One question that I am often asked on this blog by novice translators is “How can I find direct customers for my translation business?”
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I do know a few things about it as at this point I have been working mostly for direct customers for about two decades.
Different people have different methods – what works for me may not work for you as much will depend on your language combination, background and personal characteristics. But it might.
If you are just starting out, I think that it may be a good idea to work for translation agencies first. They do pay less, but it is much easier to find work from this source and you can learn a lot from a good agency.
If you become a member of an organization of translators such as the American Translators Association (ATA), you will (if you want to) be listed in the ATA database, and translation agencies are often looking for translators in this database. I have been an ATA member since 1987 and I do get a decent amount of business from this listing. The membership cost was 165 US dollars in 2013.
You can probably expect to receive work mostly or only from translation agencies from this listing with the right background and language combination. Large corporations who have their own translation departments also know what the ATA is – I have been working for several years for a corporate department of a large manufacturers of chemicals and they told me that this was where they found me. However, these corporate departments typically pay the same rates as translation agencies.
I worked only for translation agencies for about the first 3 years as I had no interest in marketing myself, and I was perfectly happy working for them. Because my main language was Japanese, most of the time I had enough work, sometime more than enough.
But when my wife had to quit her job before our first son was born, I realized that the only way for me to make more money as a translator in order to replace her income so that she could stay home, (and she used to make more than me as a chef in an upscale restaurant in San Francisco offering “a fusion of Japanese and Italian cuisine”), was to find my own customers.
There are two ways how to find new direct customers:
I. You can try to make them come to you, or
II. You will have to come to them (I will write a post on this subject another time).
I. Making Them Come To You
This was very difficult in the late eighties when I was starting out as a translator before the age of Internet. But it can be done now, even by an individual translator on a tiny budget.
How do you make them find you? First, you have to know who your likely customers are, which means that if you don’t specialize in an area that is likely to be in demand for some time, such as financial translation or technical translation, it may be difficult to figure it out.
Once you know who your customers are, you can create a website that they are likely to find. Although large translation agencies must be spending a lot of money on advertising on Google and other search engines these days, you can still beat them with a well designed website because many people don’t click on advertisements when they are looking for information about services.
Because I translate patents, I registered about 10 domain names relevant to Japanese translation and patents, kept most of them and later decided to change my business name to “patent translators” in the late nineties even before I had my website put together by a website designer. The designer was a guy named Steve who lived across the street from me and who did a very good job. I don’t believe it is a good idea to accept one of those prepackaged website designs that are often thrown in for free in exchange for hosting of your website. As a Russian proverb says, “free cheese is only in a mousetrap”.
An original website created by somebody who listens to you and understand what you want has a much better chance of being much more effective than a generic site with photoshopped images of sexy, smiling young people. I personally don’t trust these websites. The photograph of the smiling, photogenic people is in fact a lie as it has nothing to do with the translation business. What else is a lie on such a website?
Your domain name is in the long run even more important than your website design since it is much easier to change your website design than your domain name. I was lucky that back in nineties I was able to register several really good domain names, but you should be able to find a good domain name for your business even now as the potential combinations are almost limitless. It costs about 30 dollars a year to maintain a domain.
Some people are able to drive enough business from new customers to them simply through their blogs, but I don’t know how they do it. I mostly use my blog to have some fun while pouring my heart out or offering sage advice, although the blog probably does draw in some potential customers who might not find me or remember me if I only had a website.
While my blog reinforces my Internet presence, hopefully mostly in a positive way, most new customers find about my services through my website. I use Google Analytics to find out which key words people who are looking for services that I am offering are Googling and my webmaster updates my website once or twice a year to make sure that the website has suitable content. She understands what it is that I want from her because she is also a translator.
One thing that translators should bear in mind is that although we can’t be everything to all people, if we say “No” to our customers, we may lose them. Since my customers send me now patents and technical articles also in languages that I don’t translate myself such as Chinese or Korean, I have over time became a specialized translation agency myself and I now work with a number of translators who I know and trust.
If you are successfully attracting direct customers, it is likely that your operation will turn you into some form of a translation agency as well. I believe that this is a good thing. You will start appreciating how risky and difficult the job of a translation agency can be sometime. On the other hand, it is also a good idea not to rely too much on brokers when you are a translator, and that is what translation agencies really are, no matter what they say.
I think that the main problem for translators who flock to “portals” offering work to translators at pitifully low rates, you know which ones I mean, is that by doing so they allow Internet to work against them as there will be many people there scrambling for work, regardless of the low rates. Kevin Lossner compared the downward pressure on rates for translation in a witty cartoon to bidding for slaves in a slave market.
But if you can figure out how to make potential direct customers come to your website and be impressed by what it is that you can do for them, you will make the most important invention of the last 2 decades or so, namely the Internet, work for you instead of against you. You may still be competing against other translators and agencies, but a direct customer is not nearly as likely to simply go each time for the lowest bid.