How Retainers Can Create Financial Security in Your Freelance Translation

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Building financial security is important for everyone. But for freelance translators, the security that comes with generating a steady income can, at times, feel very elusive. 

It's more than easy to get caught up in the project-to-project, paycheck-to-paycheck way of doing business. After all, if we don't work, we don't make money, right?

This is something I've been thinking about for quite some time. Why is it that freelancers in other fields sometimes set their businesses up differently? Granted, a freelancer in any field can easily get caught up in the same project-by-project income cycle. But there are certain fields that seem to lend better to long-term contracts than others. 

Or so it seems.

How can translators (and interpreters) build better financial security around their freelance businesses? 

Enter, the retainer agreement. A retainer is an agreement between the contracting party and the contracted party, which usually entails a long-term flow of projects. Retainers can last anywhere from three months to a year, usually, and many times, they are renewed if both parties agree. 

I asked a question on Twitter a few months ago to see if there were any freelance translators I knew who worked with clients on a retainer agreement. And here's what I heard: crickets. No one responded. Sure, maybe those who do have retainer agreements just didn't see my post. But I'd bet that the crickets were more likely the result of very few (if any) freelance translators I know who have retainer agreements with their clients.

To be fair, of course, not every client and the projects they offer lend themselves to creating a retainer agreement. But for many of us, it makes sense to seek clients who would be open to this possibility. It would certainly offer more long-term financial security!

So, I started to explore this idea a bit more. I talked to copywriters and graphic designers I know who have retainer agreements with several clients (in addition to still accepting one-off or now-and-then projects). Many copywriters have monthly retainers set up with the clients they write regular copy for. Graphic designers who create regularly for their clients have a similar setup. 

So, why can't we do the same for translation and interpreting clients?

We can.

How to set up retainer agreements with translation agency clients

While this may have been more serendipity than my own business strategy, I had a steady translation agency client approach me several years ago to ask me to set up a retainer with them. The agreement was that I would translate $2,000- to $4,000-worth of words per month for them. This meant that I knew every month that I would earn at least $2,000 and possibly up to $4,000 (or more, if they had more projects that fit my language pairs and specialization) and that I needed to set aside time each month for their projects to meet my end of the agreement. 

This also meant that I wasn't starting every month from zero. Not only did this help me to plan the work I received from other clients better, but it meant that I had financial security in the sense that I knew how I was going to pay the bills as well. This agreement lasted for a year. What's important to note here is that we arranged the terms of the agreement with the expected length of time it would last up front. I knew that at the end of the year the agreement could be renewed if I was happy with it and if they still had a steady stream of work in my languages, or it might not renew if it was not in either of our best interests to continue it.

Retainer agreements with translation clients can work. And they can be very beneficial for the translator and the client.

But don't take my word for it. I recently talked to Antoinette Karuna, a French and German to English translator, about the idea of setting up retainer agreements with clients. And I learned that she, too, has a retainer agreement with a client and is very happy with the setup. In fact, she is looking to attract more clients with the same "partner" mentality as she has.

How to set up retainer agreements with direct translation clients

I asked Antoinette some questions, and here's what she shared with me.

What kind of retainer clients do you currently have?

I work with one client with whom I signed a yearly contract at the end of 2018 for services to be provided over the course of 2019. I hope to renew this contract at the end of 2019.

I’m “working off” the contract by translating and editing texts as needed, and I keep track of the amount that I’ve “worked off” in a Google Doc to which my client has access. I have a per-word rate for translation and an hourly rate for editing. The work comes in waves—some months are busy, others are quiet.

What percentage of your client base are retainer clients?

The contract from this client represented around 10% of my total income in 2018.

What percentage of your client base would you like to have as retainer clients?

My goal is to have retainers/yearly contracts from a minimum of three clients, totaling about 50% of my annual income.

How did you find these clients, or did they approach you?

The client is a film school—a friend who works for them put me in touch with their communications department. The school hired me because they wanted to partner with a translator who had substantial experience working in the film industry, which I have!

What kind of agreement do you have with these clients?

I signed a yearly contract at the end of 2018 for translation and editing services to be provided over the course of 2019.

What positive aspects do you see from having clients with whom you can partner like this?

There are so many positive aspects! 

