Business Cards: Free is Bad

This past week, Judy attended a local conference of interpreters and translators in Vegas (a great one that featured court interpretation guru Holly Mikkelson). During most conferences and linguist get-togethers (even virtual events), we like to raffle off a few copies of our book, because we like raffles, like seeing people win, and like giving away stuff (it's also for sale here).

During the last few months, we have observed a troubling trend among linguists: many don't have cards with them, have run out, or hand us a free Vistaprint business card with the line "Free business cards at Vistaprint!" on the back. The reason we ask for business cards is because we put them in a bag and have an innocent person with no vested interest draw the winners for the raffle. We've already realized that many people won't have business cards on them, so we just tell them to use ours (we always bring hundreds) and put their name on the back. But that brings up the question: why would you leave your house to go anywhere, especially a conference, without cards? How can you promote your businesss if you are out of business cards? And: why would you get the free Vistaprint cards that announce to the whole world you can't even pay for your own business cards? If we were customers, we'd feel uncomfortable -- what else is the provider skimping on?

For the uninitiated, Vistaprint makes a lot of great, affordable promotional items (we shop there, too, and we get no special discounts). We especially like their high-quality business cards. The company also makes a wide array of completely free products, which seems too good to be true. The "catch": Vistaprint woulnd't just give away their products for free and get no return on their investment, would they? After all, they are running a business. Hence, the Vistaprint promotional slogan is on the back of all their free products, which makes sense. As a professional linguist, you should stay away from the free cards. Wait for a sales special on Vistaprint or your favorite online or local printer, and buy some real business cards.

By handing out business cards with "free" on the back, you might be sending the following messages:
  • I am not a professional business
  • I don't care about my business
  • I don't take my customers seriously enough to spend $20 on real business cards
  • I am not very business-savvy
  • I can't afford business cards (in which case you should reconsider running a business, because computers and software are much pricer than business cards, and you need those, too).
None of the above might be true, but that will be the impression that people get. And to be perfectly honest, when we meet a fellow professional with either no business cards or free business cards, we are taken aback a bit. Having a solid business card is your entry ticket into the business world (and many conversations), and it's just as important as showing up with clean shoes and no cilantro stuck on your teeth.

We are looking forward to meeting you at the ATA conference in Denver this week. And if you don't have business cards, you can have ours for the raffles -- for now. 

Advice for Beginners

Bill Clinton meeting new people
at a Las Vegas charity event
on October 12. Photo by J.Jenner.
After years of receiving long lists of questions, both personally and through our associations, and after  answering hundreds of e-mails, we've decided to compile typical beginners'  concerns into a few posts about how to enter the profession. Remember that building a business in the languages industry is a lot of work.

We'd like to start the series off with this exercise. If you don't like to do at least five out of the following, you should reconsider running your own business. While in-house positions are rare, they do exist, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with not wanting to be an entrepreneur. 

