Category: Careers & Work

Tools That Make Consulting Easier (And a Few More I Need)

Tools for ConsultingI have now been working as an independent consultant for over 5 years. These are the tools I use to run my business and work with clients. I’m a one-person business, so I need tools that let me manage the business side of things efficiently. This list is constantly evolving, and I have a list of solutions I need as well.

Collaboration and Communication

  • Zoom: Zoom is my preferred platform for video conferencing. I have used all the other major tools (WebEx, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.), but Zoom works with the fewest technical challenges. It also includes the option for calling in on a phone rather than just VOIP, so you can get better quality audio. For $150/year, I can host unlimited high quality group video calls with up to 50 people.
  • Google Voice: I use Google Voice for my business phone number. This is a free service I can forward to my mobile and landline phones. I schedule my Google Voice number to go directly to voicemail outside of business hours .
  • Dropbox and Google Drive: I use both Dropbox and Google Drive to share files with clients, depending on the clients’ preference.

Stock Images

  • Graphic Stock: Graphic Stock is the source for many images for my blog posts and presentations. I use it sometimes for courses, depending on the content. It’s $99/year for unlimited downloads. I love it for backgrounds and basic images where I don’t have terribly specific needs.
  • Can Stock Photo: When I need more specific images for courses (e.g., a non-white male teacher talking to a female elementary student), I mostly use Can Stock Photo. Credits are fairly reasonably priced, and subscriptions are also an option.

Other Tools

What I Need

I have a few needs for software currently. If you have found a great solution for these, let me know in the comments.

  • Basic Accounting: I have been using QuickBooks Self-Employed for tracking expenses. I like how it automatically syncs with my accounts and makes it easy to categorize transactions. Unfortunately, the program repeatedly and spontaneously insists on adding my personal accounts as well. They also recently broke their mobile app so I can no longer categorize transactions on my phone. I’ve had enough glitches in the last few months that I don’t quite trust it anymore.
    Wave is the first one on my list to evaluate because it’s free. If I can do what I need with that, I don’t need to pay for something else. Several people have recommended Freshbooks, but it’s more expensive and I don’t think I’d use many of the features. Xero and FreeAgent have also been recommended. If you have experience with any of these, I’d love to hear about it.
  • Project Management: I currently manage projects in Google Sheets. It’s fast and simple to set up, and it shares perfectly with clients. This works OK for basic projects and small teams. It’s hard to visualize what’s happening though, and I’m starting to hit the limits of what I can really do. I’m starting to investigate other options now. I used Easy Projects with a past client, and that might work. I’ve heard positive reviews for MavenLink. There are some other free and low-cost options as well.

Your Tools?

What are your must-have tools? Any suggestions for accounting or project management?

As mentioned above, I use affiliate links on my blog. Several of the links above are affiliate or referral links. If you make a purchase after clicking these links, I get a small payment. Some of these links (including the Graphic Stock  and Dreamhost links) also give you a discount.

30+ Ideas for eLearning Portfolio Samples

Whether you’re working freelance or looking for a full-time job, you need a portfolio. What if you can’t use any samples of your existing work due to confidentiality or security requirements?

In some cases, it’s enough to remove logos and a few identifying details. In other cases, you can redo an existing activity with brand new content. For example, the Instructional Designer or eLearning Developer demo in my portfolio is based on an activity I originally created for a health care client. The mechanics of the interaction are the same, but the graphics and content are brand new.

For many people, the best solution is creating new content from scratch. For portfolio samples, you don’t generally need to create a full-blown, 60 minute course. Five minutes or less is usually enough. Most prospective employers or clients won’t watch longer than a few minutes anyway.

Target your desired audience. If you want a job creating soft skills training, create customer service samples. If you love software training, create that kind of samples. My portfolio only includes scenario-based learning because those are the kinds of projects I want.

Screenshot of portfolioIf you need to create samples, use the list below to jump start your brainstorming. None of these require much specialized knowledge; you should be able to write the content yourself with a little online research.

Soft Skills & Business Training

  1. Answering the phone, phone greetings
  2. Responding to customer objections
  3. Responding to angry customers
  4. Giving an elevator pitch
  5. Asking customers questions to understand their needs
  6. Interviewing for a job (you could break this down further–appropriate clothes, asking questions of the interviewer, research before the interview, answering common questions, etc.)
  7. Resume writing
  8. Time management
  9. Prioritizing tasks
  10. Providing constructive feedback to colleagues
  11. Evaluating online sources for credibility
  12. Providing workplace accommodations for disabilities
  13. Rules for accepting gifts from customers/clients
  14. Onboarding or orientation (make up a fake company and introduce new employees to the leadership team and company mission)
  15. Tips for managing scope creep in projects

