Lesson 133: 7 ways to grow as translators: where can you take your business after it’s plateaued?

Lesson 133: 7 ways to grow as translators: where can you take your business after it’s plateaued?

Sooner or later, we all get to grow as translators and reach a point in our careers where things are going satisfactorily well, we have a large and diverse pot of clients and we’re generally happy with the business and career. It’s often referred to in business as “plateau”: after climbing up for a while and building solid foundations, you reach a safe haven and calm waters. But equally, things just keep being the same when you’ve reached your plateau.

“The sameness” of things may be a relief for many freelancers. No more restless pursuits of customers, no more heavy marketing campaigns, fewer financial worries. Yet at the same time, in business sense, it’s not a good place to be. It means your business is no longer developing and it’s on the path to its end of life.

Don’t get me wrong, it feels sooo great to enjoy your plateau for a while (go on holidays, release the pressure, cut down working hours, etc.), but planning to stay there forever is not a viable business approach.

What can you do after your business has plateaued then?

  1. Change nothing.

Of course, you can just keep doing what you’ve been doing and enjoy your stability. It will work for some translators in some language pairs in some niches. If you’re one of them and you’re enjoying “the sameness” there’s no need to change anything.

  1. Move up market.

For the majority of businesses, a plateau is a place where they re-group and think of strategies to give them a boost to jump upwards in terms of sales and revenue. While as a translator you can’t really work more hours, the only viable way of increasing your revenue is to start charging more. This is where all the conversations about the premium market come in.

  1. Develop another specialism.

While I’m personally not a fan of developing more specialisms (I’m one of those who’d tell you go deeper into the topic you already know), it’s a viable strategy that could spur your growth. If you’ve spotted a lucrative, promising niche and need to train up, go for it.

  1. Diversify your services.

Another way to tackle it is to keep working within your specialisms but diversifying the range of services you’re providing. For example, I’ve been translating online content for the Polish market for years, and in the beginning of this year I added content marketing, copywriting and A/B testing services to my portfolio, just to name a few.

  1. Work in a team.

Where you can’t break in as a freelancer (and many companies have valid – or less so – reasons why they can’t or won’t work with freelancers), you may have a better shot at it in a team. Getting together with the right people and branding your team services can get you where you couldn’t have gone by yourself. This includes forming teams not only with translators, but for example with web designers or programmers, or DTP specialists.

  1. Start outsourcing.

Some colleagues, when overflowing with work, start outsourcing translations to others and then proofread them before delivering to their clients, paying the actual translator and keeping a margin for themselves. My personal preference in terms of outsourcing is to outsource non-core tasks in my business (since my unique style and knowledge is what I’m implicitly selling in my translations) to free up time to translate more. In the past, I’ve outsourced: accounting and taxes, administration, market research, some marketing, social media, DTP, website creation and maintenance, file organisation and cleanup, among others.

  1. Morph into a translation company.

If you feel like you have an appetite for risk, management and even more problem-solving, setting up a translation company may be the best way for you. A translator as an agency owner can bring a lot of value, but what I’ve been hearing from colleagues is that they often go into it thinking it’s not much different from being a freelancer, just doing it on a bigger scale. Well, just a word of caution: running a translation agency is very much different from being a translator and you’re definitely spending more time as a business administrator than anything else.

Can you think of any other potential avenues of growth?

20 Comments

  1. Rita Maia , on Jul 27, 2015 at 18:44 Reply

    Hi Marta,

    Adding a new working language can be a good idea (after it’s been mastered, of course). Also, take on a Masters degree if the translator hasn’t done so yet…

  2. John Moran , on Jul 28, 2015 at 18:37 Reply

    Martha,

    Another way I have seen some translators get past a plateau is to focus on their own productivity. For example, in some languages like German and English speech recognition technology can make a big difference to earnings. This goes hand in hand with specialising as less terminology research means less task switching and greater words per hour throughput. MT, good termbases and variations on the theme of auto-suggest can also play a role.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Aug 7, 2015 at 14:21 Reply

      I can see how this could work, John, thank you 🙂

    • Lukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz , on Sep 16, 2015 at 22:49 Reply

      Even something as simple as a touch-typing/fast typing course helps, as it frees up some mental resources (and it does allow you to translate simple texts faster, those that don’t make you break a sweat intellectually).

  3. Ana Honrado , on Jul 29, 2015 at 15:59 Reply

    Hi Marta

    I’ve really enjoyed your post, however and even if I agree w/ you in a sort of way when you say that “running a translation agency is very much different from being a translator and you’re definitely spending more time as a business administrator than anything else” I also believe it is pretty much the same, however you have a broader clientele, in the sense that many people who would never trust a translator who is only present online (let’s say locals) start to look for you because they know where to find you. Nonetheless, it is true that many other financial matters come to our attention and we have to take care of them, which we didn’t when we were working from home.
    Great posting tho!