  • Writing. If you don't enjoy writing, you probably shouldn't be a translator either in-house or freelance. Essentially, you are a writer. Since you will be writing for a living, you better love it.
  • Marketing. If you don't like selling and promoting your services, then running a business is not for you. Sure, you can outsource some of that, but this will all cut into your profit. There are a variety of ways for introverts to market their services, but essentially, as a small business owner, you need to be comfortable with being in a sales position.
  • Self-confidence. If you don't think you are good and that your services are valuable, then no one else will, either. No one wants an insecure linguist. You don't have to know everything, but you need to come across as competent and sure of yourself to customers. If you don't have that skill, work on it: take a public speaking course, an improv class, or head to the library for some reading materials....these skills can be acquired.
  • IT/computer skills. Do you break out in nervous hives when you have to install new software? Are you generally uncomfortable with computer tasks? If you are used to calling the help desk when Outlook crashes and never learned how to map your own drives, it's time to pick up some of these skills before you start your own business. Again, you could outsource some tasks, but in order to make a living, especially in the beginning, you need to be as self-sufficient as possible.
  • Organization. There are different levels of organization, and different things work for different people, but in general, if you spend more than a few minutes looking for what you need, you are not using your time effectively. This applies to both paper and electronic documents. Your time is the only resource you have, so use it smartly. 
  • Basic math and taxation. There's no need to do three-dimensional calculus, but you should have basic math proficiency (yes, even as a liberal arts person). Chances are that you are not familiar with taxation issues, so go to the library, get a book, or meet with the Small Business Administration. If you don't like number-related paperwork, you might need to rethink your strategy.
  • Meeting new people. Growing a business, in essence, comes down to one thing: increasing the amount of people who know about you and your services. There are many ways to do this, but basically, you need to meet more people, either in person or online. Get your 30-second elevator speech ready, dress nicely, be ready to network, and don't be pushy. You don't have to perfect the art of meeting people like Bill Clinton has done (see picture), but if meeting new people makes you nervous, then perhaps you are better off working in-house.
  • Procrastination and determination. You won't have a boss to check on your deadlines. No one will be telling you what to do -- except your clients. Hence, you have to be very disciplined and determined to run a business. If you are not, you will fail. The same is true for procrastination: we have yet to meet a successful entrepreneur who regularly procrastinates. Take an honest look at your personality: perhaps you need to work in a hierarchical structure to get motivated -- and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
This is just a short exercise to get us started. Experienced translators: is there anything you'd like to add to this list? Beginning linguists: we would love to know if this introduction was helpful to you.

Lessons From a Chilean Mine

Photo: CNN 
¡Viva Chile! This story has captivated us more than any other positive news in the last 20 years -- the last time we were that moved, we were in middle school in Mexico City and watched the Berlin Wall come down on a grainy TV. This time, it's different: thanks to the BBC's excellent live online coverage and underground cameras, we've been able to closely follow this incredible story -- a true triumph of the human spirit. 

Photo: AP/Roberto Candia
While we've been teary-eyed for the last 24 hours, it's wonderful to see that there is still something that can move us, as a nation or people, that's beyond bad news and reality TV. Even though at first we didn't think there was a connection between this story or survival and business, there really is. Tonight, we will celebrate with Chilean wine. As we write this, only three miners are still underground.

  • Put things in perspective. Having a bad day? Was a customer rude? Did your computer crash? Is everything going wrong, and not even the doggie you volunteered to walk at the Humane Society is happy to see you? It happens, but put it in perspective. Sometimes, the best thing that happens in a day is that you still have your sanity, and sometimes that's enough. It could be worse: you could be 700 meters below ground, buried alive. 
  • Surround yourself with good people. We are impatiently waiting for more details on how the miners organized their forced cohabitation underground: how did they ration food? How did they prevent riots? How did they stay sane? While we are certain that your survival will never depend on it, you should surround yourself with  professionals you trust. Your business' survival might depend on it.
  • Stay strong. Running a business is hard, but not nearly as hard as surviving in a mine. You can do it! If you don't believe you can, then no one else will believe it, either.
  • Think long-term. This can be challenging if you are stuck in a rut, not earning as much income as you would like, working too many hours, or dissatisfied with your work conditions. However, ultimately, you are in control, and you can always make changes to your business model. 
  • Focus on the small things. Videos from the mine showed the miners treasuring the few items and things they had to comfort them: letters, pictures, and a few mementos. Sometimes it takes little things to make your day, and there is always something that can make you happy, even if it's just a bird chirping outside your window. Look for the small moments of happiness to get you through any tough times.
Our hats are off to these hard-working men who risk their lives to feed their families. Here's to the true heroes of our society, their amazing rescuers, and to the world coming together to make this engineering miracle a reality.

