• Nicole Papaioannou, PhD

Why I Choose to Be a Freelance Consultant

One of the questions I get asked often is why I chose to become a freelance instructional design consultant and how I started down this path. The truth is that I had no idea this is what I would be doing with my life. I loved working with a team. I was often a leader among colleagues. I assumed I would always work for someone else and on-site. At one time, the idea of being alone in my office all day sounded awful. I do, however, believe you should always go where your strengths are valued.


But then it happened.


I was working at an eLearning company, managing an Instructional Design department that turned out successful award-winning projects. Our work was recognized by Brandon Hall and CLO Magazine. But our company had too many whales and not enough sales. A big project was put on pause, and then another, due to no fault of our own. We just didn't have enough coming in to support the in-house content team (Instructional Designers, Video Producers, Motion Graphic Artists, Video Editors, etc.). The announcement came at the end of the year: over two months time, they were going to phase out everyone but 3 employees-- I wasn't one of them. I also wasn't devastated. Quite frankly, I saw myself growing beyond the role and had already started reviewing job posts before the announcement was made. This just lit a fire under me.


One of our clients heard about what was going on and asked me if I'd be willing to offer my services directly to them as a consultant. My former company knew they were going to make this offer and gave their blessing, so no conflict of interest. They said that no one knew the systems and their content better than me, and I would be a great help. I thought, "Hey, this will give me the time to rework my resume and make income while I start the search for my next full-time role."


After the contract was signed off, my client sent me this:



And that was it.


My freelance career officially began. I was tasked with creating workplace training for aviation maintenance technicians and managing the project, including an outsourced video production team.


Over months of working, I found that I liked being my own boss. I liked being able to set expectations with my clients, solve problems without having to ask for permission, and determine my own hours. I liked being isolated. I found it easier to get into flow. I was much more productive.


I stopped looking for full-time jobs. I recognized that, unless I had outstanding leadership and felt that I would be given new opportunities for growth that I could develop on my own, I no longer wanted to be under someone else's leadership. I didn't want to be at the mercy of budget cuts or "new directions" outlined by the C-suite. I enjoyed the freedom and responsibility of making my business model work for me.


Was it all butterflies and rainbows?


Heck no.


Admittedly, I struggled in the beginning to figure out the best strategies for growing my business. I had limited contacts and limited marketing know-how. I think I might have even put my services on Craigslist?!


My first "out-of-network" job was developing a Captivate-based eLearning module on copywriting for someone who found me on Upwork. Then, I met someone on LinkedIn who wanted help creating an entire learning theory framework for their product. And from there, projects continued to roll in.


But even once they started consistently rolling in, I had to learn how to balance projects (because I learned having just one big one is a BAD idea). I also dealt with a few projects where the client's own leadership changed direction, and the scope of work needed to be redrawn or was pulled entirely. Things happen, and I had to learn how to manage unexpected events within the flow of my business.


Will I keep freelancing?


TLDR: Yes.


I have no intention of returning to a full-time job. It would have to be a pretty spectacular learning opportunity with amazing leadership, flexible work hours, and top-notch pay for me to consider the switch.


I'm in my fourth year of freelancing now, and things have changed a lot. People recognize my brand. I have not sought out clients in about 3 years, as they mostly find me now. I haven't had any dry spells, though I've had plenty of "oops, I forgot to schedule time off" spells.


This year, I put out two massive proposals with numbers I never dreamed I'd see as a freelancer, one for $75k and one for $95k, both pushed to clients who contacted me. Admittedly, the $75k project didn't move forward, largely because it was for a tourist attraction which is not operating right now due to COVID. The other is currently under review (cross your fingers for me). Whether I get it or not, I'm just proud that I've been invited to submit proposals for these opportunities. I also started to move into a coaching role, which I never expected but really enjoy. And of course, there's the Upskill Experience, which is the learning network arm of Your Instructional Designer. There, I get to run my own workshops and online courses (which I love doing).


My freelance business is evolving in ways I could not have predicted, and I am enjoying the journey.


My Getting Started Advice?


If you're thinking about starting to freelance, plan to save at least 3 months expenses (and be realistic with yourself about what those are).


If you can gradually build your client list on the side while working a full-time job, awesome!


But if you can't, go full throttle! Tell everyone you know and don't know that you're a freelancer now. Put it on your LinkedIn profile, your Insta, your Facebook, your Twitter-- everywhere!


Be a generalist with a specialization. Learn a little bit about a lot of things, but fine-tune your craft in one area, the one you feel most excited about and want to be doing, the one you hope clients will ask you to work on. Then, highlight that in all of your marketing materials.


Have a portfolio, whether it's online or just ready to share upon request (I suggest a password protected or form-fill access site).


Want to Learn More?


Check out the eLearning Freelancer Bootcamp! Jam-packed with self-paced lessons, templates, tools you can use, and resource lists, as well as a bi-weekly live Q&A with Dr. Robin Sargent, Christy Tucker, and myself, it's an experience that you don't want to miss. Whether you're just starting out or want to grow your existing freelance business, consider this your Business School for freelance learning design.







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