Crowdfunding or begging bowl?

Crowdfunding or begging bowl?

Paying for naivety

Once upon a time there was a translator called Dmitry Kornyukhov. One day he had a great idea. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” he thought, “if there was a place on the Internet where colleagues could write blogs and hang out and be a community.” And he worked hard and made it, and it was called the Open Mic. And people joined, and they wrote blogs and they read what the others wrote. Some of it was really quite good and some was utter rubbish, but that really didn’t matter to Dmitry because everyone was part of the community and no-one wanted to be judgmental.

But there was a problem. Dmitry wasn’t a very rich translator, and the Open Mic took up a lot of his time; time he perhaps should have been spending building up his business and making money translating. Instead, he wanted to build up the Open Mic, adding all kinds of bells and whistles to its website. But how was he going to afford that? Dmitry was worried.

He became more worried when his cat fell ill and he had to pay a large vet’s bill. So worried that he told all the Open Mic members about it, asking them to kindly dip into their pockets to help him out. And they did, and the cat went to the vet, and the germ of an idea hatched in Dmitry’s mind. What if these kind translators could be persuaded to pay him for the time he wanted to spend working on the Open Mic? What if they would also pay out for the bells and whistles he wanted to add to the website? Wasn’t there a name for this thing nowadays? Ah, yes, it was called crowdfunding.

Uncomfortable

And that’s where we are now. Dmitry Kornyukhov is asking Open Mic members for money to fund the site. Now, I have nothing against Dmitry or his idea or against crowdfunding in general. I also do not want to make any insinuation that he is a dishonest man and I would much prefer to believe that he has been naive. But there is something about how he has gone about all this that makes me very uncomfortable. Firstly the figures he is bandying around are enormous. He is talking about trying to raise up to $80,000, although he tries to make this a manageable figure by dividing it by the number of Open Mic members and working out that if each of them gave $24 the target could be reached.

Why does he need so much money, though? He explains that each $20,000 milestone will pay for a series of developments to the Open Mic website. But the figures don’t seem to add up: the developments he mentions shouldn’t cost anything like the sums he quotes. In fact, according to colleagues who are in a position to know these things, many of them are available using free or virtually free software. So what is all that extra cash for? I have no idea, and, although I do not intend to suggest in any way that it is going to be misused, I do think that anyone giving Dmitry money is not only entitled to ask this question, they absolutely should be asking it.

Some of this money is obviously going to Dmitry himself. He is laudably open about it. He is going to pay himself an hourly wage based on the time logged in a piece of activity monitoring software he has discovered. The rate is relatively cheap, although it has to be said that if $30 an hour compensates him for translation work he’s not now able to to then he really isn’t charging enough for his translations.

In itself, it isn’t unreasonable that Dmitry should want some reward for the time he spends on the Open Mic. The problem, of course, is that if his only source of income is donations from members, as he states that it will be for the foreseeable future, the model is hardly sustainable. As he earns, the money will run out, and he will need more and more and more. Members will be asked for cash over and over again. If, on the other hand, he does manage to turn the Open Mic into a viable business, as he suggests he might without ever saying how such a business might work, then his members will have made the investment for him. Will they see any return on their money? He doesn’t say.

Sympathy

And that isn’t crowdfunding as I understand it. A few years ago I got involved in what I see as a genuine crowdfunding scheme. Some friends of mine who were in a band wanted to make an album, but they couldn’t afford the costs, so they set up crowdfunding to pay for it. They had a target and, depending on how much you gave, you would receive different benefits, as well as a copy of the album. All we were really doing, then, was paying in advance for something we wanted but which otherwise would not exist. What was more, if the target was not reached, they wouldn’t even take our money, so we couldn’t lose.

I’ve read and reread Dmitry’s appeal for donations and that doesn’t appear to be the case here, so members might pay out but find that none of the developments Dmitry is suggesting ever actually happen. The appeal in itself is also a masterclass in how to approach people for money. First Dmitry appeals to readers’ sympathy, explaining the tough time he and his family have had over the past year. Then he praises them, saying how wonderful the Open Mic community is and how successful it has been. Only at the end does he hit them with the begging letter, making sure he also responds directly to previous criticisms, even though the answers do not always entirely dispel the concerns. Again, there’s no reason why Dmitry shouldn’t do an effective job of this kind. It’s just that I would much rather see him being effective in the business of finding good clients for his translation business than trying to live off colleagues in this way.