Firstly, it’s much easier to deliver excellent work to a client when there’s ongoing, in-depth communication. We discuss terminology and style guide choices, as well as using a writing style that best serves the reader. When the source text is poorly written, I can communicate this to them and they’re open to my rewriting suggestions. It’s truly the best possible “environment” in which a translator or editor can work, as questions are appreciated and answered. For me, working without directly communicating with the end client is frustrating at times as I can feel that I’m translating in a bit of a vacuum—without having a comprehensive understanding of the organization’s services, communication style, or of their end reader. In the case of a retainer or contract client, a relationship is built, and both the translator/editor and client are invested in that relationship. With my film school client, I work hard to find solutions to their translation and English-language challenges and to position myself as a trusted member of their team. I’ve invested time and energy in understanding their mandate and programs, researching accurate terminology, developing an in-house style guide, etc. This is a very satisfying way in which to work—knowing that I can deliver great work to a client who really appreciates my services. Furthermore, this extra work­—conducting research, creating a style guide and terminology list—is billed at my hourly rate.

Secondly, a retainer or contract provides a measure of financial stability. When I received my yearly contract at the end of 2018, it facilitated my financial planning for 2019.

Thirdly, because the client has already paid for my services, they don’t have to decide if they can afford to outsource a translation or have a document edited. It’s a no-brainer, they just send it to me—it’s already paid for! This takes away tedious and time-consuming outsourcing decisions and makes the client’s life easier.

Fourthly, it’s a way to minimize the time spent on marketing. Marketing to direct clients is pretty time consuming, so I’m actively working to find more retainer or contract clients to minimize my outbound marketing activities.

Are there any negatives to having retainer clients? If so, what are they and do the positives outweigh the negatives?

I’m new to this model, and, so far, I have only experienced positive aspects. But I do think that it’s important to vet the client before committing to a retainer or contract to see if you are a good fit.

How do you go about pitching a long-term/retainer-style setup to clients? 

I’d worked with the film school in early 2018, translating and editing some of their web copy. In mid-2018, they wanted to issue a translation contract as they were revamping their website and needed the site translated. They chose me for this contract because the communications officer liked my work and, as I previously mentioned, it was important for them to work with a translator with substantial experience in filmmaking. I negotiated the contract with the school and they accepted my rates, but the idea of a contract came from them. I suggested adding editing to my services, as I noticed that some of their texts were written in English and needed editing.

How do you "renew" a retainer with a client from one year to the next?

I’m still “working off” my annual contract and I hope to renew it at the end of 2019 for the duration of 2020. The renewal of my contract will depend on their translation and editing needs for 2020. However, my priority is to renew my contract, even if the amount is much less than my current contract. Having a contract positions me as a team member—their trusted English-language partner—and ensures that they won’t try and save money by a) not having documents translated or edited, or b) outsourcing the work to a less expensive option (for example, an intern). I want to be this client’s go-to English-language partner and build a long-term relationship with them, and a contract is key in achieving this. 

My strategy for the renewal of my contract is to deliver consistently excellent work and customer service. Providing great customer service means that my client and I touch base and speak on the phone every few months to discuss what’s next. I’ve also taken a proactive approach to finding solutions for their translation management systems, as well as in developing a style guide and terminology list, elements that were not previously considered part of a translator’s services. In this way, my value is more than just a language service provider—I work hard to position myself as an essential part of their communications team.

Thanks, Antoinette, for sharing your setup with us and for allowing us to have a peek into your partnership with this client!

As Antoinette mentioned, she is seen by her client as a trusted partner—something I think all of us would hope for from our clients. This is a key detail to consider when it comes to building a portfolio of high-quality clients. I had the same experience with my client who approached me with a retainer agreement.

There is no reason why Antoinette, or I, or anyone who reads this blog cannot approach a client who provides steady work with the idea of setting up a retainer agreement. Such agreements can truly build better financial security, and they definitely leave both you and the client with a sense of having a trusted business partnership.

As a final thought to leave you with here, remember that not all retainers are a good idea. Make sure that you enter into an agreement only if it is beneficial for both you and your client. Do make sure you understand the terms of the agreement before you sign a contract, but also be very excited that a client thinks of you as a trusted partner!

For similar ideas from fellow translators, you might also like to read Freelance Translator Life: Putting the Freedom Back into Freelance.

Do you have a long-term or retainer agreement with any of your translation clients? If so, please share in the comments so others can learn more from you! How do you make it work and what positives/negatives do you see from these types of agreements?

How to Use Canva to Create an Appealing Translation Résumé

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A résumé is a basic tool in any freelance translator's toolkit. And keeping it updated is an important aspect of maintaining a stellar résumé.