Software Training

  1. Create pivot tables in Microsoft Excel
  2. Create a budget spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel (or Google Sheets)
  3. Merge comments from multiple reviewers in Word
  4. Customize the ribbon in any Microsoft Office program
  5. Use styles in Word for a consistent look
  6. Create handouts in PowerPoint
  7. Create folders to organize Outlook
  8. Use filters to be more efficient with email
  9. Edit out noise in Audacity
  10. Use brushes or filters in Photoshop
  11. Assign tasks to team members in a project management tool (Microsoft Project, Basecamp, etc.)
  12. Upload a course in an LMS (whichever system you know best)
  13. Saving links with Diigo, Evernote, or another tool
  14. Create consistent file naming conventions
  15. Any cool trick you know in Captivate, Storyline, or the eLearning development tool of your choice (this also shows your expertise with the tool)

Other Sources of Ideas

  1. The eLearning Heroes challenges are one way many people have successfully built portfolio samples.
  2. Check out the course lists on Udemy, Open Sesame, ed2go, Lynda, or similar sites. All of these can be inspiration for your own samples.
  3. You! What ideas do you have for portfolio samples? Leave a comment and share your thoughts so everyone can benefit.

 

Consulting Isn’t My Backup Plan

Although I’ve been self-employed for almost 5 years, I’m still regularly contacted by recruiters about full-time positions. Most of them are polite and professional, and I often refer them to other colleagues who I know are looking for work. Once in a while though, I hear from someone who just doesn’t get it. For example, I received a message on LinkedIn from a recruiter we’ll call “B.” He said he had an opportunity for me but didn’t provide any other details. I replied that while I’m not looking for full-time work, I’d potentially be available for consulting if he had a problem I could solve.

He replied with this message. In case you’re wondering, no, this isn’t one of my fictionalized stories–every mistake you see in the message below is exactly as “B” wrote it.

This is a Direct Hire position, I am confused as if you are looking for consulting work, wouldnt you be interested in W2 contract?

Besides the lack of professionalism in his writing, “B” demonstrates an attitude I have unfortunately seen in several recruiters over the years. They assume that consulting is a “backup plan” I’m using to fill the gaps while I’m looking for a “real job.” They simply can’t fathom that anyone would choose to work for themselves.

Puppeteer controlling two businesspeople

Personally, I’d be hard pressed to go back to working in a “cubicle farm.” Working from home and setting my own schedule makes me more productive, along with giving me the flexibility to spend more time with my daughter. I cherish being able to pick which projects and clients I work with; I can turn down prospects where I’d just be an “order taker” or tweaking PowerPoints. I don’t have to accept unreasonably short timelines or woefully insufficient budgets. I can focus primarily on the scenario-based projects I find rewarding. I never have time to be bored because there’s so much variety and so much to learn.

Certainly sometimes people go out on their own because they’re forced to when a regular job ends. Some freelancers are truly working independently as a stopgap measure until they find another long-term job. It happens, but I wish recruiters wouldn’t assume that’s what everyone is doing—especially when they’ve been running their own company for multiple years like me.

Many consultants are like me. We prefer working on their own and aren’t motivated primarily by those external forces. In their article Secrets of Star Training Consultants, Saul Carliner and John Murray explain that the people they identified as “star consultants” in the field were mostly independent because they chose this path:

For the majority, however, the forces pushing the participants into private consulting were internal. Some expressed a desire to move beyond a certain work environment. One expressed an interest in earning more money. And the most experienced of the participants expressed a desire to improve the effectiveness of learning experiences.

If you’re a consultant, what would it take to get you to leave consulting and go back to full time work? Once you’ve cut the strings, is there anything that would convince you to go back?
Image credit: (c) Can Stock Photo

Blogging to Build Your Business

I recently gave a presentation to the Online Network of Independent Learning Professionals about blogging to build your business. This is specifically about what I have learned about blogging to build your reputation as a learning consultant over my 9+ years of blogging.

The recording of the presentation and discussion is available on YouTube. Thanks to Patti Bryant for organizing the group and sharing the recordings each week. If you’re a freelancer or consultant, you should join our weekly calls.

Mistakes I Made

I started blogging in December 2006 as a tool for my own professional development. At the time, starting a business wasn’t even on my radar. If I was going back and starting a blog now as a tool to build my brand and my business, I would do several things differently.

Domain: Get your own URL from the start, even if you’re doing a free WordPress account. I didn’t, and I’m so established at my current address that I am afraid I’d lose a lot by moving to a new domain. Now I have my business in one place and my blog in another, which splits my online identity.

Post URLs: If you’re on a platform that gives you a choice, use a simple scheme for post URLs that doesn’t include the date. This gives you shorter URLs than what I have, which includes /year/month/date. If you stop updating later, you can call your blog posts “articles” and hide the dates so it doesn’t look like an abandoned blog.

