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Questions on starting an agency
Thread poster: MurphC

MurphC
Spanish to English
Feb 24, 2010

Hello,

I posted this on another forum but had few responses. After spending the better part of tonight reading the posts here and searching for similar ones, I thought I would ask my questions here. I'm a student in the US studying Spanish and Business, and this term I'm actually taking a translation course. However my university doesn't offer a full translation program and I don't intend to go into the field as a translator (I don't have the academic background nor the means to con
... See more
Hello,

I posted this on another forum but had few responses. After spending the better part of tonight reading the posts here and searching for similar ones, I thought I would ask my questions here. I'm a student in the US studying Spanish and Business, and this term I'm actually taking a translation course. However my university doesn't offer a full translation program and I don't intend to go into the field as a translator (I don't have the academic background nor the means to continue further with my education immediately after I graduate). I want to start a translation agency. I know I need more experience- this is an idea I have been researching for about a year and I intend to keep learning and planning for a couple more at least If nothing else, I am prepared to accept failure and learn from my mistakes. Above all, please don't look at me as someone expecting to get rich off of "doling out" translations. I realise the amount of work that goes into translation and that it doesn't always pay off.

Unfortunately I have found it difficult to get into contact with reputable agencies and get some insight into this aspect of the business. If you could help me with this questions, I would greatly appreciate it, if only to satisfy my own curiosity.

1) How many language pairs to start with? I think fewer would be easier to manage and build stronger connections. Maybe even just starting with one language pair (en-es). I would like to start with languages I am familiar with (Spanish, Russian, English of course). But perhaps I'm going about it all wrong and should offer a wider variety? Of course it depends on the clients I'm taking on, but where to begin?

2) Should I generalise or specialise? It seems like it would be harder to have to find six different translators for six different subjects; if I specialised, I think I could make stronger contacts with those translators who work in my specialisation. But if I do specialise, my niche must be strong enough to become profitable. Perhaps there would be less risk in generalisation (and less money too).

3) Should I initially outsource, or have in-house staff? Outsourcing is of course a lot more cost effective for a start up. If I specialise, I might be able to hire someone in-house. But then I must get enough work to keep them.

4) What are the most common (or successful) marketing tools or methods for translation agencies? Where and how do I market to clients?

5) How is proofreading/editing handled? I have a general idea but would like more specifics, i.e. is the editor in touch with the translator, or do they always act through the agency as intermediary? Is the editor generally a translator as well?

6) Any idea on start up costs? This could have a huge range depending on staff, office, etc. but I am mostly considering that I may have to pay a partial or full deposit on the first handful of jobs before I have established credibility.

7) Along those lines, how long might it take to break even? 18, 24 months? Longer?

8) The big question: is the translation agency a feasible idea for a sole proprietorship? Employees are to be added as the budget allows, but at first it would just be me (assuming a certain response to question 3).

Even if you could help me to answer a few of these questions and offer your advice, I would appreciate it greatly. Thanks in advance.

[Edited at 2010-02-24 09:43 GMT]
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Mirelluk  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:26
Member (2005)
English to Italian
+ ...
Starting a new business is not for everybody Jun 1, 2010

Dear MurphC,

I see that you did not get any answers so far and I thought you deserve at least a short reply.

Starting a new business is a very risky venture in any field and it requires business acumen, know-how and personal experience. From what I gather you are very young and have not tested your skills on the market yet. I suggest you start working freelance for a few direct clients, friends, relatives, charities and LSPs so that you can gain experience about some c
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Dear MurphC,

I see that you did not get any answers so far and I thought you deserve at least a short reply.

Starting a new business is a very risky venture in any field and it requires business acumen, know-how and personal experience. From what I gather you are very young and have not tested your skills on the market yet. I suggest you start working freelance for a few direct clients, friends, relatives, charities and LSPs so that you can gain experience about some crucial issues.

Work hard for a couple of years, if not five or six at least, and then think twice about your project.

Good luck.

Mirella
(Owner of a translation company for over 25 years)
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Kevin Fulton  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:26
German to English
Does the world need another translation agency? Jun 2, 2010

In addition to the issues mentioned by Mirella, you need to ascertain whether you can provide a unique service that will distinguish your agency from the rest of the crowd. It seems that many agencies want to compete on the basis of price, with the not surprising low-quality result.

I'm with Mirella: learn the nuts and bolts of the business as a translator before even considering starting an agency.


