This is not a news blog or an advice blog or any sort of company blog. It's more of an opinion blog.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Don't Have Company Culture/Mission/Processes/Whatever? Generate It.

A while ago Marta wrote a post on her Business School blog asking readers' opinion on whether looking at your translation practice through a process perspective, as a solo practitioner, was a little over the top or still within the bonds.

The lazy conformist in me is inclined to say yes. However, intellectually, I know the answer is more along the lines of: 'why the heck not if that works for you?'

See, in matters that are not somehow moral in nature, it all comes down to whether something works for you or not. That's the pragmatic criterion and only one that really counts in such cases.

On the other hand, being pragmatic doesn't have to mean being a passive, defeatist, complaining lazy person.

Would you call Alexander the Great a dreamer? He had a dream, but… — You get my point.

I've also recently had a nice conversation with the young owner of a small construction company, whom I was mentoring a bit on some business and legal matters (he obviously knew how to do and manage his own work). We realized that being a freelancer was not that much different from running a small company.

With a bit of simplification, on some level it only came down to not having a couple of people to delegate some specific tasks to and then manage and supervise them and register them with the authorities for tax and insurance purposes.

… But picking up calls and dealing with stuff and soldiering on from one month to the next and hopefully landing nicer deals sometime as you grow was pretty much the same on a very basic level.

After eight paragraphs already this finally gets us to the main point: nobody says you can't have your own processes, even if you, yourself are the only person executing them, or your company culture or mission. Even if there is no company — for example because freelancers don't need to be sole-props in your country — there is a still a practice, like a doctor's or lawyer' practice, which is predicated on you being someone with some professional activity if not exactly a business. And that's practically the same for practical purposes.

So nobody says you can't write down a vision — and if someone does actually say that, you don't need to listen. Just go ahead and write it. Consider putting it on your own website. And, for the record, such ideas actually sell more easily than simple products or services. Products and services may be more practical, but it actually is easier to get people hooked on ideas or relate ideas than products or services. Watch this presentation from Marta — which is what made me start thinking about all these things several years ago — to see why.

The Benefits of Giving Your Clients Multiple Options

The way of many translation agencies and corporate clients is to send you a completely defined project — including deadline and even fee — which you're supposed to either accept or reject but not really negotiate.

Younger or newer translators working with agencies may consequently feel that their place is to simply accept and execute such define projects or decline it, end of story. Fortunately, life is not as simple as that.

Working with business clients and still quite a lot of traditionally minded translation companies is different. They ask how long it's going to take and how much it's going to cost, and it's up to you to answer.

And guess what. You don't need to consult your crystal ball for the only one right answer, nor do you get only one chance. You can give them a variable quote and have all your bases covered.

The sum total of alternatives is a better answer to your client's needs — and your profitability — than a one-size-fits-all quote.

How is this better for the client is quite obvious: You provide the options, the client chooses what's best for the client. The client doesn't end up paying for what the client doesn't need (or not as much of).

On the other, how it is better for you will take a little longer to explain.

A variable quote takes a bit more to write, so there is an upfront investment of time, but it ultimately saves your time, as it reduces the follow-up — inquiries, negotiation etc.

Next, formalized options help focus your clients' attention on making choices and proritizing their needs as opposed to tempting them to haggle with you. If you do make a concession, it will be more tangible than a nebulous small favour.

Finally, you have three horses in the race now, in case your client is also getting quotes from other people (which is quite likely these days):
  • your cost-optimized offer competes against cheap offers
  • your speed-optimized offer competes against fast offers
  • your balanced offer competes against generic and middle-ground offers
This way you can:
  • accommodate outliers (special cases and needs)
  • but still have a balanced offer on the table
  • and still score brownie points for having what your client needs, even if it's one of 3 or 4 options for the client to pick from as opposed to a smart, lucky guess on your part (and the difference between your client and your toxic ex is that your client doesn't really care, as long as the need is met).
You can still be outcompeted by someone else, naturally, but not because you simply gave up without even trying, i.e. didn't have a contender in whatever category of race was important to your client.

All this is requires is not being a lazy person, or one that compulsively tries to be both fastest and cheapest (and still the best quality), so you have no excuse.

And let me tell you something: Clients like options. They don't necessarily pick the cheapest one, either, and if they do, then they are less likely to dispute the deadline. You will never know if you don't try.

Beware Hot Potatoes

This is something I want to share with translators and PMs who work with a larger player, as well as anyone who works with a certain kind of clients and a certain kind of client orders. 'Certain kind' obviously stands for problems and complications.

