Archive for the ‘Money’ Category

Here’s a 30-second summary of this post: as a freelancer, you’ll find that some things feel effortless and some things feel like pushing a cement mixer up a hill. Analyze the difficult things and figure out how to make them less difficult, and your life will be much easier.

This post was inspired by a question from a student in one of my classes. “How do you stay so organized?,” she asked. “You seem to do a lot, but never get stressed or frazzled. What’s the secret?” And two answers popped into my head: 1) I’m probably somewhat less organized than I seem, and I do sometimes get stressed and frazzled (ask my husband!), and b) I don’t know: it just doesn’t feel that hard. I look at my day or my week, and think “What absolutely has to get done?,” then I do that first. Then I think “What should probably get done?,” and then I do that. And then if there’s any time left, I do the “as time allows” tasks. In 13 years of freelancing, I’ve never missed a deadline; a “late” day for me is when I finish work half an hour later than planned. So, when I talk to translators who report that they are routinely up until 2 AM, 3 AM, 4 AM finishing deadlines, I’m essentially never in that boat. I don’t use time tracking software, or a rigid schedule; I just eyeball it and everything seems to get done, in the available amount of time.

And there are other things that don’t feel that hard. I’m good with managing money: at my first job out of college, I made…wait for it…$750 a month plus room and board, and I had some money left at the end of the year. I’ve never carried a credit card balance in my life. In the same vein as time/productivity management, I just look at how much money I have available, and I spend a little less than that so that I can save some.

But…the fact is that everyone has facets of freelancing, or of life in general, that just come naturally. It’s hard to explain how you do them successfully, because you don’t know what you do: they’re just never a problem. Then there are the ‘cement mixer’ facets, which are things that you have to have a strategy for, because your natural tendency is to work against your own best interests. For me, food is one of those things. On the positive side, I’m a vegetarian and I love to exercise (another one of those “comes easily” things; I just don’t get what’s not to love about exercising!); on the negative side, I have the metabolism of a hibernating bear and I love good food; I’m also “fortunate” to be surrounded by people who are incredible cooks–my husband, my parents who live near us, various friends. So there’s never a lack of something tempting to eat. It’s not a crisis, but, like a translator routinely finishing deadlines at 3 AM, or never paying off the last $1,000 of the credit card debt, I gain-lose-gain-lose-gain-lose the same 10 pounds, over and over again.

For me, food is my “can’t just eyeball it” issue. I find diets depressing and counterproductive, but without a system, I chronically eat a little too much, a little too often. Because I’ve recognized this tendency in myself, I’ve developed some systems to protect against it, and to keep the chronic 10 pounds from becoming 50 or 100. I think you can apply this system to your “can’t just eyeball it” issues as well, so that if you can’t overcome them completely, you can at least keep them from dominating your life:

    • Avoid unrealistic rigidity, or anything that involves the words “never again.” You’re not going to immediately start following a to-the-minute time tracking plan, or a to-the-penny budget, or a no-peanut-butter-cheesecake-ever-again-in-this-lifetime rule. Pick small adjustments that you think you can stick to: no Facebook during the work day; no non-paying work until the paying work is done; let non-critical e-mail wait until the end of the day; put $50 in an envelope at the beginning of the month, and that’s your coffee money; leave your credit card at home in a drawer so that you cannot use it for impulse purchases.
    • But create a system that overrides your natural tendencies. For example I have some simple guidelines I try to follow: no more than two cups of coffee a day (because I drink it with cream and sugar), otherwise only water and herb tea; only raw fruits and vegetables for snacks; no eating straight out of a bag or box, only out of a single serving in a bowl, etc. To me, these don’t feel punitive: they feel like the speedometer on a car; just a little tool that helps you stay in bounds.

Whatever your problematic tendency is, you can create a system like this to help you: make a simple checklist of small adjustments that you need to make in order to be successful. Don’t look at it as a punishment, or as if you can’t be trusted to manage your own actions. In my experience, that will only make you more obsessive about the problematic issue. Just give yourself a dashboard gauge so that you can slow down when you’re five miles an hour over the speed limit instead of 30.

