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.


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.

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

Images (except the portfolio screenshot) from

ID Badges: My Experience with TIfPI’s Certification

Last month, I earned my badge for Instructional Design: Goal- or Problem-Based Scenarios [ID(GPS+)] from The Institute for Performance Improvement (TIfPI). The “plus” and gold color signify that this is an outstanding level badge, meaning I received an outstanding rating on at least 7 of the 9 standards.

Certified GPS PlusHow It Works

TIfPI uses 9 standards to measure and rate ID work samples. Each of these standards is mapped to performance behaviors, detailed in a Word document.

  • Addresses Sustainability: Considers the best usage of resources (time, money, materials, staffing, technologies, etc.) now and in the future.
  • Aligns Solution: To create or change relationships among parts of the solution (internal to the solution) or between the solution and its parent organization or sponsors (external to the solution).
  • Assesses Performance: Evaluate what the learner does within the learning environment using a specific set of criteria as the measure or standard for the learner’s progress.
  • Collaborates and Partners: Works jointly with sponsors and other members of the solution development team to develop the solution.
  • Elicits Performance “Practice”: Ensures that the learning environment and practice opportunities reflect the actual environment in which the performance will occur.
  • Engages Learner: Captures and keeps the participant’s attention and interest through active participation, practice opportunities, feedback, and reflection.
  • Enhances Retention and Transfer: Ensures that the learning environment creates and measures recall, recognition, and replication of desired outcomes.
  • Ensures Context Sensitivity: Considers the conditions and circumstances that are relevant to the learning content, event, process, and outcomes.
  • Ensures Relevance: Creates content and activities that address the learner’s background and work experiences.

Instead of providing a single broad certification covering all aspects of instructional design, TIfPI decided to create microcredentials or badges. Currently, the badges are all based on different types of deliverables: asynchronous e-learning, instructor-led training, coaching, job aids, community of practice, mobile learning, etc. They plan to add additional badges in the future.

To earn a badge, you complete an application form explaining how you met all of the standards in a project. You provide samples of content (screenshots, a page from a storyboard, planning documents, a short video, etc.) to demonstrate what you say you did.

Your application receives a double blind review by two peers in the field. These reviewers use a rubric to determine how many of the performance behaviors for each standard you demonstrated. For each standard, you can receive an Outstanding, Acceptable, or Insufficient rating. If you get at least 7 Outstanding ratings, your badge is gold instead of blue, and your designation has a plus sign. For example, a normal badge for asynchronous e-learning would be ID(AEL); an outstanding badge would be ID(AEL+).

There’s a few other pieces of paperwork too: an attestation from a supervisor or client saying you did the work you said you did, a code of ethics, etc. The badge is valid for three years, after which it must be renewed by either doing professional development or earning a badge in another area. The badge costs $295.

My Process

To start, I attended a webinar explaining the process. I spent time reviewing the handbook and all the standards. I had a project in mind for the certification. This was an e-learning course which included a branching scenario and a job aid. I debated between going for the Asynchronous E-learning (AEL) badge and the Goal- or Problem-Based Scenario (GPS) badge. I think I could have done both badges with this course. Initially, I wasn’t sure if this would really meet the requirements for the scenario badge. The branching scenario is a 10-minute activity within a 60-minute course. I’m focusing my business on scenario-based learning though, and I wanted the more specific credential to match my specialization. After some discussion with Sharon Gander at TIfPI,  I decided to go for the GPS badge and really concentrate on the branching scenario within the context of the larger course.

The application took me about 10 hours to complete, and I did the entire process from webinar to application in about a month. In comparison to the CPLP, which takes 120+ hours and a year to complete, this seemed quite reasonable. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I chose this certification.

After submitting the application, I found out in about two weeks that I not only earned the badge, but earned it at the outstanding level. I added the badge to my website, LinkedIn profile, and the About page of my blog. The badge includes verification so you can click a link or image to check that it’s authentic.