Some people might ask why I care what Dmitry gets up to. Others might directly suggest that I mind my own business. Well, I care for two reasons. Firstly, until recently I was a member of the Open Mic, albeit not a very active one. Despite what I have said here and in a previous post, some of the material on the site is stimulating and interesting and I’ve been happy to read it and share it. So I believe I’m entitled to my opinion, which I’ve already shown by deleting my account last week, as I very much dislike being repeatedly asked for money. Secondly, and more importantly, I hate the thought that the more naive Open Mic members, lulled by the warm, fuzzy glow of Dmitry’s community, might dip into their purses and wallets without asking the questions they should be asking, like the one’s I’ve raised here. Or whether something founded, owned and run by one person is really a community at all, or something entirely different.

Apologies to anyone who was expecting to read the adapted version of my METM16 presentation this week. That will now be posted next Tuesday.

 

 

11 Comments

  1. Hi Simon, I’m a relatively new reader to your blog and I’ve really been enjoying it. I agree with basically everything in your post but also want to add that, nice as the Open Mic was (I deleted my account about 10 days ago, too), I never actually worked out what the point of the site was, regardless of whether it is free/at-no-cost-to-end-user or crowdfunded. I signed up because it sounded like a good way of connecting with other translators and breaking out of the solitary home office but, to be honest, other social networks are far better for this. If you want to blog, you sign up to WordPress or launch one on your site; if you want to share cat/CAT pics, you use FB; and if you want to share things and ask questions, there’s Twitter. In dreaded marketing speak, I don’t see what value the Open Mic adds.
    I DO think there is a lot of potential for collaborative technological innovation for translators. We will never be able to give non-boutique agencies a run for their money by working not just collectively but collaboratively as freelancers on large, urgent, or multilanguage projects without the right tools to do so. If I were a developer, that’s where I’d be focusing my efforts.
    The whole fiasco is a shame as I like Dmitry’s podcast interviews. Anyway, thank you for this calm and balanced analysis that also speaks to deeper issues affecting this and probably other freelance creative professions (i.e. the meta shiny stuff vs the actual work). Cheers from Argentina!

    Reply
    • Thank you for your excellent points, Victoria. I absolutely agree that all the things you can do on the Open Mic can be done elsewhere, which is one of Dmitry’s many problems, I think.

      Reply
    • Hi Victoria,
      I’m really sorry that it wasn’t very obvious what kind of value The Open Mic offers. I’ll try to work harder on making this clear to all our new members. I was thinking about building a Getting Started page of sorts with helpful videos. I hope it’ll help the first-time Open Mic members get familiar with the platform and quickly understand what it has to offer. If you have any ideas or suggestions you can always send me an email. Thank you!

      Reply
  2. Thank you so much for your post, Simon! What you wrote, combined with the fact that The Open Mic is slowly becoming an intellectual graveyard where poor writers lay bad ideas to rest, are the reasons why I deleted my account. I can’t help but feel that such poorly written posts ultimately make all translators look bad. And I’m not sure The Open Mic is having the positive effect Dmitry thinks it has.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Paula. It’s the downside of having an umbrella site where anyone can blog: the quality is extremely variable and the poorer posts affect the perception and reputation of the site. I’m not sure what Dmitry could do about that, but it’s certainly a big problem.

      Reply
    • I understand your concern, Paula. Yes, we do have a few poor writers, but it’s only because it’s their first-time experience of publishing something. My first blog posts were utter garbage too. You won’t become a great writer overnight. It takes a lot of time and practice (especially when English is your second language).

      By creating an environment such as The Open Mic we can give voice to those authors and help them grow. But it has to be a community effort. Did you comment on poorly-written posts? Did you share your feedback with authors? Did you try to help them improve their writing?

      I know that people would rather read fantastically-written articles (I’d love to do it myself), BUT if we won’t give voice to new people, if we are no open to new ideas and new perspective we risk running around in circles.

      Having said that we do need some sort of a recommendations system to distinguish bad apples from good apples and maybe some sort of free mini-course on writing for first-time writers. Something that I’ve just added to my to-do list on Trello.

      Thanks for your feedback, Paula, and I’m sorry you couldn’t quite enjoy The Open Mic. I’ll try to make sure we do everything we can to correct the issues that you’ve pointed out.

      Reply
      • Dmitry, I don’t think it’s Paula’s or my job to improve the authors you mention. We can choose to do give them feedback or not to do so (and we may prefer not to criticise them in public) but that doesn’t make our criticisms any less valid. Also, these authors don’t actually need the Open Mic in order to be read. Anyone can start their own blog and write whatever they like, and maybe it wouldn’t hurt for some of them to practice on their own blogs for a while.

        Reply
  3. Thank you so much for this post, Simon and for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate your honesty. The problem with many communities is that to extract value, you have to be active, once you stop participating in the life of the community or don’t try all the features that it offers you’ll stop receiving any value and, of course, you start to think that the whole idea of the community is meaningless because you can do the same thing elsewhere.

