Posted by: patenttranslator | March 18, 2013

How Many Clients Do You Have?


Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.

Mike Tyson

In the late eighties and early nineties I had a friend who at that time had been translating technical Japanese to English for more than 20 years, first in Tokyo and then in San Francisco. He inspired me to eventually become freelance translator just like him because when I met him, I was still  working as a poorly paid employee for various Japanese companies and the like as I lacked the courage to start my own business.

He was working mostly for one translation agency, a one-man agency that kept him busy working mostly for just one client. This was a very good agency, back in the days when there still were quite a few of them around, run by a man who was also a translator and who himself was fluent in several languages.

This single client that kept my friend busy working as much as he wanted and then some at very decent rates was General Electric. My friend, who called himself Slava (this was not his real name but he preferred it), did not have a resume or a business card. “I don’t need it”, he used say, “GE is not gonna go out of business”. I thought that his contempt for self-marketing was the coolest marketing strategy, something that can be achieved only by the best among translators. I never told Slava, which as I said was not his real name, only his preferred name, that some translators who used to come to meetings of translators in his house referred to him as 天皇陛下 (Tenno Heika), which literally means in Japanese “His Majesty the heavenly sovereign”, the proper term to be used by Japanese subjects when speaking about their Emperor. He would have still preferred Slava, I am sure.

Slava was for many years translating mostly procedural manuals and protocols and patents about nuclear engineering. The materials that he was translating did not seem very difficult. Some reports were handwritten, but the handwriting was mostly very neat.

Incidentally, some of the reports were from nuclear reactors in Fukushima because although the US media does not dare to talk about it, partly because a nice chunk of it is owned by GE, the reactors that exploded in Fukushima after the tsunami there three years ago were built by GE.

GE did not go out of business, but in 1991 some genius at the company decided that it was time to save money and that the best way to save it would be to cut translation costs. Were all those detailed reports from Fukushima really needed? This particular manager did not think so.

So after many years of very steady work at very good rates, Slava, the translator extraordinaire who at that point also happened to be one of the best experts on Japanese nuclear reactors in the United States, was suddenly and completely unexpectedly facing a major famine, with no other clients, and not even a resume or a business card. The business did come eventually back, but it took quite a while.


Managers in companies big and small, but especially in large corporations, often try to save money by eliminating “largely invisible and very expensive” things like translation, mostly because they don’t understand that what is or is not being translated is information, and information is the most expensive commodity on this planet, more expensive than gold and diamonds, if you know how to use it.

These days instead of completely discontinuing a long-term translation project, shortsighted managers will be more likely to try to cut corners by using machine translation instead of paying a decent rate to the best translator they know, or by sending the translation work to a third world country where the translation cost will be a fraction of what it would be in the United States or in Europe.

Which is one reason why I think that translators should have a marketing plan and a marketing strategy, even if they are really busy all the time, or most of the time, as I wrote in this post, and also in this one.

The worst thing a freelancer can do is to rely on one big client. To work only for one client is a freelancer’s version of a kiss of death.

Because if you work only for one client, or only for a few very important clients, it could be only a matter of time before the punch in the face that Mike Tyson so aptly identified will knock you out like an overconfident boxer who should have been paying better attention.



  1. About half a dozen clients, varying in size and type but mostly translation companies. Any and all of them may vanish any time. No marketing plan so I’m not even waiting for the punch to come – I’m already lying on the ground…


  2. “so I’m not even waiting for the punch to come – I’m already lying on the ground…” on a sunny beach with plenty of sun screen on, I hope.


    • Nope but that’s a nice thought, thanks.


  3. […] Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Mike Tyson In the late eighties and early nineties I had a friend who at that time had been trans…  […]


  4. (From a discussion on Reddit today)

    Personally, every month I get slightly worried that over 60% of my income comes from just two clients. I keep telling myself to do more marketing, get new clients and so on… and then the job offers come pouring in and I’m up to my eyeballs in work! It’s not a great situation to be in, but how do I break the cycle?


    [–]DoinitMyselfEn Sp 2 points 3 hours ago

    Balance. It just comes with experience. Not that I’ve got it mastered, but I seem to always get too much work at a certain point after marketing or word of mouth gets my name around.

    Also, I’ve got about 4 big clients and the rest are people I deal with 1 or 2 times/month or 1 or 2 times/quarter. I made the mistake of putting all my eggs in one basket and regretted it before it became a problem, because I could see the inherent vulnerability.


