Talking Freelance Productivity with Zingword

Korana Jelovac, Co-founder of Zingword

Korana Jelovac, Co-founder of Zingword

Robert Rogge, Co-founder of Zingword

Robert Rogge, Co-founder of Zingword

Octorius, the Zingword mascot

Octorius, the Zingword mascot

Productivity is hard enough when you’re an employee, but freelance productivity can seem like an insurmountable challenge. We have to take responsibility for our own productivity and monitor ourselves to ensure we’re doing our best, unlike employees who usually have managers and colleagues to hold them accountable. Companies often have procedures and protocols, as well, to improve their employees’ workflows. Freelancers face challenges because we are often professionally isolated, making it hard to discuss a lot of these key issues and share tools and tips, and we lack the frameworks and procedures provided by companies and management.

A few months ago, I had the chance to sit down for a chat with the co-founders of Zingword, Robert Rogge and Korana Jelovac over Skype. Zingword is a place where direct customers find great translators, and great translators find work from top-shelf customers. Robert has a background in translation, e-commerce, online marketing, and communications, and Korana is a freelance UX designer when she isn’t building Zing. Robert also hosts Translator City Radio, which is currently on hiatus due to the microphone being on tour in the Midwest (USA). Both have been freelancers or entrepreneurs for several years, and hopefully they have some interesting or entertaining things to say about freelance translation and work-life balance. Finally, Zingword values translators and the connection between translator and direct customer more than anything, and is working very hard to make that easier for translators.

Korana: Hello 🙂
Jonathan: So I guess I’ll start by asking if you use any particular software/tools for managing your schedule and keeping on top of clients and projects.
Korana: We tried a lot of different software to get where we’re at. Now we mostly focus on scheduling through Trello as it feels like a golden middle for all our different requirements and wishes, easy to manage and quickly reorder. And checklists. Slightly OCD people like us thrive on checklists. We also use a Gantt chart to keep all those different parts of the project visually in order. Mostly for me, because I’m a visual person and that’s the best way for Robert to keep me under control. 🙂
Jonathan: I use Trello, too! I really like how flexible it is. What else did you try before settling on Trello?
Robert: Well, we used Basecamp in the early days of Zing, but we’ve also worked with Redbooth, and we’ve tried several different Gantt chart applications. We’ve heard good things about Teamwork. For design, though, Trello is right in the sweet spot because the Kanban system is great for design tasks, and every meeting produces several checklists which are oh-so-satisfying to check off!

But the other stuff we use is all different. I use an app called Calengoo on my phone for everything calendar that also integrates with Google Tasks and Thunderbird for email. Yet none of those things is really perfect!

What tools are you using, Jonathan?
Jonathan: I try to keep it fairly simple. I use Trello and Google Calendar for the most part, but every so often I’ll use old-fashioned pen and paper checklists.
Robert: A fickle friend, pen and paper!
Jonathan: Oh, and how could I forgot, Toggl! I try to keep track of time with Toggl as much as I can.
Korana: I’m a pen & paper person, too! And I use Toggl regularly. I like how simple but effective it is.
Jonathan: There’s probably something out there that combines Toggl’s time-tracking features with the Kanban-style project management of Trello, but I started using Toggl during my master’s in T&I and I’ve just stuck with it.
One of my tutors recommended it, and it just seemed to click.
Robert: For time tracking, I use something called Paymo, which I think is like “super toggl,” but I haven’t used Toggl. But Paymo is really great. It lets you create projects and tasks, manage all of your communications, create invoices, expenses – it’s getting really big now. But I just use it for time-tracking and invoicing, and it does that pretty well.