    However, there are people who find it useful, who find it inspiring and innovative in its own way. They’re definitely not naive. Take, Laura, for example: https://theopenmic.co/why-donating-to-the-open-mic/

    It’s sad that you couldn’t quite enjoy your time on The Open Mic. I just wish you’ve contacted me personally so I could explain how the community works, gave you a virtual tour, so to speak. I always open to feedback and people who ever had to send me an email know that I get back to them every single time.

    The web-development is new to me and I’m always trying to find more ways to make the experience more enjoyable, transparent and easy to grasp. Even though I’m a self-taught web-developer, a lot of people told me that The Open Mic is very user-friendly and fun to use. And I’m always trying to make the process even more straightforward.

    Most of the additional functionality I want to build (like project management software or online e-learning platform) costs some serious money if we’re to hire serious top-class developers. I’ve reached out to a few developers who have the skills and expertise as well as some agencies and asked them to provide their estimates and the goals of the crowdfunding campaign reflect those estimates. A lot of functionality that I want to build is not WordPress related and can’t be hacked together for cheap with a few plugins. It requires complicated design, coding, development, testing, optimization, and copywriting.

    Building trust in the community takes a lot of time and effort, of course, nobody likes to talk about money and it always makes things awkward and puts people off. But I think it’s a very important subject, because, well money makes the world go round.

    I firmly believe that Crowdfundig is a great opportunity for me to find and connect with most important people of our community, understand their needs and collect their feedback. I also have a few bonuses for all the donors.

    But above all things, I absolutely agree that NOT everyone should donate because that would be absurd. You should ONLY support those projects that you have faith in. After 1 week of our campaign we already have several dozens people who have faith in The Open Mic, people who found actual value (I asked all of them about it in the Thank You email) and who strongly believe in my vision.

    It’s sad that you’re not among those people and I apologize if The Open Mic or everything I do never lived up to your expectations. I’ll keep pushing forward. I don’t know if I fail or succeed on my journey, but I hope that I will manage to create something valuable for many people out there and that it leaves a positive impact on the community (and hopefully the industry as well).

    Thanks again for this post, it has really inspired me and helped me look at everything from a different perspective. I wish you best of luck and I hope that we’ll meet again on The Open Mic.

    Enjoy the rest of your week!

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment, Dmitry. I’m glad you at least seem to think I’ve been fair to and you certainly don’t need to apologise for disappointing me. As you say, maybe faith is the key, but personally I associate faith with religion rather than my professional and working life. What you haven’t said, and what I think needs clarifying, is whether the Open Mic is a business or a community. What happens, for example, if the community funds your developments ("invests") and you subsequently move it to a business model and decide to sell the website? As I understand it, you’d be within your rights to do that. But do those who have paid to develop your business get anything back (a return on their investment)?

      Reply
  4. I’m late in coming to the party on this discussion, but I think a bit of perspective might be valuable.

    Imagine, if you will, a time when translators spent their own time and money — very serious money, I might add — to promote activities, events, training seminars and job fairs that "Raised the Bar" for the profession by introducing translators to new markets, tools and customers; establishing customer "minimum rates" paid to translators in the federal government sector, and even launching new careers for translators in those markets by facilitating their introductions to translation customers.

    This actually happened. And thankfully, continues to happen.

    Let’s review how translators spent their own money to help their colleagues:

    1. Chris Durban writes "Translation: Getting it Right" for the ITI; it is subsequently localized by the ATA PR Committee in 2001 for use by ATA, and then Chris spends her own money to localize this client outreach booklet — probably the best tool translators can use to market their services — into 12 languages, so translators worldwide can leverage it to help them in their businesses at no cost to them. Cost to Chris? Chris spends over $20,000 of her own money (this is my own calculation based on my familiarity with the effort), an amount that continues to grow, in what can only be described as a process that actually helps her competitors.

    2. A group of us in ATA sponsor a series of high-profile translator events over a period of years that are covered by the national media (including CNN, MSNBC and NPR) that drive a huge increase not only in translator visibility – 200 million viewer and listener impressions – which helps the whole profession by reminding businesses that no, software has not replaced us, but also boosts the number of organizations hiring translators at ATA, many of them in-house positions at high (six-figure USD) salaries.

    Several dozen ATA members transition into such jobs in the initial years; several dozen more in subsequent years. Cost to the translator-sponsors of the events (over a 10-year period): About $35,000 paid by the translator-sponsors (I am one, but there were several others).

