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Archive for the ‘Working from home’ Category

The beginning of the year is always a good opportunity to take stock: what went right in 2013, what needs to go better in 2014, and where do you want to be a year from now? Let’s look at some questions that every freelance translator should ask. I’ll kick things off with my own answers, and please add yours in the comments.

Think of where you were at this time last year and what your goals were; by comparison, how are things going now?
In January 2013, I made a major change and joined a co-working office, in which I’m sitting right now. This has made a huge and positive change in both my work and home lives, since I now rarely work at home and try to maintain a fairly rigid separation between the work day and the non-work day. I surmised (correctly, as it turns out) that at the office, I would get more done in less time and potentially earn more money. So, overall, this year was a very successful one.

If you’re stuck in a rut (in terms of income, clients, workflow), what needs to change?
I’m not currently stuck in a rut, but I was at this time last year. So here’s my advice: look for the root cause of the rut. At this time last year, I was feeling relatively blah about work in general: wanting to break through to the next level of income, find more direct clients, and earn a larger percentage of my income from teaching, consulting and writing. I realized that I really needed to shake things up, and that the root cause was that I needed an office outside the house. For you, maybe it’s something different. But it’s important to realize when you need a big revamp rather than some small tweaks. Also, accept your reasons for wanting a change, even if they seem weird or superficial. One thing I love about the co-working office: it’s an excuse to wear nice clothes. If I feel like wearing a new dress, or fun shoes, or a cute hair style that I saw in a magazine, I do. So there.

Did you earn what you wanted to earn?
It’s OK, and even positive, to admit/accept that you translate primarily for the money. I love the work that I do as a translator. I love getting paid to read and write all day, and I love learning about new subject areas. I even (mostly) love interacting with clients and colleagues. But I also love that I can earn a healthy income while working largely on my own schedule and living in a place where there are few, if any, in-house jobs for what I do. Over the years, I’ve seen that for me at least, earning a good living doesn’t make life better, but it does make it easier. So be honest with yourself: are you making as much as you want to? Or do you need to up your income in 2014?

Who did you work for?
This one is critical: what are your revenue streams? You can probably name your top two or three clients without looking at your accounting records, because they’re the ones you hear from all the time. But you might be surprised to see who your mid-level clients are. If you do work other than translation, you also might be surprised to see what percentage of your income the “other” work generates. For example this year, every session of my online course was full and I taught 7 sessions of the class, meaning that the class is now one of my top “clients.”

How much did you enjoy the work that you did?
If you’re earning what you want to earn, working for yourself is generally pretty great. But ask yourself this (and I know I’ve harped on this topic lately, so bear with me!): did you take what landed in the inbox, or go looking for work that really turns you on? Was it another day, another dollar/euro/yen, or did you really look forward to diving in to your work on Monday morning?

What are you getting sick of?
I’m generally a very positive person, almost to a fault. Meaning that I tend to ignore the negative until it’s staring me right in the face. But think about this: what aspects of your work are making you nuts, and what can you do about them? For example I’ve recently talked to a couple of translators who are retiring, and who said “I’m not sick of translating, but I’m sick of deadlines, and rush jobs, and clients who want a miracle for yesterday.” Now that I’m over 40, I hear that. I realize that in another, say, 10 years, I’d like to be focused on work that is really, really on my own schedule, such as teaching, writing books and translating books. I’m not really at the “had it” point yet, but I see it on the horizon.

Should you outsource anything?
A couple of years ago, I realized that doing my own accounting was counterproductive. Although my accountant charges more than I do, it takes me approximately 57 times as long to do payroll taxes as it takes her. So I decided to allocate about $1,000 a year to accounting fees and I now pay my accountant to do almost everything. I keep my own income and expense records, but other than that it’s all her, and it’s well worth it.

Where do you want to be at this time next year?
I’m not a big one for resolutions because they’re kind of a setup for failure (for me at least). Also I’m fairly disciplined, so I tend to follow through on long-term goals. So I think more in terms of goals for the new year rather than resolutions. Here are some of mine: I’m planning to launch a more advanced-level online course (Beyond the basics of freelancing) within the first quarter; then I’d like to do a third edition of How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator. I also really, really need to work on connecting in person with more direct clients. I work primarily with direct clients, but most of them have fallen into my lap; I need to make more of an effort to actively seek them out.

Now, over to you? How did 2013 go? What’s on tap for the new year?