    [–]inprobable[S] 2 points 2 hours ago

    Do you consider 4 main clients to be enough, or are you still worried your eggs are not diversified enough?
    In the financial world they talk about spreading risk. In our situation I guess the risk is exposure to bad debt.


    [–]DrakouliousEn, It -> Fr ; Subtitling 1 point 2 hours ago

    In my opinion It’s not about the number of clients, it’s about how reliable each one is. You can have just one client giving you steady work and trying to organize things with you, or have 5 but never know when they’ll send you something (or even pay you). I’d suggest to filter the clients and keep only the one(s) you trust as a base, then if it’s not enough you can add some extras. Easier said than done, but like /u/doinitmyself said it comes with time and experience (I guess, because I don’t have much myself).


    [–]inprobable[S] 1 point 2 hours ago

    Don’t get me wrong, the two clients I mentioned keep me busy enough, and if there were more hours in the day I could easily increase the amount of work I take from them. The problem is that as an independent worker I have no idea of the companies’ situations – are they thriving? struggling? close to bankruptcy? I guess payment issues are one of the first signs of cash flow problems that a freelancer may pick up on, but by then it may be too late. If my main client were to go bust tomorrow, I would be owed close to £5k, based on pending invoices from last month and jobs done this month not yet invoiced.


    [–]DrakouliousEn, It -> Fr ; Subtitling 1 point 2 hours ago

    I understand very well what you mean, I think this is the big risk in our work and we won’t be able to do anything as long as we don’t have a real legal status. The only thing I can think of is this: always check the blueboards on the net (example:, if you’re lucky it can give you some insight.


    [–]inprobable[S] 1 point 1 hour ago

    I had one bad experience with a non-payer over £1.5k. A small agency took on a massive project into some 20 or so languages, and when the end client didn’t pay the agency had absolutely no contingencies to pay the translators. About a month or so after payment deadlines were missed, their 3-year blueboard record of perfect 5’s suddenly became a long list of 1’s.


    [–]DrakouliousEn, It -> Fr ; Subtitling 1 point 1 hour ago

    Uh sorry for you, I had the same experience with a non-payer (£780) although a good friend of mine told me they always paid him. You’re never sure, that’s what I’m saying. Did you write about your non-payer on a blueboard ?


    [–]WaelsleahtaCh -> En 2 points 3 hours ago

    I am not working full time now but 90% of my work is one client and I don’t even take all the work they offer. In my glory days a few years ago I probably had 2-3 regular clients. The agency system skews this since through them I technically work for dozens of people.


    (From a iscussion on Reddit today):

    Do you have any kind of backup plan for the worst case scenario of that main client going bankrupt or ceasing to work with you for any other reason


  5. […] Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Mike Tyson In the late eighties and early nineties I had a friend who at that time had been trans…  […]


  6. Great reminder. Thank you Steve. I had a similar experience in 2010 when two agencies I mainly cooperated with stopped working with the Russian language. That was awful, but I learned my lesson and started marketing my services.


  7. Thanks for sharing.

    So how did you market your services?

    Care to share some more?


  8. Steve, I am the translator of the biographical film of Mike Tyson in Chinese for HBO, I know well enough what Tyson means.

    You see, Tyson was stupid enough not to listen to his couch Cus D’Amato.

    As a translator, you don’t need fame. What you need, so long you are alive and able to translate the subject matter you can, you shall know who really need you and who wants to take advantage of you and drain your strengths. You must know who are your friends and who are only taking advantages of you. Mike Tyson didn’t know that. That was why he failed as a boxer.

    I have serveral agencies and they know each other. They know well that the end clients know me well enough not to allow them engage another translator for the regular projects without a good reason, so that they refrain themselves from punching me in the face to avoid their being kicked out of the list.

    Two weeks ago, I was booked till the end of July. Now, I am booked for the whole year. There are only weekends when I can put in some small jobs that shall bring me extras with more than 60% of my regular rates. I have even convinced an end client to buy a license of a CAT for me, so that I can work on their projects. Both the toolmaker and the end client are satified to make a deal and the toolmaker appointed me as their trainer for the end client.

    “How many clients do you have” isn’t a question for me at all. For me, it have been the question of “how many clients of your choice stay with you.” And I am satisfied with four and there is another one in becoming. I hope that I get him when I come back to Taiwan from Perú by the mid of June.

