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Lessons from Ten Years in Business

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 30, 2018

This month, I have the honour of celebrating 10 years in business. It has been a fun, frustrating, incredible, disappointing, worrying, and inspiring journey and so I thought it would be a great opportunity to pass on some of the big lessons I have learned.

  • The path less-taken is the one where the fun is.

This lesson could also be entitled “ignore the platforms” or “never take the first option.” You see, for my first three or so years in business, I followed the crowd in my industry and thought that I would concentrate my marketing on a small number of big, established platforms.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with those platforms and I did win one or two long-term clients from there but it is no accident that, as I learned more about business and understood more about my potential clients, I weaned myself off using those platforms for marketing.

No matter how much traffic comes to fiverr or translatorscafe, the fact is that your image on those platforms is largely outside of your control. If they redesign the interface, you have no choice but to go along with it. If they prioritise members who buy super-amazing-annual-gold-star-plus membership, you will lose out if you don’t pay them money all the time.

Conversely, if you choose to get off your butt and try other ways of winning clients, while the results will take longer to come, they will eventually be better. In 2017, I found myself parting on good terms with the very last client I had who had come from platforms and celebrating amazing growth in my client list from other forms of marketing.

  • Get off your butt.

There is a very persistent myth that you can create a super-rich business without leaving your house, purely on social media and online bidding.

While social media is now a vital part of my own marketing, it took me too long to learn that very few clients will pay excellent money to someone they only know from a twitter thread about Boris Johnson’s hair.

The longer I am in business, the more vital it becomes to leave the house: going to tradeshows, networking, meeting decision-makers, doing in-person CPD and even more besides. The stronger the relationship you have with someone, the more of their hard-earned cash they will be willing to spend.

It’s no surprise that my social media strategist and all of my closest business advisors are people I know from in-person events.

  • Leave the echo chamber

Yes, it’s always nice to spend time online and offline with colleagues and yes, referrals are important but all business-people need to spend as much time in the world of their potential clients as they do with people who share their opinions, loves, and obsession with the Oxford comma.

One of the biggest trends I am seeing in my own profession is that the good professionals are becoming less tolerant of online whinging and are instead promoting the view that we should be trying to learn more about our clients. That is a very good thing. The more we learn about our clients, the more we can help them achieve what they want to achieve.

  • Not everyone needs to love you

The corollary to the point above is that it is too easy to get wrapped-up in “reputation management” and “engagement” and try to be all things to all people. Oddly, it was only when I tried to target a niche and actually have opinions that my business really got off the ground. For as long as I was using the same, safe terminology and tactics and saying the same things as everyone else, getting sales was like pulling teeth.

Obviously, you shouldn’t act like a moron or spout derogatory remarks. But you should do your homework and have some kind of opinion. Have something interesting to say and back it up with the way you deliver your services.

Some people won’t like what you do. Some people won’t get it. Some people will tell you to pack in your dreams and get a “proper job”. As long as you are being sensible and not trying to launch a business selling rain to Scotland or selling tulips to Dutch people, and as long as you are willing to learn and adjust, you will be fine.

  •  Never stop learning

I can truly say that I have learned more in the year and a half since I graduated with my PhD than I did during it.

Doing a PhD is incredible but, as much as anything else, you learn how to be critical, generate and analyse data, think and express yourself. Take those skills into the business world and suddenly you have the keys to learn incredibly practical subjects such as business development, market segmentation, funnel creation and networking.

Wherever you are in your career, never stop learning from people in your field and people who can’t even spell your job title! Often you will learn more from “outsiders” than you will from experts in your own area.

 

All these things might sound very general … and they are. Yes, I have learned all sorts of technical and business skills in the past ten years and I still shake my head at the naivety I had at the start. But I wouldn’t have managed to learn all those skills without learning the lessons of taking a different path, getting off my butt to leave the echo chamber, understanding that I don’t need to please everyone and always learning more.

For now, I am excited to see what the next ten years will bring!

 

Soft Skills and the Successful Interpreter

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 6, 2016

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I have a fascinating conference interpreting assignment at the end of this week and I will be blogging regularly in the run-up, to show a little bit of the work that goes into preparing for an assignment. In almost all cases, preparation has to be woven round other business work, although a rough guide is that a day of work requires a day of preparation. Obviously, this does depend on the assignment.

 

Before we get that far, however, it is useful to start with some of the skills that interpreters need to have. Sure, we all have to be on point with our simultaneous interpreting techniques, our notetaking, our terminology management and the like but the ability to use all those skills intelligently hangs on our “soft” skills.

 

For me, soft skills are those personal skills and character traits that give meaning, power and direction to our “hard” or technical skills. So soft skills would including negotiation, sales, determination, self-control, creativity, ability to work in a team, marketing, situation management, ability to read context, change management, calmness and so much more.

 

There has been a bit of a needless ruckus in parts of the translation community as to whether you actually need soft skills or whether having excellent technical skills is enough. Five minutes thought will suffice to settle that. Unless you are truly irreplaceable, there are only so many personality faults you can have before your clients have enough to leave. How many of us have left utility companies, mobile phone companies or banks due to poor customer service?

 

For interpreters, soft skills make up the majority of the skills we need. Those who have heard me speak will have heard my catchphrase: “I used to think interpreting was a language skill with people attached; now I know it is a people skill with language attached.” Our entire job consists of keeping people talking long enough for them to agree, or learn, or gather evidence, or fulfil whatever the purpose of the meeting was. If we can’t get on with people and don’t want to understand people, we aren’t interpreters at all!

 

Now, I am a conference interpreter (I also do some business interpreting work), so my perspective may be a little skewed on this but here is how I see it. When clients see interpreters, their impression of all of us is determined by their impression of each of us. Simple things like shrugging off last minute agenda changes, accepting it when texts of speeches arrive three minutes before they are due to be delivered and laughing at the organiser’s attempts at humour go a long way towards creating a good impression and, on some jobs, that impression will be a large factor in the client’s view of our performance.

 

Yes, we all perform better when we receive good, accurate, and comprehensive information early, the event is predictable and the speakers are cooperative but as a speaker myself, I can tell you that last minute changes can happen for a variety of reasons, not all of them to do with poor preparation.

 

Great people skills and the ability to present yourself as a solid, dependable and creative professional give clients that feeling of being in good hands. Without good marketing and sales skills, we won’t get any clients in the first place. Without the technical competence, we won’t keep them. Without people skills, we can’t tune into what they want.

 

The only problem with soft skills is that they can be hard to teach. How do you teach the skill of reading a room? How do you help someone learn to defuse unnecessary tension and survive necessary tension? How can we help new interpreters acquire the ability to look calm, even when their nice prep has been thrown out the window by some unforeseen glitch?

 

I don’t know the answers to those questions but I am absolutely certain that the soft skills I have picked up from other interpreters, and good old real-life, will be vital on my next job.