Do you have a passion for languages and cultures? Are you looking to start your own business? You’re not alone. Ever since globalization started gaining traction, there has been a growing need for translators and translation companies. The good news is that starting a translation agency is not rocket science. In fact, the step-by-step guide below will show you how to go from idea to business.

And let’s start with a short overview of the global translation market:

What kind of translation agencies exist?

There are two major types of translation agencies:

  1. Single-language vendors (SLVs), who usually only translate the text into one language.
  2. Multilingual vendors (MLVs), who translate into different languages at the same time.

Historically, MLVs used to be larger companies who would often subcontract out the translation work to SLVs. Today, however, with the rise of digital platforms (see the section on tools below), multilingual vendors can also be small teams or even individuals.

So the first thing you need to decide is whether you want to go after the smaller SLV market or the larger MLV market. The former choice might be preferred if you are well-versed in the source and target languages of your choice and want to have a tight control over the quality of the translation.

If, on the other hand, you want to consider your translation business as a business rather than a vocation, it might be better for you to go after the multilingual translation market.

How to find your niche market

One key characteristic of the translation and localization market is that it is very fragmented, with thousands of vendors competing for the same contracts and providing generally the same services. This means that it is of utmost importance for you to narrow down your target market and find your niche.

Another reason for this is that your choice of niche will influence many of your further decisions. For example, if you’re planning to serve software companies, you need to set up an automated workflow since most of your clients will have implemented agile software development practices and will need you to be able to deliver translations almost in real-time. If you’re targeting the legal market, you’ll have to ensure that the translators you work with are properly accredited by the law-translators association in your country. The list goes on.

So how do you choose the right niche?

There are two main approaches here. One is to stay with market needs, the other one is to start with your own interests. The latter approach is obviously a lot easier and rewarding, but you have to make sure that the target market is both sizable enough and doesn’t swarm with competitors.

But it is not only about the industry you will serve. You can further refine your niche by:

  • Quality: “Only 1% of translators who apply to work with us are granted a placement” and/or “We only work with translators who have a minimum of X years of experience” and/or “We use a rigorous quality assurance process with obligatory editing and proofreading of every translation”.
  • Speed: “We use a fully automated pipeline to guarantee the fastest turnaround time in the industry” and/or “We continuously monitor our translators’ availability to make sure we can handle any demand spikes” and/or “We provide 24/7 online support”.
  • Cost: “We use machine translation post-editing tools to keep costs low” and/or “We work with students on an internship basis” and/or “We specialize in larger projects so that we can negotiate discounts from our linguists”.

One thing to avoid at all costs is “specializing in everything.” It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to provide higher-quality, more affordable and faster service — we all do. But advertising yourself as a Jack of all trades, especially when you’re just starting out, will quickly put you in the line of masters of none. And, believe me, it’s a very long line already.

Advertising yourself as a Jack of all trades, especially when you’re just starting out, will quickly put you in the line of masters of none. And, believe me, it’s a very long line already.

Where to look for clients

Once you’ve decided on your niche, you will start looking for clients. The good news is that these days, almost any business out there requires some form of translation, whether it be for marketing, software development, legal or financial reasons, or otherwise. Of course, you shouldn’t target them all — that’s why you bothered carving out your niche after all, right?

If you are an SLV, you could either target MLVs or local companies who look to expand into the global market. In this case, you would be most likely translating to English (and make sure to find linguists who are native speakers of English — see also the next section below).

If you’ve decided to be an MLV, you will have a much wider choice of prospective clients. In this case, you can either target companies that are already operating on a global scale or focus on English-first businesses and organizations who need to reach foreign markets. (Note that “English-first” doesn’t mean “English-speaking”, as many non-English-speaking companies will also choose to do their business primarily in English just because they feel like they will get a wider audience this way.)

