How I Built My Direct Client Base (without Using Translation Portals)

Looking for clients

Many years ago (as some of you might recall), there was a huge debate as to whether certain translation portals were directly decreasing translation rates through their bidding systems. Many of us raised serious objections to changes to their job boards and a lot of longstanding and well-respected members fled some of these sites –one site in particular took the most heat. But in that debate, I also remember many translators claiming that without such portals, we would not be able to find clients or get work. Of course, most of these claims came from newbies who could not account for how anyone made a living as a translator before the internet age. But even among those of us who had been around for a few years at that point, there were those who still depended on these sites for work. I was one of them.

The impulsiveness of my twenties made me immediately take sides on the debate and, of course, I sided with the notion that these portals would ultimately result in a rates crisis. So, I put my money where my mouth was and stopped using them for client hunting, thus forcing myself to get creative about finding translation work.

Since then, I have significantly increased my fees and now have a lovely portfolio of direct clients and highly specialized boutique agencies that are an absolute pleasure to work with. My direct clients include everything from international organizations like the United Nations, to governments, transnational NGOs, law book publishers, prestigious universities, and well established legal scholars. The way I see it, leaving my comfort zone (i.e. abandoning the translation portal bidding wars) was precisely what I needed to kick-start my career.

Just last week, on LinkedIn, someone again raised the question of how to find clients without using such portals. What follows is how I found mine. Needless to say, this post is not meant to be taken literally as a step-by-step guide to making direct clients. This is just my personal experience and the decision to share it was perhaps inspired by Corinne Mckay’s upcoming webinar on how to break into the direct client market. So, here goes: my secret is knowing where to look.

1. Educational Communities

About halfway into my career as a translator (when I was still heavily portal-dependent), I went to Law School. Juggling full-time freelance translation work and earning my Law degree was not easy. I was sleep deprived and it took quite a toll on my health (nothing a healthier diet and running couldn’t fix though!). But I survived, graduating in the top 10%, and with a teaching offer and doctoral scholarship. So I can’t complain. Law School was worth the effort and turned out to be the smartest decision I ever made. It led directly to some of my best and longest-standing clients, basically by word of mouth. Educational communities are usually very tight and supportive of their members. Whenever someone asks me to recommend a good lawyer in a particular field, the first people I think about are those who excelled in my educational community. Similarly, whenever they are asked about a good legal translator or lawyer-linguist, they recommend me. It’s only natural. I know they won’t let me down and they know I won’t let them down.

In addition, I participated in several extracurricular activities where I also met many of my direct clients. My university has its own publishing house and a joint translation program with Yale University. I was quickly recruited for this program by one of my professors and that led to great jobs for renowned academics from many different parts of the world.

Of course, I’m not saying that all translators (or legal translators) should go to graduate school. All I’m saying is that being part of an educational community (even through lighter activities, like short courses, workshops, clubs, etc.) can go a long way.

2. Conferences, Events and Trade Shows (theirs not ours!)

Most translators stick to translation conferences and translation-related events only, and though networking among your peers/competitors/potential agency owners is fine, direct clients mingle elsewhere. In Law, they mingle at conferences and seminars. I still make sure to attend those and socialize, without forcing the subject of what I do or shoving my card down the other person’s throat. Networking at such events takes a little diplomacy and a lot of people skills. Being as I am the extraverted type, to me it’s a very fun way to expand my clientele.

3. Journals and Magazines

For many years I took the money I would have spent on paid subscriptions to translation portals and instead used it to place ads in legal magazines and legal sites that targeted my prospective clients. They were very humble, but effective.

4. Online Forums and Communities

I can’t tell you how many great clients I’ve made by simply participating in online discussions and communities. What many people don’t realize is that in such discussions, you are often talking to potential clients. Sometimes, you say the right thing or have just the right attitude and it makes people want to work with you. That’s why in prior posts I’ve insisted on being very careful about what you say online and how you treat other people. Your public online persona is sometimes the first thing potential clients see. Of course, you want to keep it real, but you also want to exercise good judgment and professionalism at all times.

5. Bar Associations (or Chambers of Commerce)

Getting hired by the International Bar Association for their latest book resulted in a lot of exposure, ultimately leading to very interesting work. In other areas of specialization, many translators accomplish the same results through their Chambers of Commerce.

6. Sporting Events

I run, and believe it or not, running has led to casual conversations that have also resulted in translation work. Of course I’m not saying all translators should become runners. What I am saying is that even your favorite hobby can potentially help expand your client base.

