How long until you quit your day job?

Corinne McKay over at Thoughts on Translation has an interesting post about how long it took her to become established as a freelance translator.

I was going to write this as a comment to her post, but this got a little long so I moved it over here.

I started freelancing when I was in grad school. My wife had just gotten pregnant, we didn't have insurance in-state, and a back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that my stipend from the university of $1,000 a month wasn't going to cut it.

I started sending out resumes in November of 1997, and by January I had sent out around 200 resumes. I mainly found potential clients by searching for various combinations of "Japanese to English translator," "hiring," and "freelance" in Japanese (e.g. 和英翻訳者、日英翻訳者、募集、求人、在宅), using Altavista. I decided to work almost exclusively with Japanese clients, because I reasoned that writers would pay more for translation than readers.

A dribble of work started to come in immediately. I got my first job that paid more than $1,000 in January. The work gradually ramped up, and I earned $60,000 in 1998 (my first full year freelancing), while studying full time in grad school. I don't recommend this: I was so stressed during this time that I came down with shingles midway through my first year freelancing.

I quit grad school and started freelancing full time after the 1998-99 school year. After the first year, my income grew each year for a few years, and then leveled out; I've been earning roughly the same each year, within a band of about $10,000, for about seven years.

So in my case, it took me a year until I was ready to go full time as a translator. If I hadn't been studying in grad school at the time, I imagine I could have gone full time after about four months (that's when I started earning $5,000/month or more).

I actually didn't create a website when I started freelancing. I've never joined the ATA, and I didn't join JAT until I'd already been freelancing for a while. I created this website as a joke at first: the name "GITS" (from Ginstrom IT Solutions) has a less than positive meaning in Britain.

9 comments to How long until you quit your day job?

  • Thanks for the interesting post, Ryan! I’m not sure which is more amazing; that you earned 60K while going to school full time or that you got shingles 🙂 I think that you make a great point here; the startup phase can really vary, and some people are so marketable (because of language combination or specialization) that it can be shortened to a few months. Good stuff!

  • @Corinne
    I guess it is amazing that it turned out well for me (other than the shingles), because I was really clueless about the whole freelance thing when I started. I wish I’d had your book then!

    In retrospect, some of the things that worked were: seeking clients in the source-language country; sending out lots of resumes; and declining to accept extremely low rates.

  • Anonymous

    Ryan,
    Thanks again for yet another a brilliant post! You can’t imagine how much your posts on translation provide for me. They’re invariably clear, candid, concise and worth more than their weight in gold.
    I’m terribly grateful for your priceless contributions.
    Please keep up the great work!

  • Interesting post, Ryan, thanks!

    Do you have any suggestions about the sort of financial safety net one should seek to have in place before quitting one’s day job?

  • @Sako

    Good question. I personally cheated: when I first moved to Japan to freelance full time, my top client offered me a retainer of 250,000 yen/month; each month I’d bill normally, but if my invoice was under 250,000 yen, they would pay the difference. In return, I gave them priority when scheduling work. That gave me enough courage to make the leap.

    Barring an agreement like that, I think I’d want to have at least 3 months’ (preferably 6 months’) living expenses saved, and be making enough moonlighting to support myself (so I’d be able to get by even if I didn’t get more work after going full time).

  • Re the financial safety net: I think item 10 on this list is a good one to look at (well, the whole list is good, since translation is a kind of writing and his advice is spot-on for aspiring writers). Basically he says you should write in your spare time while continuing to work the day job, and only quit once you are making more as a writer than you are from your paycheck. Another point on the graph, I suppose.

  • @Durf

    I don’t think you need to be making as much as your day job, only enough to live on. Some career changes are worth a pay cut; otherwise, we’d be forced to do the job that paid the best, regardless of whether we liked it.

  • Thanks for the suggestions!

    Yes, I think six months’ worth of living expenses is probably about right (although my risk-averse spouse may disagree ), but what about for things like taxes, health insurance, and other things that company employees are largely spared the burden of worrying about, but that can potentially come back to bite unprepared freelancers in a very painful way?

    Is there any magic formula for determining how much you need to set aside for things like that?

  • @Sako

    I don’t think there’s a magic formula, but the standard thing I hear is to add 30% to your in-house salary, to see what an equivalent freelance salary would need to be in order to maintain the same lifestyle.

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