I think Paymo is great if you have a team of people who all need to track time.
Jonathan: It really helps to be able to keep track of how much time I spend on translations for clients. Especially when I was starting out, I didn’t always know how much time I would actually spend on translations.
Korana: Paymo is great when you do a lot of switching between jobs and clients as it automatically tracks your switches. No need to do it manually. That’s great for anyone juggling a lot of different things in a day or someone trying to figure out where exactly your time goes and not where you think it goes. 😉
Robert: Oh right, I forgot it does that too!
Jonathan: That sounds pretty cool, actually. To a large extent, I think I’m a creature of habit. I started with Toggl for time-tracking and Wave for invoicing and I’m just too used to either of them to switch.
Robert: Ah, Wave!
Jonathan: Automatic time-tracking sounds nice, though, especially since I usually forget the more mundane tasks I do, like e-mailing and invoicing.
Robert: I did some Waving for awhile too. I think the distinction here is that Paymo is great for invoicing hourly work because it lifts your hours straight from your timesheet along with their tasks.
Jonathan: That makes sense. I don’t often do hourly work, so that’s not as big of an issue for me.
Korana: I never did a lot of invoicing through apps to be honest, as I’ve always used platforms like oDesk (UpWork) or Toptal that handled the issue for me. So I haven’t met Wave along the way.
Robert: So what lifestyle/freelancing challenges do you have, and how much do tools help?
Jonathan: Well, to start with, simply keeping track of all of the different projects and clients. I think it’s especially difficult the more clients you have, and Trello really helped me with that. Just being able to collect all of the things I’m working on in one central location makes a big difference.

One of the other challenges would probably be keeping things in perspective.

You know, having a sense of where I was a year ago, where I am now, and where I want to be in a year or six months.

That reminds me, actually. I’m probably well overdue for a “check up” on my goals.

I keep my goals in a separate board on Trello.
Robert: Nice! You sound very organized, Jonathan! Wouldn’t it be amazing if Trello had a CAT tool inside it! 😀

Korana: 😀

Jonathan: I’m really not nearly as organized as I sound, I promise.
At least, I certainly don’t feel like I’m that organized.

Korana: Wow, goals on a Trello board. My OCD is waking up. 🙂
Jonathan: What would you say are your biggest challenges?
If you had to name one thing you’d like to improve, what would it be?
Robert: Well, I am not a translator actually, but I have been in the field for a long time. I do some hourly projects in marketing and communications for high tech companies, and then I work a lot for Zing. My work falls into different categories that can’t all be on the same Trello board, so I have 4 or 5 boards that I use all the time. I have a really hard time switching between projects and resetting my brain. I struggle with work-life balance. And sometimes I forget to add a task to my backlog when it comes via email, and then I am screwed. 😛
Korana: Phew. I would definitely vote for adding 10 seconds into a minute. That would solve all my life issues. 🙂 I would personally like to make my client base smaller but tighter, steady long-term clients. I work with a lot of different, smaller clients and it takes a toll on my day because I have to do a lot of scheduling, meetings, emails and just general time-organisation. And I would really like to just, well, design more. 🙂 So I guess it’s a classic work-life issue of a freelancer. So my biggest challenge is probably focusing on just a couple of things and working on getting them to a 100%.
Robert: I second that motion!
Korana: I mean, come on, it’s just 10 seconds! 😀
Jonathan: Well, all in favour? And the motion passes. 😀
Robert: Great, this is going to be worse than Y2K!
Korana: (gran)
Robert: As freelancers, do you feel like somehow at the end of the week, you had a bunch of client time that didn’t get billed?

Even triangulating from your per-word rate?
Jonathan: Yeah, kind of. It really depends on the project for me.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve worked way too much for what I’ve quoted the client, but it usually balances out with the others.
Is that what you were getting at?
Robert: Yep!
Korana: Same here. Sometimes it just feels like I’ve been working forever, even though when I go through the hours it feels right. But sometimes it can go on forever, especially if it’s not an hourly contract but a fixed one. When the tweaking of the designs keeps coming back like a boomerang. Is that an actual thing? Does the boomerang actually come back? 🙂
Then again, sometimes I get it right at the first go and feel like I got overpaid. Those are the rare moments but I savour them.
Jonathan: I feel exactly the same way!
I think it’s good to remember those times when you feel like you’re underpaid and think about what you can do differently.
Robert: Maybe we should pass a motion to limit “tweaks” of texts, designs, or anything else a freelancer does.
Korana: Hahaha!
Jonathan: If only…
Do you both work from home?
Robert: Good question!
Well, we were working together in an office for a few months, but I am now working at home again for a bunch of different reasons. Having recently compared and contrasted the two things, the verdict is that it’s better in an office, but the office has to have the qualities you require. For me, the office has to be close to a gym and a place where I can run, for example, which my home office has.
Focusing is easier in the office. It’s easier to put together really intense hours, and I found myself finishing work earlier than when I work at home on some occasions.
Jonathan: That makes sense. Do you ever find it hard to “turn off” after work when you work from home?
Korana: I’m going to say “yes, I work from home”, but in all honesty – I work wherever there’s Wi-Fi. And coffee. And chocolate. So I’m mostly either at home in my mini office, on my 100 year old table that I fixed up with my grandpa, or at the shared workspace with another designer colleague. The shared workspace makes me a bit more focused than being at home and I can tackle some things much quicker. Then again, the silence of my home or the murmur of a coffee bar can make me more creative. Sometimes I just decide to take my computer and sit on the grassy hill. I guess it’s a creativity thing. When I have to do a lot of generic work quickly (like feedback on content) I do it where it’s most practical. When I have to be creative and figure out or draw something – I like to find a perfect spot. That’s the beauty of being a freelancer, I think.
Robert: I have two floors in my house which is great for disconnecting after work. The two separate spaces really help with that. There was a study about why people forget what they were looking for when they enter a new room, and it turns out changing spaces really changes your mental space, too.
Korana: Absolutely. I have a large collection of photos containing great outdoors or even hospital beds (!) with my laptop in the picture. Just to remind me how I need to learn to switch off.
Jonathan: I’ve heard about the research about how changing spaces helps, but to be honest, since converting the second bedroom into an “office”, I haven’t really noticed a difference. I used to work out of my bedroom, but I moved across the hall, and I don’t really notice a difference.
Maybe I’m just not far enough away!

