Future-proof your business
Ewa Jasinska-Davidson recommends 10 strategies which can help you make your business more resilient and more capable of coping with threats.
The past six months have completely overturned life for many of us; but even before that, things were changing fast in the translation and interpreting world. It has become very obvious that we have to think about the future - even if we are lucky enough at the moment to be frantically busy with other work, and even more so if we’re among the many people who are seeing work decline.
However, it is possible to make plans (see the advice from ITI’s membership manager in the blog 12 recommendations for generating new business). And most of us have unfortunately had similar experiences before. When lockdown started in March 2020, it actually reminded me of some aspects of the situation in 2012 when the Ministry of Justice awarded a contract to an agency for providing interpreting services to the public sector in the UK. I lost 80 per cent of my clientele in a day, and I can’t have been the only one; many of us must have been facing a similar situation.
But frustrated and upset though I was, I realised the most important thing was to prevent that situation from happening again. Here are some of the things that worked and helped ensure that my business survived, and which I would like to share with you.
1. Work on the business rather than only in the business
When we are very busy, we tend to focus on providing our services to clients. That is all great; it is, after all, what we are trained to do. However, we shouldn’t neglect continually working on our business: finding time to reflect on business activity, marketing, setting goals and verifying them as well as measuring achievements. It’s as important as any other aspect of continuing professional development (CPD).
There are government subsidies to help entrepreneurs with business coaching. Alternatively, you can always team up with a colleague and challenge each other. And a first port of call is also, of course, ITI’s own courses on Setting Up as a Freelance Translator and Advancing your Freelance Tranlation Career. I found it particularly helpful to work with a business strategy mentor – someone from outside who held me accountable and put to me all the difficult questions that challenged me, such as ‘Who is your ideal client?’, ‘What makes you stand out from the crowd?’ and ‘What is your added value?’ Although I struggled to answer them, my reflections made me come up with my own unique selling point and ways to get through to clients.
2. Diversify your client base
I wanted to make sure that I was never again in a situation where I lost most of my clients in one go. That meant looking hard at the realities of the market and accepting that, much as I had enjoyed interpreting for the public sector (and I did still have some direct clients), the rules of the game had changed.
I was in the language industry for the long run and knew I needed to expand my market, so I decided to do another degree: this time in conference interpreting. It turned out to be a sound decision, and not just because I gained new qualifications. I also widened my horizons and met a lot of new and very inspiring people. It also reinforced my belief that it’s very important to diversify across different sectors, from public sector clients to small businesses and training companies. That means that if one area suffers, it isn’t necessarily a disaster, and there are also other options that we can build upon as and when necessary.
It's very important to diversify across different sectors. That means that if one area suffers, it isn't necessarily a disaster
I noticed that many clients who needed interpreting services also required other language related services such as translation, proofreading or international event management. There were some areas where I could offer other skills, so I started helping with event management, organising booths for clients and so on. There were other areas where I didn’t have the skills but I could find people who did.
Although I know how important it is to specialise in a particular field or language combination (if you try to cover everything yourself, you will inevitably lose out to people who have more specialist expertise in one field or another), I also thought it would be a shame to say ‘no’ to the client, whom I’d worked so hard to get in the first place. I decided therefore to take the burden off the client’s shoulders by directing them to someone who could provide professional services, or by working with reliable business associates who can offer services I can’t (such as transcreation, or interpreting in a different language combination).
This model has worked for me, and as a limited company owner (a ‘one-woman band’), it’s allowed me to cooperate with some wonderful colleagues and to use the opportunity to learn from them as well.
On the subject of colleagues, I can’t stress enough the importance of building up relationships (and I’ve written about his before for the March-April 2019 issue of ITI Bulletin). I have always enjoyed both offline and online networking, but even if you don’t enjoy it, it really is worth doing. Networking with colleagues is very important, but so is networking in the groups where our potential clients operate!
5. Apply CPD to this area of your work too
We all know how learning a language is a never-ending process. (After living for more than 16 years in the UK, I actually learn something new about the language every single day.) And the same applies to running a business. We never stop learning, whether it is by adding a new set of skills, by applying for new accreditations, by strengthening our business or by specialising in a particular area so as to stand out from the crowd. It’s really important not to stand still.
6. Join professional associations
In 2012, I was a member of only the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI).
It is only by sharing that we can realise that we are not alone, and by working together we can find ways to overcome new challenges
That was extremely useful and provided me with many professional opportunities. However, one association is not enough. Since then, I have joined other associations, joining ITI in 2012, and I have endeavoured to be active, to contribute, to attend and to organise events. As a result I have met many amazing people and learned a lot from them. More often than not we find we face similar challenges. It is only by sharing that we can realise that we are not alone, and by working together we can find ways to overcome new challenges.
7. Keep on top of your finances
As a responsible business owner, you should always know the current financial situation of your business. That means that you can’t afford to let it slip; you need to know what you’re spending and what looks likely to come in.
The first thing I learned when I started trading was the importance of a buffer for a rainy day; not all of us can afford the recommended three months’ income, but if you do not have enough to tide you over when your biggest client delays payment or when an emergency arises, it’s time to think hard. That has of course been particularly important in the past few months, especially for those of us who operate as limited companies (see Rosie Murray-West’s article in the July-August ITI Bulletin).
And here again, remember that there are people who have specialist skills that you almost certainly don’t: accountants. I found it enormously helpful to hire a professional and business-minded accountant, who recommended many tools and applications which made my day-to-day business run smoothly. If you find dealing with your finances difficult, it doesn’t mean you have to find another form of employment, but it does make it even more advisable that you invest in an accountant whom you trust and you can talk to frankly. This is particularly important if you operate as a limited company, because your tax affairs are more complicated.
8. Use technology
By this point in 2020 we all know how useful technology is for keeping in touch with just about everyone we know. And as translators and interpreters, we are very aware of what artificial intelligence and machine technology can provide - as are our clients. But it’s also important to keep on top of the technology that can support our businesses.
Sometimes that is very simple: my accountant, for instance, made me aware of software which connects with my bank, so with one click I can see exactly how my business is doing financially. This type of software also helps to create invoices to be sent out as soon as an assignment is complete - and makes it very easy to identify when a payment is overdue and a client needs a gentle reminder. Tools such as customer relationship management (CRM) software can automate and manage the customer life cycle within your business.
9. Predict future demand today
Keep an eye on the market, trends and your customers’ latest developments. That is of course particularly important at the moment, with everything going online. It may not be perfect yet, but everyone is learning: clients, remote interpreting platform providers, interpreters are all giving feedback on how to improve the virtual experience. It looks quite likely that some clients will stick to a hybrid model (some participants physically present at the meeting, others in a remote location) in future, so take some time to think about how to make this work best for you.
10. Never rest on your laurels
As interpreters and translators, we’ve already got used to learning new skills, transferring skills where we can, and being flexible. But it’s not enough to tell ourselves we’re flexible; we need to demonstrate it. It is essential not to become complacent but to continue improving and to make efforts towards excelling in providing services. Happy clients will always come back for more and recommend us to others. We’re in this for the long run - and we can keep going.
This article first appeared in the September-October 2020 edition of ITI Bulletin.
About the writer
Ewa Jasinska-Davidson MA, AITI is a conference and business interpreter (Polish A, English B and Spanish C) and a sworn translator with over 15 years of experience. She also works as a part-time senior lecturer in interpreting at London Metropolitan University.