income,” they think, “making money by doing nothing.” And unless your pet is an Internet celebrity, that’s not going to happen (and actually, having an Internet celebrity pet might be a lot of work…all of that grooming!). To me, passive income means that you invest time and/or money up front, to create a product or service that then generates income with little to no additional effort. I’d put book royalties in this category: I make about $500 a month in royalties from my books for translators, with very little direct marketing. However (big however!) each book took hundreds of hours to write, edit, format and publish up front.
The takeaway: if you’d like to launch yourself into multiple revenue streams, a productized service, or a passive income stream, ask yourself…
- What are your goals, other than making money? For example, one of my goals is to do work that is not immediately deadline-driven. My least favorite kind of work is 3,000 words due tomorrow; so my additional revenue streams let me make money on my own schedule.
- What services do you provide that might lend themselves to productization? What steps in your current business model take a lot of time but don’t generate a lot of money, and need to be streamlined?
- What do you like to do, but you don’t get to do that often in your regular work? For example I love translation, but I miss doing my own writing. So, write a book!
- What service could you offer, that other translators would pay a decent amount of money for? Personalized software training? Writing their professional bio? Translating their marketing materials into their source language? Designing translator logos? When you work in an industry, you know that that industry needs…then go offer it!
This class session is now full. To view upcoming dates for all of my online courses, visit my website.
My new quick-start course Breaking Into the Direct Client Market starts on July 1, and I have about three spots left. This is a three-week course with minimal homework, three sets of slide shows with audio tracks (finding direct clients, marketing to direct clients, working successfully with direct clients), three question and answer conference calls for the whole group, and an hour of individual consulting time for every student. Registration is $190, or $175 if you’re an ATA member. The class is aimed at people who have experience as translators but are new to the direct client market. If you’re an established translator and you’d like to take my longer, full-featured course Beyond the Basics of Freelancing, it starts on August 19. We just wrapped up the inaugural session of my other new course, Breaking into the Agency Market; the session was full and I got some excellent feedback from the students, so I think that this new format is a good fit for people who want a shorter, less homework-dependent class. One student commented that: “This course rocks! Many of us have had training & experience in the “how to translate/interpret” end of things, but T&I programs, as far as I know, don’t cover the business end. This course fills this gap that’s not covered much by otherwise very good T&I schools.” If you’re interested in joining the July 1 session, hop on over to my website to read the full description or to register!
I don’t read much for pleasure and we don’t have broadcast TV, so I’ve become kind of a podcast addict. I use podcasts to bribe myself to go to the gym (here’s a Freakonomics podcast on temptation bundling, if you’re interested in that technique), my family listens to podcasts when we’re driving to go skiing or mountain biking, I listen to podcasts on airplanes, on the bus, while I’m washing the dishes or waiting for my daughter at her music lessons or sports practices, and on and on.
Claire Harmer just wrote a post about podcasts for translators over at The Deep End, and I agree with all of her suggestions (and not just because she tagged Eve Bodeux’s and my podcast, Speaking of Translation). So here are some suggestions for your iTunes or Stitcher queue.
For translation-related podcasts, I listen to pretty much every episode of Tess Whitty’s Marketing Tips for Translators, and I always learn something new! For general freelance info, I listen to Ed Gandia’s Smarter Freelancing Podcast, because I think it’s good to glean tips from other freelance-heavy industries.
To keep up my source language skills, I listen to French Voices (if you’re an advanced speaker, the exercises are pretty basic but the interviews are really interesting), and occasionally Native French Speech.
When I want some brain candy, I listen to StartUp (technically a business podcast but very entertaining) and its spinoff, Reply All. Not exactly brain candy, but if you became addicted to the first season of Serial, you can follow the same story on a totally different podcast, Undisclosed. Warning: Undisclosed is awesome, but in an “am I getting three graduate credits for this?” kind of way. It will make no sense if you didn’t listen to every episode of Serial, and even if you did, you’ll still have to think back over some stuff (what’s the importance of the cell tower near McDonald’s? why is it important whether Jay was at Kathy’s at 3:12 PM?). And Freakonomics is always fun too!
