On Direct Clients and Overcoming Geographical Disadvantages

Marty and map

Last month, I published a post on earning six-figures as a translator and accidentally sparked several somewhat heated yet fascinating debates on several business aspects of translation. One of the lingering questions in some of the places where my post was discussed was whether or not geography is a handicap when going after direct clients.

We are always told that one of the secrets to making direct clients is going where they are, and the reasoning behind that is pretty sound. Though not specific to translation, some of the best arguments in favor of location as a competitive strategy can be found in Michal E. Porter’s paper in Harvard Business Review’s HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Strategy (including featured article “What Is Strategy?” by Michael E. Porter) and expanded in Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors.

When applied to translation, “going where your clients are” is sometimes interpreted as meaning “relocate to your source country,” another sound piece of advice that is very hard to refute (when based on serious research). But, let’s be totally honest, relocating to your source country is not a realistic option for everyone. This is so for various reasons, including Visas or family/personal commitments. This may be hard to believe, but Visas are not so easy to come by these days. And consulates don’t always deem “moving to your source country to up your game as a freelancer translator” as a genuine reason for granting legal entry to foreigners. The bastards! In addition, some people are unwilling or unable to move their entire families overseas to have a better shot at reaching direct clients. Should they give up? Of course not! So what to do when you’re “stuck” in your target country?

One thing translators do is rely on intermediaries who actually have that geographical advantage. While many are quick to demonize such intermediaries, I personally have no problem with agencies. My problem is with bottom feeders; and believing that all agencies are bottom feeders is just as naïve as believing that bidding wars are in the best interest of translators. In the same vein, not all translators have an entrepreneurial side. Some translators prefer to focus only on translating and let other people worry about all the marketing, client searching, and project management. Again, I don’t see a problem with that, either. We’re all wired differently, we have different talents, interests, and priorities. So if you’re a translator who enjoys working for intermediaries and you’re happy and making a good and honest living, who am I to judge?

For the time being, I’m still combining both agencies and direct clients. I like working with agencies that fit two simple (totally subjective) criteria: i. the people behind the company are likable, and ii. they pay fair rates. However, I also like working for direct clients. I have an outgoing personality with an entrepreneurial spirit. So, I genuinely enjoy the business side of things and love the thrill of the hunt. I enjoy negotiating and closing successful deals with new or returning clients. It’s just how I am. It’s not better or worse than translators who enjoy working solely for agencies, just different.

However, entrepreneurial though I am, I’m also a realist. I’m well aware of the competitive disadvantage of living so far away from my clients and, as if that wasn’t enough, living in the developing part of the world where we often deal with things like this: “I contacted someone in Latin America because you guys are supposed to be cheaper,” true story, someone actually said this to me once! Or, my favorite, “If I wanted to pay American prices, I’d hire an American.” That one was pretty funny, considering the target readership was Argentina. So, yes, we have it rough sometimes and we can’t (or simply don’t want to) relocate, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed.

In some market niches, prospects come to where you are. In my post about how I built my client base without using translation portals, I mentioned some of the ways in which my university contacts have resulted in well paid work. For those who don’t know, I’m also a part-time university Professor of Law. The numerous academic activities held by different universities in Buenos Aires involve receiving visitors and delegations from all over the world almost constantly throughout the academic year. Many of these activities are even free and have resulted in a simple and easy way for me to meet foreign clients directly, without leaving Buenos Aires.

So, regardless of whether you cater to high profile lawyers and scholars or to IT gurus, it is possible that your city hosts international events that are roaming with interesting prospects. If you can’t leave the country to go them, maybe you can find out if they are coming to you. Needless to say, this will not make up for a total lack of geographical proximity, but combined with other strategies, at least it’s a start. There’s more than one way to skin a cat (poor cat!), and this one sometimes gets overlooked.

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12 thoughts on “On Direct Clients and Overcoming Geographical Disadvantages

  1. You make some very good points, Paula! Sometimes prospects can be found in the most unlikely of places 🙂 I sometimes feel like I’m at a disadvantage staying in the UK (and far away from London, at that), but once you start looking, there are a surprising number of international events happening on your doorstep!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Paula! I also think you have to be a pragmatist about it: I’m not moving to Europe anytime soon (unless someone wants to gift me an EU passport…), so how can I capitalize on the *advantages* of being in the US and working with clients in Europe? For example I’m behind them in time zones, so they can send work at the end of the day and it’s done for the next day; I’m totally plugged in to my target language culture; they may not have to pay EU VAT on what they pay me, etc. As you say, if you’re not planning on leaving the country where you live, it’s a waste of emotional energy to think about “how much easier it would be to find clients” (which may or may not be true) if you lived somewhere else.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maryam says:

    Excellent article Paula! Geography is not a handicap at all and it can certainly be used to our advantage. What really determines the success of translators is the entrepreneurial skills you mentioned.

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  4. martinaeco says:

    What a great article! I am one of those who relocated to the source country, but I did it to get a degree in marketing rather than to find direct clients (although it has been a very welcomed consequence). I consider myself very lucky as I found an environment which promotes entrepreneurship (my university won the Times Award for Entrepreneurial University of the Year in 2016) and networking, and that is how I found my direct clients. I, however, also keep an eye on my home country, I stay up to date and I engage with the online business communities so to stay, as Corinne put it, plugged in to my target language culture. I think one of the advantages of working as a freelance is being location independent, and that is how it should be: the location should not have an impact on our ability to find clients. I believe it’s just a matter of adjusting one’s strategy to one’s conditions.

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