I know my own résumé needed a refresh after not having touched it for a few years (yep, I admit that… you, too?) ;) It's okay, we'll take care of polishing our résumés together.

To avoid the typical résumé created in Microsoft Word, laden with far too much text and few appealing visuals, I thought I'd share a tutorial on how to create an attractive freelance translation résumé using Canva, a free online tool.

Watch the tutorial video below to see how I used Canva to create an appealing résumé for my freelance translation business.

And there you have it! This résumé took less than an hour to create, and it's already much more visually appealing than the previous one I created in Microsoft Word. The person who receives my résumé will have a face to put with my name, since I included my headshot at the top. They will also find it easy to skim my résumé to find the information they want. The layout and use of white space lend well to leading the reader's eye from one section to the next.

There are simply no excuses these days for not having an attractive résumé. Just like any translator, you should want to stand out and make a positive first impression on those you pitch your services to. Make good use of free tools like Canva to help you do this. And remember… keep it simple and fresh. Those who read it will thank you!

To read more about how to improve your freelance translation résumé, check out my previous blog post, How to Build a T&I Resume That Sells.

What tips do you have for other freelance translators and interpreters when it comes to creating an appealing résumé?

4 Ways to Find a Mentor for Your Freelance Translation Business

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Mentors are the people we look to when we need advice, guidance or just a sounding board for our ideas and goals. They tend to be people we look up to, because they've accomplished something we feel to be noteworthy. 

It can be hard to find the right mentor in any given profession, but I think this can be especially true for freelance translators. For one thing, we all have different specializations and language pairs, not to mention the fact that everyone is in a unique stage of business at any given time. Encountering someone who works in the same language pair(s), specialization(s) and is in the same (or has been through the same) stage of business as you is a tough combination. 

This is why it's important to be flexible and take your time about finding the right person who can mentor you. You won't always someone who checks off every box. So, consider the option of having a small pool of mentors you can count on.

So, how do you find a freelance translation mentor who is the right fit for you?

Here are several ideas to get started. And if you have some tips of your own, please feel free to share them at the end of this post!

1. Join an association of professional translators.

Professional associations may seem the most obvious place to find a potential mentor for your translation business. Quite simply, you'll be exposed to a larger pool of people who do what you do or at least work in the same language pair(s) and/or specialization(s) as you. But it's not enough to simply join a professional association. You have to get involved and put in the time to get to know others.

Volunteer for the association in a capacity that fits your level of comfort and area of expertise. Take time to talk to colleagues to learn about their experiences as well. Whether or not you ask someone to be your mentor in a more formal capacity, you can still learn an immense amount from colleagues. So, don't put pressure on yourself to give such a mentorship a title. As the sage advice goes, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

If you want to find an association that has its own mentoring program, be sure to do some research about the eligibility criteria for mentees first. The American Translators Association has an excellent Mentoring Program, which is open to all members (regardless of country of residence). If it's important to you to have in-person meetings with your mentor, ask to be paired with someone in your geographical region, or seek a local association near you that also has a mentoring program.

2. Talk to peers and ask those you feel comfortable with for ideas and advice.

Peers are some of the best mentors available to us. Not only do they understand the day in and day out of what we do as translators, but many of our peers have knowledge about specific topics, areas of specialization or business strategies that they've found to be quite useful in their own businesses. This type of practical experience is truly valuable to learn from others. If you find yourself in a certain stage of your business and you think it's time to move into the next stage, talk to peers who have made this transition and ask their advice.

3. Put out a "mentor request" online to see if anyone fits the bill and is willing to mentor you.

If others don't know how they can help you, they probably won't. Be open and honest about what you'd like to learn or improve upon, and lay out expectations ahead of time. Most translators are happy to help their colleagues by imparting wisdom from their own experiences. So, make sure you tap all your channels to find the person or people who could best answer your questions and help you move forward.

You can also join Facebook groups related to freelance translation. If someone in the group seems knowledgeable about something you'd like to learn or accomplish in your business,  send them a message. Let them know that you admire their work and professionalism. Remember that this process might take time, as you need to evoke trust in the person you'd like to have mentor you. You can use this same approach with translators you follow on LinkedIn or Twitter.

4. Request a referral from peers.

Ask others in your language pair or specialization if they know anyone who might be a good fit for you. Let your peers know what you're looking for in a mentor, and ask them if they can refer you to their contacts. Remember to thank the person who referred you by sending them a kind note or returning the favor in some way. 

