8 February 2016

The run-up, the big leap and new priorities

January has been a dream month, a time I had been looking forward to for about three years: I finally quit my day job and became a 'just' a freelance translator, after more than 15 years as a journalist.

As is the case with so many important decisions, the move towards an exclusively freelancing lifestyle was the sum of lots of little steps and the culmination of a plan I had developed a long time ago.

I had met my desired annual income target and my savings target. A control freak like me would not jump without some form of a safety net! I felt I was qualified enough and well-positioned professionally, with good clients to keep my project pipeline moving including my former employer. And I had solid evidence that there was room for greater growth without a job that kept me busy for many hours every day. I was ready.

Over the past two years, I had somewhat customised the concept of full-time work. I was using early mornings, evenings and weekends in such a way that I was virtually working full-time as a freelance translator anyway. However, while translation almost had a monopoly on my proactivity and my enthusiasm, it received only as much attention as I could muster in my off-hours, and that felt like a burden.

I was increasingly having to turn down translation projects for lack of time, my marketing was down to virtually zero (to say nothing of this blog!) and, while I am one of those people who can generally tackle a packed to-do list calmly, just one thing at a time, I was beginning to feel my stress levels rise. I never missed a deadline, but over the past year I did for example skip two parent-teacher meetings that were simply blanked out of my mind on the day. I knew that some things were getting out of hand.

When I attended the ATA's annual conference in Miami in November, the single thing that struck me the most was a slide in a presentation from former ATA president Dorothee Racette (@takebackmyday): 'Are you running a sweatshop?' I knew that I was exploiting myself precisely like that.

In contrast, the past few weeks have been blissful. I had got used to working two jobs to a point where I almost did not notice exactly how hard I was pushing myself, but I really enjoy having a more relaxed schedule and just one professional activity on my mind.

My new off-hours (those left over after sorting out new medical insurance and other administrative issues, at any rate) have inevitably led to the resurrection of old plans to revamp my website, come up with a consistent marketing strategy and develop a sustainable work routine now that a lot of the pressure I had been under in recent years is gone.

Life without a day job has reminded me that there is a lot to say in favour of work-life balance. In the years to come, I would very much like to be a little less busy than I have been of late, and coming up with a plan to make sure I stick to that is my top priority right now. I am doing very well and enjoying myself too, so I should think of a way to keep that up.

A good jump takes a run-up, and I would definitely not change the past two years. I always had clear objectives, I mostly knew what I was doing and I am very proud of the hard work I did. In fact, I achieved virtually every goal on my list in my first attempt and wasted almost no time. To me, the whole experience was a necessary stepping stone on the way to get where I am now.

And yet I am glad I did not let my run-up turn into an attempt to run a marathon in run-up strides. I have taken my leap, and it is only natural that things should be different from now on. Run-ups and jumps take a particular set of skills, which I suspect is quite unlike the set required for walking the ground where I now stand.

The learning process continues, as it should, and I still feel well-placed, excited and eager to grow and build on the career I have crafted so far. In the coming months, I hope to acquire or hone some tools and techniques that will be of use at this second stage in my life as a freelance translator. I am sure hard work will remain part of the bundle, but, as I tackle a different kind of race and a different set of goals, it is no wonder that pacing and sustainability have taken centre stage.

12 October 2015

My tool kit to achieve meaningful growth as a freelance translator

I've now been freelancing for three full years, and I feel like I have completed an important cycle. I have finished my training as I planned it initially and have got to the point where I consider myself an established professional. That does not mean things can't continue to get better, of course, and I hope to be able to grow further. However, this looks like a natural place to stop and look back, so that anyone coming after me may get an idea or two of things that might work for them too.

If my experience is anything to go by, there is a list of building blocks that allowed me to rise to where I am today. While not all of them may prove as important for everyone else as they were for me, I am convinced that they are at least worth considering.