You should try something like this to get your creative juices flowing. Or to fall asleep cause it’s so nice and relaxing. 😛
Robert: Well these things are serious issues, I think, because it’s probably not practical for people to work 30 years in their bedrooms. And in every sector of every industry, more and more jobs are going freelance. I worry about these things. Also insurance, government protections for freelancers, the whole thing. And co-working spaces are almost always way over-priced, at least the ones I have seen.
If only we were designers, Jonathan!
Korana: (cool)
Jonathan: Those are very valid and important concerns, indeed. I’ve actually never tried co-working. I’m a bit stuck with my desktop computer!
I think we’re going to start seeing some big changes with regards to freelancing, though, particularly given how prominent it’s becoming.
We’re going to have to start rethinking how we work on a very fundamental level.
Robert: I agree, but it sounds exhausting. 😛
Jonathan: Free, common co-working spaces, perhaps? 😛
Robert: You know, that sounds like a great thing for the government to do, actually.
Jonathan: I think a few libraries here have something like that.
Robert: Yeah totally, actually my girlfriend often works in the library and says it works well for her. Well if co-workings weren’t so expensive, it wouldn’t be such an issue. Even here in Zagreb, it costs 150 euros per month to rent a desk in a co-working, and most people just can’t wrap their brains around 150 euros to rent a desk. Yet co-workings are really great when you are in one, and usually have a cool atmosphere for working and creating.
Otherwise, solving the working spaces issue and then providing some protections would be great. I pay taxes in Spain, and have no safety net. If my clients go bust, or if I get sick, or anything at all, there is literally no help for me. Yet I pay income tax, social security tax, and VAT.
Jonathan: I know some countries are toying with or implementing a universal basic income. I’m hoping we’ll see more and more of that kind of thing.
So Korana, to get back to your photo collection, have you ever considered having a different desktop wallpaper?
Say, two different virtual desktops with a “work” wallpaper?
Or do you tend to avoid your computer when you’re working?
Korana: I don’t think I explained my weird little photo collection well 🙂 I have a collection of photos taken in different places where I ended up working. For example a beach, or a hospital bed when I was in the ER, or in a train, plane and such. So those are all just weird photos of my laptop in different places that kind of remind me of all the situations I ended up working when I was maybe supposed to shut off and relax. Then it kind of grew into a weird photo collection. 😀
As for the desktops – I have a bunch of virtual desktops and most of them, to be honest, are in MadMax wallpapers.
Robert: Hey I have an idea for a chat segment: “Desktop wallpapers confessions.”
Korana: And I try to avoid my computer when working. But I rarely succeed. I try to turn back to pen & paper as much as I can cause it feels more natural and my thought process is simpler then, but I always get back to my laptop in the end.
Jonathan: Ah, OK, now I get it! I can’t believe you worked in the ER!
Robert: Yeah, working in the ER is heavy freelancing.
Jonathan: My desktop wallpapers are really boring. :/
Korana: 😀
Jonathan: Correction: desktop wallpaper, singular.
Robert: I think we should upload our wallpapers to the chat.
Korana: I agree.
Robert: Hahahahahahaha. Desktop wallpaper confessions on Jonathan’s blog!

