VSB: Verbalising Sorrows in Business

I have something to confess… I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the idea of shutting down my business.

Managing a company alone, alternating between the roles of translator, project manager, salesperson and accountant, with no one to turn to for advice, or any organisation offering help, is often a tough ride. Add to this the fact that large multinationals in translation are renegotiating contracts with their translators every six months, reducing rates on the pretext that we’re going through an economic crisis, and you will agree that the whole thing leaves a lot to be desired.

I told myself I was gifted in my field of translation and interpreting project management, but that it wasn’t enough to become a “true” entrepreneur who knows the “tricks” of the marketing trade and can build useful relationships at business owner clubs, for example. Also, lowering my profit margin instead of paying translators less to ensure good final quality whilst remaining competitive… it’s not really what I would have been taught at business school either.

So I attended a CGPME [General Confederation of Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises] meeting last week, hoping to get some advice. What a surprise it was to discover that this feeling of loneliness and despondency was common among all business owners, even those with 20 years’ experience and a hundred or so employees! All complained of having to deal with increasingly late payments and banks that no longer offered overdraft facilities. They have all had to invest their personal assets to buffer cash flow; all have recruitment and business development problems, and none felt they had any representation at government level.

Like most SME entrepreneurs, I invested my own money into my company and had to resort to personal loans to advance funds and deal with late payments from customers with a turnover at least one hundred times higher than my own, sometimes forgoing my own salary because banks and government agencies find it risky (and mostly pointless) to help a small business. That said, since founding Fairtrad two years ago, I have issued purchase orders for more than 110,000 euros and given work to over 200 people. Frankly, as a one-woman VSB I think that, proportionally, I contribute more to the country’s economic effort than companies who seek public funds to build a new factory and then relocate a few years later, leaving the State with the task of cleaning up the site and finding work for those left unemployed.

I find that large companies – apart from employment blackmail – don’t really have much to offer. Having a huge turnover and many employees does not guarantee quality or reactivity, nor does it guarantee better value for money given that VSBs/SMEs enjoy lower operational costs and focus their efforts so as not to waste their human and material resources.

We need to start thinking differently and valuing networks of small, reactive operators with roots in society, who offer products that meet real demands and have a capacity for immediate adaptation and flexibility, instead of leaving it all to large multinationals whose sole aim is to attain economies of scale. If I compare my offer with that of large, quoted translation agencies, not only am I in the same price range, but I can also guarantee better quality and pay my colleagues more because my operating costs are lower – the number of contributors varies depending on the size of the project. I can guarantee a truly customised service as I am in fact the only contact person and, like any VSB, I am obliged to meet my customers’ expectations. I do not have access to the exclusive agreements reserved for large accounts and any future orders depend directly on customer satisfaction for every project.

Last week was indeed one of introspection for I also had to write up a presentation of Fairtrad for Etika Mondo, an association of which I am a member, as well as 1 % for the Planet. I had to reassert the values that prompted me to set up a fair translation agency and my commitment to working ethically; it is a great venture, I do have to say. I realised that I’m not as alone as I thought and that others do share not only my problems but also my ideals. The world is changing, and it’s up to us to decide whether for better or for worse.

So, for now, I’ll hold on strong.