If you are just starting out, and even if you have been around for a while, your freelance translation business could benefit from some planning. Information on how to create a typical business plan abounds on the Internet, but it is overwhelmingly aimed at entrepreneurs starting companies, and freelancing is not the same.
The standard business plan complete with an executive summary and myriad graphs, charts and tables is aimed at potential outside investors, and that is one thing you don't need. Your plan should be of practical value to yourself. It should give you a clearer idea of what you are offering, to whom, how you do it and what you expect to achieve.
Do not get obsessed with mission statements and exquisitely worded keys to success. Do not waste time explaining to yourself that "in today's increasingly globalized world, businesses realize that international exposure is essential." Create a useful document that will help you in meaningful ways.
I do not recommend attempting to come up with accurate financial projections for the next five years either. Come up with a rough estimate of how much you reasonably expect to earn in foreseeable future given everything you know right now and get down to actual work. Then review your business plan a few times a year and make updates as necessary.
Below is a list of subjects your business plan should cover. Think carefully when answering the questions, but don't take forever to polish the document: you will keep improving it as you go anyway.
What services will you offer? Will translation be the only one? How about proofreading and editing? Localization and transcreation? Some translators choose to further diversify their offer and provide DTP, copywriting, SEO or other related services.
What are your source and target languages? In what areas will you specialize? Do you prefer to dominate a niche or hold a smaller share of a bigger and more crowded market segment?
Are you going to work with direct clients, translation agencies or both?
In case of direct clients, do you prefer to do business with corporations only or will you also be willing to deal with private persons?
Where are your clients situated? Will you limit yourself to your own location so you can easily visit a client if something goes wrong? Or will you deal with countries with stable economies and reliable legal systems only? Or will you accept jobs from anywhere as long as, after initial communication, you feel that the potential benefit outweighs whatever risk may be involved?
Go with something specific and truly valuable to your target market. When clients look at the sea of LSPs where every single one claims to be the best, why will they choose you? What makes you stand out of the crowd?
Also, opt for advantages that are not too easy to beat. Being the cheapest is not a good idea: you will only be special until somebody else offers a price below yours. Being willing to be available 24/7 is better. Being a recognized authority in the industry that constitutes your target market is great.
The term "marketing" is used in the broadest sense here and includes everything that will help you sell your services.
Will you mainly rely on word of mouth? E-mail campaigns? Traditional techniques, such as ads in journals that many of your potential clients read? Will you create a website? Use social media? Attend events where you are likely to meet people potentially interested in your services? Offer referral fees? Buy online ads? The range of possibilities is huge, so choose what is right for you and go ahead.
How much will you charge? Will it be a standard rate or a range of rates for different clients and projects? Will you charge extra or offer discounts for anything? Will you charge a minimum fee?
When making these decisions, be sure not to rely on ProZ.com's rate calculator alone. For better or for worse, unless you find a way to monopolize a market for something literally vital to customers, you can't set prices by simply dividing the amount you want to earn by the number of hours you are willing to work.
So look at what competition does, estimate the price sensitivity of your target market and factor in all other relevant details you know. If you later decide to change your rates in response to low demand, remember that you are not necessarily charging too much: chances are you are charging too little.
First, assets and costs. What do you have and how much do you need to invest?
In fact, provided that you are already qualified and own a computer connected to the Internet, you should be able to start with just that.* (I assume you obtained the dictionaries you need for work in the process of getting qualified.) When you start making a profit, you can reinvest part of the money in business development.
Still, regardless of whether you have some money to spend right away or expect to take care of financial investment later, decide where that money will go. Professional software? ProZ.com membership? Paid advertising? Participation in industry events? A professionally designed website? Again, you have many options to choose from.
Now, profits. Make an educated guess. Considering everything you know, how much do you reasonably expect to earn in the next twelve months?
Having answered all the questions above, you should end up with a useful document. It will help you monitor performance and optimize you efforts. Don't put it in the back of a drawer. Use it, review it, update it as you go. Good luck!
* Don't get this wrong. Professional translators tend to get furious over the fact that "today any schmuck with a computer can suddenly become a translator." What they want is that all translators be competent, not that they rent an office on Wall Street, buy every piece of office equipment available in the market and invest in an ad on the front cover of the Forbes.