If you’ve been following along with my “Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer” series, you’ve probably already realized that having a portfolio of your work is one of the most critical things to have if you want to succeed as a freelancer. Your portfolio is your chance to show off your talents as an e-Learning Designer, and it’s also an opportunity to communicate to prospective clients what type of work you want to be doing. So as we proceed through this month’s theme in this blog series—marketing yourself and your business—I’d like to discuss the foundation of self-marketing: your portfolio.
Putting a strong portfolio together is hard work! Aside from selecting the right samples to include, you’ll also need to consider what work you have legal rights to, and the optimal way to present and organize your work. As an e-Learning Designer, you’ll need to showcase a variety of skills. Many of your clients will be looking for an “all-in-one” professional who can do everything from course development all the way through business writing, audio recording, and graphic design.
With all that in mind, I’m going to cover the most common questions I get from other Learning & Development professionals:
- Can I include work samples from my previous employer?
- What do I do if my previous employer says I can’t include their samples?
- Where can I host my e-Learning portfolio?
- What should be in my e-Learning portfolio?
Can I include work samples from my previous employer?
If you’ve transitioned from a full-time job into freelancing, some of your best work may have been completed for a previous employer. So how do you know what content is OK to reproduce in your portfolio?
The answer is of course, “Well, it depends…” because every employer is different. However, in the majority of scenarios in the U.S., it’s likely that you were employed under a “Work for Hire” agreement, meaning that everything you created as an employee belongs to the employer. With that in mind, it’s completely OK to contact your previous employer and ask them for permission to include particular work pieces. Once you’ve received permission, you can rest assured that your portfolio won’t land you in any legal hot water.
You may encounter other freelance e-Learning Designers who don’t ask prior employers for permission, or blur out company names in their portfolio sample. You might even talk to colleagues who will tell you it’s “no big deal” to post this kind of content, or tell you that it’s “an industry norm” or “something that everyone does.” I strongly urge you not to listen to these people, and to seek permission for using any content that was created under previous employment. While most clients aren’t out looking at their contractors’ portfolios in search of intellectual property theft, if you do get caught violating a prior work agreement, you could end up in serious legal or financial trouble. If I sound paranoid or rigid about this, just remember: It only takes a single lawsuit or complaint to harm your reputation and/or ruin your business financially!
What do I do if my previous employer says I can’t include their samples?
Many clients have valid reasons for not allowing former employees to publicly display their related work samples—protecting trade secrets and information security are oft-cited, legitimate concerns. If you’ve asked for permission and they’ve said no, don’t worry; this is a common dilemma. There are three things you can do right away to keep your portfolio in shape:
- Going forward, when starting your client projects, make sure you include text in your Statements of Work specifying that you’ll be allowed to use any e-Learning assets you make for the project in your portfolio. Things go much more smoothly when this is agreed upon up front, and many clients are willing to negotiate this at the outset. The text I use is: “[My business’ name] retains the rights to use the finished product for portfolio purposes.” Make sure you bring the client’s attention to this point when reviewing the Statement of Work with them.
- Participate in Articulate Challenges, and include the work you complete there as part of your portfolio. This is a great way to not only demonstrate your ninja skills as an e-Learning Designer, but also to show your work as a solution to a specific problem. (Remember: Showing that you can make compelling materials is only half the battle—the other half is demonstrating that you can produce e-Learning solutions to problems.)
- Build your own e-Learning samples from scratch. This can be tough, but it comes with a great reward: If you create your own content, you don’t have to worry about getting permission to showcase it, and you get to control the subject matter, so you can play to your own strengths. If you’re looking for inspiration on what to create, check out the examples provided on Lynda.com, OpenSesame.com, or even past Articulate Challenges. Remember that you don’t have to create an entire course! When reviewing your portfolio, many clients are only looking for smaller 2- to 3-minute snippets of your work. Think “proof of concept” more than “complete, thorough e-Learning course.”
Where can I host my e-Learning portfolio?
When it comes to where your portfolio will live online, there are two options to consider: hosting your portfolio on your own website, or using a pre-existing web portfolio service. Both come with their own pros and cons.
Hosting your own portfolio gives you complete control: You can brand everything from the URL to the look and feel of the site, and you’re able to present yourself in a venue where you’re not immediately competing with other freelance e-Learning Designers. At the same time, setting up a site requires an investment of time and money, and there will be ongoing maintenance. (If you’re considering this option but need some help, don’t hesitate to get in touch. I offer a basic e-Learning website package that can have you up and running in no time.)
I chose the self-hosting route because I prefer having complete creative control, and I enjoy administering my own site. The site is hosted by Bluehost, and I use WordPress with StudioPress themes for the overall look and feel.