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Last night, Eve Bodeux and I hosted a Speaking of Translation conference call entitled “The freelance juggling act: balancing work, family and the rest of life.” We had the pleasure of interviewing three freelancers: Andy Bell (Scandinavian translator and dad of 3), Marianne Reiner (English to French translator and mom of 2) and Karen Tkaczyk (French to English translator and mom of 3), all of whom have thriving businesses, young families and significant non-work interests and commitments. We asked them three main questions: how they combat the fear of losing clients or not earning enough money if they take time off, how they set boundaries with their families and the outside world so that they can get enough work done, and what their tips and goals are for a better work/life balance in 2014. It was a very informative and enjoyable hour, and we’ve created a podcast recording of it. Here you go:

Click the audio player link to listen online

Right-click the link below to download the MP3.
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Work/Life Balance

And if you’d like to listen to more Speaking of Translation podcasts (international payment methods, finding direct clients through industry conferences, and more!), hop on over to our recordings page. Thanks to Karen, Marianne and Andy for taking the time to talk to us!

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Inspired by Judy Jenner’s post about her first three months of co-working, here’s an update on my own co-working situation.

Brief background: about this time last year, I came to a few realizations.

  • Next year (now this year), my daughter would be starting middle school and would be getting more independent.
  • My husband, who used to work at home, now works at an office.
  • A lot of my longtime friends who used to work part time or be home full time are now working full time or are busy with other things. Of course I still see them, but they aren’t around as much during the day.
  • After 10 years of working at home, I needed a change. What used to seem peaceful and blessedly quiet started to seem isolating and lonely. I realized that I had to take action when I saw a really cute outfit in a store (second hand, naturally!) and then thought “Where would I ever wear that? It’s not like I see anyone during the work day.”

And well, I’m a doer. So I decided to do something about this situation and find myself an office outside the house. Fortuitously, Boulder has no shortage of co-working spaces for all flavors of freelancers, and after touring four or five of them, I found “the one,” in a beautifully renovated old building right in downtown Boulder. I’ve been happily working there/here for the past nine months, so here’s a quick FAQ about the experience.

Q: How do you like co-working in general?
A: Three words: I love it. It gets me out of the house, it gives me some semblance of a boundary between home and work life, it forces me to get my work done in a defined period of time, it gives me an excuse to wear something other than workout clothes and it gives me interesting people to talk to. When I get up in the morning, I feel like I have some place I need to be, which is a feeling I enjoy. I ride my bike to my office, which is also nice: it’s a 20 minute, not too strenuous ride, just enough to get the blood pumping in the morning and the afternoon. When I get home in the afternoon, I feel like something happened during the day; I feel like I have something to talk about, other than “I sat in the office/guest room, then I washed some dishes, then I sat in the office/guest room some more.” Admittedly, a lot of these factors probably have more to do with me than with the objective realities of freelancing, but there you go. Those are my reasons!

Q: How much does the office cost and what do you get?
A: I pay $350 a month for my own desk, and I keep all of my work stuff there. I also get use of the building’s conference rooms, unlimited coffee and tea (plus they wash the cups…that alone is worth $350 a month) and I can eat in the building’s social club for an extra fee.

Q: Who else works there, and did you know them ahead of time?
A: My building has private office suites and a group work room. I have a desk in the group work room; there aren’t any other translators here, and I didn’t know anyone else in the building ahead of time. I really like both of those aspects: it’s interesting to work around people who do totally different jobs than I do (IT, PR, law, corporate writing, etc.) and it’s just enough social interaction. I have something in common with a lot of the people in the building, but I can also get work done without feeling like I have to socialize.

Q: Are there any negatives?
A: So far, not really. I feel that the improvement in my enjoyment of the work day and my increased productivity are well worth $4,000 a year. In fact, this year is on track to be my highest-earning year ever, despite the fact that I took a month off this summer. So I think that my perception that I’m getting more done in the same amount of time is probably accurate.

Q: Any advice for other people considering co-working?
A: Make sure you find the right spot, because all offices are not created equal. The first place I went to look at was everything I *didn’t* want in a co-working space: in a basement with no natural light, empty vodka bottles in the kitchen (seriously) and more of a tech-startup vibe than a word nerd vibe. The office where I ended up has the feel of a really, really nice library with a great garden and a lot of nice art. So the physical space has a lot to do with it; at least more than I thought at the outset.

Other co-workers, any thoughts??