Why I Chose This Certification

In the field of ID, we perennially debate whether everyone needs a degree in instructional design or not. I don’t have one (I have a bachelor’s of music education), so you can guess which side of the debate I’m on. I first posted about this back in 2008, and I’ve periodically joined this discussion since then. I’ve argued that although master’s degrees are valuable, that shouldn’t be the only path to this field. There are lots of “accidental instructional designers” who didn’t set out to be IDs, but found their way to this field, usually switching from another career. Although I don’t think a master’s degree should be mandatory, the industry would benefit from a way to differentiate between IDs who are deliberate and reflective in their practice and those who aren’t working to improve. Seven years ago, I argued that if we had an evidence-based certification, that could be one tool for people who came to ID from an alternate path.

The ID Badges are an evidence-based certification; it’s based on a real work product that you created. I didn’t want to do something with an exam; I wanted this to be about the work I actually do. Although I have some other certifications from previous jobs (CTT+ and Expert Synchronous Producer), I didn’t have anything formal saying I knew how to do instructional design. The market for IDs can be crowded at times. A certification is one way to differentiate myself; I can show prospective clients how my work has been reviewed by my peers and deemed “outstanding.”

Realistically, I didn’t want to spend $800 or $1000 on a CPLP, not to mention the time commitment. The CPLP is a bigger certification that measures more, and it’s certainly more well-known (at least in the US). TIfPI’s ID Badges are a relatively new certification program. They don’t have the name recognition of ATD and the CPLP, although I hope in time the ID Badges will become more recognized.

Even without wide recognition, I wanted that double blind peer review of my work. I wanted to see what someone thinks of my work when they don’t know my blog or my online brand. I wanted to validate that what I’m doing is on the right track. This certification gives me that personal validation.

Your Thoughts?

Have you considered a certification? What was your experience? Does it help you get more work or justify the work you do? If you hire IDs, do you look at certifications when making decisions? Tell me in the comments.

Time Tracking Template for Instructional Design

As an instructional designer, I often need to estimate the time it will take to complete a project. One tool I use for determining my estimates is records of how long past projects have taken. Having everything together in a spreadsheet also simplifies my invoicing to clients. In addition, I track non-billable time. That’s primarily for my own interest; I want to see how long I spend on administrative tasks like invoicing as well as networking and marketing tasks.

I use a Google spreadsheet for this. You can view and save the template yourself. If you’re logged in with a Google account, choose File > Make a Copy to add the template to your Google Drive. You can also download the template for Excel.

Columns in the time tracking template

Additional columns in the time tracking template


  • I use Ctrl+; to add the current date quickly.
  • Time Spent will automatically calculate once you add your Start Time and End Time.
  • Leave the Invoiced column blank until you have actually sent the invoice. This lets you filter for work you haven’t invoiced yet by filtering for “blank.”
  • By default, the template is set up with ADDIE phases plus administrative, project management, and business development tasks. You can edit this list of Phases on the Named ranges tab. If you do change it, you may also need to adjust the data validation in the Phases column. (The numbers in front of the ADDIE phases make them sort properly in the pivot table.)

Pivot Table

I use a pivot table to analyze how I spend my time. The template is set up to group data by quarter and month for invoicing purposes. (Quarter and Month are calculated in hidden columns B & C of the Tracking tab.)

Pivot Table organized by Quarter and MonthYou can adjust the pivot table to group by phases instead of quarter and month. This is especially useful when you’re estimating time for future projects. You can see how long each phase took for similar past projects and use that as the basis for your estimate.

Time Tracking Pivot Table organized by ADDIE phases

You can also filter the pivot table by whether tasks or billable or not, client, phase, etc.

Feel free to use this template yourself. Edit it to make it compatible with your workflow and needs. If you have questions or suggestions for improvement, ask them below in the comments. Read more about how I determine my time estimates for designing and developing e-learning.

Instructional Design Hourly Rates and Salary

Money 2What is your hourly rate as an instructional designer? What do you make if you’re a full-time salaried employee? People frequently ask me these questions, and I always refer people to the same resources. These are all just benchmarks to use as a starting point, so you need to adjust for your experience, education, skills, industry, whether you’re a full-time employee or freelance consultant, etc.

