Last Thursday, we had a webinar with Cherie Plaice for freelancers interested in starting/running a translation agency. In this article, we revisit the main points discussed during it.


Diving into the agency business may feel frightening at first — but if you keep your eyes open and your mind clear, you'll surely be able to enjoy it.

By Cherie Place & Vova Zk

So here are the key takeaways from the webinar (if you're more of a viewer than reader, make sure to watch it in replay!).

Be prepared for cash gaps

In the perfect world, customers would always pay on time, and agencies would be able to pay translators from the money they receive from the customers. In the real world, sometimes you will have to pay translators from your own purse, hoping that the customer does not delay its payment by too long. To decrease risks, especially when you are just starting out:

  • Always try to agree on a prepayment, or at the very least payment on delivery.
  • Try not to take on projects you are not able to pay from your own wallet, especially from little-known customers.
  • Remember that usually the bigger the client is, the more bureaucratized its accounting procedures are.

Of course, not paying to translators until you are paid yourself is also an option — but one that can bring you bad reputation, which could be deadly in the small world of translation.

Diversify your client base

Although it's a dream for many, these days it's getting harder to get work from bigger end clients, who tend to outsource translations to large multinational LSPs. Until the tide turns (and we're sure it will), the only viable way to get work from those is to get subcontracted by larger fish. It's not necessarily a bad thing to do, because you still get the experience and (depending on your service contract) a reference in your portfolio. When it comes to small and medium-sized clients, it's best to have them in a balanced mix. Smaller ones represent less billable time (because you have to do a lot of petty jobs involving more administrative overheads), but, provided there's many of them, can get you a steady flow of orders. Larger clients, on the other hand, are more lucrative in terms of individual orders — but in case something (bad) happens to their business, you don't want this to affect yours.

Use your personal edge over larger agencies

It's hard to compete with larger agencies, who have much more administrative and financial resources at hand. But, as a Russian saying goes, "the bigger a wardrobe, the louder it falls." Use your agility and flexibility by:

  • Providing a more personal approach than what a sales-centered mammoth can offer,
  • Getting to know the client and its challenges to the tiniest detail, and
  • Convincing the client that you can do all the same things as a larger LSP.

This last assertion is true: With Smartcat, for instance, you can enjoy unlimited use of a cutting-edge collaborative environment and reach out to tens of thousands of freelancers for projects too big to eat all by yourself. Gone are the days when the barrier of entry to really big projects was too high for small agencies and translator teams.

Set up a physical location only if you really have to

In most regards, having a physical location is not a must anymore. Even when doing business locally, you can more easily reach out to your local clients by placing geo-targeted ads on social media rather than having a "Translation Agency Here" billboard placed all over your hometown. Still, this will vary by country. In some of them, it is still hard to be seen as a "proper" company unless you have a brick&mortar location. If this is the case where you live, choose one that is just enough for hosting your operations — don't go for fancy office buildings or huge floor areas. Remember, you will have to include every cent spent on the "physicality" in your rate, thus making it harder for you to compete in the heavily price-oriented translation market.

When making cold contacts, don't sell

The last thing you want when contacting an unknown company or person is to be seen as a door-to-door salesman. Therefore, instead of preparing a "perfect pitch" for your call, spend at least 20 minutes studying the client's website, LinkedIn profile, and so on. Try to identify what challenges they might have or opportunities they might be missing out on. Legal note: Remember that not all countries allow cold calling at all. Spend some time studying local legislation. Once in the call,

  • Introduce yourself shortly — mention your (business's) name and the kind of services you offer. Don't say how many clients you have, how great the quality of your work is, and how good your rates are — no one cares at this point.
  • Make sure you're speaking to the right person. Sometimes people are too polite to interrupt the caller, so you might spend a while speaking to the wrong person and making the situation awkward for both of you.
  • Make sure it is an okay time to speak. You don't want the other party to be in a hurry. If it's not the best time to talk for them, just tell them you'll call back another day. Do not ask them to call you back — they probably won't, and you'll deprive yourself of the chance to check in on them later.

If this is the right time and the right person — again, don't sell. Mention the challenges and/or opportunities (for them!) you have identified earlier. Make sure to ask more than speak — nothing works better in creating a personal bond (remember — this is your main edge!) than active listening. If you haven't identified any challenges or opportunities, just ask them to keep you in mind should they ever have a need for this kind of services. It's also a good idea to ask their permission to be contacted later on if you find some articles relevant to their industry. No doubt, you will hear many no's — and sometimes you will be mistreated. Try to look at this in a positive way. First, you have learned something you should (or should not) do for your next call. Second, you can set yourself a "milestone" of, say, twenty no's, after which you will allow yourself go grab yourself a cup of coffee, or another beverage of your preference :-)

Finally, think twice before deciding to run a translation agency. If it's just because you think that "merely" translating is not "serious" or "profitable," don't. It is, and it can bring you good income provided you are willing to invest in your own education and development. But if you have that something that tells you that you could become a great leader or manager, go for it. Diving into the agency business may feel frightening at first — but if you keep your eyes open and your mind clear, you'll surely be able to enjoy it. What else could one wish for?

Have your own tips for running a translation agency? Let us know in the comments!