Korana: if you don’t want to share the desktop icons as well 🙂
Robert: Moebius is my creative hero, so he’s on my desktop!

Robert: Is that a Mad Max wallpaper or a Tom Hardy wallpaper? 😛
Korana: This is my other monitor wallpaper.

You know me too well.
Jonathan: I have the same wallpaper on both monitors.
It might take a while to upload. Thanks, Australian Internet.
Korana: 😀
Jonathan: I ran a speed test again last night and didn’t even get 1 Mbps.

Upload, that is.
So a 3.7 MB screenshot takes a while to upload!
Robert: Yeah you know, so back to the topic at hand, internet speed is another hugely important factor in freelancing, especially if you are translating web related stuff and really need the web. I recently got fiber optics, and it has really changed the way I work.
Nice wallpapers, friends!
Jonathan: It really is. As a translator, it’s incredibly frustrating trying to upload large documents.
And a lot of resources are web-based these days, like Wave and Trello.
Robert: And several CAT tools too!
Jonathan: Exactly!
Korana: I agree. It’s a really important thing. And for me it’s really important to have the ability to upload large documents fast, to be able to deliver to the clients, printers, developers. The first thing I ask when entering a new bar is – do you have Wi-Fi? And I get overly excited when a bus or train I’m using has Wi-Fi. 🙂
Robert: And also for not getting distracted. When something goes slowly, I have a bad habit of opening The New York Times to see what awful thing has happened today.
Korana: 😀
Jonathan: I also use machine translation for auto-suggestion, and a lot of that technology relies on web-based tools, as well.
Robert: Goodbye 15 minutes, you were great!
Is that LILT?
Jonathan: No, I mainly use SDL Language Cloud, which comes with a limited subscription with Trados and varying levels of paid subscriptions, but the other major one is Google Translate.
But even with open source tools like OmegaT and probably Okapi rely on Google Translate or a similar cloud-based service to do any machine translation.
Robert: It sounds like it must be really hard to work with 1Mbps Jonathan! If you upgraded, do you think it would “pay for itself” by working faster?
Jonathan: I would if I could!
I have the fastest internet connection available without convincing my landlord to upgrade the entire apartment complex with cable internet at $5,000 a pop.
You were talking about serious problems facing freelancers; well, I think internet infrastructure is going to be a huge factor for a lot of people very soon.
Korana: Yeah, we have the same issue here. For example, some parts of Zagreb are just “out of reach” for providers and you’re not able to get the fastest internet (or sometimes even good internet) no matter how much you’re willing to pay.
But now we have Wi-Fi being introduced in public transport (yay!) and free Wi-Fi in the town’s centre. So that’s nice and a sign of moving forward, I guess.
Jonathan: Anyway, I realize we’ve been talking for almost an hour now, so perhaps we should wrap up soon. Any last questions?
Robert: Well, my last remark is that internet speed is just another thing. Freelancers have decisions to make about desktop vs. laptop, internet speed, tools, disconnecting and work-life balance, workstation ergonomics, banking and insurance issues, marketing/finance/sales/work… and it has a serious cost, which is offloaded from client to freelancer. It’s a lot. I don’t think freelancers should get discouraged, since we are all going through the same thing. Nobody should feel bad for being overwhelmed. Stay strong, freelancers!
Korana: What’s the weather like in Australia? 🙂
Jonathan: Very, very hot. I think the high today was 33 celsius!
Let me tell you, today was one day I would have loved to stay at home like a normal freelancer! Because I also do freelance interpreting, I do actually have to leave sometimes, and I think that really helps, as much as I hate going out into the heat in formalwear. It’s amazing how refreshing a simple walk around the block can be!
Sometimes, it’s the simple things. 🙂
Robert: They add up!
Korana: It’s always the simple things. 🙂
Robert: So thanks for having us on Jonathan!
Korana: Yeah, thanks a lot! really nice chat.
Jonathan: You’re welcome! It was my pleasure. It’s always nice to chat with other freelancers and a great way to deal with what is often a very isolating career, too! So really, thank you!


What do you do to keep yourself accountable and productive as a freelancer? What tools do you use? Do you find yourself wondering how to be more productive? Do you also jump for joy when you find free Wi-Fi? Post in the comments and let me know!

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