Stop me if this sounds familiar:
I really needed work, so I decided to take whatever came through the door. I decided that applying to mega-agencies/advertising on Fiverr/racing to the bottom on translation job boards was the fastest way to get full-time freelance work. But now I’m stuck; I have to translate 10-12 hours a day to earn a decent living at these rates. I can’t ever take a day off. If I get sick, I’m in danger of not being able to pay my rent, and I have no money to spend on better equipment or professional development. Low-rate work feels like a treadmill that I’ll never get off. HELP.
Archive for the ‘Money’ Category
Stop me if this sounds familiar:
There are a lot of reasons to avoid negotiating on price:
- Once you take on the lower-paying project, what happens when a higher-paying project comes in?
- Lowering your rate shows the client that, at least some of the time, you’re willing to work for less than your stated rate.
- Lowering your rate can cause you to feel resentful of the client or the project (even though you’re the one who agreed to the lower rate).
But what happens when, for whatever reason (interest in the client, interest in the subject matter, interest in bringing in more work in general), you’re offered a lower-paying project and you want to accept it? What other factors might you negotiate with the client?
A longer deadline. If you really want the work, but you and the client can’t agree on a rate, ask the client to extend the deadline. This protects you from having to turn down higher-paying work during the lower-paying project.
The non-translation tasks. Can the client’s admin staff do some of the formatting? Retype numbers from a PDF? Create tables? Do the annoying double-column layout that you’re dreading? Decipher the handwritten notes in the margins?
Faster payment. If you really want the work, can the client reduce their payment terms from 30 or 45 days to, say, 10 days?
Name recognition. Especially for a direct client, you may be able to negotiate for your name, website, etc. to be included on the translation. This can be appealing if the translation will be published/exhibited/distributed.
In certain circumstances, you might also consider doing the job for free instead of reducing your rate. This sounds a bit nutty, but here’s an example: one of my A-list clients approached me about doing a translation for a charitable organization that one of their employees was involved with. In light of the pro bono nature of the project, what was “my best rate?,” they asked. Here, I thought of item 2 on the list above: if I said “I’ll do it for half of my normal rate,” the bottom line would be that, at least some of the time, half of my normal rate is fine with me (which it’s not, even though I really like this client). So in that case, I preferred to do the translation for free, as a contribution to the charitable organization, rather than at a reduced rate.
Obviously, the best option is to have enough work at your regular rates that you don’t need to pursue these options. But I think many/most freelancers end up in situations where they feel torn: the project doesn’t pay their standard rate, but for some reason they want to take it. Readers, other thoughts?
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!
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.
Here’s a time management strategy that, at first glance, doesn’t seem like a time management strategy. Make sure that you set your translation rates so that you have enough time for non-billable work. If you’re looking for the sound-bite version of this concept, you can stop reading! Otherwise:
This came to me while I was prepping for the work-life balance panel that my friend and colleague Eve Bodeux moderated at last year’s ATA conference in Chicago. I do a lot of work-related things that are not billable: of course marketing, accounting, billing and other administrative work, but I also spend a lot of time on work for the ATA Board, writing this blog, working on books and articles, presenting webinars, participating in professional development training and so on. Other translators ask me about this a lot. “Do you ever actually translate?” “Does your family know what you look like?” “Do you sleep three hours a night?” The answers to those questions are Yes, Yes, and No (I sleep almost as much as our cat does!) so here’s the trick.
I set my translation rates so that I can earn my target income if I am *actually translating* 20 hours a week. I’m a pretty fast translator, so I usually estimate that I can produce 500 finished words per hour including proofreading. I like to be able to take six weeks of vacation per year. So I look at my total output: say 20 hours times 500 words times 46 weeks=460,000 words. Then I take my target income, divide it by 460,000, and that tells me the average rate I need to charge in order to reach my target income. Then, and this is very important, *I do enough marketing that I have enough work at that rate, essentially all the time.* It’s definitely one of those “sounds simple, gets more complex when you try to do it” concepts, but I do think that at least having that calculation in your head is helpful. If you’re working for rates such that you have to translate 40 hours a week to reach your target income, either you’re going to end up working 60 or 70 hours a week and probably burning out, or you’re going to end up letting the non-billable work slide. No marketing, no training, no networking, equals a business that is potentially dying and at the least becoming stagnant. So, don’t do that. Step one: figure out what rate you need to charge in order to have enough time for non-billable work. Step two: market as assertively as you need to in order to fill your inbox with work at that rate.