Hourly Rate

Harold Jarche’s “So You Want To Be an ELearning Consultant?” article is several years old, but the rates for different activities aren’t too far off. Click the table at the bottom to expand it and see the details. Design tasks are $50-100 on his chart; development tasks are $30-60. Technological and business analytical tasks can earn you up to $200.

Writing Assistance Inc lists rates from $65-90+, with an average of $80. I believe those rates are what companies pay to them, rather than what the ID actually makes, so assume there’s a fee taken off the top.

Don Clark has collected highlights from several sources on how to estimate instructional design cost and time. He lists the rate for an e-learning designer as $37/hour, based on a salary of $78,000. That’s clearly a full-time employee salary and not a consultant rate.


The eLearning Guild Salary Calculator is one of the best tools for comparing the variables that affect salary. Enter your location, education, experience, job focus, etc. and get a benchmark salary to compare. The 2014 calculator puts the average salary for instructional designers in the US at $72,854. With 0-4 years of experience, it’s $58,489; 20 or more years of experience brings it up to $92,429.

Other Resources

Jeffrey Rhodes’ presentation on how to price consulting work explains how to determine your hourly rate as a consultant and how to estimate and price services.

Bryan Chapman includes some cost estimates with his benchmarks for how long it takes to create learning. In his survey, one hour of level 2 e-learning cost an average of $18,583. At the 184:1 ratio for that level of learning, that’s about a $100/hour rate, but that includes everyone on the team (IDs, project managers, SMEs, developers, etc.).

Although it isn’t specific to instructional design or e-learning, Flying Solo’s Hourly Rate Calculator is a useful tool to determine your hourly rate as a freelancer based on your expenses.

Image Credit: Money 2 by Daniel Borman

You may be interested in my other posts on instructional design careers.

Need an instructional designer? Visit my Syniad Learning website to hire me.

Questions about Instructional Design Careers

Last month, a reader named Jackie asked me a number of thoughtful questions about transitioning from teaching K-12 public school to instructional design. She graciously agreed to let me publish some of her questions and my answers here, since I thought others might be in similar positions and share these questions. I have altered a few details to make this more applicable to a general audience, although some questions and answers specifically mention the transition from teaching to ID.


Question mark made of puzzle pieces

Question mark made of puzzle pieces by Horia Varlan, on Flickr. CC-By

Q: Creativity is important to me, both professional and personally.  So though I know it’s impossible to generalize, are you able to speak to what kind of value there is placed on creativity as a designer, both in higher education, and in working with companies or organizations?  After rich collaboration with SMEs and other stakeholders, how much leeway do IDs have?  Are there jobs I should lean toward to which are more open than others?

A: Some jobs certainly offer more creativity than others. I don’t find developing software simulations to be particularly rewarding, for example, because there often isn’t a ton of creativity. When I work with faculty in higher ed, most of the time they are pretty open to creative approaches. I work with a lot of faculty who have no experience with online learning, so they generally are open to my expertise as far as how to use the technology creatively. There are exceptions; some faculty really just want to record lectures, have discussions, and give tests.

With companies, it varies quite a bit. I’ve found companies and organizations that are really interested in doing innovative things with training. For example, one course I wrote last year includes branching video scenarios, where learners watch a video and then make decisions as a “choose your own adventure.” The choices they make affect how people respond and what videos they see next. It was a lot of creative writing and storytelling to put learners in a real context. In general, more conservative industries like banking and insurance tend to value creativity less, and more innovative industries like technology tend to value creativity more.

Workplace Climate and Culture

Q: On a similar note, workplace climate is important to me.  I know that every employer has its own culture, but I am wondering if you have suggestions for finding ID jobs which embrace open, forward-thinking, animated atmospheres. It is admittedly going to be a challenge to go from the warmth of a K-12 environment to something completely corporate, so I am imagining that my inkling to stick to college and university work would probably best meet this need, initially, but I don’t want to assume.