7. Knocking on People’s Doors

By “people” I mean clients and by “knocking on their doors” I mean keeping my eyes peeled for openings and opportunities. I used to regularly look through the sites of international organizations and submit my resume whenever their searches seemed to match my profile. The same goes for transnational NGOs. Though most NGOs found me through my university contacts, in a few cases I simply sent in my CV when they posted searches on their sites.
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Making direct clients is not easy, but it’s not rocket science either. You just need to develop a system that works for you and then commit to it. There was a point in my life where I got up at 5 a.m. every day just to get one hour of client hunting done before rushing to class. Waking up at 5:00 a.m. wasn’t the hardest part, what I struggled with the most back then was not getting discouraged! But eventually all that hard work paid off. Now, the issue is no longer how to make clients, but how to keep them happy while staying sane… but that’s a topic for another post.

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38 thoughts on “How I Built My Direct Client Base (without Using Translation Portals)

  1. Jill (@bonnjill) says:

    This is excellent advice. I hope others follow it. I agree with every single word you say. Translation portals are not my source of income either. Congratulations on building a great and lucrative client base!

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  2. Thank you, Paula, for this excellent article! I cannot agree more: potential clients can be everywhere in the world, so I always carry some visit cards with me (also when I go to karate or walk with the dog). It is important to knock at some doors and to tell who you are and what you can do (without exaggerating). Online groups and forums can help to find clients too if you are a nice person 😉
    BTW, portals were never important for me, and by now, they are totally irrelevant.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Chani! It’s so refreshing to see so many people who are not portal-dependent for work!!! I knew you were a dog person, but I had no idea you were into martial arts. That’s awesome! 😀

    I also agree that being a nice person is probably a pre-condition for meeting clients through forums. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re interacting with actual human beings when the conversation goes through a machine, but it’s important to keep the human factor in mind at all times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well yes, I need arts (visual *and* martial) like breathing 😉

      “…it’s important to keep the human factor in mind at all times.”

      Exactly. The channel you use for communication is not that important: I write to you through WordPress today, we could talk to each other through the phone tomorrow and meet in person next year: it does not change anything. To find direct clients (and friends), we need to be respectful and tolerant at all times.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. circalingua says:

    Hi Paula,

    I have just discovered your blog thanks to this fantastic post. Since I started as a freelancer, I tried to stay away of these portals and build a solid portfolio of direct clients. And, as you say, it pays off.

    In fact, I also tackled this issue in my blog: http://circalingua.com/chapter-2-2-pre-purchase-phase-success/

    Both posts have some points in common! I will add some of your tips to my list.

    Thanks for the tips. I have added your blog to my blog list, so you’ll see me around.
    Regards,
    David.

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  5. Thanks for another amazing blog post Paula! I stopped paying for my Proz membership this year. Never felt so alive! Even though I stopped receiving offers from Proz (or participating in the bidding war for that matter) a few years ago, I was still paying my fee out of the habit. Not anymore! I’m planing to write a blog post at the end of the year and share my experience of a life without those dreadful translation portals. I’ve made your post my Post of The Day on Tweeter and Facebook by the way 😉

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    • Thank you, Dmitry! To be honest, I stopped paying a long time ago as well. Last year, I was invited to speak at an online event organized by a very esteemed colleague via their platform and in exchange they gave me a free year. Out of curiosity I played around with their job board a bit, but didn’t find anything of interest and the jobs that were of interest turned out to pay very low fees. So either way, my “full” subscription did not translate into actual work.

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      • Yes, the quality of job offers has decreased in my language pair too. Haven’t seen anything that would interest me for a long time. Although it doesn’t stop my fellow English-Russian translators from quoting on those jobs. As a matter of fact I still have those new job posting notifications enabled and every know and then I check out those postings out of curiosity. Surprisingly whenever it is a multilingual projects the English-Russian pair always has the highest number of bidders. Maybe it’s because Russian economy is not in the best shape at the moment, I don’t know.

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      • Well, I know from living in Argentina (a lovely country whose economy has been in bad shape since… forever), that necessity sometimes leads individuals to accept the worse terms and conditions. It’s very unfortunate and I think this is an issue that merits very serious study and consideration. Thank you for bringing up this important point!

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  6. Spot-on Paula! I know many LSPs who should take this advice too. Potential customers are everywhere. It’s tough getting out of our comfort zone, but worth it in the end to have greater control over the work/prices we accept. Pricing pressures are everywhere, but there are clients out there who do pay well. Leave no stone unturned!

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  7. Hello, Paula. Thanks for this great article full of wonderful advice. I’ve also thought we need to have a different approach at looking for direct clients. I will include some of your advice in re-shaping my personal client-search strategy.