  4. Paulinho , on Jul 31, 2015 at 12:38 Reply

    Hi Marta,

    I actually haven’t reached a plateau completely, but feel the need to ‘Develop another specialism.’ I am specialized in mining and as it’s been in a global crises , I am focusing in IT. Another point is ‘Diversifying services, but still researching which areas to give it a go.

    Thank you and good luck on your new goals.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Aug 7, 2015 at 14:15 Reply

      Likewise, best of luck!

    • Lukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz , on Sep 16, 2015 at 22:47 Reply

      That’s going to net you a narrow niche called mining IT (applications of IT in mining, application of IT to the mining industry) in which you could aim to become the #1 expert.

  5. Sjoe! , on Aug 2, 2015 at 20:35 Reply

    I like the “start outsourcing” part. Become a parasite. Let you friends piggyback you into the paradise 🙂

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Aug 7, 2015 at 14:15 Reply

      It’s definitely one way to do it, although not my preferred one.

  6. Sjoe , on Aug 8, 2015 at 20:43 Reply

    Don’t know it you have in Polish a word equivalent to артель in Russian. It’s neither ‘partnership’, nor ‘gang’, nor ‘team’, not a ‘cooperative’, but an informal blend of them all. A select collective of peers, best of all ex-colleagues or long-standing collaborators, mutually predictable peers. Works wonders in cases of big orders one individual cannot handle. But the key is honesty here. All of the aftertax earning must be shared pro rata. Otherwise it’s going to be another bloody “agency” on its way to self-destruction.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Aug 14, 2015 at 08:34 Reply

      I see what you mean – the honesty is the key to everything, isn’t it 😉

  7. Laura Hargreaves , on Aug 25, 2015 at 04:53 Reply

    Hi Marta,

    Thanks so much for this, an insightful and inspiring post as usual!

    I’ve recently been looking at concentrating my translation work into the areas I enjoy most, literary translation and creative commercial work, and trying to diversify further into writing. Things are going well so far!

    One thing I love about this career is that you’re continually refining and developing your business. There’s always room for ‘so what’s next?!’

    Speak soon!

    Laura

  8. Lukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz , on Sep 16, 2015 at 22:41 Reply

    I’m not a big fan of translators outsourcing, Marta. In fact, I believe it’s harmful. Here’s why: It puts the outsourcing translator’s name on the text and also uses the outsourcing translator’s rate minus the outsourcing translator’s margin; doing so prevents the subcontractor from growing professionally in two ways. As it’s usually not openly, it also gives the outsourcing translator an unfair advantage in the market by creating an illusion of more capacity than he or she really has, which is a third way of stunting the growth of other translators, who would normally be filling the gap. Finally, it also prevents the outsourcing translator from claiming higher rates and setting an example to both clients and colleagues. These are more than enough reasons to decry the practice.

    As you can probably guess, I’ll need to disagree on diversification as well. It does seem to be a smart solution to income problems caused by insufficient leverage of scarcity, but it also makes sure that you translate less and thereby also gain experience at a slower rate. Some experience with monolingual content writing and even A-B testing is probably better for a marketing translator to have than a bunch more hours (days, months etc.) in translation alone, but there are limits. Diversification of service types does contradict specialization. What some translation gurus fail to grasp is that whether you translate outside your core subject areas or provide services outside your core service (which is translation), it equally takes time and focus away from your specialisms.

    The most drastic case is learning new CATs and even office software, down to menial tasks such as OCR while carefully avoiding translation outside of 1-2 core specialisms; that’s inconsistent and self-defeating.

    Last, between doing nothing and moving upmarket, you need to keep your client acquisitions up anyway. Whether you’re doing well or badly, growing or stagnating, you need to saturate the market with your presence and make new contacts so that you can replace any client you are to lose for any random reason whatsoever (and you will inevitably lose some as you go). Hence you might as well turn that into a constant, slow but steady movement upmarket — just because you need to be making those contacts anyway, so why not kill two birds with one stone and secure better rates or better conditions than before while at it. Looking at it from this perspective, there is less difference, less contrast between what you want to do normally and what you want to do when you hit a plateau.

    Teams are good. A network of mutually trusted and trusting peers can be a nice source of income. In some situations such teams are also capable of meeting those needs which make clients seek agencies rather than freelance translators..

  9. Lukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz , on Sep 16, 2015 at 22:45 Reply

    PS. Great idea outsourcing non-core tasks, though. That’s something not normally looked into by translators — and, I would say, directly antithetical to diversification of service types (as well as career development directed towards becoming capable of personal provision of additional/complementary services).

    For the record, in many cases those things could be done by clients themselves — I mostly mean business clients here, who have the right infrastructure and resources — and there’s really no need for the translator to get high on the fumes of a notion of complex services, one-stop shop and all that silliness.

  10. Sarah Miller , on Oct 27, 2015 at 09:17 Reply

    Nice Post. It’s really a very good article for growing business as Translator. I noticed all your important points. Thanks!!

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