Saturday, 27 June 2015

On Growing Some Scales

By accident, on Saturday, when alternating between serious reading and just chilling out with a bottle of amber ale after a long, hard week, I found a new marketing blog that seemed worth reading because of its no-nonsense approach with useful ideas, no trumpet-blowing and no padding. One of the first to capture my attention was a guest post by a young copywriter called Stephanie O'Brien, titled thus: Why Athletes Get Paid More Than You And How to Steal Their Strategies (and nothing less).

It'll be easier if you read it before we go on. Don't worry, it's short. Shorter than the economy reading that might be in order later.

In short, she describes it from a marketing point of view, but what she's talking about is the economies of scale (if you're German or Polish, you be thinking of it as 'effect of scale').

In some lines of business, the larger your operations are, the lower the costs of an individual operation or individual product or service can be. This is used by companies that compete on the price, often to the detriment of quality. Translation agencies can benefit from it, processing millions of orders in all sorts of languages and fields, while translators can't really, because they only have this much time to sell.

Or can they?

This is the question.

After all, athletes — and singers, and actors, and authors — are also time-limited, just like anyone else who essentially is selling his own time.

We can only earn this much when getting paid by a couple of agencies or a couple of direct clients, or a mix of both.

Seemingly. Because the larger picture is that:

  1. Our work is still used by more people than just the one person signing the PO. Only perhaps we no longer own the translation in any way after completing and returning it and cashing in the fees. But it's still out there, getting read by many people — who often rely on it in their own work for even more people — and the one guy who procured it certainly didn't make it. His company didn't translate, either.
  2. In a direct sense, athletes, singers, actors etc. still get most of their income from a handful of sources, they aren't having millions of invoices paid directly by crowds of fans. Even if they had an arrangement in places that gives them a certain percentage of every sale of something (e.g. a ticker or a copy), that money still comes from one source.

Thus, the difference is rather that they get credited for serving the masses and we don't. That part is monopolized by middlemen — agencies — and, to some extent, clients themselves. By clients themselves I mean people who act like the author who doesn't want the translator's name in the credits (it usually doesn't make it to the cover, anyway).

But imagine middlemen in sports and music trying to act like they — their companies, rather — are kicking the ball. It ain't gonna fly. But in translation it's quite viable.

(Lawyers are somewhere in the middle. The firms control the cake, but the names and faces of the individual lawyers are indispensable to the system, at least the way it is now. To some extent the same is true of sworn translators and other translators whose names must appear on the documents.)

In the end result, we aren't getting any sort of commission fees. Rather, the guys between us and the reader reduce us to the role of a wage earner, whose typically doesn't even reflect the scale of the enterprise. This is cool and dandy when our per-word or per-page fees multiplied by the number of such units add up to like one third of the transaction's worth, but not so cool when, let's say, the realtors and the lawyers are getting a percentage cut out of a couple million bucks, while the translators will have to content themselves with, say, a couple thousand words times a dozen cents per word, yielding a result in the hundreds.

The reasons are many, and I can't purport to know them all, but one thing is quite clear: the other guys either have a stronger position or face less opposition when charging in regions that are more proportional to the scale of the transaction.

When 'value pricing' is mentioned in the context of translation, the first thing that comes to mind is large texts at low prices because their subjective value to the client is low. For example because the client is intellectually lazy enough not to realize that his accounting or HR or licensing arrangements are all vital to his business despite being non-core. In plainer word, this means some people won't think in terms broader than the one or two direct steps where the money comes in, as their horizons are too tight to think in a broader picture. Except perhaps if they're talking about your responsibility rather than your pay.

So, we have two options:

  1. We could do some work that really can be sold to multiple purchasers, for example write books to which we retain the rights, of which more copies can always be made, and which will grow in value as we succeed, become more widely known, our ideas and concepts are proved by life etc. But remember, for example, that consultants who sell materials apart from advice don't necessarily make a fortune and neither necessarily do non-fiction authors.
  2. 'Leverage' the fact that we really do have large audiences quite a lot of time, at least in business and marketing translation. In other cases we act in a supportive role for something that has that kind of reach. We could remind our clients and agencies of this fact, as well as being tougher in negotiations in general.
#2 essentially means the scale is there but we need to claim it more assertively.

Other applications of scale include:

specializing and focusing — yes, it may be the antithesis of low-cost translation, but it does actually allow you to cut your costs, or, rather, use them more efficiently
CAT software — it sometimes pays for itself already on the trial licence simply because of opening access to more work
education, hardware, software, anything else that's purchased once (or at least only every once in a while) but used daily

However, it doesn't end there. There are multiple other ways in which you can tap into entire networks and make those networks work for you — starting from the fact that every happy client is likely to recommend you to other people. Thus your effective reach grows. You can compare it to the number of friends of friends or 2nd or 3rd tier connections you have on social media. Often what it takes is to just do your job well and perhaps just a little extra.

Back to Stephanie's article, though:

You could at least consider associating with people and businesses whose services are mutually complementary with yours rather than competing against them. That's a powerful combination which is hard to beat, and it also bears some resemblance to the strategies actually used by the most economically successful translators. Those strategies tend to involve a lot of mingling in the clients' world. This is a no-brainer for translators who come from other fields in their middle age and later (e.g. lawyers, doctors and engineers making a 'lateral move' for one reason or the other), but it's also worth considering as a path for the younger guys for whom translation is their first real job. But the stress here — unlike the mingling with clients and potential clients that the gurus talk about — would fall on mingling with all those people whose clients might need your services, rather than themselves.

Where's the 'scale' here? You can't reach all those people alone. But you can reach them through people and businesses that it's humanly possible for you to keep in touch with. This is essentially what networking is about.

This is also similar to controlling the entire value chain, as cost leaders (companies that sell on the price and build their business model around it) sometimes try to do, which includes the way in which translation agencies increasingly try to control you and make you their property. Except here nobody owns anybody, you're working with friends.

Last but — definitely! — not least, let's look at some really smart thing she said:

Professional athletes don’t make the stadium snacks. They don’t hold the cameras, tend the grass, or manufacture the equipment. If they did, they wouldn’t have enough time and energy to practice and stay on top of their game.
Print it and hang it above your monitor. Engrave in gold. Whatever. But defeat the urge — drilled into you by translation teachers, translation marketers, translation business coaches and even trusted translator friends — to think that you must be a 'one-stop shop' for everything that relates to a client's computer files. Or anything else like that.

You don't have to — while specialize in only 1-2 fields of knowledge to make yourself more efficient — learn the ins and outs of dozens of software suites and low-level, low-skill office tasks that bottom-feeding agencies and sometimes clients are increasingly confident about asking translators to do. Do world-class experts, high-octane consultants etc. also sweep the floors in their clients offices and carry the client's suitcase?

You won't have the time to become a really great translator if you spend time becoming a really good office gopher. Something which you should decidedly leave to people for whom it is the only choice of work or the best one (or those who are sufficiently trained in it to take it to a whole new level).

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