The first thing that springs to mind is that planning has been essential. By that, of course, I mean two different things. First, the fact that I sat down to plan a course just a couple of months into my translation career - actually, pretty much as soon as I realised that it was indeed a career I was embarking on - proved crucial to give me focus, drive and a sense that I knew where I was going. Second, being able to cross off things on that plan as I attained my goals and delivered on what I had told myself (and indeed written out) I was going to do has helped me persist and grow far beyond anything I envisaged when I started out.

Income goals are an obvious example, but they are hardly the only one. I have thought hard about types of clients, number of clients, specialisations, qualifications and many other things that have served as milestones along that path.

If planning is essential, so is flexibility, of course. Not everything I planned worked out, and there were lots of things I could not originally plan because I had no idea that they even existed. There is no substitute for curiosity, an open mind and a keen eye and ear for the world around. Learning along the way is what kept the roadmap I drafted months earlier useful as I made my way.

I am not quite the translator I set out to be. In fact, I am pretty sure I am an improved version. I have found work in fields I could not have imagined for rates people said were impossible. In my case, I have even changed language pairs! I stuck to my main language pairs, of course, and my specialisations are not really that far from what I set out to do in the first place. However, seizing opportunities as they come along is of paramount importance in a growth path.

Investment is another item I cannot emphasise enough. I am completely certain that, had I not made the investments I made at the start of this journey, I would not be far from square one, and in fact I would probably have given up just a few months into my effort.

I know of several translators who are not prepared to make one particular 100-dollar investment that has brought me a healthy five-figure return, not because they cannot afford it but because they are afraid that it will not work out.  Of course, not all my investments have had a similar yield. Some have gone wrong, and on others I have just about broken even. The point is that, in my experience at least, a measure of risk is inevitable, healthy and indeed absolutely key to fulfilling one's potential. There are few guarantees and a lot of trial and error, and not being prepared to try new things just because they might not work out makes it almost impossible to achieve any kind of success.

Closely related to investment is training. Not everyone needs the same kind of training, but most people can improve something specific that will make a difference to their careers if they put their mind to it (most likely with a little money).

I set out with a BA, a Master's degree and 13 years' experience in journalism. I didn't have any qualifications in the field of translation, so I sought out those. Over the past two years, I sat the DipTrans twice, in two different language pairs, and passed both on my first attempt. One of my top clients is a major NGO: I had applied to work for them earlier, but they just would not take me without specific qualifications. In some areas of translation, it works like a university degree in most other fields: you could probably do the job without going to college, but you would not get the chance in the first place.

Broadly defined, professional associations have also been very important for me over the past three years. I don't think membership of the ATA or, more recently, the CIOL, have brought me any clients directly. However, keeping an eye on events there, reading listservs and LinkedIn group discussions, looking into the books and the blogs that people talk about and attending the ATA conference have all shaped my perception of translation as a profession. And I am absolutely convinced that the resulting perception is a lot more accurate than the views I started out with.

There are of course alternative perceptions, a world ruled by bottom-feeders where translators should count themselves lucky to get paid a pittance for doing their job. If you do not know any better, it is probably not too difficult to accept that worldview as indisputable. Keeping your eyes open is all it takes to realise that someone somewhere is doing better. It may not be you and you may have no idea of where or how to find that place, but knowing that it exists is a great incentive to start looking for it.

Three years later, I feel that I am well placed to grow as a translator. I have worked hard, and I am on the right track. Now, I need to keep growing my client base and my skill set, because knowing some things is no excuse to stop learning new ones. I have to keep working hard and deliver, day in and day out, the kind of work that my CV indicates I am capable of delivering. However, if I had made different decisions, I might not be much further than I was when I started out, and I am glad to be able to say that I have used my time wisely.

27 May 2015

Translation and the "asset that is worth owning"

I have been listening to many podcasts and online courses over the past few weeks. In that process, generally geared towards polishing my own definition of myself as a professional, I have gleaned a lot of useful information, and I would like to share some of it here.

One of the stars of my recent research was a course from Seth Godin on Udemy which turned out to be enlightening in many ways.

