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Freelance rule no. 1: Never rely on one or two clients September 11, 2008

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Random musings, Translation Sites.

I mentioned in my post two days ago that I had gossiped/chatted with several colleagues that day. Well, one of them was telling me that one of my former clients had lost his government contract and dissolved his agency a while back. This morning I was chatting with another colleague who reminded me how lucky I had been by not accepting his offer of full-time employment with his agency. I had completely forgotten all about it, because I always get one or two offers of full-time employment at every ATA conference. My colleague’s comment was “I can see why you stress having many clients over just one….but then that’s life for most folks employed by one employer….”

I learned this lesson indirectly when I was working in Germany. The agency I worked for relied too much on Microsoft and got into some financial difficulties when Microsoft started paying later and later. Instead of shopping around for new clients the owner ended up selling the agency to a bigger agency, which in turn sold it to an even bigger agency. By then the agency I had worked for was unrecognizable. Luckily I had left before the owner sold the agency. By the second sale, many of my colleagues who still worked there were forced to either move almost 100 km away or find employment elsewhere.

Work with the agency from the first paragraph dried up a year or so ago, and now I know why. Having enough other clients, it really didn’t bother me, and I hadn’t given it another thought. I knew it wasn’t the quality of my work, because he had obviously been impressed enough to want to hire me. Working in-house simply isn’t for me. I love the freedom and excitement of freelancing too much. It isn’t for everyone, but it can be very rewarding if you are well-suited for it.

A good general rule of thumb is to have about 7 A and B clients (for a good explanation of what an A and B client is, see Some thoughts on setting goals at Thoughts on Translation). That way if one of your A or B clients starts paying late or gets bought by another, less-than-reputable agency it isn’t that much of a blow to your pocketbook. I also get regularly contacted by new agencies who found my listing on the ATA website or on ProZ.com. I consider them C and D clients and am always willing to give them a try if I have the time and the project is interesting or in one of my chosen fields. Because they could end up to be A or B clients who pay even better than existing clients.

The only constant in life is change. Freelancing is by and large always about constant change. Every day we get new and different texts to translate. Our client base should also be fluid and constantly changing and improving.


1. Ryan Ginstrom - September 11, 2008

I learned this rule the hard way. A really good agency I worked for was bought by a software company. Suddenly the 50-person translation department was repurposed to some crazy scheme involving conference software and translators/interpreters in China. That didn’t work out, and the translation department was eventually pared down to 4 people, then spun off — after they’d lost all their good clients.

Before the buy-out, I was getting around 50% of my income from this agency. At one point, they’d offered to pay me an $8,500/month retainer to give them priority for jobs. Then they were gone, and I had to scramble to make up the slack.

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