A: Some corporate cultures are actually quite open and welcoming. I’ve found some higher ed environments to be so political as to be strangling. I think with corporate cultures, the size of the company matters quite a bit. A small company can feel like everyone’s family. With a large company, what matters most is your individual manager. I generally find that if my relationship with my direct manager is good, the rest falls into place for me, so I focus on that. A good manager will protect you in a larger organization. You’ll have to think about how to ask questions about organizational culture when you interview to get a feel for whether it’s a fit for you.

Work/Life Balance

Q: As a public school teacher, with the position that I hold, that has become a 24/7 responsibility, and there is zero work-life balance. Having the ability to take care of my health and prioritize the rest of my life is  a critical for me, so I want to make sure that as I explore ID, I am steering myself toward work which will allow me to dig in deep and grow my employer’s students, but which also honors my health and free time. Are there some fields within ID which are known as better or worse than others for offering that balance?

A: I feel like ID in general has better work/life balance than teaching, so just moving to ID already helps. Hourly or contract positions tend to be fairly limited in how many hours you work since companies generally don’t want to pay overtime. Personally, the most out of balance I’ve been was when I was a salaried manager in an organization that rewarded people with no balance in their lives. Emailing at 3 AM was a badge of honor in that organization. It’s one of the reasons I left that and went back to being an individual contributor as an ID. I have had times where for a few months we’re pushing for a project and therefore I’m putting long hours in, but that’s the exception rather than the norm. You certainly can choose to push yourself and get out of balance, but I find the balance much easier with ID than teaching.


Q: To what degree of accountability are designers held regarding whether students learn and perform better?  How are efficacy and performance measured for a designer?

A: I wish I could tell you that there’s a really strong expectation for proving our worth, but it isn’t the case. The reality is that in both higher ed and corporate learning, the most common evaluation is “smile sheets.” If the surveys are good and the feedback from instructors is good, we’re viewed as doing our job well. Managers who are familiar with ID will also review courses and provide feedback.

There is, however, increasing pressure in the corporate world to show ROI. If you start from a business problem, you should be able to show the results of training—increased sales, fewer errors, etc.  Some organizations do evaluate at all four of Kirkpatrick’s levels, and the Success Case Method is another good strategy for evaluating training effectiveness. Those tools are generally underutilized though.

New Trends

Q: With ID growing as a field, are there new nuances or developments you anticipate coming down the pike that are good for me to preemptively know so I am not spinning my wheels, or going in the best direction the fastest?

A: I wouldn’t learn Flash right now. The learning curve is too steep, and within a few years I think most work will be in HTML5. Most Flash e-learning now is done with rapid tools anyway. Usually if the Flash work requires a programmer, there’s a separate team for that.

Mobile learning is certainly a good trend to keep an eye on. I haven’t been asked to do any mobile learning other than very peripheral support, but I think within 5 years I will be doing some. I think mobile learning works best as performance support rather than courses on a tiny screen. Chad Udell’s Learning Everywhere is a good book on this topic, and there’s lots of blogs you can read for free. Check out my review of Udell’s book for more information.

Gamification is a hot trend right now; I’m not sure if it’s going to last. A lot of what passes for “gamification” is really superficial and not very effective, so this trend might fizzle out. That’s a shame, because there’s actually a lot of good that can be done with well-designed games, but I worry that the low-quality work will give the whole field a bad reputation.


Q: I will obviously need to create a portfolio, and I know that it will need to begin with volunteer opportunities.  What is the depth and/or scope of a typical person’s portfolio?  How does one, as an entry level ID, maximize potential for a portfolio that will leverage the best job?

A: If you have 3-4 examples as an entry-level ID, I think that’s fine as a place to start. Show off some of those creative activities you’ve developed. I’d focus on training for adults, such as professional development for other teachers, if possible, unless you’re targeting something like K-12 Inc or another online K-12 provider.

