So you want to be an e-learning consultant...

By Harold Jarche / November 2007

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If you've ever considered taking the plunge and becoming a freelancer, you may first want to ask yourself some hard questions about the consulting life. Can you live without a guaranteed salary? Do you enjoy business development and meeting people? Are you always looking for the next challenge? If so, consulting may be for you. The lifestyle of a consultant suits me—I'm now in my fifth year on my own and I actually look forward to Monday mornings.

Juggling Skills Required

Being a free-agent is very case-specific. Like learning, it's highly contextual. Every freelancer is different and possesses a unique set of circumstances. There is some general business advice that is suitable for everyone, but I think that freelancers have to cut their own path. There are no real rules or rock solid principles.

There are lots of variables in business, some that you can control and many that you cannot. For starters, you have control over your consulting area. I would say that there are three distinct potential consulting areas in our field: pedagogical, technological, and business analytical. Someone focused on the pedagogical aspects might be able to consult in courseware design or program evaluation. A technological focus could lead to evaluation of learning management systems. Those with a business analytical expertise might offer marketing or business planning advice. Examine your skills carefully and get someone else's opinion about your strengths and weaknesses.

I work in all three consulting areas, partly because I haven't had an excess of work in any one area so that I can ignore the others. A quick look at my projects since working on my own shows this breakdown—55 percent business analytical, 25 percent pedagogical, and 20 percent technological. Almost all had some kind of a learning orientation, but the main effort was not always pedagogical. My business analytical engagements are usually short-term, requiring several in a year to make a decent living. If you're more interested in pedagogical projects, like e-learning course development work, you probably will be able to get longer-term contracts (see Table 1).

Developing Your Business

Once you are clear about your service offerings, your next step is to grow your network. This does not mean connecting to as many people as possible on LinkedIn or Facebook. Many of my clients come from personal referrals. It is important to build and maintain some kind of a personal connection with anyone in your business network. Potential clients may include people you've worked with before, or met at a conference, or exchanged advice on an online social network. If you intend to invite existing or potential clients to your personal online social network, be conscientious of how you represent yourself. Inviting clients to a personal space means you've turned your personal space into a professional space, which may not be a bad thing. Just remember that anything you post on the Web will likely become public someday.

Blogging is one of the best ways that many consultants have found to meet potential clients and sustain existing clients. My own blog has been active since early 2004, so for potential clients it is only a search engine hit away. Blogging does take dedicated time and persistence, but I can speak to the benefits of my effort. If you're interested in being a consultant some day, start your professional blog now.

The barriers to enter freelance consulting have never been lower. The Internet has made it much easier to lower overhead costs. There are many free and low cost tools that you can use, and the sky's the limit without an internal IT department to block you. My main costs are computer equipment, website hosting, and communications services. Most other costs are project-related, such as travel. The Web is also a great source of information, with specific blogs on consulting, home-based businesses, and e-learning. I currently have more than 100 sites in my Web feed aggregator, providing me with much of the information I need to stay current.

Consulting competition is increasing, especially with baby-boomers taking early retirement and wanting to keep working. At this time there still seems to be a fair bit of work in more traditional e-learning, like course design and development. However, I believe that there are larger opportunities on the edges of e-learning. Informal learning with blogs, wikis, or podcasts outside the formal course structure or helping organizations foster communities of practice appear to be growing areas where e-learning skills are useful.

As an independent consultant you can be adventurous and try out areas that larger companies may not necessarily view as profitable. For example, you could become an expert in wikis for learning, which is too small a niche for the incumbent e-learning technology companies, but might give one person enough work. You can also focus on smaller or non-profit clients, who may prefer a more personal relationship. Some of my non-profit volunteer work has turned into paid projects, so consider volunteering. You may also want to try partnering with other independents. Several of my projects have been loose partnerships with other consultants. Don't think that you need to keep all of the work for yourself because good karma in the industry can go a long way in bringing you more work.

The Freelance Challenge

I've been in the consulting business, in one form or another, for the past decade. Consulting is particularly suitable for someone who enjoys being challenged with something new all the time. Your clients will want to hire you because you can help solve their problems. Quite often, clients only engage an external consultant when everything has been tried already and time is running out. The consultant has to have a wide array of tools and techniques available. Be ready to work in spurts and spend your quiet time looking for more business or developing your skills.

The major downside of consulting is that when you are working you aren't finding new work, and vice versa. As a consultant, you are only making money when you're working. That means that all your vacations are unpaid. You may also have difficulty getting extended health benefits or a pension plan, but there are more options available today. Keeping a balance of potential work and contracted projects takes some time to master. It also helps if you have some cash in the bank when you start, as there will likely be slow times. Keep your costs low and don't overestimate how much you will make. Also remember that many clients pay 30 days or more after being billed. Make sure you get some money up front. Freelance consulting does have its advantages: You set your own schedule, you can take advantage of opportunities as they arise, and you personally reap the profit of your work.

Table

T1Table 1.



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