Translator mailing lists and message boards are full of translators asking, “Can you charge extra for…?” (formatting, translating from a poor-quality PDF, talking to the client’s staff on the phone, and so on). If the client is an agency, you have to negotiate those extra charges (or extra unpaid work) directly with them. But here’s my solution for when you’re working with direct clients (and of course you can agree, disagree, or offer your own solution).
- Charge the client an all-inclusive rate that’s high enough to cover the occasional unexpected “extra” service: for example the client needs hard copies of a translation with your Certified Translator stamp on them, necessitating an impromptu run to FedEx. What’s that you say…you passed the ATA exam and you never downloaded your Certified Translator seal to have a stamp made? Well, you’d better take care of that right now!
- Then, don’t nickle-and-dime the client for these small extra services. Of course if you spend hours on an extra task, you should charge for it. But the FedEx run, the 15-minute phone consultation, the 33-word e-mail that the client forgot to ask you to translate…don’t make a big deal out of those.
- But don’t let the client simply forget about them either; it’s a good reminder of the value of a professional translator, and of why the client pays you a premium rate in the first place. My solution: put those items on your invoice, and in the column where you would normally include the cost, write “Courtesy.” “Overnight delivery of hard copies: Courtesy.” “Press release headline suggestions: Courtesy,” and so on. This will jog the client’s memory, remind them of how you helped them out in a pinch, and hopefully help you retain them as a premium client. To me, adding an extra charge for a task that took 10 minutes looks a bit petty and desperate; better to charge a higher rate overall and then do those Courtesy services without additional billing.
A student in my online class asks: how do you know who the “big payers” are in a given industry, and how do you find them or help them find you?
That could be a whole course in and of itself; but here are my thoughts in a nutshell:
Every industry or sector has “big payers.” For example, when I tell people that I do mostly international development translation, they often say “But isn’t it all small NGOs run out of someone’s garage on a shoestring budget?” And yes, there are *tons* of those small “garage” NGOs out there that always need pro bono translators. But the real “big payers” in the development sector are companies that get huge contracts from USAID and other entities like that. For those clients, a contract of $50 million would be considered medium-sized. A big grant from an entity like the Gates Foundation would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars; so these clients are much more concerned with quality, consistency and confidentiality than with saving a few cents per word.
Here’s another example: another student in the class is interested in art-related translation, and I suggested looking at art law. Like my example above, you’re going to find tons of small players in the art sector who have little to no money, and might be a good target for pro bono translation. But envision if a large museum in the US is doing a major exhibit on, let’s say, Frida Kahlo, and they’re going to borrow a bunch of paintings from museums in Mexico. Again, here, we’re talking huge amounts of money: paintings that are insured for millions of dollars and have to travel under certain conditions and with an attendant from the “home” museum at all times; and they have to be displayed only under certain conditions, and hung a certain way. And they have to be evaluated by a curator before they leave the home museum to check for damage and all of that stuff, but all of that stuff is in Spanish. Same with the books and brochures associated with a traveling exhibit; they probably already exist, but in Spanish. So again, there would be a lot of translation work there, with an enormous cost of failure for the museum.
So, how do you land those kinds of clients? A few tips: first, you make sure that if they are just blindly looking for someone online, they find you. You are on LinkedIn and you have a website that clearly describes your services. Also, you have a large network of other translators who refer work to you because you are ultra-trustworthy and never let down the clients who someone refers to you. Also, you hang out in places where your target clientele hangs out; you are a member of their professional associations, and you go to their conferences and things like that. But, you also do not wait for them to find you; let’s say that you see a notice in the local press that a museum in your city is doing that big Frida Kahlo exhibit; they just signed the contract! So you fire off an e-mail that’s low-key but well written, and say something like this to the person who’s listed as the contact: “Dear Ms. Simpson: I just read the news in the local paper about your upcoming Frida Kahlo exhibit. How exciting, and what a great cultural opportunity for the art community in town. I’m a professional Spanish-English translator specializing in fine arts, and I can envision that you might need someone to help with translations related to this exhibit. If so, feel free to keep my contact information on file. In any case, thank you so much for bringing this incredible event to our city, and I’ll definitely be looking forward to the exhibition!”
So, that’s very brief, but there’s the basic concept of how the “high payer” world works, in my experience. Readers, other thoughts?