Subcontracting – is it your cup of tea?

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cup-of-tea-and-biscuit

I’ve always said that subcontracting most definitely isn’t my cup of tea. Not for me the hassle of project management, proof-reading others’ work and doing all the admin legwork without the joy of translation itself. I love the challenge of getting to grips with my texts and producing a beautifully crafted piece of English at the end of the process.

At the ELIA Together conference in Barcelona earlier this year, I found myself drawn towards the Growth track, which featured a number of presentations geared towards translators looking to branch out into outsourcing and ultimately becoming agencies. One such talk, with Heidi Kerschl and Anja Jones discussing their experiences of setting up agencies, confirmed me in the view that I definitely didn’t want to head in that direction. I much prefer to remain in control and just accept what I can do myself – or so I thought…

As a freelancer, you are inevitably constrained by the number of hours in the day. Even with CAT tools, Dragon speech recognition and many years of experience, there’s only so much that any one individual can do. Jettisoning low-paying clients and moving towards the premium end of the market is another way of improving your income, but there is still a limit to the hours you realistically want to work. An agency owner who was trying to persuade me to work solely for them some years ago once told me that there is a threshold that is very hard to exceed as a sole trader – and whilst I disagree with the figure he quoted (and one of the reasons why I turned him down!), it is certainly difficult to fit more in once you reach a certain level.

outsourcing

That being so, I’ve found myself outsourcing more and more work of late – not through any deliberate plan on my part, I hasten to add! I’ve been outsourcing work for my former employer for many years, which made sense as they no longer had an in-house translations department and, in such a specialist and invariably confidential field, it was sensible to use someone who knew the company and the industry. I already had access to a panel of translators I’d used in-house and simply outsourced work I couldn’t handle myself or in different language combinations.

This year, though, I’ve ended up outsourcing work for other clients too. In all cases these were direct clients who approached me with no knowledge of the translation profession. It was clear that they didn’t know where to start and equally clear that I could be so much more helpful to them if I offered to take on the task of handling their translation requirements. In one case, this involved a large project that I simply couldn’t handle on my own, but in another case it was a question of finding translators in other language combinations. After many years in the business and a lot of time spent networking, both in person and online, it is relatively straightforward for me to find quality translators and to know where to look – much less so for clients. The sense of relief when they can pass it all over to someone else is palpable – and obviously makes them much more likely to come back to you than if you’d just said “Oh no, I can’t do those languages/that volume/that urgent deadline”….

Of course, this does mean administration and project management as opposed to translation, but my organised soul has actually quite enjoyed the challenge – as long as I don’t have to do it all the time and can still spend the majority of my days translating! Proof-reading other translators’ work can be enjoyable when you’ve hand-picked your collaborators in the first place – and when you’re ensuring consistency of style and terminology in a much larger project. You do need to allow generous amounts of leeway between the deadlines you set your translators and your ultimate deadline, as questions, technical problems and unavoidable delays can happen to anyone – and you don’t want to be stressed about your commitment to your end client, because it is your name on the line, after all.

Inevitably, subcontracting is probably only going to be viable if you’re working for a direct client and have sufficient margins to play with. It’s not going to be an option with most agency work, even assuming you haven’t signed a non-disclosure agreement. Then again, some of my contracts with direct clients also preclude subcontracting, so it’s always worth checking before you merrily farm work out to others. Even if there’s no mention of subcontracting in your contract, I always think it’s worth checking that your client won’t have a problem with it – and reassuring them that any confidentiality clauses will still be respected.

Payment terms are another point to bear in mind. Although most of my clients pay promptly within 30 days, I have one direct client, a large French company, that occasionally, usually after yet another internal reorganisation, has a blip in its payment procedures and takes much longer than usual to pay. I don’t actually subcontract for this client as my contract rules it out, but it could potentially cause cashflow problems for me if I did – and cashflow is king for small businesses, as we know. It’s one of the main reasons why so many new businesses go under. When you outsource work, the contract for that work is between you and your outsourcer, not the end client, so you are bound to pay them whether or not you’ve received payment from the client. I pay my outsourcers promptly if I receive early payment, but otherwise I stick to the 30-day rule – and make sure I have sufficient reserves to cover any delays on my client’s side.

VAT is another thing that rears its ugly head when you start outsourcing more. On my accountant’s advice, I’m not actually registered for VAT at present due to the generous threshold in the UK, especially when you consider that the threshold only applies to earnings from UK clients. However, if you’re looking to outsource to translators who are VAT-registered, that immediately makes them 20% more expensive to you, which can make a serious dent in your margins if you haven’t asked the question! Colleagues based in Europe are much more likely to be VAT-registered as their thresholds are so much lower – definitely something to bear in mind. It’s certainly a conversation I need to have with my accountant if I continue to outsource more frequently.

networking-bubbles

In cases where subcontracting isn’t an option, I’d much rather refer clients to recommended colleagues than just say a bald no. This may be where the subject area isn’t one of my fields, the rates on offer are too low to subcontract, or I simply haven’t got time to do the necessary admin/editing work. In those cases, the client is usually very grateful to have a referral and will hopefully still come back again in future. I usually also send a note to the translator I’m recommending, describing the client in glowing terms and mentioning ballpark rates – off the record, of course. Oh and please, if someone is good enough to recommend you, do respect the suggested rate guidelines, otherwise you could be accused of trying to undercut them and poach the client! There’s nothing to stop you going in higher, of course…

It goes without saying that I tend to outsource to (or refer) colleagues I’ve met in person or online. You get a real feel for people’s work based on their writing ability or the way they come across. Membership of professional associations is another thing I look for in a subcontractor – it demonstrates a certain quality standard, although I know there are good translators out there who aren’t members of associations, having been one myself for years as a part-time translator and full-time mum! It’s just not a risk I’m prepared to take these days unless I personally know someone’s work…

mox-outsourcing

So is this the future? Whilst I still have no desire to become an agency, boutique or otherwise, I can see the advantages of doing a little bit of outsourcing on the side. It certainly takes the pressure off in years where you’re away a lot, be it on business or on holiday, as I’ve been this year. It means I can keep my best clients happy and keep control of quality without sacrificing my pleasure in what I do best: translating. Others may positively relish the project management side of things and be keen to head in that direction – each to their own. The important thing, of course, is to keep developing in what we do, and to enjoy ourselves in the process.

Grateful thanks to MOX for the brilliant cartoon: http://mox.ingenierotraductor.com/2012/05/translator-type-lolower.html – needless to say this is not the type of outsourcer I’ll be using any time soon!