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A former student recently contacted me to ask some advice about taking maternity leave as a freelancer; she is pregnant with her first baby and her new freelance business has recently been gaining momentum, so she wants to take time off but doesn’t want to lose all of the energy she’s put into her business. My daughter is entering middle school this year so my experience is a bit dated, but I’m interested to hear other people’s thoughts as well. Whether you’re taking maternity or paternity leave, taking care of an aging parent or various other reasons, here are some factors to consider:

  • As a freelancer, taking time off is always anxiety-provoking. Let’s just admit that and get it out of the way. Building up a financial cushion to tide you through the period when you’re not working; stressing out about whether clients will find another translator (who, in your paranoid fantasies, is always better, faster and cheaper than you); stressing out about how long is too long to take off, and on and on. That part, you just have to live with, and maybe do a lot of yoga and meditation to help calm the inevitable anxiety!
  • I think it’s best to be up front about the reason for your leave. To me, it’s unnecessarily vague to contact your clients and say “I will be unavailable for the next six months” with no further explanation. If you’re taking a medical leave, I would not provide the details about your health problems; just say you’ll be on medical leave.
  • But you want to keep it a little vague as well. When you have an in-house job, you have to be really, really ready to go back to work before you commit to a return date, because you have to feel up to working a full day, and you have to have child care in place. But as a freelancer, you have no paid leave time, so you don’t want to close the door for longer than you need to. For example you might say “I’m expecting a baby in mid-October and I plan to be on maternity leave until approximately the end of November, but my exact return date will of course depend on how the baby and I are doing by that point. I’ll plan to contact you by November 25 with an update” or “I will be working reduced hours for at least the next two months to care for my ailing father. I anticipate that it may take me longer than usual to respond to e-mails and phone calls and I will probably not be able to handle rush projects. But please let me know if I can help out with any non-rush work during that time.”
  • How long you need to take off depends on a lot of factors that you can’t control. We’re talking about maternity leave here: I commented to my former student that although I felt completely fine within a few weeks of my daughter’s birth, her habit of wanting to be held and nursed for about 23 hours a day kind of precluded doing any substantive work. In addition, she didn’t sleep through the night until she was over a year old, so I was pretty exhausted a lot of the time. Other babies are the opposite: if your kid is happy napping in a crib for hours at a time, you might be working close to full-time within a few months.
  • Be honest with yourself about your choices and tradeoffs. I’ll address this one from the mom/wife point of view because it’s the one I’m most familiar with. At some point during my daughter’s first years of life, I realized that for me, the work/life balance will always swing toward life rather than work. I realized that when my daughter is grown up, I will have gotten some things right, and I will have messed some things up, but mainly I want to have been there, and to have had not only quality time but quantity time with her. Same with my husband: if he’s really sick, I don’t go into the co-working office and I stay home with him; if he has to have some medical procedure, I go along.In a lot of ways we’re pretty traditional: we cook a real dinner and eat together pretty much every night. We mostly socialize as a family; my parents live near us so we basically never use babysitters even if we go out at night, and so on. I recognize that this choice involves tradeoffs. Essentially every moment of my day is scheduled, because I work primarily while my daughter is at school. I could make more money if I didn’t take a month off every summer to go on an extended family vacation; I turn down pretty much every out-of-town speaking engagement request that I receive, because my ATA Board responsibilities already require me to travel at least four times a year. In order to fund our travel habits, we practice freelance frugality to a pretty extreme extent. But I accept that this is the way of life that makes me happy, and that in order to maintain it, I have to prioritize.

    On the other side of the coin, there are lots of moms who need to work full-time, either for financial reasons or because that’s what makes them happy. In a doctor’s office waiting room a while ago, I read an interview with Ivanka Trump in Redbook (I know, that’s not normally where you’d expect enlightenment to come from, but I take it where I can get it!), in which she unapologetically admitted that she spends just an hour and fifteen minutes with her toddler daughter on a typical weeknight because she works up to 16 hours a day. It goes without saying that if you’re Ivanka Trump, part of the reason you can do that is because an armada of nannies and housekeepers and cooks are picking up the slack during those 16 hours. However I really appreciated Ivanka’s candor: she seems to really adore her daughter, but also says that working hard at a job she loves makes her happy, and makes her a better mom when she’s with her kid. So I think it’s not so much a matter of saying “if you’re a mom and a freelancer, you must do this,” but of finding a quasi-balance that works for you.

Any other tips (practical or philosophical) on leaves of absence??

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Every now and again, I feel inspired to post a random freelance tip on my Twitter feed. I could say that these are Zen master-esque pearls of wisdom that distill in my mind over the course of a few years, but they’re more like out-of-left-field thoughts that come to me while I’m washing the dishes or folding laundry. Here are two for today; feel free to add a comment with your thoughts on them!

The freelance startup phase: give it time, or pick another business.

