As I get ready to finish the Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer series, I thought it might be useful if I shared some of the questions I’ve gotten from readers over the last few months, so this week is from the mailbag! (And if you have a question that you don’t see answered here, I encourage you to get in touch.)
Question One: I’m new to e-Learning. What’s the best way for me to get started in this field?
Welcome to the Learning & Development industry! I’ve been in this business for more than 20 years and enjoy it tremendously. I love working with clients and helping them solve their business problems with creative learning solutions.
This entire series is designed to help you break into the industry, but I also think it’s helpful to get started using my three-step approach: (1) Read, (2) Practice, and (3) Network.
Breaking into the industry requires a lot of knowledge, so your first step should be to start reading everything you can find about e-Learning and following your curiosity. Make it your personal goal to read at least one or two blog articles per day, or a chapter of a current e-Learning book. You may also benefit from reading all of the posts from my Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer series, as many of them discuss topics related to jumpstarting your e-Learning career (this post on getting started is a good launching point, and you may also benefit from my articles about setting goals and creating core values).
You’ll also want to reach outside of the industry for articles about related topics. For example, as a freelance e-Learning Designer, you’ll need to know how to edit audio files, or how to get yourself out of a creative rut—and you’ll likely find the insights you need from experts in other fields.
If you’re not sure where else to start, here are a few places to get started:
- Articulate’s Getting Started with e-Learning Series. This is a great place to learn about the basics of e-Learning and the fundamentals of course design. Their advice on everything from software tools to project management is worth its weight in gold.
- Tom Kuhlman’s free e-book, The Insiders Guide to Becoming a Rapid E-Learning Pro. Kuhlman’s easy-to-understand writing style and hands-on approach to the daily life of an e-Learning Designer should probably be required reading for everyone in our field.
- Jackie Van Nice, Connie Malamed, and Cathy Moore are all terrific e-Learning Designers who write about their experiences. I’ve learned quite a bit from each of these sites and still follow them closely.
Like any skill, mastering e-Learning starts by putting real effort into practicing. Because e-Learning is essentially a creative endeavor, you need to build upon everything you’ve read by trying to create materials on your own.
Churning out courses isn’t enough, though: you need to make sure that you’re setting goals for yourself and challenging yourself a little more with each attempt. To help get you started, try participating in the e-Learning Heroes weekly challenges, or even create challenges for yourself. The important part is that you’re learning how to solve specific, real-world problems with your e-Learning tool of choice.
As you’re practicing, identify what you’re not good at, and then focus on improving those specific skills. Find how others are solving similar problems, and then try and reverse engineer their solutions. As long as you’re challenging yourself, there are no wrong ways to practice.
Lastly, a key part of launching your e-Learning career is by getting involved in the e-Learning community. There are plenty of online e-Learning communities, and MeetUp.com may even have a few in-person networking groups for you to interact with your peers.
My favorite online e-Learning network is the e-Learning Heroes group. Their site is a great resource for advice, free e-Learning example files, and finding others who are more than willing to provide a helping hand.
You may also want to be open to the option of asking a more experienced e-Learning professional to be your mentor in exchange for your help with beginner tasks they might not have time for. This can be a tricky relationship; I’ve talked before about the risks of bartering, but if you’ve found a relationship where you can get personal guidance from a more experienced colleague, you could learn quite a lot.
Question Two: How Do I Respond to Clients Who Want to Reserve My Time for “Potential” Work?
This is a surprisingly common question! I’ve gotten my fair share of calls from clients asking me if I’m available for “potential work” in the next few weeks or months.
You’ll need to be careful about how you respond to these types of situations, because you could end up with the reverse of the “Fox and the Grapes” fable! Sometimes it’s hard to know when to hang on to what you have and when to drop what you have to pursue something potentially better. If you decline potential future work, you could find yourself not having enough paying work down the line. But if you say “yes” and hold too much time for a promise that never materializes, you’re out of money just the same!
I’ve spoken with some colleagues who have a practice of offering up times on their calendar as a rule, because most e-Learning projects get delayed at one time or another. In other words, they feel that having something tentatively on their schedule that could result in a double-booking (which could mean late hours for a few weeks) is better than having nothing. No one wants to end up with a large time gap between jobs, but this approach can get out of hand if you’re not careful.
