Before making the leap to full-time independent contractor-ship I freelanced for about three years. The work I did ranged as I built up my confidence with the freelance game, and in addition to some sites to check out, I’ll provide you with some tips and tricks I learned from my time as a freelancer. I’ll make my way down the list chronologically (based on which sites I used first).
Freelancer.com was my jumping off point for finding freelance work. It’s a site that operates on bidding – the freelancer will bid on jobs and the client will choose a contract winner. It’s tough to build your reputation on freelance sites as there are loads of freelancers out there who will more or less work for peanuts. Peanuts can’t pay your rent, so this can be discouraging. I spent a lot of time on this site doing things that weren’t necessarily my finest freelance moments, and I will caution you to strongly consider how much time it will take to complete a project before bidding – 1) because you’ll end up working for peanuts if you don’t, and 2) it will save you a lot of tears down the road. One of my first bids was for transcription of audio files; I actually really enjoyed the content (I was transcribing interviews for a lady’s Master thesis), but I grossly underbid the amount of time I would have to spend doing the transcription. I completed the job, but definitely didn’t make any profit. My favourite jobs on this website were Proofreading gigs; I’m good at proofreading and I enjoy it, so it worked out well. I also made the most amount of profit from these jobs.
One downside is that the initial payment period has a delay (unless it’s changed in recent years) of about 3 weeks after initial withdrawal and another is that they take a cut of your profits (depending on which membership you have – if I remember correctly, the free membership takes a 10% cut). A third downside is that there are very few e-learning or Instructional Design gigs posted on this site.
I really enjoyed working with Odesk; I know a lot of folks harp on it (likely in the design world) because it’s another bid site where you can easily end up working for peanuts. However, I have found a lot of my best long-term clients through Odesk. There are a TON of Instructional Design and e-learning jobs posted (daily for the most part), and I found it really easy to build a solid reputation using the site. Of course there are some flops with clients, but overall, the quality of my clients were pretty good and they were willing to pay a reasonable rate for my services. I will say that I was unable to get to my current hourly rate with clients through Odesk, but I was able to get pretty darn close.
Withdrawals can be made using PayPal, and they were usually processed immediately (or close to immediately)…factor in PayPal processing times and you’d be paid within 2-3 business days, which is certainly reasonable.
Elance is yet another bid site, and this one I have found little success with. I can’t even write too much about it, but I will say that they have a very high job post percentage relevant to Instructional Designers or those working within the e-learning industry. The main reason I can’t speak too much to this one is because I found it incredibly difficult to get established on this site. I think I had two clients total, neither of which were repeat clients (because they could get similar services for cheaper through the site). If I had jumped on the Elance bandwagon when they first emerged on the market, I may have found it a lot easier to establish myself…let me know if you’ve had any success!
Research and Cold Emailing
I spent MANY hours researching companies I would love to work with and then cold emailing folks working within these companies. I originally started doing this when I was trying to break out into the post-secondary education sector within my province. I would cold-email the relevant department heads of local universities pitching myself as a solution to their problem. This turned up several very interesting meetings, some great networking opportunities, and really allowed me to extend myself outside of my comfort zone.
My role within one of the local universities is attributed to this technique, and I have recently been offered a full-time permanent role within the university which I honestly don’t believe would have happened had I gone the traditional route of waiting for a position to come up and then applying – even my best friend couldn’t revise a cover letter successful enough to score me such a gig as our province is wrought with educators and most of them have many more moons of professional experience than me…and in this particular university, there is only one Instructional Developer role…so think of the competition…barf!
While the success rate of my cold emailing is very small, I’ve experienced multiple 8-12 month after the fact follow ups that have resulted in working relationships. I would definitely recommend researching and cold emailing potential clients; some of them may not even know they need you until you explain what you do and how you can make it work for them!
When I tell folks that I found some of my best long-term clients on Craigslist, they are beside themselves with disbelief. I actually found one of my repeat clients through there (working with colleges within the health sector) and I was also able to gain significant experience within the K-12 and Higher Education sectors with another client I had found through Craigslist.
Instructional Design jobs are hit or miss for posting, and it really takes a lot of dedication (to the hustle) to find relevant roles through the site. Why? Because you either have to try googling a specific-enough search phrase and hope for the best or you need to visit individual city sites searching for your desired role. The other downside to Craigslist is that there aren’t a lot of remote positions – this can be a good thing if your city has a lot of Instructional Design opportunities, but that’s seldom the way. It’s odd that there’s still a resistance to remote work when our society is moving further away from being tethered to cubicles.
E-Learning Heroes Community Forums
I’ve found quite a few short-term Instructional Design gigs through the ELH community forums, but I will say that many have not lead to long-term working relationships. With that being said, I have had quite a few organizations (or individuals) reach out to me through the forums based on what they’ve seen of my participation within the community. Basically, the more active you are within the community (specifically when it comes to demonstrating your technical competencies), the greater the opportunity you make in being contacted by prospective clients.