Software for Linguists: Free Online Task Manager

Our ITI guru and web guardian angel, Thomas Gruber, recently found a nifty little task management tool that you can use to track projects and tasks. It's web-based and free, so there's nothing to install. The site promises "10-second sign-up" and we just tested and verified that -- true! The interface is clean and simple, and the program easily integrates with Gmail. We are not sure it would replace a few other programs we already use, such as Translation Office (TO) 3000 and just our good old Outlook, but it's a nice free piece of software that's portable and can be accessed from any computer. We like the clear functionalities such as tagging, assigning categories, due dates (integrated calendar), and the ability to sort projects into sub-projects. Yes, we love organizational tools, and perhaps this one could make your life easier -- for free.
Get started on the TODOIST website and watch the informational video here

ATA Webinar Questions: Answered

Thanks to the almost 100 colleagues who attended the American Translators Association's first webinar on September 23. Judy was delighted to present a short version of her "Entrepreneurial Linguist" workshop. During the session, a lot of questions came in (which Judy couldn't see), and they were reviewed by moderators. She was able to answer a few questions during the webinar, but could not get to all of them (60 minutes go by very quickly). Hence, as promised, we are compiling and answering further questions for you right here.

Q: This question is about not co-mingling accounts (having personal and business accounts and keeping them separate). Do I need a separate business credit card?
Judy: Excellent question. I do think you need a separate business credit card. This will make it infinitely easier for you to keep your expenses organized, and you will know that all charges on that credit card are business-related. Most of the cards are free, and I got mine with my free business checking account from Chase Manhattan. You could also try your local community bank or credit union. Try to get a card that gives you points that you can redeem (I prefer cash). I put every business-related expense on that card, and I usually get a $25 credit at the end of the month. I like perks!

Q: Some translators feed their Twitter updates (=tweets) directly into their ProZ (or LinkedIn) profile. That feels unprofessional to me. What do you think?
Judy: It depends. It is a great idea to update two sites with one update (less work, more impact), but you should not feed your Twitter updates into LinkedIn (or Proz) unless they are all very professional. In my case, since I also tweet about things such as politics, food, and literature, I choose not to feed my Twitter stream into LinkedIn, where the status update appears on the very top of the page. Rather, I update LinkedIn every few days. I do, however, feed my Twitter updates into Proz (where I spend very little time, as most clients find me through my personal website).

Q: This question is about your advice not to take free translation tests. What if the translation test were the same for every translator; sort of like a standardized test? Would you still refuse to take it?
Judy: Ah, one of my favorite topics!

In general, I am happy to take translation tests (I receive very few requests for that). They are billed at my regular rate, as I do not work for free (well, I do, by being on the board of two non-profits). There are a variety of opinions on this, but mine is that giving away your product for free without any hope of immediate return on that investment (because you are investing your time; the only resource you have) devalues your product. Sure, the person requesting the translation test wants to make sure you are qualified, which is reasonable. However, we all hire people without getting free work first: you can't request a free haircut to see if you like it or a free taco at the taco stand. The risk is with the purchaser, and it can't simply be passed on to the provider. As an analogy: other service providers, such as accountants or lawyers, don't give away their products for free. They might give you a free 15-minute consultation (with boilerplate information and no specific advice), but they won't give you a free contract (=product). Neither should we -- we'd be happy to give a brief consultation, but we don't do free work (as in products = translation). On the other hand, the potential client can verify the quality of our work by samples and references that we make readily available. I think it's important that, as an industry, we set the standard that free work is not available. The restaurant industry, for example, as set the standard: how do you know a restaurant is good before you eat there? You ask your friends, you read food reviews, etc. However, you don't request a free meal to see if the quality is to your liking. You know why? Because restaurant owners have not been in the habit of giving away free food.
Hence, consumers don't expect free food to verify quality.  They've stuck to this, and so should linguists. 

Of course, you need to be flexible, and no situation is black and white. There are always exception to every internal rule that you might have, but not doing free work is quite essential to our professional survival -- individually and as an industry. 

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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