Want to become a freelance instructional designer?
You’ve come to the right place. In this article, you’ll get nine simple steps that will help you start your freelancing career and start taking on clients in no time.
Ready to get started? Read on!
Why is going freelance a great option for instructional designers?
For me, it was first and foremost a way to get adequately compensated for my skill set. When I was looking for a job, I’d heard things like you need to “work full-time for a few years” before becoming a successful freelancer.
I believe your income should really be about the value you bring to the table, which is in large part due to your skills.
That’s why I decided to become a freelance instructional designer while I was studying for my master’s degree:
With that said, it does take a certain personality type to start a freelance business.
That’s because it’s 50% work and 50% building a business. You need to be prepared to handle both.
But there are also some undeniable perks to being a freelancer.
For example, I liked the idea of being able to take my laptop and work from Europe for a couple of months if I felt like it. And I set my own hours, which made my daily schedule much more flexible.
You also have more variety as a freelance instructional designer. When you're a full-time employee, you exclusively work on ID projects.
With freelancing, that's only half the equation. The other half is keeping your business running with new clients coming in.
However, people do tend to question the stability of freelancing. If you're a full-time employee, there’s definitely more regularity, and you know exactly how much your paycheck will be.
But if your employer goes under or you lose your job for whatever reason, your sole source of income will disappear.
As a freelance instructional designer, you’re able to diversify where your income comes from, which is much more stable.
Here’s an example:
My student Nicole, who’s now a freelancer, explains how freelancing was actually more secure than being employed when one of her clients cut jobs.
“I lost one of my largest contracts when the manufacturing firm I had been working for unexpectedly cut their spending budget for training as a result of COVID. Work began to slow down all around me.
But, because I had a diversified client base, work never dried up completely. I continued to have a steady flow of contracts from other industries, which provided some financial stability during uncertain times.
The impact was much harder for my peers who had been permanently employed and experienced sudden and unexpected layoffs – with no supplemental sources of income.”
As you can see, having a diversified income can be a game-changer. Besides, going freelance is totally doable.
Take my client Robbie, for example. He became a freelancer right after going through my Instructional Design Bootcamp. He explains how in this short Q&A:
In Robbie’s words:
“When I decided to leave my job and move into instructional design, I planned to work 2-5 years in a corporate role to get my foot in the industry before freelancing. As I went through the bootcamp, though, my plans changed, and I decided to exclusively pursue freelancing opportunities. About ten months after enrolling in the bootcamp, I had so much work that I started turning down offers.”
If you’re wondering what, exactly, a day in the life of a freelancer looks like, here’s Nicole’s take:
But you’re probably wondering how much work there is in this field. Let’s take a look.
There’s a huge demand for e-learning, and this trend isn’t changing anytime soon. In fact, corporate e-learning is expected to grow by 250% by 2026.
Plus, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook forecasts an 11% growth through 2026 for instructional designers and coordinators, which is faster than average.
So yes, skilled instructional designers are in demand.
Next, let’s take a look at your potential paycheck.
Freelance instructional designers are well compensated. In the US, the average yearly salary is $83,942. This is just the average, though. For instance, I started earning multiple six figures in my second year of freelancing.
But, as a freelancer, you also have to be more disciplined about your expenses. While an employment contract includes benefits, going freelance means you’re responsible for covering sick days, retirement funds, and more.
We’ll cover freelancing costs more closely below. Now, let’s jump into the specific steps to becoming a freelance instructional designer.
What does it take to start a freelance instructional design business? Here are nine steps to set up your business.
The two questions prospective clients consider when hiring a freelancer are:
That’s why you need a stand-out portfolio that shows your history and skills.
Here are a few things to include:
I walk you through creating a great portfolio that’ll get you noticed and land you work in this short video:
Next, determine your target market and ideal clients.
See, you can’t really stand out if you don’t have a specific audience to speak to. So, will you focus on projects for corporations, non-profits, higher education, or other kinds of organizations?
To decide on your target market, consider:
The third step is to research your market.
Deciding on your target market is one thing. But figuring out what they need is another. Your target market might have specific instructional design needs. So, without speaking to those needs, you won’t land many clients.
There are two ways to conduct market research.
1) Online research: Look at the discussions your target market has on platforms like LinkedIn.
2) Talk to potential clients: Interviewing people in your target market is most effective. Plus, reaching out to ask for these interviews is a great way to connect with people who might be interested in your services.
As I mentioned, half of being successful as a freelance instructional designer is marketing your services. So, this means networking at in-person events and conferences and/or online through social media platforms like LinkedIn.
