Sidelines: Smart business strategy, or distraction?

One of my all-time favorite quotes about freelancing comes from Walt Kania of The Freelancery: “Multiple prongs of income is a fine thing. (…) A few prongs is good. With twelve prongs you have a manure fork.”

The question for us as freelancers is: Where do we cross the line between multiple prongs and the manure fork? And in general, are “side hustles” a smart business strategy, or a distraction from what we’re really supposed to be doing?

How I developed a sideline

Back in the early aughts, there wasn’t much information out there on how to run a freelance translation business. Lots of information about how to translate, but not so much on the business side of things. To the extent that, when one of my first clients asked me to send them an invoice, I called my husband at work and asked what he thought I should put on the invoice. “Pay me $300?” I was about half a step ahead of Car Talk’s “write your answer on the back of a $20 bill and mail it to us.” Through trial and error-emphasis on the error-I muddled my way through marketing, invoicing, setting up a website, identifying marketable specializations, etc.

Having survived my first several years of freelancing more or less in one piece, I theorized that other translators might want information on how to do the startup phase more smoothly than I did. My daughter was a baby at the time, so I wasn’t sleeping much anyway…why not try to compile some information for other newbie translators? That thought morphed into the first edition of my book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator, and my online course Getting Started as a Freelance Translator, both of which are still alive and thriving 13+ years later.

How sidelines work for me now

Over the years, I’ve written two more editions of my book, published two other e-books, and kept adding to my range of online courses. In 2017, course registration fees and book royalties made up about 40% of my income. I hope that my books and classes fill a need and help people run better businesses, do their work better, and enjoy it more, and it turns out that translators have a pretty insatiable appetite for what the online world calls “information products”–books, classes, webinars, etc. about how to be a freelance translator. Currently, my challenge is that I want translation to make up more than 50% of my income. I’m not a huge fan of the career model in which one becomes a consultant about how to be a consultant; I want to keep doing the job I teach other people how to do, but in order to have time to translate, I have to put a lid on the zillions of ideas I have for new information products for translators.

The benefits of sidelines

Sidelines have a lot of pluses. Many sidelines–including mine–allow you to work on your own schedule, when you feel like it and have time. As I write this, my teenage daughter is doing homework. It’s late, but I don’t really feel like going to bed and I’m kind of sick of reading after working all day, so writing a blog post is actually a good and relaxing outlet.

Sidelines also give you some revenue diversification; also a good thing. I always schedule some online courses for periods when I know that my translation work will be slower than normal (January, August). And it does seem that when one revenue stream is down, the other is often up. I like the fact that I have control over my writing and teaching. When translation work slows down, I can either hustle my regular clients for more work (which can be effective but can also be awkward), or I can look for new clients (with the caveat that I don’t love selling). But when I want to create a new information product, I just dive in and do it, without depending on anyone else.

Other types of sidelines

Your sideline might be something totally different: language teaching, editing for non-native speakers, voiceovers, web design, copywriting, marketing consulting, terminology work…or something totally outside the word nerd sector all together. I’ve met translators who massage dogs, teach Pilates, run AirBnBs, work at bookstores, and various other sidelines that have nothing to do with translation.

How to differentiate between a smart business strategy and a distraction

Here’s the rub: when do sidelines hinder your freelance business rather than helping it? When are you on the slippery slope to Walt Kania’s manure fork? I’d recommend asking yourself these questions:

  • How does this sideline complement, rather than compete with, my translation work? An ideal sideline is something that fills a gap that your translation business creates. Maybe the gap is that you don’t get much physical activity (so your sideline is walking dogs). Maybe the gap is that your translation work is boring (so you write mystery novels). Maybe the gap is that you don’t love working in isolation (so you teach Spanish classes for adults). Just make sure that the sideline doesn’t exacerbate those gaps: if you love everything about translation except working alone at a computer, then choose a sideline that’s social.
  • Does this sideline diversify my business risk? For anyone who’s self-employed, risk diversification is worth thinking about. One way of diversifying risk is to have an entirely different client base for your translation business and your sideline business. For example, my book and course clients (other translators) are completely different from my translation clients (mainly international development entities and corporate communications clients). That’s a good thing, because if one client base takes a big hit–as is somewhat the case with USAID-funded projects lately–another client base is often insulated from that same hit.
  • Is my sideline better off as a non-paying passion project? It’s perfectly fine to have a sideline that generates little or no income. Let’s say that your passion is translating poetry. Rather than trying to squeeze blood from that stone, perhaps you’d be better off taking on more lucrative translation work, and using that to subsidize your poetry translation work so that you can afford to do it pro bono, just because you love it.
  • Could my sideline grow into its own business? One idea I’ve tossed around is spinning my online courses off into their own business, for two reasons. First, the administrative and logistical aspects are something I could hire someone else to do (and I can’t hire anyone else to do my translation work), and that type of standalone business is potentially saleable at some point (which my translation business probably is not). It’s worth considering whether your sideline is robust enough that you should create a separate identity for it.

In sum, I feel that my sideline business is a very positive addition to my translation business. It generates a significant amount of revenue, gives me the opportunity to interact with people, fills a need for other translators, and is scalable in a way that my freelance business is not. Readers, over to you: any positive or negative sideline stories to share here?

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5 Responses to “Sidelines: Smart business strategy, or distraction?”
    • Corinne McKay October 17, 2018
  1. ktkaczyk October 18, 2018
  2. Yuliya Fedasenka October 18, 2018

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