One of the most common laments I hear from beginning freelancers is that it’s taking so long to develop a solid client base. “So long” could be defined as anywhere from a month to the better part of a year, depending on the person’s situation. First, I tell the discouraged beginners that for the first year and a half that I was freelancing–a time during which I had planned to work very part-time or not at all, since I had just had a baby–I wondered almost every day if I would be better off getting a full-time job. After about 18 months, I still wasn’t earning a ton of money, but it was enough that I felt encouraged to stay the course. It took about three years of freelancing until I got to the point where I no longer considered the option of returning to full-time work for someone else. Looking back, that was a long three years. But here’s the thing: now, after almost 11 years of freelancing, there is no way that I could replace my freelance income if I worked at an in-house job, especially if I looked for something with similar hours and flexibility. Partially this has to do with location: if I lived in a major East Coast city, there might be in-house jobs that pay more than what I make freelancing and offer generous vacation. But in groovy college towns in the foothills of the Rockies: no way.

If you need quick money–and there’s nothing wrong with that…haven’t we all been there?–pick another business. Another mom from my daughter’s school recently told me that she was in that situation, and although she’s bilingual, in a marketable language, she started a housecleaning business. Within three months, she was bringing in a full-time income. Is the work intellectually stimulating, or creative, or self-directed? Probably not so much. But if you need a source of income ASAP, cleaning houses or walking dogs is a much better option than starting a freelance language business. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, since my fantasy sideline career is to become a service dog trainer!

Well-paying work is out there if you look for it. But most people don’t look for it; they wait for it to find them, and meanwhile they complain.

I’m not sure how much explaining this one needs: it’s all right there. Yes, our industry has its share of low-paying work and bottom-feeding clients. In addition, as freelancers we often take that aspect of the industry very personally, as if it’s a reflection of our personal worth. For more on that, see Walt Kania’s insightful post Charge what you’re worth? Please, no on The Freelancery.

But here’s the thing. There is so much well-paying work out there; even clients who are looking to pay high rates to someone who does a really good job. But those clients are too busy with their own work to comb the web looking for you. Maybe they don’t even know that you exist. Seriously: when I interviewed Joanne Archambault about how to find direct clients at industry conferences, she commented that a lot of her clients said that they never knew that someone like her existed, although they desperately needed her. You can go find those high-paying clients at their industry conferences; you can send them postcards; you can give webinars for them; you can write articles for their industry newsletters. But you cannot wait for them to find you, and meanwhile complain about the bottom-feeders and non-payers. It’s tough love, but there you go.

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I’m not a great “tough love” advice-dispenser, but I’m going to give it a try. I work with a lot of beginning translators in my online course (shameless self-promo: the next session starts on April 3 and there are four spots left!). When I follow up with students over the months and years after they finish the course, or when I talk to beginning/aspiring translators in general, some of them have “made it” as freelancers and some of them haven’t. In thinking about advice for translation newcomers and translation students, I’ve unscientifically identified a few pitfalls that can cause serious problems for people who are in the freelance launch phase. I’m sure that readers have great tips and anecdotes too…so feel free to add them!

  • Expecting too much return from too little marketing effort. I get a lot of inquiries from beginning freelancers who are “very discouraged because they’ve applied to over 30 translation companies and received no work.” I know I’ve said this a few (hundred) times before, but here it is again: during my first year as a freelancer, I applied to over 400 translation companies. Then, I sent every single company that responded positively a hand-written note with a business card, thanking them for their response and letting them know that I looked forward to working with them in the future.
  • Expecting the startup phase to be shorter than it is. I think that six months is the bare minimum that anyone can expect–two months to look for work, two months to do the work and two months to get paid. A year is probably more realistic, and I think that most freelancers reach “cruising speed” after about three years.
  • Having weak language skills. As often stated by Chris Durban, author of The Prosperous Translator, it’s hard to develop the linguistic and cultural competence that a translator needs, without spending at least a year in your source language country/ies. And don’t hang out with speakers of your target language the whole time you’re there!
  • Not putting yourself out there. I get it: you’re not good with strangers, you don’t want creepy exes finding your address online, and so forth. But the simple truth of freelancing is that people cannot hire you if they cannot find you. They can’t refer work to you if they don’t know who you are. So whether it’s in person or online, or preferably both, you have to come out of hiding.
  • Getting stuck on the low rate treadmill. This is a tough one. Most beginning translators don’t set out to be underpaid, but working is better than not working, and you have to start somewhere if you want to break in to the industry. Many beginning freelancers tell themselves that in a few months or years, they’ll trade up to better-paying clients. But if you’re translating 10 hours a day just to pay the bills, it’s hard to find that time, so you’re more likely to stick with the low-paying bird in the hand.
  • Remaining in denial about how much work it is to be self-employed. A wise self-employed person once said that being an entrepreneur means working 60 hours a week for yourself so that you don’t have to work 40 hours a week for someone else. I’m a firm believer in avoiding perpetual overtime, but the essence of this statement is true. I recently gave a talk on self-publishing, after which many of the attendees commented that the idea sounded intriguing, but “like a lot of work.” Um…yeah! It is a lot of work, but I’m more interested in putting that work into my own project than into lining a traditional publisher’s pockets. The same is true of being a freelancer. It’s a lot of work! Did we mention that it’s a lot of work? But the ability to make your own decisions and take responsibility for your own future makes it worth it.