Most often, the problems and complications will be connected with:

  • the condition and shape in which the original arrives for translation — technical condition of the computer file, issues with formatting, legibility, errors etc., which we could roughly summarize as problems with the source
  • non-standard or otherwise cumbersome requirements, especially of doubtful rationality, which we could roughly summarize as problems with the requirements
  • any combination of the two plus deadline or budget constraints

For context, notice now such complicated, problematic jobs have a tendency to arrive at the last minute and desperately need your attention — notably because nobody else wanted them (hint?), for example all your colleagues working in the same field and pair were 'too busy'. Often, those jobs also tend to involve someone else who was originally supposed to do the job but didn't. They also tend to involve other people not doing or not having done their job one way or the other. You know it when you see it.

Unlike the usual unprofitable job that you consider and reject after examining the specs at a leisurely pace, perhaps sitting back and sipping your tea slowly, the situation is much more dynamic when someone wants drop a hot potato in your lap; there is more pressure for you to accept, preferably as soon as possible, often without giving you too much information — precisely because if you had that information chances are you wouldn't accept the job.

Remember what you are told is only the tip of the iceberg. If they don't want to be bound by even that, then you are about to have a problem.

In other words, you run a serious risk of an extreme case of adverse selection. The situation is similar to insurance clients looking not so much for insurance cover for the future as for insurance bailout for the present. This is why insurance clients are required to disclose a whole lot of things before the policy is issued for them, and lying voids the policy.

You too need a client's lie or gross over- or understatement to void the agreement, at least regarding the fee and deadline. While getting compensated is one thing, you first of all need to avoid being set up for scapegoating when someone wants to outsource not the job itself but the responsibility for the failure.

My advice is to (0) outright skip the most risky jobs at all, and for those that (barely) fit within your comfort zone, not stop at just writing the most important terms and conditions down as usual. Instead, make sure you also (1) include all of the things the client said to talk you into accepting the job — as conditions of the job.

Next, (2) make all those things an explicit condition of the fee and the deadline. To be extra sure that you are protected — but also to be extra fair to your client, which is an important ethical consideration for any professional — (3) specify what what is likely, or especially what is certain, to happen if those things are not actually true, and (4) get the client to confirm, expressly and specifically.

Example (editing/revising assignment):

You are asked to check and edit 5000 words for the day after tomorrow for a specific fixed fee. They say you will receive the translation by tomorrow noon and the translation is going to be very good, just needing an extra pair of eyes and a little of your special touch here or there.
Step one: You make the delivery by tomorrow noon and the reasonably good quality an express promise by them and part of your agreement with them. For extra safety, you may want to stipulate that it has to be a complete translation without leaving parts of it for you to do from scratch, and that it will be too late for changes to the original.
Step two: You stipulate that the punctual delivery of the translation to you by noon tomorrow and the overall good quality, completeness and finality of their translation are explicit conditions of your fee and deadline.
Step three: You inform the client that sending the translation late will (or may) affect the schedule. A less than good quality or less than complete and final status of the translation will (or may) affect the schedule and also your fee (potentially up to the full translation fee). Rushing to meet the deadline, if the client chooses that option and you are available, will require such and such rush fee; the rush fee will be higher for any parts you need to retranslate.
Step four: Your client needs to at least tacitly accept all of the above (proceed with the order after being informed of all of it), and preferably state an unambiguous, clear confirmation.

For the record, someone who doesn't fuss about giving you that unambiguous, clear confirmation is very likely to be a responsible businessperson who simply happens to be in a bit of a tight spot. Chances are you don't need to worry too much.

Naturally, you could think of a lot of other examples, including the use of specific CAT tools, file formats and related settings, formatting and visuals and other things.

Obviously, you cannot walk just about every client through a lengthy routine of essentially confirming that the client isn't trying to dupe you. But you can insist on every brief or PO including a description of the circumstances with acknowledgement of any special issues that may (or will) affect the fee and deadline.

Your standard terms and conditions — which you need to display somewhere accessible and identify as binding and non-optional when ordering a translation from you — will take care of typical low and distant risks, but for high-risk clients and any clients who impose their own complicated T&Cs on you, you will need to go through this special routine more often and in more detail.

The goal is not only to improve your legal safety but also (a psychological fator) to drive it home that making all sorts of promises and assurances to get you to accept and then backing out of them but expecting you to live up to your side of the contract — which basically means bait and switch — is not an option. Just like in medicine, the best therapy is prevention.

Chances are you will lose some jobs this way, but it's up to you to decide if you really miss the risk.

Also, you need to be extra careful with those clients whose terms and conditions get out of their way to outlaw any sort of flexibility, adjustment or change and shift risks on you. Whether or not they can, the fact that they try should tell you something.

Last but not least, you don't owe it to any existing or potential client to become part of their toxic situation, including especially any toxic requirements or toxic originals or toxic translations.

You may be heartless if you don't help them at all, but you aren't a heartless person for not taking over their risks and liability — especially risks and liability of their own making — and this here not-so-subtle distinction is a key difference. Help means labour, organization or some other kind of specific assistance. It does not mean putting your head on the block for them so they can emerge unscathed.