I’ve also gotten my husband and my daughter addicted to some nerd podcasts, which we now listen to on car trips. Our absolute favorite is Futility Closet, described by its creator as “an idler’s miscellany of compendious amusements.” My daughter is 12, and it’s surprisingly hard to find podcasts that are not specifically for children but don’t contain a lot of swearing (for example I think that lots of tweens would find Reply All interesting, but pretty much every episode has a language warning), so Futility Closet gets a special shoutout for being PG. Many of the episodes cover interesting historical events, including lots of unsolved mysteries. I would especially recommend The Wizard of Mauritius, about a French naval officer who claimed to be able to see ships beyond the horizon, and The Lost Colony, which has a lot of information about the Roanoke colony that you probably didn’t learn in history class! We also really like You Are Not So Smart, which focuses on current research in psychology and behavioral economics (great subject matter but the episodes are often an hour or longer, and I tend to prefer 20-30 minute chunks), plus the NPR news quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!
I’ll end this with a little call to action: if you’re a podcast addict too, make a habit of donating to your favorite shows. I figure that not having cable TV saves us a good chunk of money every month, so I force myself to donate to NPR, our community radio station and to my favorite podcasts, since they’re our major media consumption. Readers, any other fun or educational podcasts out there?
If you really want to get a translator’s blood pumping, bring up the low-rate translation market: high-volume projects at really low rates on very tight deadlines, often for large/huge agencies. Some translators feel that the low-rate market provides a legitimate entry point into the industry, while others feel that it’s exploitative and unfair. So, let’s dig in here: what’s up with the low-rate market and what’s the solution?
First, this issue is by no means specific to our industry. Browse the web and you’ll find posts on how massage therapists feel about Massage Envy, how tax preparers feel about H&R Block and how freelance writers feel about content mills. These stories have a lot in common with the low-rate translation market: a tough way to make a living, but a foot in the door of a desirable industry.
In my family, we have a tongue-in-cheek motto: “First, assess blame.” So first, let’s assess some blame. Why does the low rate market exist? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have some theories:
- Bottom line: because at least some translators are willing to work for those rates. I feel like this isn’t a blame game, it’s just a fact. If no translators would work for what Walmart-style agencies pay, the agencies would have to pay more, end of story.
- Because it depends on your definition of “low pay.” With the explosion in the demand for translators, there are lots of people entering the profession straight out of school, or straight out of a relatively low-paying job. In my online courses, I’ve worked with beginning translators who’ve never had a job that paid more than $15 an hour, or who are currently working a full-time job that pays 35K per year. So, if that’s your barometer, charging five cents per word and translating 500 words an hour might actually boost your income from where it is now.
- Because of the chicken and the egg. I’ve had many students in my courses who just need a way to get the 3-5 years’ experience that many higher-quality agencies require. How to get experience when you have limited experience? Often, the path of least resistance is to apply to agencies that base their hiring largely on their own tests rather than on your level of experience. I’m not saying that’s a great solution, just that it’s a potential solution.
- Because finding better clients takes work. That’s true at every level of the market, whether you’re trying to go from the low-rate agency market to the better-paying agency market, or from agencies to direct clients.
- Because in some ways, huge agencies make a translator’s life pretty easy. My advice about working with huge agencies used to be summed up in three words: “don’t do it.” Too much stress, too little pay, no personal relationship, and the feeling that you’re just a grudgingly tolerated cog in the machine. But over the years I’ve had numerous students who started out working with huge, low-paying agencies and (wait for it…) loved it. They could pick and choose the work they wanted to take, without fear of losing the agency as a client (because every project offer came as a mass e-mail to a huge group of people). They could tell the agency on Monday morning, “I can take 12,000 words this week” and then set their own schedule to get it done. They did basically no marketing; a few students even told me that they sent out one resume to one large agency and then worked full-time only for them. Again, not to say that there are no downsides, but that type of situation can reduce a freelancer’s administrative overhead nearly to zero, which is appealing to some people.
So, let’s say you’re working in the low-rate market now, and you’d like to get out. What are some potential avenues of escape?
- Avoid places where zillions of translators congregate. Job boards create price-based competition; that’s just the reality of supply and demand. Going and looking for better clients is the only way out.
