Getting started as a freelancer: how long does it take?

Here’s a common question from beginning freelance translators, and from people contemplating freelancing: how long does it take to start a viable freelance business? The usual disclaimers apply. Is your non-English language Spanish or Japanese? Do you have just a language background, or a PhD in nuclear physics and a language background? Do you live in Tokyo or Montana? And what do you mean by “start”? But here’s a stab at an answer. To me, there are two milestones in starting a freelance business: 1) the point when you know you’re going to make it as a freelancer (meaning that you no longer stress out every single day about whether to plow ahead or just give up and get a regular job) and 2) the point when you basically always have enough work (meaning that you can focus on doing what you enjoy and are good at, rather than whatever pays the bills).

My own answers: 18 months, and three years. After about 18 months of freelancing, I knew I was going to make it as a freelancer. Halfway through year two, I had already earned more than I did in all of year one. One-time clients were becoming regular clients; a “big project” was $1,000, not $200. By the end of year three, I no longer stressed out about where the next project was coming from, because I had enough work almost all the time. I started to ease out some low-paying clients and ease in some better ones. I started to think about what kinds of translation I really enjoyed and was good at, and I looked for direct clients in those areas.

Mostly, I think that the answer to the “how long does it take?” question is, “Probably longer than you think.” Not to be sarcastic or cynical, but when beginning translators ask me this question, I often advise that if you want a booming business within a few months, offer a service that a lot of people need, and that lends itself to direct advertising. Clean houses, walk dogs, do tutoring. Don’t start a freelance translation business if you have to have a full-time income within a couple of months, unless you do a language or specialization that is both very high-paying and very in-demand.

Another question: what percentage of freelancers make it through the startup phase, and with what degree of success? I’ve been teaching my getting started course for beginning freelancers for about eight years, and I’d say, unscientifically, that the graduates I’ve followed up with are about evenly split into three categories. About a third of them launched successful freelance businesses and are doing great; about a third are translating in some capacity, but combine it with another job, and about a third either decided the whole freelance thing was too much work, or were never able to find the kinds of clients they needed to work with in order to make a full-time living.

Readers, your thoughts on the length of the startup phase?

15 Responses to “Getting started as a freelancer: how long does it take?”
  1. Ying Peng July 7, 2014
  2. Jesse July 7, 2014
  3. Chris Durban July 7, 2014
  4. ciclistatraduttore July 8, 2014
    • Paulette July 27, 2014
  5. Jesse July 8, 2014
  6. Belén Carneiro July 8, 2014
  7. TC July 8, 2014
    • Chris Durban July 8, 2014
      • TC July 9, 2014
  8. Chris Durban July 8, 2014
  9. louisathetranslator July 15, 2014

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