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eggs in baskets

Having returned from a fabulous late-season skiing holiday last weekend, this week has been a strangely quiet time workwise – compared to the previous crazy months at any rate! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had enough to do and it was actually very pleasant being able to catch up on all the post-holiday tasks like endless washing (how come my grown-up children have fled the nest, yet I still end up with all the ski gear to wash?!), catching up on the finances and admin. I was waiting for confirmation of a couple of quotes, but otherwise my inbox started the week relatively empty.

It’s at times like this that you realise just how important it is to have your eggs spread across a number of baskets. Before going on holiday, I had been working on a couple of large projects for two of my clients; not exclusively, as I always leave myself time to fit in smallish jobs for regular clients, but having two substantial jobs on the go at once inevitably meant that I’d had to say no to a number of larger requests in the meantime. When that happens, and then you have a week’s holiday on top, it’s hardly surprising that work may be slow to start up again on your return.

Having a broad client base means that even if you have turned some clients down, there will usually be others requiring your services. According to TO3000, I have over 50 clients on my books, but some of these will be one-offs, been weeded out for various reasons or have faded into a dim and distant memory due to rate increases or staffing changes over the years. I would say I have around 20 or so clients who approach me regularly enough for me to write and notify them of holidays or absences from the office and I usually issue invoices to around 8-10 clients each month, not always the same ones. It’s hard to define what a “good” number would be; suffice to say that only having a couple of regular clients is bound to lead to a shortfall at some time or another…

Of these clients, not all will necessarily pay the highest rates, but the beauty of a broad range of clients is that you maximise the possibility of having work offers to choose from. Whilst you might not always be able to say yes to every request, it’s nice to know that you have others in reserve who are lovely to deal with, offer regular amounts of interesting projects, pay promptly and are delighted when you can accept work for once!

I’ve been accused before of focussing too much on rates, but actually I think rates are just one factor in the client/freelancer relationship. I have a certain baseline I won’t drop below, obviously, and not everyone’s baseline will be the same, but other aspects are just as important: a good working relationship, comprehensive feedback, the ability to ask questions and receive satisfactory replies, the knowledge that you won’t have to deal with non-native reviewers…. Some clients are more price-sensitive than others, which may mean I’m not always in a position to accept their requests, but it doesn’t mean I want to burn my bridges and rule out ever working with them again – it’s all in the balance. These same clients are often the ones who send jobs with no formatting issues and supply their own extensive translation memories and termbases. That counts for a lot in terms of time and effort saved. Plus, if I’m quiet, I’d rather be working on an interesting project for supportive and appreciative clients than sticking to the moral high ground on rates alone.

Having a diverse range of fields is another important factor: it’s all very well specialising, but if you limit yourself too strictly to just one or two niche fields, that can cause its own problems in the event of changes beyond your control. In my own case, I started out in the nuclear sector, but am very glad I didn’t restrict myself to that field exclusively, as it can be heavily reliant on the political climate. I translate from both French and German, but had I just been a German nuclear specialist, I think I would have experienced very hard times in the light of Germany’s Ausstieg from nuclear power over recent years! As it is, having learnt my trade in-house, I was required to cover a multitude of other areas too, so had been able to diversify early on into fields such as energy in general (and subsequently renewables), health & safety, patents and process engineering, to say nothing of my own interests developed down the years. So, even in the event of a sudden decline in one sector (such as the prolonged pause in nuclear work following Fukushima, after the initial flurry of reporting, for example), I had sufficient breadth for other sectors to take up the slack.

I vividly recall a colleague on a forum some years back writing in desperation to say that one of her main clients had gone out of business, causing her to lose a substantial proportion of her work and income – what should she do? It’s easy to be wise after the event, but it’s never a good idea to get into a situation where one or two of your clients make up the bulk of your income. One of my clients accounted for just under 20% of my total turnover last year, probably a smidge higher than I’d like, with a couple more slightly under 10% each and the rest fairly evenly distributed. Project managers can move on, direct clients’ policies can undergo a sea change or the powers-that-be may introduce competitive tenders which leave you out in the cold – even after many years of working for the same organisation. Stuff happens – and you can only be prepared if you have a number of fallback solutions.

Having clients in different countries is another good rule, especially for UK-based translators. As I wrote in my post last year on coping with currency woes, currency fluctuations have meant falling income from clients in the Eurozone in recent times, so the ability to switch to domestic clients can be a godsend. Who knows what will happen in the event of Brexit (heaven forbid!) – but having your feet in both camps is undoubtedly essential to cover the bases.

Providing other services is another possible option. I don’t usually offer proofreading / editing as a stand-alone service, but certainly wouldn’t rule it out if I was experiencing a slack period. It’s actually quite an enlightening experience to read other translators’ work with an impartial eye now and again too. The thing is never to be too prescriptive about what you do or don’t offer; then you will at least have the opportunity to turn things down (or accept!) if they don’t suit your circumstances at any given time.

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So what’s the answer? Definitely DON’T put all your eggs into one basket. Try and build up a decent client portfolio and don’t cut your nose off to spite your face as you move on to higher-paying clients when your career takes off. Keep in touch with those regular clients who were so helpful when you first started out and create your own safety net. I’m still working now with some of the clients I worked for when I first went freelance 27 years ago. I’ve increased my rates to them over the years, of course, and some have been reluctant to accept the full extent of the increases I proposed. The compromise for them, as for me, is that I won’t be able to work with them if I have other more lucrative jobs elsewhere. They know that as well as I do, but if I am quiet, I may well be able to assist. It works both ways – and hopefully no-one ends up with egg on their face….

eggs in box

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