Here are my recommendations for using LinkedIn effectively:
Most freelance instructional designers believe that purchasing eLearning development software will be their most significant expense. But there’s more to it than that.
In this video, I break down some of the most common freelance expenses, such as admin and legal fees, taxes, and insurance:
To summarize, you need to consider:
You also need to factor in things like upskilling and training costs.
And, since you’re the boss as a freelancer, you cover your own vacations and sick days, business licenses, and so on. You also need to pay for retirement benefits, so set up a plan for that from day one.
Novice freelance instructional designers often get burned by contracts written in the client’s favor. So, if you have a standard contract with the most important things included, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and frustration down the line.
For example, I used to make sure to ask upfront whether I could use the client’s logo (and a screenshot with a description of the work I had completed) on my website and for my portfolio.
If the prospective client didn’t agree, I usually charged a 30% to 50% higher project rate.
Here are my best tips on contracts:
Next, you need to establish a pricing structure.
The first thing to do is to decide whether you want to charge hourly or by project. There are pros and cons to each.
Hourly pricing makes the most sense if you’re new to the field, you work slowly, or the project scope is unclear.
Personally, I prefer project pricing, though. You’re rewarded for your efficiency, and clients know exactly what the project will cost.
Of course, project pricing requires that you and your client clearly define the project scope. When I was still freelancing, I used to present the project in three stages with separate reviews:
1. Text-based storyboard
2. Interactive prototype
3. Final product
Then, decide on your price. In the beginning, the easiest way to go about this might be to understand your client’s budget so you can adapt accordingly. So, for example, if their upper budget is $10,000, that’s your price.
When you get a bit more advanced, you might want to start thinking about profits and growth.
First, consider how much it would cost you to hire someone else to complete the work. Then, think about how much it would cost you to manage the project. And finally, add a 30% profit margin (or any margin that you’re comfortable with) so you’re not just breaking even.
Of course, you don’t need to hire out – but you have that option. And being able to do that is essential for managing and growing your business.
Now it’s time to get that first client lined up.
There are different ways to approach this. The way I landed my first client was through Upwork when I was still studying for my master’s degree.
I reached out to about ten people, and one said yes. The project was worth a few hundred dollars, and when I was done, I asked if I could include it in my portfolio.
A bit later, I happened to talk to someone in my network who asked for my portfolio – and if I had done any paid work. Because I had that small paid gig from Upwork, I was able to say yes and landed my next project.
At this point, people started finding me on LinkedIn where I had linked to my portfolio.
Plus, I was simultaneously building my content marketing, so people also started finding me on Google. And, ultimately, through word of mouth.
Here’s something important I want to note, though:
The quality of the leads that came to me was always proportional to the quality of my portfolio. That’s why the first step is to get your portfolio in good shape.
Once you have a portfolio, the next step is to start looking for clients. Here are some of the best places to explore:
Use LinkedIn to keyword-optimize your profile since lots of clients are looking for talent on the platform.
Job boards usually offer lower-paid opportunities, but they’re great for landing your first paid project. For example, the eLearning Heroes Job Hub is a good resource.
There are plenty of online communities where you can network and find opportunities. For instance, our own ID Community has an opportunities space where people share opportunities. Hiring managers and potential clients are also active and sometimes reach out to engaged members directly when they find a good fit.
Let people in your network know that you’re starting to freelance. Your network is low-hanging fruit because they already know, trust, and like you.
Want more help on how to land clients? Take a look at this video:
Once you’ve worked with a few clients, the last step is to get testimonials from them.
That’s because social proof makes it much easier to land your next client. It took me too long to realize how important testimonials are, especially on a portfolio website.
Potential clients and employers don’t want to just take your word for it about how great you are — they want to see what others have to say.
For example, Robbie, my client turned freelancer, says:
“After initially getting my foot in the door, most of my work has come from word of mouth. My portfolio is a critical piece to show my legitimacy, but most of my projects have been as a result of previous jobs. When people like your work, they want to hire you to do more, and they'll tell their network about the experience they had with you. Never underestimate the power of testimonials and referrals.”
Don’t have testimonials? Ask:
Also, at the end of any project, ask the client for referrals. It’s much easier to get a steady stream of clients if they’re referred to you.
There you have it.
Now you know how to become a freelance instructional designer.
Choosing to go freelance as an instructional designer might feel like a big deal, but these nine simple steps will help you get started right away.
To learn how to successfully start and grow your instructional design career, grab your own copy of my checklist for landing instructional design jobs and freelance projects.