Several years ago, I received one of these “potential work” calls for a large project that was scheduled to last three months. I blocked out my entire working schedule for that time, and continued to work around that limitation with other clients. As the project grew closer, I turned down any job that that would conflict with it. You probably know where this is going: a week before the project was scheduled to start, I got the call saying that it had been canceled. (Apparently, my client’s company had gone through a merger, and the project was put on the back burner indefinitely.) Almost overnight, I went from being busy for three months to having a schedule that was wide open and not generating any income.
It took me several weeks to recover from this last-minute cancellation, as I had to find new clients to fill the open time. I managed, but didn’t fill my calendar nearly as quickly or completely as I would have if I had known I would be available ahead of time. In the end, despite the new work I found, I took a financial loss on three months of “potential work” that never materialized.
So, what’s the right way to deal with this without taking a huge risk? When this happens to me now, I make a point of explaining, “Yes, right now it looks like I’m available then, although that may change as projects get solidified. Could we start working on a project proposal now so that I can reserve the time with a signed agreement in place?” The key thing to communicate from my perspective is that I can’t commit to blocking out my schedule until I know the client is serious—serious enough to put a signed agreement in place.
If a client isn’t willing to move forward with a project proposal, then don’t block the time. Instead, ask them to get back with you as soon as they’re ready to move forward on the project. If you really want to work with the client and hold the time open as long as possible, let them know that if something else comes up, you’ll reach out to them to give them first dibs at your schedule.
If the client is ready to discuss and sign a proposal, you can have confidence that they’re serious and ready to commit. In that case, put together a strong proposal, ask for a percentage of the money up front, and include a cancellation clause that states how you’ll be compensated in the event of project cancellation. For example, my project proposals often include language like, “X% is not refundable if project is canceled within Y days of <the blocked out time>.” This approach ensures the client has some “skin in the game,” and that I’ll at least recover some revenue should things go south.
Question 3: Why shouldn’t I charge less for my services? In the long run, I’ll get more clients and make more money.
I’ve written previously in this series about the risks of undercharging for your services, and why it’s better to base what you charge on what you think you’re worth rather than what you think the market value of your work is. That said, many of my peers challenge this idea with the notion that lower prices can be used to generate “profit by volume,” that is, the idea that eventually, if you do enough work at low prices, you’ll eventually make big money.
That sounds great, doesn’t it? Imagine setting your rates so low that you’re overwhelmed with clients and working 365 days a year to keep up. You could be rich!
Unfortunately, the saying “quality over quantity” didn’t come from nowhere. Being a successful freelancer isn’t just about having a lot of work or making a lot of money. While you may generate a lot of revenue to begin with, there are other areas of your career that will suffer from this approach over the long term:
- Time. If you’re working for less, you have to put in more time to generate significant income. Time is valuable, and a resource you should think carefully about before squandering.
- Your reputation. What message are you sending to your clients by charging them such low prices? You’re communicating that your work isn’t worth very much, and setting yourself up to be seen as a worker bee instead of a business partner.
- Your long-term income. Inflation is a fact of life—so at some point, you’ll need to raise your rates. If you’re charging next to nothing, increasing your income over time may be incredibly difficult.
If you’ve ever made the mistake of working with a very low-tier client, you’ll discover quickly they are much more demanding. If you focus on providing value and finding the right clients, you’ll find that the quality of your clients goes up and your overall workload and stress level will go down. The more you undercharge, the more likely you are to find yourself pushing a lot of product (e.g., e-Learning courses) out the door, but you’ll be working yourself to an early grave in the process! If you’re tracking the most critical things in your business like cash flow, expenses, and sales pipeline, eventually you’ll find you’re working harder for less money than you would get if you were charging what you’re worth.
And in the end, what will you have to show for it? You’ll attract a lot of lower-tier clients with your low prices. These same clients will eventually try to get you to quote even lower prices as time goes by. That’s not a sustainable business model from a financial or stress-management standpoint!
As always, I love hearing from readers like you, and discussing the hot topics of the freelance e-Learning world. What other questions do you have? Do you agree or disagree with any of my approaches to breaking into the industry, reserving client time ahead of time, or underpricing your work? I encourage you to join the conversation in our private Facebook group, or on Twitter with the hashtag #eLearningBiz!
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.