Another good thing about the ELH community is that every Friday, Mike Taylor posts a compilation of e-learning jobs he’s found within the forum and online. It’s nice to have them compiled within one neatly organized post.
I’ve found several repeat clients by applying for posts on LinkedIn, one of which has been one of my most profitable endeavours. However, it was for a large corporate client and once the higher powers within their organization realized that they weren’t as organized as they originally thought (which created a lot of work for their in-house resources, of which they had few), they cancelled the contract for all involved, realizing that until they got their butt in gear and got organized, they would be losing profits. Smart – yes. The good thing about this contract is that I know I’ll be kept in mind when they do decide to kick off the project again, but until then, it’s on hold.
The thing about LinkedIn is that if you really want to be successful at finding work through the site, you need to optimize your profile and actively participate in communities, blogging, or maintaining up-to-date samples.
Honestly – Do not sleep on building (or having someone else build) your website and portfolio. The people who want to hire you are visual creatures. They want to see what you can do! It helps them make up their mind. Over the past month and a half I’ve been working with a fantastic client who came to find me through my website. They liked my samples and had even read some of my blog posts (because they complimented me on a sample I hadn’t showcased in my portfolio), and it’s turned into a long-term working relationship!
I understand there’s a lot to promoting yourself through your website, but if you make an honest effort, it will truly pay off. My blog is maintained primarily for an audience of my peers and not my clients. I do this because it generates interest and provides help, some of which I wish I had when I was just starting out. This inadvertently drives traffic to my site, of which a small percentage may be prospective clients. I include my portfolio and work with me sections not as an afterthought, but certainly not as a focus, and I’ve found the indirect promotion of my services has landed me some more genuine clients than I may have found hustling my services unabashedly.
Did any of this help?
I really hope this post helps some of you Instructional Designers lusting after a life of being location independent. That’s the second reason I wanted to take my freelancing full-time (the first reason was that I was sick of ‘working for the man’ and dealing with the politics of being a cog in an organization), and I’ve been able to achieve that in a very short period of time.
If anyone has found any other places to source freelance Instructional Design or e-learning jobs, please let me know in the comments!
This is great stuff! I’m a freelancer, and honestly, my quick overviews of the bid sites like Odesk and Elance made me think it was overwhelming and nearly impossible to find a job. I may reconsider Odesk now, though. I’m attempting to go the route of meeting possible clients in person at networking events, in order to make that personal connection. But next up in cold emailing. Thanks for all of the tips!
Siedah Mitchum Designs says
Great tips Ashley! I read your income report to I know you make a decent chunk of change monthly. These are all great ways to obtain new clients.
Have you considered writing an ebook or selling other products in the future?
I’ve used oDesk before and gotten a few clients – but I’ve never heard good things about elance! My website and LinkedIn seem to be the most profitable 😉
This is really relevant for any freelancer, I think I will have to take another look at these job bidding sites. I’ve put a few proposals on peopleperhour but I haven’t had any luck with it yet. What would you say your success ratio is with it? Also do you do a full proposal or send them a quick email? Thanks, Kirsty
I usually send a full proposal and edit based on the job – I used to have a few different drafts saved for easy of bidding. The success ratio was probably 60% or so; 80% for a discussion (at least through odesk).
Hi Ashley! I’ve been following your blog for a while now, since F2F started. Congratulations on the job offer!! I was recently on a search committee for an ID at my university and I know first hand just how hard it is to snag one of those positions. I’ll be curious to see if you make the switch!
Great post! I hadn’t heard of odesk… I am just starting to dip my feet so to speak into the freelance world.
Would you consider doing a follow up article on cold emailing techniques?
Hi Ashley, thanks for this post. As a senior instructional designer with one of the world’s largest corporations, I find myself at a juncture where I’m looking to venture out on my own but am filled with doubt. Your post made me realize that it’s not impossible and it felt even better, considering the avenues you’re recommending are the ones on my radar. Wish you luck, and who knows, maybe one day we’ll collaborate on a project!
Brett Christensen says
Thanks for the tips!
Lord J. Ryder says
This was an excellent help, I just started out about a month ago doing freelance work. I have had success with getting local clients and on UpWork. As a result of your article I am going to focus on putting together a research and cold calling process to get more local clients.
Do you have any suggestions as to a script to use to get cold emails opened and responded to?
Thanks for the article!
This is so helpful. It sounds difficult to bid with other people, and the chances of getting jobs may be harder, but you can only try. Nothing to lose. I congratulate you on your persistence and wishing you more success in your future endeavors.
Thanks for the info. I have been working as an Instructional Designer for the past 5 years and I am planning to be a freelancer. Your article was very helpful to build the hope.