- Be a better translator. It’s not all about marketing, it’s about offering a service that high-paying clients see as being worth their money. So pursue professional development, join professional associations, ask for feedback on every translation, take graduate courses, read like crazy in your specializations, and so on.
- Avoid financial panic. One problem with low-rate work is that it becomes difficult to get off the treadmill: you have to work such long hours that you have no time to market for better-paying work, so you burn out. To avoid this, find a way of putting some slack in your finances; this could involve cutting your living expenses, forcing yourself to put 10% of every invoice into an “escape fund,” or seeing if a spouse or partner would be willing to contribute extra income to your family finances while you look for better-paying work.
- Work the local market: this is a technique that many translators don’t use, because it’s time-consuming and requires interacting with strangers! When I first started freelancing, I met in person with every potential client who would let me in the door, even the ones who said, “We don’t have anything for you right now.” Within a year, nearly all of them had sent me some kind of work (and sometimes even a lot of work), probably because I popped into their head when they thought of French to English translators. So, although it’s a big time suck, force yourself to get out of the office and do informational interviews whenever you can.
- Surround yourself with successful translators. There’s definitely an inspirational rub-off effect when you hang out with people who are where you want to be in a few years. Avoid the self-pitying crowd: complaining isn’t the way to attract better clients. Instead, fill your head with stories of people who work in the market you want to be in.
Readers, any thoughts on this?
When a client asks, “can you lower your rate?,” you can respond in various ways. You could get defensive and belligerent (“For your information, I’m a serious professional whose work is worth real money”). You could offer some snarky feedback on the rate the client is proposing (“No serious professional translator would work for what you’re offering”). I don’t recommend those strategies, but lots of translators go that route. You could justify why you charge what you do (“I have 20 years’ experience and a Master’s in Translation”). You could just say no, and suggest that they find another translator; fair enough.
But the best response is, “I’m unable to offer a discount, because I’m busy all the time at my regular rates.”
First, if you’ve already told the client your rates and they want to pay less, let’s be honest: they’re asking for a discount. Asking is fine; some clients will ask just on principle, to see if they can save some money. Don’t freak out just because they asked. But from the freelancer’s point of view, the best defense is to simply be busy all the time at your regular rates. That way, you don’t need to get angry, or defensive, or engage with the “how low can you go” clients. If it’s within the client’s budget to pay your regular rates, great. If not, no problem (for you at least!) because you’ll just continue working with the clients who will pay your regular rates. When I use this strategy with clients, I feel that this has the advantage of being true (never an absolute must in a business negotiation, but always a plus!). I’m not getting nasty, or superior, or defensive; I’m just saying that, truthfully, it makes no sense for me to work for less than what all my other clients pay.
Getting to “I’m busy all the time at my regular rates” is a long-term project; lots of posts on this blog and others (check out Marketing tips for translators in particular) can help you get there. But keep that goal in mind: yes, the client’s proposed rate may be laughably low; yes, you may have 20 years’ experience and certification and a Master’s in Translation; yes, you’re a serious professional. But there’s one real reason not to offer discounts: you don’t need to.
The first session of my new course Breaking Into the Agency Market starts on Wednesday (May 13); we have a good group signed up, but there’s room for a few more people if you’d like to join.
This is a three-week, quick start course for people who want a lot of individual attention without much homework, and are interested in working with translation agencies. We’ll focus on how to find agencies to apply to, how to develop and execute a marketing campaign, and how to work successfully with agencies; each week you’ll watch and/or listen to some pre-recorded lessons, then we’ll do a group conference call every week and everyone gets an hour of individual consulting time with me.
Registration is $190 ($175 if you’re an ATA member) and the details are here.
A student who completed the most recent session of my online course Getting Started as a Freelance Translator commented:
“When I completed my certificate in translation I had some confidence in my ability to translate, but no idea how to go about starting my career. After struggling on my own for a while, I finally signed up for Corinne’s course for beginning freelancers. What a life saver! Her sessions cover everything I needed to consider for my business and her individual attention to my specific situation answered all of my questions. I now feel ready to conquer the translation world.”