Shipping Wars — a TV course for new entrepreneurs

One of the biggest problems for people entering the translation profession is a lack of hands-on, street level business experience. Many don’t understand the value of their time, and they may have no clue how to price their work — in fact, many beginners feel embarrassed and greedy when they ask to be paid respectably for what they do. Negotiating is also uncharted territory for many, and some don’t understand the difference between pricing their own services versus a corporation pricing a manufactured good.

There are books and seminars that help novices understand and implement good principles for running their businesses, but sometimes you can learn from unexpected sources. And as the famous baseball coach Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

One interesting source for watching the way experienced independent entrepreneurs operate is the “reality” TV show Shipping Wars. The program follows several seasoned independent truckers as they bid on contracts and haul unusual loads cross country. Novice and even experienced translators could learn a lot from the way these truckers operate.

Bidding. The first thing that’s worth watching closely is the way these truckers bid on contracts. The jobs come to them the same way they do for most of us translators, over the Internet, and they have to outbid each other. I would not recommend dealing with agencies or individual clients who send out a cattle call for translators and pit them against each other in bidding wars. (Watch out for that evil expression “your best rate”!) However, you may sometimes have to horse trade with good clients, so there are things to be learned from the way the truckers on Shipping Wars bid.

Truckers constantly keep their costs in mind when they bid. Their bids are always anchored to their time and expenses. They don’t get caught up in a race to the bottom in which the proposed prices are no longer tied to anything real. If they find that others are bidding below cost or are offering prices that don’t take their time into account, they never hesitate to pull out of the bidding and look elsewhere.

As a translator, whether you’re bidding or accepting a fixed rate, you need to keep your business and living expenses in mind. If you’re competing with people who are bidding below subsistence wages, walk away and let them have the job. Once you show a willingness to work for next to nothing, the same clients will keep coming back expecting you to work at sweatshop rates.

Among the costs you need to consider when pricing and bidding is opportunity cost. This is business lingo for how much money you could have made on another job if you hadn’t tied yourself up in a badly paid one. When these truckers quit bidding and slap their laptops shut, they don’t know what the next opportunity will be, but they know it’s coming from somewhere and that they shouldn’t commit themselves to a poorly paid job just because they’re afraid the good one won’t come.

People say, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” but this does not always apply to a translation business. If your hand is holding one bird, it’s awfully hard to catch two more, so you sometimes have to let one translation job go to someone else so that you can catch a better one.

The higher bidder really can win. When one of the older truckers won a job over a lower-bidding competitor, he shut his laptop, declared, “You can’t outbid experience!” and took off to pick up the load. He had stated during the bidding war that he would not go below the price he wanted no matter what. He won the job by convincing the customer of his experience and expertise.

When you have a bidding war going on, instead of letting yourself be dragged down into the crab bucket, it’s better to stick to a reasonable price that meets your costs. Instead of bidding lower and lower, convince the client of whatever makes you more fit for the job. Are you certified or very highly experienced in the CAT tool the client wants used? (Or for new, more naïve clients, can you convince them of the advantages of your using any CAT tool?) Have you actually worked on the types of machines the job is about? If the job is about art, for example, have you been to professional art school?

Believe it or not, truckers have specialties just like translators do. When one of them, nicknamed “The Cowgirl”, bids on certain contracts, she makes sure clients know she’s one of the highest-rated livestock transporters. Translators, too, should always highlight their actual experience. Have you been to a chicken farm and seen an automatic chicken feeding system? There are translation clients that need your knowledge, believe it or not. A friend of mine listed his scuba experience and by surprise became the go-to translator for a scuba equipment company.

Negotiation. Once the bidding is done and the contract has been awarded, that doesn’t mean all negotiations are over. Sometimes the client “forgot something”, or “something went wrong,” and “can you just help me a little?” There are cases where a good, regular client needs a little favor once in a while, but if someone asks for a favor that demands major time, you’d better ask for more compensation. As a client roared at me when I was a beginning translator in a small Czech town, “I TOOK YOUR TIME AND YOU DESERVE TO BE ADEQUATELY COMPENSATED!” Another one said, “You can give the charity rates to charity cases!” They were teaching me a professional, self-respecting approach to charging for my work.

One trucker on Shipping Wars had to pick up a truckload from a winery. Yet, when he got there, it wasn’t ready for shipment, and the owner was there by himself. Expecting an obedient response, the owner asked the trucker to help him pack the rest of the wine. He’s a blue-collar guy after all, right? An hour or so of packing wine was not part of the contract, so the trucker demanded compensation. He and the owner horse traded, and instead of more money, he got a couple cases of great wine, but he was satisfied.

This kind of thing can happen to translators also, and we can learn from those truckers. A client sends you a project and then asks you to do something extra for free. Maybe it’s to wrestle for a couple hours in Word with a converted PDF to make it look like the original. Or it could be one of those cases where the client sends you a “finalized” text, then, when you’re almost done translating, they send you a different “finalized” text with major rewriting, and maybe they’ll even come back a third time with still another “finalized” text to replace the one you’d already translated. That kind of client is also liable to say they’ve shelved the project and don’t want to pay you. You wouldn’t believe how many beginning translators let themselves be cheated in such situations. Like these truckers, you need to demand what your full time and effort are worth.

