Back in 2015, I gave a short presentation for the Online Network of Independent Learning Professionals on finding freelance clients. In reality, I don’t do very much to actively seek out clients; most of my freelance clients find me. Here are the recommendations I shared with the group on how to become visible to clients (plus some updates). Even though this presentation is several years old, my methods haven’t really changed much. The biggest shift for me is that more of my work now comes from networking and referrals rather than from my blog and portfolio.
Watch the recording
You can watch the recording of the presentation on YouTube.
An online portfolio is a requirement if you’re freelancing or consulting. 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 or video walkthroughs 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.
WordPress has improved their options for displaying portfolios since I originally gave that presentation. Now, the easiest option is to use the Portfolio content type and a theme designed to highlight that feature. You can also use grids and blocks for your portfolio.
- Instructional Design Portfolio Resources: My post on portfolio resources
- 30+ Ideas for eLearning Portfolio Samples: If you need to create samples, this will make brainstorming faster.
- E-Learning Portfolios: Share Your Work: A collection of portfolios in the eLearning Heroes community. This is a great place to look for inspiration.
- Excuses for Not Having a Portfolio: If you find yourself saying, “I know I should have a portfolio, but…” this post is for you.
Networking = Relationships
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 elearning field, especially other freelancers and consultants. 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. Referrals have increasingly become important in my business, even more so than when I originally gave this presentation.
Social media and online communities
In 2015, the primary way prospective clients found me was via my blog. They usually searched for “instructional design” or “instructional designers,” read one of my posts, and followed that to my portfolio and business site. A blog gives you credibility and makes it easier for people to find you.
Now, in 2023, my blog and other social media are still important, but less important than referrals and networking. I increasingly see LinkedIn and YouTube as the primary social media channels people use for promotion rather than blogs. (That said, the recent challenges on Twitter have encouraged some people to reconsider having their own platform for publishing, rather than relying on any centralized service.)
Online communities like LinkedIn and eLearning Heroes are also great ways to connect with people. You can demonstrate your expertise by sharing your knowledge generously with others. I once got a major project as a result of a question I answered in a LinkedIn group. However, it wasn’t the person who asked the question who hired me; it was a third party 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
I’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.
Additional resources and reading
- Jackie Van Nice’s 3-Step Formula For Finding Work As a Freelancer
- Ashley Chiasson’s posts on how she finds work. The first post is how she initially found work; the second is how she was finding work several years into freelancing. This shows a progression that I expect many people can identify with; when you’re just starting out, you might need to seek clients directly. As your reputation builds, clients find you via referrals, networking, and other sources.
- Where to Find Freelance Instructional Design Gigs (Ashley’s old methods)
- Update: Where to Find Freelance Instructional Design Gigs (What she does now)
- Nicole Papaioannou Lugara shares some of her tips on how to become a freelance instructional designer.
- Tips for Starting to Freelance: My tips from when I first got started.
- Freelance Instructional Design: Tips from the Trenches: A collection of tips others shared with me when I got started freelancing.
- I co-teach the eLearning Freelancer Bootcamp with Robin Sargent and Nicole Papaioannou Lugara. That’s a structured course on the business side of freelancing. It’s designed for people who have the instructional design skills already but need to learn how to grow a business.
Thanks to Patti Bryant for doing an amazing job organizing ONILP, which continues to be a valuable group for freelancers and consultants.
Images (except the portfolio screenshot) from Storyblocks
Originally published 11/11/2015. Updated 1/12/2023.