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“The rate isn’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing.” “It’s not what I’d like to be earning, but you have to start somewhere.” “I wasn’t thrilled about the rate, but working is better than not working.” Stop me if you’ve heard this before… But the real question is: is this a valid way of looking at your freelance rates?

Ideally, here’s the situation you want to be in: you don’t even deal with low-paying clients, because you don’t need to. You are busy all the time at your regular rates, and if clients won’t pay those rates, you simply don’t work with them. Or, when you take on lower-paying work (let’s say a book translation, or work for a non-profit that you find meaningful), it’s for a reason: just because you enjoy it, or because you want to contribute to the organization’s mission, or bring a certain author’s work to a different culture, or something like that.

But when you’re looking for more work, or for any work at all, it’s a different story. Then, an experienced translator’s advice to stick to your standard rates and never offer discounts can feel a bit condescending. When, if ever, is a sub-optimal rate better than nothing?

  • Bottom line: rarely. You tell yourself “it’s better than nothing,” but low rates can become a treadmill that’s difficult to dismount. You’re making a few cents a word, so you have to translate 12 hours a day just to keep the lights on. That leaves approximately zero time to market yourself to better-paying clients, or do some networking, or attend conferences where you might meet better-paying clients, or upgrade your skills and marketing presence.
  • When you’re working within a lot of constraints. In most ways, huge agencies are not ideal clients; but they do have some advantages. One of those is that you can generally turn them down many times without fear of losing them as a client, or you can give them windows of time within which you can work. So, if you’re trying to start a freelance business while going to school, or raising kids, or working another job, a huge agency that pays sub-optimal rates might allow you to do that.
  • When you put some parameters on the low-rate work. Working at sub-optimal rates for decades will a) suck the life out of you and b) destroy any love you have for this job. Really, it will. But if you decide that the low-rate work fits your purposes while you… (finish school, sock away enough money to quit your day job, etc.), and if that time period is relatively short, like a couple of years or less, I think it’s more doable.

When is a sub-optimal rate absolutely not worth it?

  • When you’re doing it out of desperation. Desperation is rarely a good precursor of good business decisions. If you’re in sketchy financial shape, you’re probably better off looking for a stable part-time job rather than taking low-rate freelance work. Take the part-time job and then translate pro bono for clients who work for causes you believe in: in the end, you’ll feel much better about yourself. Out-of-the-box tip: look for a job where you could do some translating while you work. For example, I once worked in a fancy office building that needed a receptionist, but there was actually very little work to do. The owner’s technique (because it was hard to keep people in that job long-term), was to deliberately recruit students from the writing program at the local university, with the stipulation that if they committed to staying for a full school year, they could work on their own writing while they sat at the desk.
  • When you could cut fat from your spending budget and avoid the low-rate work. I’ve beaten the freelance frugality drum here and here. Blackbelt frugality isn’t for everyone (although I did get quite a few compliments on the haircuts that my husband gave me in the early 2000s!), but to me, it’s certainly preferable to doing soul-crushing work.
  • When you have the skills to work for better-paying clients, but you never go out and look for them. As I’ve said before, but it bears repeating, there is *so much* interesting, well-paying translation work out there. But, it’s not going to flop into your inbox with a bow on it; you need to be out there (in person, online or both) being in the places where the good clients can find you, or going and knocking on the good clients’ doors and pitching your services. Otherwise, you’re running in neutral in the low-rate market.
  • When you’re telling yourself that the low-paying clients will love you so much, they’ll agree to a big rate increase at some point. Harsh but true: most times, they won’t. Once a client knows that you’re willing to work at a certain rate, you can’t blame them for refusing to pay more. No matter how much a client likes you, most agencies, especially big agencies, have a fairly rigid rate ceiling above which they absolutely will not go, no matter how much they like you. When you want to make more money, you just have to move on.

Readers: any other thoughts on this? And if you’re thinking, “This sounds great, but how do I find work at decent rates?,” you might enjoy this post: To break out of the low-rate market, change these three things.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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.

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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.

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