If there is someone you feel might be a good fit for you in terms of mentoring, offer to pay them for their time. This way, they will not feel like you approached them out of nowhere, requesting their time for nothing in return. Yes, I know mentorships are usually unpaid, but don't forget that mentors often have to stop doing paid work to answer questions from a mentee. So, it's not unheard of to pay someone for their advice. If paying a mentor is not feasible, then the professional association with the free mentoring program, like ATA's, is an excellent solution.

Final Tips for Mentees

Once you have a mentor, keep in mind that mentoring is a two-way street. It should be beneficial for both the mentee and the mentor. If you plan to take up another professional's time with your questions and concerns, be prepared with your questions ahead of time and get to the point quickly. Thank them for their time and try not to extend your meeting past the scheduled time out of respect. Make sure you follow through with any homework or tasks your mentor requests of you. If your mentor doesn't feel like you are listening to their advice, they may not wish to continue the mentor/mentee relationship. 

For more tips on this topic, check out Speaking of Translation's recent episode, How to Learn from Colleagues. It was full of helpful ideas!

Have you ever sought a mentor for your freelance translation business? What tips do you have?

Three Ways to Follow Up with Clients on Overdue Payments

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Overdue payments can put a real damper on cash flow in a freelancer's business, especially if they happen often.

While it is the freelancer's responsibility to invoice for their assignments, it is also (I suppose, unfortunately) their responsibility to make sure clients are following through with the agreed upon terms of a contract.

No business is sustainable without proper cash flow, so it's vital that clients understand you mean business (no pun intended!) when it comes to paying on time.

Here are three ways you can follow up with clients on overdue payments and avoid the feeling of awkwardness that can sometimes come with these types of issues. Because let's face it... no one likes to be told they owe money. So, let's make it a smooth and less confrontational process if we can!

1. Send a three-day payment reminder.

I got this idea from the CRM tool I use, and it's simple, but genius. You can automate such messages to go out to clients three days before their payment is due. Most clients will really appreciate the reminder, because they tend to be more concerned with the deliverable you sent them than your invoice. Such a reminder can be seen as both considerate and professional. Of course, make sure to turn off the automation if your client has paid their invoice early!

Take advantage of this three-day reminder check-in to see how the client is doing, how they liked your work and if they need any further help on the project you delivered or a new project. You won't be seen as a pest, I promise!

2. Offer to let clients pay you with a credit card or another form of online payment.

This might not seem like a way to "follow up," but when you offer a client an easy way to
pay their balance and avoid any kind of late fee, they will usually take you up on it. This
offers the client something to make the task of paying you easier… a win for both of you!

These days, many U.S. clients still pay their invoices with checks. But more and more (especially in other parts of the world), there is a clear shift toward using online payment methods. Take some time to research a variety of tools, including direct deposit, Stripe, PayPal, Venmo, Transferwise, etc. so you can get paid online quickly.

This way, when a client's payment is overdue, you can write them a kind email pointing it out and letting them know about the option to click on a link or button to pay their balance right away and avoid a late fee. And if you're not charging (and enforcing) late payment fees, you should be!

For a detailed look at international payment methods, you might want to give the Speaking of Translation episode by Eve Bodeux and Corinne McKay on International Payment Methods for Translators a listen.

3. Request 50% of your payment before you begin the project.

Again, this might not seem like a way to "follow up," but think of it more as being proactive rather than reactive.

If you require a client to pay you 50% of the total fee up front, then you don't have to worry about chasing them down for the full amount later. Instead, let them know when you deliver the project that the other 50% is due upon receipt. Just the fact that you are delivering your project with the invoice tells you that 1) they received the invoice (I know, some clients don't even acknowledge receipt!) and 2) it's time for them to pay their balance. Most clients will do so right away. If a client doesn't pay the balance on time, offer them a 10-day grace period and follow up again with a message along the lines of number 2 above.

If you feel uncomfortable about requesting 50% of your total payment before starting a project, remember that a lot of professions do this regularly. In fact, many creative professionals do not release the deliverables until the client's balance is paid!

For whatever reason, it seems that we are one profession that tends not to request payment in two parts. It could be due to the fact that agencies do not pay translators this way, but if you are working with a lot of direct clients, it makes sense to give this a try. Don't worry that you might scare off a client by asking for a deposit. Good clients will accept your terms, because they know you're the right fit for their project.