"Build what you need. It's not just there to be taken. These are assets, assets that we acquire over time, assets that we earn, because we seek them out and we invest in them," Godin says. "The leap you need to take is not the leap of quitting your job. The leap you need to take is to be the professional who invests in building an asset that is worth owning."

This struck many chords all at once, not least because I tend to dwell on the need to quit my day job. Godin reminded me that there is a lot more to building a career than just that.

Ever since I started to think of myself as a freelance translator, I became convinced that the decision to change careers needed to come coupled with a growth strategy and with as much investment as I could muster to make things happen, first, and then to make them happen better and faster.

But, of course, the more or less abstract ideas I have come up with over the past couple of years are infinitely more powerful when someone as good as Godin puts them into deliberate sentences. The idea that I am "building an asset that is worth owning" puts my own actions into perspective by adding an external market angle, while keeping in the forefront the fact that I need to be the agent, the driving force in that process. 

According to Investopedia, an asset is "a resource with economic value that an individual, corporation or country owns or controls with the expectation that it will provide future benefit."

So far, I had thought mostly of my own professional development and my own growth. When I chose Word Assets as the name of my translation business, I was thinking of the importance of corporate communications as a major asset for potential clients, which I could help preserve and even grow through my translation services. The idea that I too owned an asset that I could hone and develop as such, not only to improve my position in the market but actually to increase its value as an asset, was a revelation.

Thinking of myself as the owner of "an asset that is worth owning" puts me, as a translator, in a different category. And it gives new meaning to trying to find clients: I have an asset that would be of great value for them. In this context, it becomes transparent why my marketing efforts should be as much about my clients as they are about me. I would welcome the new business, of course, but potential clients would do well to gain access to the asset I have to offer.

Godin also has interesting things to say about the nature of that asset.

"Is there something about my interaction (as the client) with you that is bigger than the work itself? If you are a wedding photographer, is it the prints that someone is buying, or is it the interactions the bride had with you the entire time that they are actually paying for? Because those interactions are far easier to build in a discernible way than merely saying, 'I can prove my photographs are better than their photographs'," he says.

Indeed, the word assets that I was thinking about when I came up with my business name are only part of the picture. I have long been convinced that, when you offer a service, that service is as much a part of your deliverables as the translated files you send back to the client. What I had not incorporated into that argument until now was the reasoning behind that.

The "asset that is worth owning" is far bigger than a translated text. It brings together linguistic skills in my source and target languages, but it also incorporates a series of worthwhile interactions that add value to the whole process. I believe I am a good translator, but I am also convinced that the asset I am building and investing in, to put it in Godin's wise words, is bigger than translation itself.

Needless to say, the Godin course held many more pearls, and it was worth every penny. I highly recommend it!

23 March 2015

Putting a name and a real-world profile on your ideal client

The best news of the year so far, for me as a freelance translator, has been the realisation that my client portfolio includes two 'ideal clients.' In fact, one of them deserves super-ideal status, because it not only is fantastic but also points the way to finding other similarly great business partners.

I entered 2015 convinced that marketing would be a crucial element of my year, the one thing that would make or break my translation business in the medium term. I realised that, until now, most of my clients, and certainly the good ones, have found me on their own. I have made sure that my name is out there and that people around me know that I am a professional freelance translator, but so far I have not really managed to attract clients 'on purpose.' Directories and word of mouth have indeed worked, but I am sure I can do more than simply sit and wait for people to knock on my door. 

There was one little problem, of course: I did not really know what 'doing more' meant in more concrete terms. So I had some homework to do. In October, I attended a one-day seminar with Marta Stelmaszak in Buenos Aires, I have avidly listened to every episode in Tess Whitty's podcast, read Tess's book as well as Andrew Morris's and even explored online materials on marketing beyond the world of translation. All of that has delivered very valuable awareness of what I like to do and can do particularly well, along with a sense of how to go about increasing my portfolio of people who hire me to do precisely such things.

First of all, I had a good look at my existing client base. I realised that I have one fantastic client, a firm that requires a lot of translation on topics I love, pays a great rate and has brilliant in-house project managers, so I get all the good things of working with a direct client without any of the hassle. I love them.

