From Freelance Translator / Interpreter to Company Owner
I recently represented GALA at a large conference attended mainly by practising translators and interpreters. I’m a qualified translator myself and worked as such for many years, but it was unusual for me to go to an event like this.
For the past decade I have devoted most of my time to developing my own translation company. I’ve mainly attended industry events where I could learn about all the other elements that go into building a profitable, successful company. It was a great experience to revisit these important topics of translator development.
The conference I attended was arranged by the International Federation of Translators (FIT), the global umbrella organisation for national associations of translators and interpreters. In total, FIT represents the interests of over 100,000 individual translators and interpreters. Around 800 people attended the event in the beautiful Australian city of Brisbane. For more detailed information, here are links to a selection of blogs/summaries and the full Twitter feed from the event:
- Official FIT event round-up
- Blog by 2M Language Services
- Blog by New Zealand Translation Centre
- Twitter feed
During the conference, I had several conversations with freelance translators that ended up being about whether they should move from being a freelancer to operating as a translation company/agency, and then how to do this.
The terminology is important here, because a freelance translator/interpreter is of course already a business owner and language service provider (LSP), although the latter term is often used with reference to companies/agencies only; it’s just that the freelancer is a one-(wo)man business. The terms company/agency thus assume employment of salaried staff and/or subcontracting of (some of) the actual translating/interpreting work, i.e. the company’s total invoiceable output is produced by several people.
As a one-person business, a freelancer ideally needs to spend a certain amount of time thinking about and working on most of the following aspects of their business: technology, marketing, sales, continued professional development, project management, quality management/control, financial management etc.
If you want to build a scalable company with in-house staff and/or using subcontractors, you not only need to take all the aforementioned activities to a higher level, you also need to find time to work on most if not all of the following additional aspects (non-exhaustive list): communications, recruitment, staff training, HR, high-level business planning incl. strategy, mergers/acquisitions.
By now we’re getting to a pretty long list of activities and skills involved in building and running a company. And each of these is an area of specialisation in its own right. So it’s no wonder that most freelancers feel daunted when they think about developing into a fully-fledged company. Of course, freelancers are already entrepreneurial – whether instinctively or “reluctantly”. However, the scope of responsibility is somewhat limited when operating as a freelancer and essentially being in full control of all activities.
This changes drastically when developing into a company. Making the decision to try to build a company involves a lot of emotions and considerations, and the whole mindset is a big part of it, but in most cases the decision ends up being based on a careful assessment of the risks and rewards, both financially and in terms of work motivation/satisfaction.
When a freelancer goes for it, the process is typically fairly slow and gradual, partly due to limited knowledge, skills, time and perhaps financial resources. And it often involves going from freelancer to first being an SLV (single language vendor) or an RLV (regional language vendor) and then eventually to an MLV (multi language vendor). This is quite natural and probably the safest route to go. However, there is the option of seeking outside investment in order to accelerate the process, but in my experience very few freelancers are comfortable with that.
If you’re a successful freelance translator/interpreter being offered more work than you can handle yourself, or you have other reasons for wanting to build a company, I encourage you to:
- Invest in GALA Membership (if you are a legal constituted company). We offer more resources and connections to help you through this transition than you’ll find in any other association in our sector.
- Set aside budget to attend conferences for translation/interpreting companies where you can learn from people who have already been there and done it.
In addition, below are some links to more reading on the topic that might be interesting/helpful. Best of luck in your journey!