Lack of Focus: I started with a lack of focus because I was just writing about whatever I was learning or working on at the time. If you’re trying to build a niche for your business or build your personal brand, be more focused. My audience is mostly other people in the L&D field, from new to old. I’m not specifically writing to an audience of clients. However, since mostly the people hiring me have are involved in L&D to some extent, they understand what I’m saying. Right now I’m trying to build my brand around storytelling and scenario-based learning, so I’m posting about that more regularly.

Blogging Platforms

Every business needs a website. If you already have a website that offers a blogging option, use that. If not, these are the three options I recommend, from least to most technical. These aren’t the only options, of course. If you disagree with my recommendations, please leave a comment and explain why.

LinkedIn is the quickest option if you are not technical and don’t want to deal with setting anything up. If you have a profile, you already have the ability to post. It’s a good way to figure out if you enjoy blogging and to get into the routine of posting regularly, and you could move your posts later. If you already have a decent sized network, you have built-in followers. There are several drawbacks. First, it’s not on your business site, so you’re splitting your identity between your business website and your LinkedIn profile. Second, you have no control over the URL beyond your post title. Third, there’s no guarantee LinkedIn will keep hosting that content, and there’s no easy way to export it. If they shut down posting next week, you could lose everything. If you do use LinkedIn, keep copies of all your content as a backup.

WordPress.com is free, but there’s a small charge for your own domain (which you should pay). The hosting is already done, and you can do premium themes. If you are somewhat technical but don’t want to deal with loading things to a server, this is a good option. This could be your whole business website and portfolio with an integrated blog, all at one URL. You can’t load additional plugins on WordPress.com though, so you can’t extend it with something like LifterLMS. You can export everything to host it yourself later if you want. There are also limitations to the types of files you can share, so you may have to host portfolio samples elsewhere and link to them.

WordPress.org is a good choice if you’re more technical and you want the most control over what features are available on your website. If you have enough technical knowledge to self host a WordPress site, this is by far the best of the three options.

What Works For Me

Planning

  • Plan to post regularly and consistently. Whether you post 3 times a week or once a month, be consistent about it. This helps your readers know what to expect and helps your SEO.
  • Schedule time to write. If you don’t schedule time, it’s too easy for other work to come first and to never make time to write. I have a weekly recurring task on my to-do list to work on a blog post each week. You might find it best to blog one morning a month to write multiple posts. You have to make the time for blogging for it to be successful.
  • Schedule your posts.  About a year ago, I started a rough plan for my blog and what topics I’ll write. It’s much easier to have a plan for my topic so I’m not sitting down to a blank screen and no ideas. I also schedule my posts to publish on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday mornings since those times seem to get me the most traffic.
  • Collect and track ideas for posts. I get ideas for blog posts from multiple sources. I collect them all in a simple (albeit messy) Google Doc as the ideas come to me. That means I always have something to write about.
  • Plan to write a series of related posts. This makes it easier to plan ahead and allows you to cross link to your own past posts for more traffic. Some of my most popular posts have been my series, like Instructional Design Careers and Voice Over Scripts.

Writing

  • Write for online with short paragraphs, lists, and headings to break up blocks of text. Keep the F-shaped reading pattern in mind.
  • Reuse content you write for other sources on your blog to save time. Where else are you writing now? Email, eLearning Heroes, LinkedIn groups? If I write a two paragraph answer to a question in one of those places, I already have half a blog post written. I always expand or update the answer on my blog, but I don’t always start from scratch. This post has started with the slide notes from my presentation.
  • You can also use content from your blog for other uses like presentations, workshops, and courses. I submitted a conference presentation based on my Voice Over Scripts series. I would also like to turn that series into a paid course at some point. I’m also planning to write a book about scenario-based learning, and I’m currently effectively writing that book one blog post at a time.
  • Include an image or multimedia in every post. I break this recommendation myself with my automated link posts, but all of my regular posts include images. Your post is much more likely to stand out when it’s shared in other social media if you include an image.

Patience

Remember to be patient. I had fewer than 17,000 views in all of 2007; now I get around 15,000 views each month. Blogging is not a quick marketing strategy where you’ll write a few posts and have lots of new clients next week.

Build Your Community

Respond to and recognize your readers and the blog community.