If you’re more comfortable using a pre-existing service, that can be a great option, especially if you don’t enjoy all of the care and feeding required for a personal website. My colleague Mike Taylor has a great post about how and where to post your portfolio using third-party services. The entire article is worth a read, and there are a few services he discusses that I think are particularly useful:
- LinkedIn’s Gallery feature. LinkedIn has a built-in audience of potential clients, and their portfolio tools are useful, especially if you don’t have a lot of time.
- Behance.net – While Behance is intended for a wider audience than just e-Learning Designers, it’s still a great home for your e-Learning content.
- Carbonmade – Carbonmade is similar to Behance.net; both are easy to use and worthwhile investments.
- Slideshare – SlideShare is primarily for presentations, so if your work tends to fall within that category, this may be a good choice for you.
Most people who use these kinds of portfolio sites love that they’re so straightforward and easy to use—and they are. In many cases, it’s just a matter of setting up an account and uploading your content. But this approach also comes with a few drawbacks, namely cost and lack of control.
Costs will vary per service (for example, CarbonMade charges a monthly fee of anywhere from $6 to $18 per month, depending on how many samples you are including). While most of these costs are reasonable, every subscription means a recurring cost. With my own website, I still have to pay domain and hosting fees, but I get a lot more for my money (including this blog!).
In addition, third-party portfolio sites can make changes without notifying you, and that can be a liability. In fact, a number of my colleagues used to host their e-Learning portfolio content using Google Drive…until Google stopped supporting web hosting via Google Drive. When that happened, they were all forced to immediately scramble for a new option—and live with broken links until they found one.
Lastly, third-party portfolio sites may present your portfolio with ads, or simultaneously display your content next to a competitor’s. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth thinking about how your content will be perceived by potential clients in this context.
What should be in my e-Learning Portfolio?
Remember that your potential clients will probably be looking at your work quickly, and reviewing 2- to 3-minute samples in most cases. The contents of your portfolio should take this into consideration: Your job is to include bite-sized appetizers rather than a full three-course meal. You don’t need to include entire courses, and should resist the temptation to do so, even if a part of you is saying, “Well, I have this entire course already completed, so I might as well upload the entire thing.” The more you bury potential clients with prolonged samples, the less likely you are to earn their business!
I recommend you make sure to include the following three types of content in your portfolio:
- Examples of the type of work you want to keep doing. Think about the work you’re including: Are you excited about doing that kind of work again? The answer should be “yes,” because you’re presenting to potential clients, who are most likely to hire you based on your previous work. If you’re passionate about creating content about health care, make sure your portfolio samples reflect that. If you have content about customer service skills, but you hated making it, don’t upload it; it will only invite similar work.
- Client snapshots. Client snapshots are quick summaries of projects you’ve worked on in the past. Along with a quick summary, you should also provide users the opportunity to learn more if they want to. Think of a client snapshot as the “magazine cover” of your portfolio—glancing at it should give users an idea of what’s inside, and an opportunity to learn more about the sample they’re most interested in. When a user clicks on a client snapshot, provide additional information such as:
- Project Background
- Technology Used
- Your Design Approach
- Related Samples
As an example, you can see how I’ve achieved this in my own portfolio. You don’t need to copy my approach: As long as your portfolio includes easy-to-understand snippets and makes additional information available, you’ll be fine.
- Storyline / Articulate 360 samples. As I mentioned earlier in this post, if you don’t have many samples to showcase in your portfolio when you’re starting out, Articulate Challenges are a great way to build up your portfolio. With each challenge, you’ll be creating unique content within Storyline/Articulate 360, and posting your work in your portfolio shows that you can respond to business challenges, as well as your skill with Storyline/Articulate 360, the industry standard e-Learning development software.
Again, as an example, you can see how I’ve presented my Storyline/Articulate 360 work in my own portfolio.
That’s all I have to do to find work, right?
A strong portfolio is likely your best tool when finding interesting and lucrative freelance e-Learning work—but it’s just one part of the equation for marketing yourself and building your brand.
Throughout this month, I’ll be discussing all of the various self-marketing activities you should be doing to find work, so stay tuned as we go through the self-marketing journey together!
As always, I invite you to join my private Facebook group to share your own successes and challenges, or join the conversation in progress on Twitter using the hashtag #eLearningBiz. I look forward to hearing from you!
Editor’s note: This post is part of my ongoing 2017 series, “Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer,” a comprehensive look at the ins-and-outs of working independently in the Learning and Development industry. All of the previous posts in the series can be found here.