Wise readers, over to you! Why do you think some beginning translators don’t make it?

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After almost a decade of working from home and (mostly) loving it, at some point in 2012 something really changed for me. Fairly suddenly, I started feeling more trapped than liberated in my home office, and feeling like it was hard to carve out uninterrupted work time amid the myriad of household chores that needed to get done every day. In addition, my life situation is very different now than it was when I started my freelance business in 2002: my husband works outside the house, my daughter is closer to middle school than to infancy, and many of my freelancing mom friends in the neighborhood now work full time or pursue other interests like school and sports that keep them tied up during the day. So I decided to investigate the possibility of moving my office outside our house.

The quest started with a few visits to established co-working offices in Boulder, of which there are several. Stumbling block: many of them save on office rent by locating themselves in windowless basements, which is an absolute deal breaker for me (I didn’t move to a city with 300 sunny days a year to work in a basement!). In addition, there’s nothing to make you realize that you’re not 22 any more like visiting an office that’s mostly populated by tech startups. I think I’m reasonably young at heart for a 41 year old, but some of the established co-working offices reminded me of my college apartment on a bad Monday morning, complete with empty vodka bottles in the kitchen sink (actual example from one office!).

So then, I approached the all-women freelancers’ group that I’m in, to see if we could potentially put together a group of people and rent our own office together. This seemed like a great idea (cool people, we could configure the space however we wanted and one of the potential offices is about a 3 minute walk from my house). But we learned that commercial leases are tricky: most landlords want at least an 18-month lease with the first 3 months paid in advance, the office would be completely unfurnished, and the extra expenses such as liability insurance, Internet and even tea and coffee would add up. In addition, we would have to either form a corporation to sign the lease, or one person would be responsible for the entire rent amount.

Another option (if you live in Colorado) was PivotDesk, a local service that matches small companies and freelancers with office space. I would definitely give PivotDesk another try if I’m looking for office space in the future, but this time around I couldn’t find just the right match between what I wanted and what was on offer. However, in the course of tooling around downtown Boulder looking at offices, a couple of freelance friends and I found a “hidden” co-working office in a truly stunning historic building. Populated by real grownups with real established businesses, this office is a haven for freelancers who want to get stuff done in a beautiful setting without too many distractions (“…like a really, really nice library…” was the description of a friend who went to see the office with me).

I’ve been in the new office for about a week and so far I really, really, really love it. It’s about a 20 minute bike ride from my house, which gets me outside and gives me some mental space to transition from home to work and vice versa. In addition, let me tell you some things that a co-working office has: people to talk to, things to look at other than the walls of your house, different spaces to hang out in when you get sick of sitting at your desk. And let me tell you some things that a co-working office does not have: your dirty dishes, your washing machine and your cat hair-covered rugs. But all joking aside, I find that even these 5 days have really changed the way I think about work and home. I can walk in the door of my house in the afternoon and think “What do I want to do for the rest of the day?” I can avoid letting work expand to fill the available time, and instead confine work to the time I’m at the office. Instead of checking e-mail for the first time at 6:45 AM and for the last time at 11:15 PM and feeling like I basically worked for 16 hours with some extended breaks, I feel like I actually have work time and home time. Maybe this has more to do with my habits than with anything more substantive, but I do feel like this has been a fantastic change. Mostly, I want to encourage other freelancers to explore the co-working option if you want to, rather than feeling like you should be more grateful for the opportunity to work from home. If it’s not working for you, change it!

Logistical notes: The co-working office that I’m in costs US $350 per month for my own permanent desk, wired and wireless Internet access, access to multiple conference rooms and unlimited coffee and tea (priorities!). And the office managers do the dishes! The desks also have locking storage cabinets so that I can leave my laptop there if I want to. So far I’ve been toting my laptop back and forth, but I’m considering leaving it there at least some of the time, since all of my files are synced online.

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