    Note that translators are paying these sums out of their own pockets to sponsor the events that provide jobs to their colleagues. They are not begging for money FROM translators to pay themselves.

    3. A proposed new site on language called "SchwaFire" launches a crowdsourcing effort that will sustain a very robust site on language where authors are paid handsomely, the site is promoted through paid placements, and professional developers build out the site to very high levels of functionality. Total cost of the entire crowdsourcing effort? $25,000 (keep in mind that the site is professionally developed and the authors are all professional writers and paid accordingly).

    This one was dear to my heart, so I contributed $1,500 in the last week when it looked like the funding wouldn’t materialize in time; Barry Olsen of Monterey did the same.

    The reason I cite these examples is to point out that we somehow find ourselves in a world turned upside down in terms of expectations for who pays for what.

    I believe that successful translators owe it to their younger colleagues and the rest of the profession to "send the elevator back down" (for lack of a better expression — I imply no elevational superiority here) to assist them in becoming successful themselves.

    I believe that with success comes obligation, and that can take many forms — contributions, sponsorship, volunteering time and effort, writing blog posts, commenting on those posts, giving useful and targeted training sessions at no cost — but the FLOW of those various helpful winds is most definitely FROM the translator TO his or her colleagues.

    The world here with The Open Mic surely has been turned on its head with this disturbing model where there is lots of imaginary development with dreamed bells and whistles, but in fact what actually has transpired in reality – in actual life – is a simple website with very mixed content – some good stuff, lots of garbage, everything contributed for free by the writers – along with a whole lot of beggin’ goin’ on.

    Here’s an important question, in view of the amount of money under discussion: How much has this helped translators professionally? How many translators have new jobs or careers because of it? How many have been able to reboot their translation businesses because they were given explicit instructions on how to find clients, and they succeeded in doing so? Has any of this changed institutional rules within the federal government on how much translators are paid?

    Just a little perspective.

    There isn’t even agreement that the free content is worth anything on its face. The word “garbage” keeps appearing in the comments of my esteemed colleagues above.

    Further, I’m struck by the astronomical quoted costs for site development that are way WAY out of the range of what these site improvements actually cost, as Simon has rightly noted. Dmitry is begging for enough cash to buy a brand new Mercedes XL while promising to deliver a scooter.

    I find it a curious mix of amusing and shocking that there appears to have been a silent, unilateral decision by the begging party to allocate to himself substantial amounts of the raised amounts – to pay himself handsomely for….for what, exactly? We know what robust, promoted, developed sites like the promised ones cost (see SchwaFire example above), even those that pay their contributors market rates for professional writers, and pay for professional paid placements.

    They are a small fraction of the amounts quoted by Dmitry.

    This new round of passing the hat for handouts comes on the heels of a) Dmitry’s begging for money to pay for surgery for his cat, an expense Dmitry could not afford because of a Hawaii trip and his own confessed apparent inability to earn and/or budget his costs. Having rescued my share of abandoned cats and paid astronomical vet bills, I surely sympathize with Dmitry here, except I paid for them myself (and when I was married, this was often a bit of a battle, so there is that) and b) an effort that appears to be a sideways appeal to help rescue the Moscow residence of his parents.

    Is this really a website that benefits translators? Or has it evolved into a platform to sustain Dmitry’s own personal life and apparent – by his own admission – inability to succeed in his own translation business?

    I mean no ill will by these comments, by the way – people are free to raise money for any cause they like, even if it is to sustain their own livelihood and that alone – but I do think it’s crucial to point out how crazily the needle has swung away from translators paying their own money and volunteering their own time to help their colleagues – and succeeding in doing so, over long periods – and this bizarre and inexplicable world where translators are being begged – repeatedly – to support the livelihood of a single person who has by his own admission failed in actually being a translator.

    Let me propose a model that might be helpful as “rule of thumb” guidance.

    If a group of successful translators have paid their own money or volunteered their own time without compensation to hand the keys to the kingdom to you – listen to them. They are not only failing to benefit from that transaction, they are in every meaning of the words helping their own competition to succeed.

    If any individual translator has confessed to failing at that enterprise – or has been in the translation field for as long as your finger rests on a hot stove – but continues to badger you for contributions, then take a few steps back and ask yourself who exactly is benefitting from the transaction.

    There is a sustained and firm track record where translators have been helped by other translators – but those have all come to you free, with no strings attached.

    If nothing else, ask yourself whether history has been a reliable indicator of the value of something like The Open Mic.

    Ask yourself whether there is the skill set there to sustain financially and organizationally – given the confessions of failure in both domains by the owner – whatever is being promised.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment, Kevin. You make some excellent points.

      Reply

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