  • Reply to comments: When someone comments, reply and acknowledge it, preferably within 24 hours. You might also email people to thank them for commenting.
  • Answer reader questions: I get many questions from blog readers via email, some of which later become more blog posts. If someone asks you a question, there’s a pretty good chance other people have the same question. That makes those questions good topics for posts.
  • Promote comments to posts: I haven’t done this recently, but I did use this technique early in my blog to help build the community of readers. When someone leaves a really insightful comment, you can quote that comment in a follow up post along with your response. Make sure you give credit and link to the original author’s website.
  • Link to other people: I pay attention to pingback notifications when someone links to my blog, and I have search alerts notifying me when my name appears online. Many other bloggers do too. Talk about what other people are saying and link to them. Share the love and send some traffic to them. It’s a great way to earn some goodwill and for other bloggers to notice you.
  • Comment on other blogs: This is another way to be part of the broader community of bloggers rather than crafting your own blog in isolation. Read what other people are writing and comment on their posts. They might return the favor.
  • Call to action: I usually end my posts with a “call to action” asking them to comment or answer questions.

Expand Your Reach

I don’t spend much time explicitly promoting my blog, but when you’re just starting out you may need to do more than this.

  • Share links: Automatically share links to your posts on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. With WordPress this is easy; with other platforms you may need to use IFTTT or another tool.
  • eLearning Learning: Submit your blog to eLearning Learning (submission instructions here). I get more referral traffic from eLearning Learning than from any of the social media channels, partly because eLearning Learning is focused on elearning and there’s so much less noise.
  • SEO: I don’t particularly worry about SEO. If someone is trying to convince you to use tricks or shortcuts, ignore them. Focus on posting regularly and creating quality content, as those are most important. There are other things you can do, but if you’re just starting out the quality of content is more important than SEO.

Your Experiences?

Here’s that call to action I mentioned earlier. Do you use a blog as part of your consulting or freelance business? What lessons have you learned? What strategies are working for you? Please comment and share your experiences.

How Freelance Clients Find Me

Last week I gave a short presentation for the new eLearning Freelancer group on finding clients. You can watch the recording of the presentation.

In reality, I don’t do very much to actively seek out clients; most of my clients find me. Here are the recommendations I shared with the group on how to become visible to clients.

Portfolio

screenshot of my portfolioAn online portfolio is a requirement if you’re freelancing. Prospective clients need to see what kind of work you can do. Your portfolio is a way to tell your story about the work you do and the work you want to do in the future. My portfolio is on my business website.

You don’t need to have lots of full courses on your portfolio. Most clients won’t have time to review long courses. Short snippets or even screenshots are fine. Include a few sentences explaining your projects and the problems you solved with them. If your examples demonstrate specific tools or skills, mention that in your description.

If I was starting over now, I’d register a domain right away and create my blog as part of my website and portfolio. Since I started this blog as a free WordPress site years before I decided to become a consultant, I didn’t think about the domain as a business need at the time. You can still use a free WordPress site for your business and portfolio, but pay for domain registration so you don’t have to change it later. Many free WordPress themes can be used to build portfolios, not to mention the a plethora of paid and custom options.

Portfolio links:

Networking = Relationships

Two women chatting in a coffee shop When I say “networking,” don’t picture handing out business cards at so-called networking events where everyone is trying to get something from everyone else. Networking is about building and maintaining relationships. I’ve found it helpful to approach networking with a focus on how I can give to other people, rather than what I can get. Being helpful to others shows people that you’re good to work with, and it demonstrates your expertise.

A significant portion of my work comes via people I’ve worked with before or through those connections. Keep in touch with your former colleagues from when you were an employee, especially when they move to new jobs themselves. Spend time connecting with others in the e-learning field too. Everyone gets overbooked sometimes. I refer work to others when I’m too busy or it isn’t a good fit, and others return the favor.

Social Media and Online Communities

Man typing on laptopThe primary way prospective clients find me is via my blog. They usually search for “instructional design” or “instructional designers,” read one of my posts, and follow that to my portfolio and business site. A blog gives you credibility and makes it easier for people to find you.

I’ve heard from other IDs and e-learning freelancers that they find clients via Twitter connections. LinkedIn Pulse is another possible channel for publishing; this has the advantages of being free and reaching a built-in audience of your connections.

Online communities like LinkedIn groups and eLearning Heroes are also great ways to connect with people. You can demonstrate your expertise. I once got a major project as a result of a question I answered in a LinkedIn group. It wasn’t the person who asked the question who hired me; it was a third part who was reading the discussion. Because I was helpful to someone else, he saw that I knew what I was talking about, and he hired me.

Be A Good Neighbor

Neighborhood housesI’ve found that when I’m helpful to others and act like a good online “neighbor,” clients just find me. In her post on finding work, Jackie Van Nice explains,

How does all of this lead to work? It just does. Whether it comes from your peers who know of a project you might be right for – or from those silent watchers in the community, on your website, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or wherever else you’re active – the people with the work will find you.

My experience is very similar to Jackie’s; by putting myself out there and being active and visible, work finds me.

Read More

Props to Patti Bryant for doing an amazing job organizing this freelancer group.

Images (except the portfolio screenshot) from GraphicStock.com (unlimited downloads $99/year)