A variety of examples is beneficial, especially when you only have a few. You don’t have to show a full course, just a screenshot or two and an explanation of what problem was solved with your training and how you did it. If you want a job in e-learning, at least one of your examples should be of that type of learning.

Your graduate program should help you build a portfolio, including giving you an opportunity to create realistic examples. If they don’t, you’re wasting your time and money and should pick a different school.

Learning Technology

Q: I learn technology easily, but I have no experience creating with Captivate, Camtasia, Articulate, Flash or any of the authoring tools I have read are most valued in new hires.  What should I be focusing on to learn soonest?  Are online tutorials and websites, in addition to experimentation, the best way to learn these programs, or is it worth paying a heap for courses?

A: You know yourself and your learning style. I’ve mostly learned everything on my own, with the exception of Flash (I had to take a course for that). I’d focus on Captivate and Articulate Storyline first. Captivate has a bigger market share now, but Storyline is growing in demand. Both are fairly easy to learn, and there’s lots of free tutorials and community support. Planning a sample project for your portfolio and building it to get some practice is probably the best route unless you know you personally learn best with formal training.

Salary: Corporate vs. Higher Ed

Q: From what I have seen online, it appears that companies pay more than higher education.  Would you say this is true?

A: You’re right that companies generally pay more than higher ed. University ID jobs are probably more at the $50-60K level than the $60-80K range. Small companies generally pay a little less than big companies, but the culture at a small to mid-sized company might be a better fit for some people. I’ve never had any problem switching between corporate and higher ed culture, and most of the time I do both. I know other people find that one or the other environment works best for them, but I feel like both areas have advantages and drawbacks. I think I’m a better ID because I can work in both and take the best of both when I’m designing.

The eLearning Guild’s salary calculator is a great place to compare baseline numbers across industries.

Getting Contract Work

Q: How difficult is it to get short term contract positions to make extra money?

A: I had lots of trouble getting my very first ID job. It took me a year and 200 applications. However, once I’ve got that first job, I’ve never had much trouble looking for work when I wanted it. I’ve only done extra side projects on top of my full-time job twice in my career. In both cases, they were people who contacted me because of my blog, and not something I was seeking out.

Now that I’m doing freelance, I basically am not doing any marketing other than my blog and being active in groups on LinkedIn. I don’t spend time seeking out clients because I’ve got so many projects that I’m turning work away. I know that isn’t everyone’s experience, but I’m generally finding it harder to keep from getting overbooked and avoid getting my life out of balance than to not find more work when I want it.

Transition from Teaching, Job Searching

Q: Can you shed any light on what you learned the most in your transition from teaching?  What do you know now that you wish you knew then?  What would you do differently?  What is the most important thing that grew you?

A: One practical matter: when you apply for jobs out of state, make sure you say clearly in your cover letter that you’re willing to relocate at your own expense. I didn’t do that, and I know that’s part of why it took me 200 applications before I got my first ID job. People assumed I was looking for a remote position instead of being willing to move.

A lot of what I would do differently is specific to how I did that initial job search—customizing my cover letters more to each company, gearing my resume towards that audience more, etc. I would have created a portfolio earlier than I did: I didn’t actually create one until 2009.

Maybe going back I might have done a master’s degree or certificate early in my career. At this point, it’s debatable whether I’d earn enough more to compensate for what I’d spend in tuition. Only once or twice has my lack of a master’s been a hindrance to me, even working in higher ed. My experience is more important to employers now than the degree. I think I would have learned in a degree program though.

I’ve learned a lot of technology and how to use it to help people learn. I’ve also learned a lot more of actual research on how people learn and how to design learning than I actually saw as a teacher.

What has helped me grow the most has been my blog and interacting with other IDs. Twitter might be more your style; #lrnchat and similar chats are really energizing and good ways to connect with others in the field.  I think using social media and contributing to the conversation (not just lurking) is really valuable.

Your Questions

Do you have other questions about instructional design careers? Ask away in the comments. Do you disagree with any of my answers? I’d love to hear your perspective.

You may also be interested in my other posts about instructional design careers.