A pig in a poke. Sometimes the truckers accept a job and find it to be grossly misrepresented. This can happen to translators too. In one episode of Shipping Wars, a trucker bid on a job to haul a number of large duct tape sculptures made by art students from the university where they were built to the tape manufacturer who would judge them in a contest. Based on the way the job was represented, it seemed doable and well compensated. However, when the trucker arrived, the sculptures were much larger than they were claimed to be, and the art students’ professor told him he had to make two runs for the agreed price instead of just one, as the contract stated. This would double the labor, time, and fuel, and bring the trucker’s profit dangerously near zero. When the trucker said double the run would require double the compensation, the professor yelled at him: “You agreed to the contract, and we’re bound to the university budget!”

There are a few issues in that situation that are relevant to translators:

1. Clients should find out what things cost before they establish a budget! If a client or agency asks you to cut your price in half because, “That’s all we have in the budget,” that’s not your problem. The client put the cart before the horse, and you’re probably better off refusing and waiting for a better managed job.

2. When a client yells at you for demanding adequate payment, he surely knows he’s cheating you. This is an intimidation tactic. Don’t fall for it. (And as you save for your future, be aware that yelling and intimidation are also common tactics among investment scam artists. If you ask for clear information about an investment somebody is pushing, and he yells at you, hang up.)

Keeping the customer on the hook. One of the truckers on the show was just minutes away from delivering her freight – a bucking alligator ride – when her customer phoned her and said his customer couldn’t use the ride because it was raining that day. “If they don’t pay me, then I can’t pay you.” This is never acceptable customer behavior. If a customer agrees to pay you for work, and you adequately perform the work, then you have to demand compensation. It’s the customer’s problem to collect from his own client. Never work for a client who makes your fee contingent on his customer paying him.

Walking away. The truckers on Shipping Wars also know when to walk away from an offer. As one husband-wife team were bidding on a job, competitors’ bids kept sinking, and more details came up about the awkwardness and fragility of the cargo, the wife finally said, “Just because we can transport anything doesn’t mean we should,” and they dropped out of the bidding.

Just because you think you can translate something, and the price is right, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Does the potential client seem iffy? Is there something wrong with the document you’re given? Once I got a document that was photographed with a cellphone, and the clearest thing on photos was the breadcrumbs from the phone wielder’s continental breakfast. As I got into the document, I found that a lot of words were cut off at the edges of some of the photos, important words like “not”, for example. There is no use in saying yes and trying to make something like that work, because the results are sure to be imperfect, and that could come back to bite you. Even if the client seems understanding at the beginning, he may blame you later, so it’s best to let iffy jobs like that go. As former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina often said, it’s important to know when to walk away from the table.

Do what you have to and spend the money to do it. On Shipping Wars, the truckers often run into unexpected complications, so they do what they have to and spend the money necessary to tackle the situation. One trucker arrived for the cargo and was suddenly told it had to be transported under climate-controlled conditions. He gave up the idea of transporting it on his flatbed, and he spent the money to rent a refrigerated trailer. The job still paid off, and he had a satisfied customer. Another trucker was hired to carry a vintage TV camera boom – a big, hulking structure – across several states. At some point he could feel it wobbling in the wind, so he stopped by a lumber yard and built stabilizers for it. That also cost him money and effort, but he got the load to its destination and got paid.

If you’re a Trados user and a client offers you a $600 job that has to be done in MemoQ or Wordfast Pro, for example, is it worth buying and learning the second CAT tool for that? Probably not, because the price of the tool would eat up most of the revenue. But what if the job were for $10,000? Would it be worth buying the second CAT tool then? Hell, yeah! Not only will it get you the job, but it will probably create a lot of customer goodwill, and you’ll be able to take later jobs from that and other clients who require that tool. It’s shortsighted to be too cheap.

A long time ago, a prominent ATA member, who is a Windows user, got offered a huge job that had to be done on a Macintosh for some reason. Did he respond, “No, thanks, I use Windows”? Of course not. He calculated the financial benefit and bought the Mac. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.

Shipping Wars is just one good resource to give you a feel for running an independent business. Other resources are all around you. Ask people questions. Get them talking. There might be a gas station owner nearby who’s been in business for 60 years, through all the changes in the economy and technology. Get an oil change and ask him about his business. Talk to the granny who does catering from her house. How about the guy who snakes your basement sewer? Then there are the freelance writers and engineers. Almost any independent businessperson knows things that a new translator can learn from!

Author bio

James Kirchner is a translator working from German, Czech, French and Slovak into English. Because he works in two “small languages,” he has had to develop a larger-than-normal number of specializations, but mainly does technical, marketing and fine arts translations. James is a past president of the Michigan Translators/Interpreters Network (MiTiN), which is the Michigan chapter of the ATA. He has a BFA in Fine Arts from the College for Creative Studies and an MA in Linguistics from Wayne State University, as well as a Czech Proficiency Certificate from the Státní Jazyková škola in Prague. He has a black belt in Aikido and Karate and is an avid intermediate student of Taekwondo and Iaido.

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