 

MurphC
Spanish to English
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks Jun 2, 2010

Thank you both for your replies. One of the reasons I want to get into this field is that I have heard a lot of complaints about agencies- from translators and clients alike- and I know I can do it better than the worst agencies simply by maintaining good business practices like using purchase orders, paying on time, etcetera. All agencies offer, or claim to offer, the highest quality. So as far as competing in the market, you have to do your best to offer the speed and price that the client wan... See more
Thank you both for your replies. One of the reasons I want to get into this field is that I have heard a lot of complaints about agencies- from translators and clients alike- and I know I can do it better than the worst agencies simply by maintaining good business practices like using purchase orders, paying on time, etcetera. All agencies offer, or claim to offer, the highest quality. So as far as competing in the market, you have to do your best to offer the speed and price that the client wants at the highest possible quality. That may or may not be possible in every situation. I've read that a majority of business clients prefer a quick turnaround to the highest possible quality, however this may not be the case in every situation. I've also read a lot about agencies and translators having to educate their clients on what is and isn't possible with translation- a lot of people have misconceptions about the work involved.

But anyway the only response I've gotten from this and other forums is to get more experience, so that's what I'll do- I'm just afraid that if I asked about starting as a translator I'd get the same response! I have done some translations outside of school, some volunteer and one at the office where I work, but I paid very close attention to what I was doing and had them read by professional translators, professionals in the field of the text, native speakers, my boss, etc., etc.

If I may ask Mirella, how did you get started in translation and what steps did you take to start your own agency?

Thanks again for your posts
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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 06:26
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Learn the ropes first Jun 2, 2010

Translation is a complex world in my opinion. There are many factors (market, quality, standards, technology, resource management...) involved and managing all of them successfully is tricky. I daresay that a vast majority of the people who own and run agencies today have been translators or have worked at translation agencies for a number of years.

In the world of translation, you will not only have to compete for demand, but also for supply since most high-quality, established tra
... See more
Translation is a complex world in my opinion. There are many factors (market, quality, standards, technology, resource management...) involved and managing all of them successfully is tricky. I daresay that a vast majority of the people who own and run agencies today have been translators or have worked at translation agencies for a number of years.

In the world of translation, you will not only have to compete for demand, but also for supply since most high-quality, established translators (the ones who can make you reasonably wealthy if you treat them well) stick to their main agency customers and would only consider working for you if you consistently offer them better conditions and a professional, amiable attitude. In translation, ensuring supply with a good level is what can help you ensure demand. Lose your good translators, and you will start losing customers. I have seen this happening to other agencies along time.

I think you will not find courses on how to manage a translation agency, so my advice is that you first try to work at a translation agency (as a project manager or in a management position if you can) and learn about the business of translation as a whole. Only then you will know whether you are capable of starting a new agency.
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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 06:26
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
An incorrect premise Jun 2, 2010

MurphC wrote:
I've read that a majority of business clients prefer a quick turnaround to the highest possible quality, however this may not be the case in every situation. I've also read a lot about agencies and translators having to educate their clients on what is and isn't possible with translation- a lot of people have misconceptions about the work involved.

Hm... My experience is that this is not true: when a customer needs a quick turnaround, they also expect your best level of quality. Also those customers who pay very little expect that.

Any "quick turnaround thus lower quality" or "low pay thus lower quality" approach will not work: the people for which the translation is aimed will always complain vigorously about a poor translation and will not care whether you did it quickly or not or how much you were paid for it.

A translator should always offer his/her maximum level of quality... and if that is not possible, the job should be rejected.


 

John Fossey  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 00:26
Member (2008)
French to English
+ ...
Capital needed Jun 2, 2010

I might add to this that in addition to experience there is another major ingredient needed, one which many, many agencies (and other types of businesses) get into trouble for lacking...

Capital

When you go into business as an agency, you are a merchant. You are buying a product from a supplier and selling to another buyer. As soon as you have bought your first translation from a translator, you have created a liability for yourself - you have to pay for it. It's ess
... See more
I might add to this that in addition to experience there is another major ingredient needed, one which many, many agencies (and other types of businesses) get into trouble for lacking...

Capital

When you go into business as an agency, you are a merchant. You are buying a product from a supplier and selling to another buyer. As soon as you have bought your first translation from a translator, you have created a liability for yourself - you have to pay for it. It's essential that you have the capital to do so, regardless of whether your customer pays you.

Naturally, your intention is that your customer will pay you, leaving you with a profit. But this won't happen every time, nor will it always happen on time.

You are correct in calling up periods such as 24 months to break even. But this means that you need to have the ability to not only cover payments to your translators (suppliers) in spite of slow or non payment by your customers, but also enough capital to cover the losses of those first 24 months. Yes, losses, because if you are not breaking even then you have a loss, and that loss has to be covered from somewhere.

One of the biggest myths in the industry is that you don't have to pay your translators until your customer pays you. That is a recipe for failure, since your translators are going to insist on payment whether or not your customers pay you.

So you would be well advised to spend the next few years collecting both experience and capital. Those are the ingredients for success.
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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 06:26
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Link your payment to your collection and you are gone! Jun 2, 2010

John Fossey wrote:
One of the biggest myths in the industry is that you don't have to pay your translators until your customer pays you. That is a recipe for failure, since your translators are going to insist on payment whether or not your customers pay you.