Not getting paid for a job you worked hard on can put a real dent in your business income, not to mention put a sour taste in your mouth when it comes to taking on new clients who have never paid you before. But don't let that deter you from putting some processes in place to get paid on time (or early!) so that you can keep the cash in your business flowing smoothly.

For more on this topic, check out my Five Ways to Ensure Clients Pay on Time and Corinne McKay's Five Ways to Minimize the Risk of Not Getting Paid.

Five Ways to Promote Your Freelance Business During Slower Months

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The slower work months can feel a bit miserable in the life of a freelancer. The lulls can seem never-ending. Will the work ever come again? Will I be able to pay my bills in the coming months?

Hopefully you aren't too deeply entrenched in these concerns, but if you are, then this particular post might give you some ideas to get the ball rolling again. Even if you don't have these specific concerns, experiencing slower months in your business is bound to happen at some point.

I'd argue that the slower times are some of the best to take care of the biggest marketing projects that can make an impact in your business.

Today we're going to tackle five ways to promote your freelance business during slower months.

  1. Reach out to previous clients you enjoyed working with and let them know about your upcoming availability.

You don't have to let anyone know that you don't currently have work in the pipeline. Instead, be strategic about the way you let clients know that you're available for work they might have for you. One good way to do this is to write something like this:

"Dear [insert the name of your client],

I hope all is well since the last time we spoke. I wanted to let you know that I just finished working on a large project and I have some upcoming availability. I'm filling in my calendar for the rest of the month and thought I'd send you a note in case you have any projects you'd like me to make time for."

By tapping into your current client base first when the work isn't steadily trickling in, you pick the low-hanging fruit. Remember, it's easier to market to existing clients since you've already converted them into paying customers.

2. Update your website.

This might seem like a no-brainer to some. What better time to work on your website than when you don't have any client projects to handle? But so many freelance translators put off their website updates for so long that their sites start to become truly outdated.

The next time work is slow, do a website audit! Look at every page of your site and decide what should stay, what should change and mark your calendar for exactly when you're going to make these changes happen.

For a few website-related tips, check out How to Use Your Website to Build Trust with Your T&I Clients and 13 Must-Know Tips to Nailing Your T&I Website and Converting Leads into Clients.

3. Update your LinkedIn profile and create an outreach strategy for this platform.

If you've been reading my blog for any amount of time, you probably know that I feel very strongly about the power of LinkedIn, especially for freelance professionals. LinkedIn—but more specifically, LinkedIn messaging—is one of the best ways to gain new clients and to continue marketing to existing ones over time. I would say that if you have a LinkedIn profile and you're not using the platform to market your services, you are leaving money on the table. Full stop.

For loads of ideas on how to use LinkedIn to market your translation services, make sure to read this blog post and check out my on-demand webinar on the topic.

4. Start sending out several LOIs (letters of introduction) each day to clients in your target market.

You may have heard the term LOI referred to by others as warm email, email marketing, or by another name. Essentially, an LOI is an email to a client in which you introduce yourself and let clients know that you are available to help them by providing translation services. Of course, you have to approach the right clients to make this work, right?

Rather than create a full summary here about how to find the right clients to approach with your LOIs, I would highly suggest reading this blog post by copywriter Jennifer Gregory and listening to her interview with Ed Gandia in this episode of High-Income Business Writing Podcast. And if you're feeling extra excited about this process, I would also very much recommend Jennifer's book on marketing to direct clients. Yes, she writes tips for copywriters, but everything she mentions in the blog post, podcast interview and in her book can be applied to freelance translators seeking new clients.

5. Reach out to those in your own networks and let them know you're looking to expand your portfolio.

When I say "network," I'm talking about everyone you know, people you've met at networking events or social gatherings, relatives, colleagues, other professionals, friends, etc. In a few lines, just mention that you are looking to expand your portfolio as a translator in a certain field or type of project, and ask them to refer others to you if they know anyone. There is no pressure for them to even respond, but if you do this regularly—say, a handful of people per week—, then you can expect for someone to eventually send a referral your way. It's also worth noting that even if these people don't have any suggestions for you right now, they might in the future!

It can be all too easy to fall into the habit of pushing marketing aside, even when work is slow. There are lots of other things that sound much better, right?

Yes, of course, take advantage of a slow month now and then to relax a bit, breathe and slow down, but be careful not to get too comfortable. If you can keep up these regular marketing practices (even during busier months), you will find that the slower months will become fewer and fewer!

What tips do you have for promoting your business during slower seasons of year? Do you keep up your marketing efforts all year long or do you work in spurts?