    Steve, have you ever think about the reason why translators are unable to develop a sense of “we”? You see, we are about the same age and we will be soon out of the scene. Since you are quite influencial, I hope you post your thoughts on the why translatiors cannot develop a sense of of “we” and subjugate themselves to the pimps, no matter they call themselves agencies, LSPs, translation workplace(s) or whatever else. Are we going to leave the next generations as puzzled as we had been? Or, мне все равно!

    You may delete this comment, if you find it not in your interest to reply.


  9. […] Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Mike Tyson In the late eighties and early nineties I had a friend who at that time had been trans…  […]


  10. “How many clients do you have” isn’t a question for me at all. For me, it have been the question of “how many clients of your choice stay with you.” And I am satisfied with four and there is another one in becoming. I hope that I get him when I come back to Taiwan from Perú by the mid of June.”

    I suppose 4 is not a bad number for somebody in your line of work if you have a constant stream of order from your customer.

    It would be a really bad number for somebody like me.

    Right now I am finishing 35 thousand of words for one law firm which kept me very busy 2 years ago, but hardly sent anything last year.

    I have no idea whether they will have more work for me this year, or if so, how much work. They don’t know that either because it depends on how many new patent applications will they be asked to file for one of their major clients.

    So it’s very different in different circumstances.

    In your case, 4 clients should do trick.

    In my case, no way.

    How is Peru? Always wanted to go to a place like that, probably never will


    • When I came back to Taiwan 13 years ago, I worked for a very short period at an agency. There came a patent translator once a month and he picked up patents he’d like to translate, worth aroung 10~12 thousand US dollars. Presumably, his gross income would be around 120~144 thousand US dollars. Then, I found out that he was working with some other trnaslators on the jobs he picked up from the agency and another law firm. In his case, he had 2 clients and had been living well with the secured income, because he was regarded reliable. I’ve lost contact to him when I left the agency, so as not to know his further development.

      I know that there are different circumstances and that some law firms may have more one year and less the other year. However, it isn’t a law firm’s fault that they have meager years, too. The same happens to my 21 agencies. Some of them stop sending me any sporadic small jobs. Some would ask me to help them landing huge projects. Somehow, I decline most of such requests, unless I know both the end clients and the agencies well enough to make any suggestions of possible approaches. As freelance translators, we cannot afford efforts going to the sands (für die Katz’), right?

      In short, we shall not count customers for the sake of counts. We have to know them well enough to start doing any jobs for them. It would be really funny to shoot a sparrow with a cannon or a scattergun.

      In fact, I stop doing marketing all together, because the major 4 clients schedule their regular yearly jobs in a way that they don’t come into conflict with my availability for any one of them. There could be some rush days, but it happens seldom. There are a handful PMs and internal reviewers who are in contant communication with me, so that rush days can usually be avoided. I am satified with the income from the major 4 clients and the other 17 are just extras. I am happy with or without them.

      The potential 5th one is somene with whose former company I worked and he is now investing in a publishing house with a regular magazine to be publshed in Chinese regularly. I prefer this type of clients for their regularity and stable business relations. Besides, I am working with a team of translators and editors on a regular base and it makes fun to work with nice people – nice, because they are not under constant stress to become cranky or ugly to other co-workers.

      I find it better for freelancers to market themselves with long term strategy and aim at clients with regular jobs. Chasing after ever new customers for the sake of customer counts would be too much stress that leads to dissatifaction and exhaustion, in both physical and intellectual respects.

      BTW, thanks for the piano concerto of Fabrizio Paterlini! I like it very much. As said from the beginning of my following your blog, I always listen to the music of your choice and they meet my taste almost all the time.

      Perú. I used to live in the country across the Titicaca from Perú. I used to take a boat from Copacabana, Bolivia to Puno, Perú. I took the route for recreation trips and I’ll do it this time heading the opposite direction after I visit Lima. Archaeological stuffs do not interest me, but the landscape around the Titicaca is always pleasing, especially when you face the mighty Cordillera Real residing the East of the Lake. You shall try a trip from Perú to Bolivia or the other way round. I know you will like it.


  11. […] freelance translators fail? When Correct Grammar is Wrong -ish The Ukrainian Cornucopia of Tools How Many Clients Do You Have? Interpreting Blunder of the Month How Much Will It Cost? Part I Reading Your Way to Fluency The […]


  12. […] Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Mike Tyson In the late eighties and early nineties I had a friend who at that time had been trans…  […]


  13. […] Or a not-too-bright-mid-level manager will decide that the firm is spending too much money on transl…. […]


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