Indeed. The minute any serious translator is told by a customer that they did not pay because they were not paid yet by the end customer, the minute the customer goes into the low-priority category.


 

José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 03:26
English to Portuguese
+ ...
In memoriam
That's where they go wrong Jun 2, 2010

MurphC wrote:
... I have heard a lot of complaints about agencies- from translators and clients alike- and I know I can do it better than the worst agencies simply by maintaining good business practices like using purchase orders, paying on time, etcetera.


Two questions:
1. Do you really? (know you can do it better)
2. Is it enough to be better than the "worst" agencies?

MurphC wrote:
you have to do your best to offer the speed and price that the client wants at the highest possible quality.


IMHO that's where most agencies go wrong. They should offer the quality and speed the client wants at the lowest possible price.

If they don't want any quality at all, speed is critical, and they cannot afford more than at least half the professional market rate, free online machine translation will serve them best. No need for agencies nor translators, nor money.

MurphC wrote:
I've also read a lot about agencies and translators having to educate their clients on what is and isn't possible with translation- a lot of people have misconceptions about the work involved.


It's not so much a matter of what's possible, but what is included in translation. A client may want their product catalog translated. What they don't know is that translation and DTP are separate lines of work, though some people do both. Another one wants their presentation translated, and expects the translator to record the narration, as well as play the brackground music.

My advice would be for you to check if you are starting out with any misconceptions of your own.

MurphC wrote:
If I may ask Mirella, how did you get started in translation and what steps did you take to start your own agency?


I can tell you about a colleague, friend, and client who did it. She began as a translator, and did such a great job in marketing that her demand exceeded both her production capacity and her skills (other language pairs, other services). Clients were so happy with her work that they chose to have her manage all their projects involving translation. To give you an idea, some two years later she had a small audio recording studio in her office, for dubbing video and presentations. That's how outsourcing begins.

Quite likely, these "worst" translation agencies you mention are managed by people who know about the same or less than their clients about translation, and regard it as a business like any other, most likely as an easier than average way to make money. They can buy cheap translation from amateurs and sell that as professional work; all they need is an impressive web site. They can receive payment in advance or COD from their clients, and then pay their vendors in 60, 90, or more days. That's the easy way to become one of the "worst" translation agencies. Anyone can wing it.


 
Don't be discouraged Jun 21, 2010

I noticed an admonishment/inspiration in the responses to this post as about 8 to 0. Bottom line - if you want it, you can do it. Have you written the reasons that you want to start this business? If those reasons truly fit your life, then they will push you over any hurdles. Just start the business.

 

Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 06:26
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Not true Dec 7, 2010

multifarious wrote:
I noticed an admonishment/inspiration in the responses to this post as about 8 to 0. Bottom line - if you want it, you can do it. Have you written the reasons that you want to start this business? If those reasons truly fit your life, then they will push you over any hurdles. Just start the business.

But the poster wanted our opinion! I think it was generous of the colleagues to share their time and give good advice as to how to manage an agency for success.

[Edited at 2010-12-07 12:33 GMT]


 

José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 03:26
English to Portuguese
+ ...
In memoriam
A different stance Dec 7, 2010

Since this "ancient" thread came up, I wrote an article on the advice I - as a translator - would give end-clients upon deciding whether they need a translation agency, or if they would be better served by hiring a freelance translator.

I don't know if by this time you already have your agency up and running or not, how
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Since this "ancient" thread came up, I wrote an article on the advice I - as a translator - would give end-clients upon deciding whether they need a translation agency, or if they would be better served by hiring a freelance translator.

I don't know if by this time you already have your agency up and running or not, however maybe these insights could help you give it a better focus.
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juvera  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:26
English to Hungarian
+ ...
Summary Dec 8, 2010

Although I am not sure if MurphC is still here...
MurphC wrote:
I have done some translations outside of school, some volunteer and one at the office where I work…

Do more translation, in order to understand the complexity and nature of the work of the translator and become familiar with the issues they have to deal with.
Then/or in the main time:
Tomás Cano Binder, CT wrote:
...my advice is that you first try to work at a translation agency (as a project manager or in a management position if you can) and learn about the business of translation as a whole. Only then you will know whether you are capable of starting a new agency.

Finally:
John Fossey wrote:
…you would be well advised to spend the next few years collecting both experience and capital. Those are the ingredients for success.

Your experiences will guide you and enable you to make the right decisions, and the money you might manage to save during that time will help you to start your own agency.


 

Vikas Chaturvedi
Local time: 10:56
Urdu to English
+ ...
Understand the Cycle .. Jan 6, 2011

I am agree with other colleagues who posted there opinion earlier. You need to understand the Translation process first eg : how to contact client, getting project, working on it, delivery, payment, problem etc..

then you should try to obtain this as career.


 
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