Remember that desperate people, in desperate situations, will fight tooth and nail to claw their way out, and they will use all sorts of underhanded negotiation tactics, some of them quite dramatic and quite unfair. You will simply need to resist them. Be compassionate, but rely on conscience and principle for moral judgments, don't allow people to take advantage of your good heart and ethical manner to manipulate you into toxic deals.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Month's Proceeds Is Not Your Salary

Because of how translation is not a material product with a clearly visible cost structure and cannot be compared to other services easily, compensation of salaried employees is a natural point of reference.

Such comparisons are not necessarily correct, however. In fact, I would say in most cases they probably are not. They are more likely to be apples and oranges.

Here's why:

For starters, there is more to the total cost of maintaining a salaried position in a company than just the salary paid to the employee who fills that position. In other words, any function in an organization is more expensive than just the incumbent's salary.

Here are some examples of what the employer has to pay to keep a salaried position:

  • 'naked' salary
  • additional benefits and incentives, if any
  • taxes and insurance
  • paid holiday leave
  • overtime pay (extra pay but often also extra rates)
  • training, CPD etc.(usually at least a little, sometimes quite a lot)
  • physical workplace — room, furniture, computer hardware and software, other specific expenses required for the job
  • some tiny corresponding part of the organization's total costs and expenses — rent and bills, utilities, facilities, support staff, external services and everything else that's relevant

The applicability and size of these costs will vary from one situation to the next, but the point is that:

  • any job or function in an organization costs at least a little more than the holder's salary
  • freelancers pay anywhere from some to all of those costs out of their own pocket
  • even if the 'employer' still has to pay some of those, the freelancer also does, unlike an employee, who does not
  • freelancers only get unpaid leave — to take a month off and still have the same per annum, they would need to increase the invoices by 9% (to account for 11 rather than 12 months of actually working)

… Hence, comparing the totals on freelancers' invoices to 'naked' salaries of salaried employees for the same duration of a task is comparing apples to oranges, unless the freelancer is on an exclusive full-time (or non-exclusive significant part-time) contract with similar benefits to an employee.

You can't even subtract 'company expenses' from a year's worth of invoices and call it annual salary, let alone arriving at a monthly salary by dividing that by 12. This is because of the 'company' part, which — apart from actual costs and expenses — also include reserves and contingencies beyond what a salaried employee needs in private life.

More importantly, one can't — and that's the dumbest of all mistakes — just take a freelancer's invoice for a full day of work and multiply it by 365 and think that's how much the freelancer actually makes per annum! Nobody works 365 days! (And few people work 30-day months or 7-day weeks.)

See, a year has 52 weeks, which is 104 days off of the 365, then a variable number of public holidays and annual minimum paid leave that varies by country, from 0 in the USA to 38 in Austria and 52 in Iran, where a bit shy of 30 could be said to be the approximate intuitive average.

So it should be even more evident that one can't just say: 'An in-house counterpart makes 36.500 widgets a year, so we're going to pay you 300 widgets for three days of work,' and think that's sound logic, because it's not. 1/365 is a spending limit, not an earning target; even the greenest of all accountants or HR people should know the difference.

… And especially not when those days are longer than 8 hours each and an employee would be paid overtime in the same situation. For example, under Polish labour law 8 hours +4 hours overtime would add up to 15.5 standard hourly rates. Obviously, the very concept of recognizing overtime requires that 12 hours must be paid at least 12 hourly rates, not 8. This is normally absent from the per-project kind of contracts that freelancers usually work with.
To be on a level with salaried employees, a freelancer would have to work a maximum of 220–230 days a year and still make the same annual salary as salaried counterparts, increased by the kind of taxes and insurance contributions that self-employed people pay for themselves rather than having them paid by the employer, plus the value of whatever extra benefits salaried employees are getting that the freelancer is not, including overtime pay, and finally a sizeable extra to finance the 'freelancer' part, i.e. the fixed assets and overheads and other costs of the tiny 'home office' — computer, software, phone, increased utility bills, increased fuel consumption, occasional legal advice or litigation, the accountant's fees, marketing etc. — and some reserves and contingencies (such as replacing or repairing any broken equipment and being unable to work and earn money in the meantime).

Otherwise one simply needs to compare freelancers to solo traders and small-business owners. The  costs may be less than those of a solo firm or clinic, but the cost structure is still that of a solo practice and not that of a salaried employee.

Even if the freelancer in question functions more like a temporary worker, then there are still at least some costs associated with being self-employed that do not apply to salaried employees — and some benefits such workers don't receive while regular employees do, which means their respective wages are not directly comparable.

For starters, the idea of being a freelancer is not to work for the same money minus benefits, without paid leave and paying for your own equipment, unlike what some hopeful business geniuses seem to think.