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  8. I have to take issue with this sweeping generalization: “Of course, most of these claims came from newbies who could not account for how anyone made a living as a translator before the internet age.”

    How was this fact ascertained? Were these ‘newbies’ identified in some meaningful and tangible way (i.e. outside of one’s opinion)?

    By contrast, I ran a poll on Proz.com to see which translation portals were useful to translators. Among the options: LinkedIn and Proz.com, as well as the translator’s own website and Twitter. I was a bit surprised by the answers: a majority of translators (54.7% of 956 votes) indicated that their Proz.com profile was their main source of clients. Surprisingly, 7.5% of those 956 votes responded that their profile in a professional association was behind their acquiring clients. You may see the poll here: http://www.proz.com/polls/15850

    Different markets require different combinations of strategies to find and secure clients. There are no universal recipes.

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  9. ¡Ay, Mario! You take issue with so many things on my blog sometimes it’s hard to keep track. You obviously care about things… a lot! And I value your opinion and unique world view, even if you come off a little grumpy at times. Caring is awesome, but sometimes you’re so busy raising objections to what other people have to say that you miss the point entirely. This post is about sharing my personal experience. Period. It’s just that, nothing more, nothing less. It might help. It might not. But it’s just a personal experience. How can anyone “take issue” with someone else’s personal experience? Seriously, amigo. Chill!!!! (Do people still say that?… they should! 😉 )

    Did I say translation portals were not useful? No. Did I admit I used to use translation portals to find clients? Yes. All I’m doing is sharing a personal story as to why I stopped using them at some point in my career and that decision turned out to be the right decision *for me*. I even clarified that: “Needless to say, this post is not meant to be taken literally as a step-by-step guide to making direct clients. This is just my personal experience […],” ***in bold print***!!!!

    The newbies I mentioned at the beginning happened to be my friends. Not internet friends, real life friends and we’re still friends to this day. As for the rest of the bunch, I met up with many of them recently in France and guess what we had a good laugh about? You guessed it! The “big” debate!

    The poll you shared is interesting. Thanks for that! But it does not invalidate my personal story… ’cause it’s a personal story! LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Olga G says:

    Hi Paula,

    Thanks for such an informative post. I’d just like to ask you how exactly can a translator fit in a professional forum of, say, the oil&gas industry?

    Like

    • Hi again Olga! Thank you for commenting. To be honest, I’m not one of those gurus who go around trying to tell people how to run their business. I just share random ideas and experiences that pop into my head, and this post was just aimed at sharing my personal experience in case anyone else could benefit from it. That being said, I will share something interesting that I learned from Chris Durban: you need to know enough about your target niche to be able to hold a conversation with someone who works in that industry for several minutes. If you can do that, then you can fit in. 🙂

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  11. Hi Paula, I came across your blog post via Erik Hansson on Twitter. Thank you for these thoughts, they’re still fresh, interesting and very valuable :-). I like “This is my experience, maybe it’ll work for you, maybe not” type of attitude. Also, Chris Durban’s piece of advice is really precious.
    Happy translating,
    Daniela

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  12. Hi Paula, I am so happy to have come across this post. It was such a pleasure reading it! Mostly because we have quite a similar background, I am currently at the stage where I study Law as a second degree, work full-time as a freelance translator (and as my own marketing agent). It is very challenging, but it is, as you say, one of the smartest decisions I could have ever made. The reason I do it, except my great passion for legal matters, is that I strongly believe that in order to become a good translator one has to specialize.

    As for the marketing part, I have been using some of the mentioned strategies that will hopefully pay off. But you gave me an excellent idea for new ones. Thank you so much for sharing your tips as well as your experience, I will certainly try to apply them!

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  13. Excellent post, Paula! You are giving really great tips. However sometimes we deal with the location issue. For example, I live in a provincial Russian city (although there are more than a million people living), and here even direct clients (let alone agencies) offer rates lower than those on bidding platforms. I think this is one of the reasons why Russian translators are so active in bidding.
    Anyway it doesn’t mean that we cannot use online opportunities for promoting our services and cooperating with direct customers.

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  14. Reblogged this on Aleyna Voice & Translation and commented:
    Although this post is almost 2 years old, it is more than relevant for freelance translators today. Paula gives excellent tips on how to find direct clients who are enoyable to cooperate with. Of course we should take into account some local differences and nuances. For example, in the city where I live there is almost no sense to look for local direct clients, because most of them are not able to offer you decent rates. Moreover, they offer rates lower than those on bidding platforms. But still we have a lot of online opportunities which can be used to the maximum.

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