It seems counterintuitive. How do you make money by sharing expertise for free? Wouldn’t it be better to hoard your knowledge and only give it out when people pay for it? After all, you can’t pay your bills with “exposure.” While that’s true, I’ve also found that sharing generously ends up growing my business. I’m more successful as a consultant because of the reputation I’ve built by sharing my knowledge. Sharing my expertise helps prospective clients find me, plus it means they already trust me before we even meet.
Blogging, presenting, and other forms of sharing expertise
I spend a lot of time writing and speaking about scenario-based learning, instructional design, and other topics. Last year, I spent about 10 hours each month on my blog. Primarily, I spend that time writing new posts and updating old posts, as well as replying to comments and private questions. I gave a bunch of webinars last year, most of which were free. I also did a few podcast interviews, and I’m active on LinkedIn and several online communities. In-person conferences are another venue; I present at a few conferences each year.
Overall, I spend a lot of unbillable time sharing with others. Partly, that’s because I enjoy helping other people, as I think many of us in the Learning and Development field do. But I also invest this time in sharing expertise because it’s an essential part of my business.
How prospective clients find me
In my consulting work, prospective clients find me in several ways.
- Blog or email list
- Referrals from other L&D professionals
A large portion of my income comes through repeat clients, but for new leads, those are the big three. Out of 19 new leads in 2023, 16 found me and reached out directly without a referral. 75% of those found me via my blog; the rest found me on LinkedIn.
As an aside, most of those leads didn’t turn into paying projects. Sometimes I decline work because I’m already busy and it’s just bad timing. I’m often booked several months in advance, so I generally can’t work with clients who need someone to start immediately. I refer those projects to others when possible. Sometimes it’s a bad fit for their goals, my skills, or the types of projects I want to do. In other situations, the prospective clients decide to go in a different direction or to hire someone else. That’s all normal and expected; no one has a 100% close rate. I have a qualifying process to screen out projects that aren’t a good fit, and it’s generally working.
Looking at my lead tracking from 2023, 50% of the prospective clients who contacted me through the “Hire Me” form on my blog ended up hiring me. That’s a pretty high closing rate, and it means I didn’t spend a lot of time writing proposals for clients who didn’t hire me. In fact, of the 7 proposals I wrote last year, I closed 5 of them, plus one potential project waiting on funding.
Sharing expertise for free builds trust
One of the reasons I have a high closing rate for my proposals is that most prospective clients already trust my expertise by the time they contact me. Even prospective clients who weren’t referred by someone else (which also confers trust) have usually read some of my posts or seen my work. They know that I know what I’m talking about because they’ve already heard me present or used my blog as a reference.
Sharing expertise helps the right clients find you
When you share your expertise, you often get known for certain specialties. For me, it’s branching scenarios and scenario-based learning. That’s what I write and speak about most often. I work on projects outside of that niche too, but that’s what I’m known for.
Because I’m known for scenarios, clients who are strongly opposed to a scenario-based approach generally never even contact me. They filter themselves out of the process before I even hear from them.
But wait, doesn’t that mean I’m missing out on opportunities? Not really. In some cases, I might be able to convince a client to try some scenarios. I have done that successfully in the past. However, it’s much less frustrating to have clients who are at least open to the possibility of scenarios. I don’t spend a lot of time talking to people who just want me to make a PowerPoint prettier.
While I do spend a significant amount of time sharing expertise for free, I also maintain some boundaries. At some point, what I do has to be paid. I have a mortgage and bills to pay just like everyone else!
Most of my income comes from paying clients, plus a smaller portion from teaching courses and workshops. I’ll write more about those boundaries in a future post, but overall I try to give away my expertise when multiple people benefit and the advice applies to a range of situations. If someone needs personalized advice for a specific situation or project, that’s when it crosses the line and becomes paid coaching or consulting.
More on freelancing and how clients find me
In 2015, I gave a presentation to the Online Network of Independent Learning Professionals on how freelance clients find me. While this presentation isn’t recent, the overall approaches I describe are still what I use today.
Check out my other posts about freelancing and consulting on my Instructional Design Careers page. I also have a collection of Instructional Design Careers and Freelancing Presentations and Podcasts.
Invest In Yourself. Part of the TLDC Women in Learning & Development online conference. March 25-29. Date and time of my session TBD. Free registration is open now.
Generating Plausible Choices and Consequences for Scenarios Using AI Tools. Thursday, April 25, 10:00 EDT. Learn to use AI tools to generate draft scenario questions, choices, and consequences. Understand how to refine prompts, recognize the limitations of AI tools, and know when to rely on AI versus manual content creation. Part of the Learning & HR Tech Conference, April 23-25 in Orlando.