Conventional wisdom is that you should get direct clients, either as an individual freelancer or by setting up as a company, because agencies skim too much off the top. I can see the logic, but I’m not convinced. If you’re really focused on doing one thing well, translation, it makes sense to spend as much as possible of your working time on that activity, because that’s where the money comes from. Anything else you do that you don’t get money for takes away from what you earn in your hour, your day, your month. Every time the phone rings or you have to answer an urgent e-mail, it breaks your focus, taking you out of flow. It gets harder to track your time and productivity because your work gets fragmented by outside forces. It’s not the loss of the few minutes spent answering a call that hurts your income, it’s the loss of productivity for the rest of your working time.

Rather than looking narrowly at how much you get per word or per character, you should be thinking about how much you get in total, and how many hours of work-related activity it takes you to get that much. How much are you really making per hour of your time? And how much does that drop once you averaged all the hours you spend on work-related activities?

Here are some of the unpaid things you’ll be doing to reach that nice per-word rate from your direct client:

  • Keep a nice-looking website
  • Follow up leads
  • Answer calls and e-mails
  • Prepare estimates for jobs you probably won’t get
  • Write invoices and track payments from numerous clients
  • Accept payment risks from more clients on the basis of less information
  • Maybe spend time blogging, tweeting, and whatever else to build your “personal brand”

Here are some of the advantages of working for an agency:

  • The agency does the work of finding clients and quoting for jobs
  • The agency takes on payment risks
  • Trivial background noise from the end client gets filtered out before it reaches you
  • Your billing is consolidated (send one invoice to the agency instead of ten to the individual end clients)
  • Your contacts are consolidated (deal with one or two project managers per agency, instead of as many per end client)
  • Deal with translation professionals, who understand the business and what translators need, rather than some random person in the client’s office

If I had an MBa, I’d probably call this something like “outsourcing non-core operations”. As it is, “leaving the hassles to someone else” is a fair description. I don’t mean to disparage working directly with end clients. The direct contact with the consumer of your product is certainly valuable. My aim here is to suggest that the conventional view of working for agencies as Plan B undervalues what can be a beneficial and low-stress way for many of us to do business.

I wish you luck in attracting whatever kind of clients you’re looking for.

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