The specific places to look for clients will heavily depend on your niche, but here are some ideas to start with:

  • Your network: Basically, check with everyone you know — friends, relatives, co-workers, and so on. Let them know what you do and see if they can help you find clients.
  • Local business: Start with your local area, where you can build your reputation and gain valuable experience before moving to larger projects.
  • Company websites: Especially if a website is not translated or translated poorly, it might be a good bet to offer your services.
  • Social media: Twitter and LinkedIn are two of the most popular platforms in the industry. Just make sure not to hard-sell: content marketing is a better way to go.
  • Industry-specific forums: There might not be many direct clients here, but there will be other LSPs who might need your services, especially if you’re an SLV.

Example: Smartcat’s Connected Translation Community

  • Job boards: Translation-specific job boards are one of the most popular ways to connect with potential clients. Although they are mostly targeted at freelancers, you may still be able to get a gig or two from here.

These are all just starting points, and in our experience LSPs achieve the best results if they come up with something that’s creative, authentic, and suited to their particular niche. Remember, B2B or B2C, in the end we’re all H2H!

B2B or B2C, in the end we’re all H2H!

Do you need a website?

Yes and no. “Yes” because your website will generally serve as a “business card on steroids”/ Whenever you introduce yourself to a prospective client, it will look much more professional if you can say: “Yes, I’m an LSP with a website” than “I’m a freelancer with a profile on ProZ.”

On the other hand, I don’t recommend investing too much into it, as clients are unlikely to judge you based on the website design, and will mostly focus on the services you offer, the client reviews, etc. You can actually just put up a well-structured Notion page and then “websitify” it with a tool like Super.

Now, website or not, there is a whole different topic of content marketing. We don’t cover it here because it would make the article too long, but here are a couple of thoughts on it, if you ever decide to go for writing a blog or a podcast or a YouTube channel about translations:

  • Carefully target your content: Writing the 1750th article on “Why localization is important” will at best bring a round of applause from your peers in the industry, who are unlikely to be your clients.
  • Choose the platform wisely: It can be your own website or a Medium blog, your LinkedIn profile, or even this blog 🙂 Every option has its pros and cons, which I invite you to research separately.
  • Don’t be boring: Start with a hook that will generate interest in your topic and/or brand. The opening line of your article can make or break the whole piece.

How to source the right linguists

If you’re an SLV, you will mostly be sourcing your own translators (and even if you do outsource them, it’s not a bad idea to have a look at the candidates yourself). If you’re an MLV, this gets a bit trickier as you won’t have the language knowledge required to assess the candidates’ skills and experience.

Here’s what you can do about it:

  • Hire an language specialist to assist you in screening the candidates, at least during the first few jobs
  • Use a two-step process, where an editor/proofreader will check the linguist’s work before it is delivered to the client.
  • Resort to a curated marketplace such as Smartcat’s, where translators are ranked according to their performance.

Whichever approach or a combination of them you choose, there is one lifehack from my own experience that works like magic: The more approachable and communicative a linguist is, the more likely it is that they are good at what they do. Why? Because unlike the majority of language professionals, they’ve chosen to invest not only in their own language skills but also in communication and understanding others.

Of course, it goes without saying that you, too, should treat your translators with respect and grace. Remember, they are the ones who make it possible for you to earn your living.

What tools to use

When you’re just starting out, the only tool you’ll need is a CAT (computer-aided translation) tool. It will help you translate in a format-agnostic way, be more productive, and save your translations to a translation memory that you will be able to reuse afterwards.

As you grow, you might also need a translation management system to keep track of how much work you have, where it comes from, and what the status of each project is.

Finally, and especially if you are an MLV, you will need to pay a lot of freelancers, and many of these payments will be micro-transactions, meaning that you will have lots of small amounts to pay every month. If this issue becomes a headache for you, consider using a specialized platform such as Smartcat’s payment automation solution, which will aggregate all your payables and send them out in one batch.

Needless to say, all of the above functionality is available in Smartcat, so we’ll be very happy to have you onboard.

Takeaways

This was a long post, and it barely managed to scratch the surface of what you’ll need to know as an LSP. Good news is that there is plenty of knowledge available both here in our blog and in our Connected Translation Community portal.

So, arm yourself with determination and a good dose of curiosity, take the plunge, and see where it will take you!

P.S. Oh, and sign up with Smartcat 😉