As a freelance translator, are you 'free' to work as you please, with no rules? Of course, not. The widespread but wrong assumption according to which freelancers enjoy more freedom compared to employees is a misunderstanding. Working as a freelancer implies a strong sense of responsibility and requires strict discipline: it does not, nor should mean that you should have no timetables to follow, and most freelancers know that from their own experience.
While it is important to work, you should also bear in mind that improving the quality of your pool of customers requires constant 'background' and preparatory work. That is why time and its optimal management are crucial. Spending too much time doing just paid-for work—especially during periods of peaks—may distract you from the marketing and administrative activities, which are the basis and the conditio sine qua non of any independent business. How can customers find you if you do not dedicate time and efforts to marketing?
Time management requires good organizational abilities and some practical common sense. Everybody can learn how to organize his/her work and day-life so as not to waste time, do his/her job better, and still have a social life. Lack of organization leads to chaos.
First of all, you should prioritize and schedule your activities during the day. Prepare and update a to-do list such as phone calls, replying to e-mails, making appointments, etc. It is a good rule to start your workday by scrolling through this list of to-do activities. Start with those activities that require no more than a few minutes, including reading and replying to e-mails, first thing in the morning.
Among the preparatory tasks you should carry out in order to simplify your working life, there is the organization of your e-mails, both incoming and outgoing. These days we get and send a large number of e-mails, so it is easy to let them accumulate. Unless you place them where they belong in a timely manner, they will eventually overwhelm you. You should organize them so as to be able to track back the relevant communication quickly, if needed, without wasting time.
First of all, create separate folders for personal and work e-mails. Then, create sub-folders under the work folder, one for each customer, and a miscellaneous folder where you will save general e-mails. Despite what some people think about free e-mail accounts, Gmail works fine and it enables you to set many options, which help you keep your correspondence in order. Besides, if you have multiple e-mail accounts, you can re-direct them to your main Gmail account and keep all the e-mails in the same place and under control.
When setting your e-mail preferences, do not forget to set the auto-responder, whose message can be customized, e.g. when you are on vacation or out of office for a short period. That way, your customers will always get a reply to their e-mails and know when you will be available again.
The same process can be applied to work and invoice folders, and each of these can be further divided into more specific sub-folders. Finally, do not forget to zip and archive old jobs once done, and to back them up on a regular basis.
In addition to organizing your time in reading and replying to your e-mails and archiving your jobs in a more efficient manner, you should also establish opening hours for your home office; working at home does not mean you should work 24/7. Your customers will understand that and, once they know what your rules are, they will usually accommodate you.
Freelance translators work mainly on the Internet: there they get their e-mails, online dictionaries, resources, etc. so it is easy to get distracted while surfing. You should resist the temptation to 'have just a quick look at Facebook' while working. When you start working, try to limit the occasions of distraction by closing any Internet websites not relevant to your work searches, setting the answering machine on and not checking e-mails every five minutes!
As already mentioned before, doing your paid-for work is not enough: you are your own boss, so you have to dedicate some time to marketing and invoicing. Indeed, marketing is the primary activity you should focus on, especially at the beginning of your career as a freelance. If you want to build a quality portfolio of customers and establish good and lasting working relationships, you have to be prepared to study some marketing strategies. Freelance translators should get used to thinking about themselves and act as businesspeople.
Marketing activities are time-consuming and may also be boring. Still, they are necessary, and you should dedicate a few hours every week to looking for new customers, polishing your public profile, writing articles and press-releases, compiling specialized glossaries, keeping in touch with colleagues, reading any marketing literature you may deem useful, etc.
Of course, your marketing strategies will vary depending on whether you target translation agencies or direct clients. The latter are much more difficult to approach and acquire as repeat customers, so it goes without saying that you will need to put more efforts and time in finding direct customers. On the other hand, it will be more rewarding in monetary terms than working with intermediaries. Cutting the middleman is of course the best solution to increase your income, but it also requires many hours spent at trade fairs, researching the targeted direct customers' activities, etc.
One of the first steps you should take to acquire visibility on the Internet is to have a website, through which you will communicate any updates and news about yourself, your profession, and your activities. In particular, I am thinking of an interactive website that you can manage without any external aid by a webmaster: my two websites, for example, are built using Plone, an open-source platform. If you take a look at them at www.antotranslation.com and www.contesti.eu, you will notice that they are platforms, rather than traditional websites. This means that every time you have to add/change/remove anything on the website, you can do it yourself in seconds. Such a website is a powerful means to convey information and news to your potential customers, but also to your colleagues and readers.
Of course, a website alone is no magic wand and is not sufficient to market your services, unless you update it constantly, adding new contents and that way improving its Google ranking. In addition to a web-site, it is very useful to network on portals and sites dedicated to translation and translators, build your professional profile and follow the threads in the Forums. That is a very good way of acquiring information and getting to know more about what happens in the translation world: your colleagues' opinions are valuable and enable you to keep linked to your professional environment. Working alone at home day after day may pose the risk of being isolated, so...stay connected!
A page on Facebook is also useful, but you should pay extra attention when publishing your profile on the Internet. Remember that all the contents you post there will be seen by everybody and not only when you write it, but even years later. Should you post any inappropriate content or opinion, it will contribute to building the image potential customers will have of you. So be careful to protect your reputation, because as a freelance translator your public image as an individual is also the image of your business.
This short article does not aim to give detailed marketing methods other that the few hints above. Its main purpose is to point out the relevance of organization and time management for freelancers. Remember that being a freelancer involves a huge responsibility, since if anything goes wrong, it is you the one to blame. But the good news is that you, as an individual, will also deserve any credit for the success of your business.
(First published on Translationjournal.net)