10 Steps to Go from Zero Clients to Fully Booked in 6 Months

Need translations? Try Smartcat for free!

Whether you are an experienced in-house translator or just starting your path in this profession, once you go freelance, you'll face the same challenge: getting clients. The worst part is, unless you have considerable savings, you don't have much time to lose. In this article and the accompanying Smartcat Academy course, we will help you become fully booked in the shortest time frame possible.

I've been translating here and there since around 2007 when I was studying Modern Languages, but I only decided to go full-time freelance in 2014. I went from having zero clients to full-time work in the space of 6 months. The things I learned along the way are what I want to share with others in this post and during the webinar program.

Watch webinar replay

So, here are the steps in a nutshell.

1. Fix your goals

First of all, ask yourself what your aims are in starting a freelance translation career. Is it to earn more money, to have more free time, to have more control and flexibility over your schedule, or to be able to travel and work? What are your timeline goals? What are your interests and passions? Ask the right questions to set a reasonable (ideal but conceivable) objective for where you want to be professionally in one year’s time.

2. Assess your situation

With an end-point in mind, look at where you presently stand: What qualifications do you have, what is your professional background, what personal networks can you rely on? Ask yourself if you have all the qualifications you need considering the goal you have in mind and if you can invest in further study right now. If not, you might want to re-evaluate your goals in terms of timeline, subject area, or income level.

3. Identify your business

Before you can start contacting clients, identify what you can offer and how you want to project yourself. Consider what makes you stand out and write it down in 5 adjectives. Have these terms in mind (even if you never actually use the words themselves) when you design your CV, calling card, website, cover letter, etc. Have a clear idea of all the services you can offer, which you want to be your focus, and how you want to present your business to future clients.

4. Develop your path

Start tracing out a path between your starting point and goal. In developing it, play to your strengths. If you’re great at social media, you may want to focus on these; if you’re very sociable, you may want to network in person as much as possible; and if you’re very organised and methodical, you can start creating Excel sheets listing potential clients by country. Don’t worry if you veer off this path, just make sure to re-align your map regularly so that you don’t lose sight of your goal.

5. Get all set up

Look into the legal/tax status you need to have in the country you work in — make sure you do what you need to before you start contacting clients. Make a really simple website, or at the very least a ProZ and Translator’s Café profile. Make your services available on freelancing platforms such as Upwork, Freelance.com and Smartcat. Make various versions of your CV in different languages. Prepare cover letters: more general for agencies, more personal and targeted for private companies and direct clients.

6. Reach out to existing contacts

Don’t underestimate the value of personal contacts and word of mouth. Make a list of all previous colleagues, contacts, friends, etc. who you want to tell about your business. You can split your contacts into groups and create a personalised message for each group. Don’t send your CV but link to your website/profile. Be open and honest, tell them you’re just starting out, ask them to pass on your contact details to anyone they think might be interested.

7. Make a battle plan for agencies

Don’t underestimate how many agencies you will need to contact — expect a reply rate of around 1%. Use directories on Translator’s Café or Payment Practices and make a list of agencies and their requirements. Subscribe to the Smartcat job aggregator to get updates for new jobs on ProZ, Upwork and Freelance.com. Aim for 100 CV send-outs or online applications per week/20 per day. Note down contact dates and statuses. Pre-set a schedule to re-send CV updates in regular intervals, depending on the reply status.

8. Nurture contacts with private clients

Identify your general areas of interest and identify types of organisations and companies in each area. Do some research and try to list 100 specific names in each type of organisation. Note at least the top 10 organisations in each list and call each of them directly. If possible, identify their translation needs beforehand (e.g. website only in 1 language). Personalise your emails to reflect who the recipient is, who you are, and why they could benefit from your services. List all contacts and set a schedule to email them another update in a few months’ time. Be systematic and persistent in your approach to contacting clients. This will take a lot of time and energy, but it will be your most precious investment (this relates to agencies as well).

9. Get visible

Mind your Google reference. Make sure other sites link to yours to improve it. Interact with the online community to stay busy and informed. When you meet new people offline, tell them what you do, find out what they do and link this to potential translation needs. Make sure to leave them with a positive impression (a smile and a business card). Be visible and available, always consider that you are your own best business representative and have this in mind when you communicate — both online and offline.

10. Get them to come back

Aim for excellence and respect your commitments. Don’t agree to deadlines you can’t keep. Don’t work for low rates to provide low-quality work. Only accept projects you feel comfortable doing. Always proofread your work. Twice. If you can, sleep on it and proofread with fresh eyes or get someone else to proofread it. Always ask for client feedback. On Smartcat, customers are always offered to leave feedback once a job is done, but it never hurts to ask once again. To sum up, provide excellence, treat your clients well, if you keep them happy they will recommend your services and keep coming back.

Freelancing can be great if it’s done right, but it takes persistence to reach this stage. Remember that your work is rarely an end in itself but a means to helping you live the kind of life you want: always have this in mind and re-align your professional goals to match your life goals. If you’ve decided that you want to be a freelance translator, be the best translator you can be, and get excited about the journey you’re about to embark on. It may feel like you’re jumping in the deep end, but that’s often the best way to learn to swim.