Then, I realised that that client, my star client, is probably not my most valuable client. My most valuable client is also great. They pay a lower rate but also send me lot of very interesting work and are easy to handle. What makes them really special at the particular spot in my career where I currently find myself is the fact that they are hardly unique: There are plenty of potential clients out there with very similar characteristics and, at the moment, it has become almost my life's mission to find a few of those near-clones and convince them that I can work well with them too.

That is precisely the good thing about coming up with an ideal client, in marketing terms. An ideal client is a key factor when it comes to building a sustainable, long-term business, because it should be the person or firm you are in business for. You can work for anyone else who is looking for your services and willing to pay what they are worth, of course, but growth prospects should be based on identifying and convincing ideal clients that your services are just right for them.

In an ideal world, I would like to have at least two more such ideal clients, and I am working on that. However, the very realisation that my ideal client does exist, that they are not just a random illusion but rather people who can indeed benefit from my services and do value them has been a massive boost to my confidence and my will to find further outlets for my services.

Now it is up to me to work hard to bridge the gap between an ideal client and an actual client, to identify and win over more of those clients for whom the translation work I do best and most happily is an asset they need on a daily basis. That is clearly no easy task, but then neither was actually identifying what to look for in an originally big, broad and impersonal market. The exercise of breaking down 'the market' into pieces with an easily recognisable name who are clearly connected with who I am as a professional feels like a major leap forward.

I feel like I have achieved that first goal of the year and I am delighted about that, although there are many months still ahead and many tasks left to do. I will keep you posted about any further developments!

4 February 2015

Why the ATA Mentoring Programme is worth exploring (before applications close)

This time last year I was feeling a bit stuck. My freelance translation business had reached a plateau of sorts, after a start that had exceeded all my expectations, and I had the impression that I had run out of ideas on how to push it forward.

At the time, the only thing I knew for sure was I wanted to keep trying, and the ATA Mentoring Programme emerged as a welcome tool, one of only a few things I had not yet tested, a way to step outside my own head and bring in some outside help.

Applications are now open for the 2015 class, until 7 March, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Whether, like me, you are somewhat stuck, or whether you can simply benefit from someone else's vision, experience and external assessment, which we arguably all can, at any stage in our careers, it definitely is worth applying!

The programme asks you to set yourself goals and will pair you with someone who can help you achieve them. Your mentor will most likely work in a different language pair and be located far away from you, but they will probably have lots of positive contributions to make. They will not do the work for you, but they can point you in the right direction, or at least in a direction that is worth exploring.

As I applied for the programme, I tried to pinpoint the problems I was facing. That was already good, insofar as I had to sit down, think what the problem might be and explain it in writing to someone who did not know me at all. It helped me define exactly where I felt I had reached a dead end.

A few weeks later, by the time I had actually been assigned a mentor, things had picked up on their own, and I am pretty sure that the exercise of trying to make sense of it all helped. My mentor became someone who would answer my questions and provide me with real-life benchmarks, which was very, very welcome. I had done lots of reading, followed many online debates and engaged in generous introspection, but the chance to ask an actual person concrete questions was quite refreshing.

My mentor made suggestions that have helped me define in greater detail the translator I want to be, gave me answers that allowed me to feel more confident on my chances of getting there and - as his single most important contribution - persuaded me to spend a small fortune to go to the ATA Conference in Chicago. That event changed the way I feel about the profession, so it was clearly great advice! And, of course, my mentor was around to make the whole thing less daunting.

The Mentoring Programme is free for ATA members, and I am pretty sure it will be worth every effort you put into it. You do not need to be a newbie, just someone with things to learn and explore, and it will help you from the moment you start to write down why you want to sign up for it. The programme will probably leave you with a much clearer idea of where you want to go in the field of translation a few years into the future.

By the way, in case you are wondering, I need to put in a few years' work first, but yes, I will hopefully return to the programme sooner rather than later, as a mentor!