One of the biggest concerns new and aspiring freelancers have is how to get clients. While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, in this post, I’ll talk about what has worked for me. Getting clients as an L&D freelancer boils down to 5 Rs: reputation, relationships, repeat business, referrals, and registration.
I’m listing reputation first because, in my mind, it’s the most important. It’s also how I started getting clients as an L&D freelancer. My previous employer hired me as a contractor because they liked my work (and they also had a client who was asking for me by name).
When I started Scissortail Creative Services last year, my first client was someone who had previously worked in another division of the company I used to work for. He knew me by reputation alone and hired me to consult with the company he works for now.
So, what do you do if you don’t have much experience? One way to build your reputation is by being active on social media. In the past year, I’ve gotten to know some L&D professionals through LinkedIn and Twitter that I never would have guessed are new to the field. They add value by posting insightful content, commenting on others’ posts, and asking questions.
If you don’t feel comfortable posting original content because you’re still learning, then you can curate content or share your own take on articles, podcasts, or videos you find. When sharing content, try to think of something meaningful you can add to the conversation.
One of the best ways to build your reputation is to develop a portfolio that clearly demonstrates what you can do. If you’re not sure what to include, check out this related post about how to get instructional design experience to build your portfolio.
Closely related to your reputation are the relationships you cultivate. I don’t mean to say that getting L&D work is “all about who you know.” That makes it seem like a rigged game, and I don’t believe it is. But forming relationships can lead to repeat business and referrals (more on that later).
Going to conferences is a great way to meet people and form relationships. However, if you can’t, you can build a personal learning network (PLN) through social media. Not sure whom to follow or how to get started building a PLN? Check out my Ultimate Resource List for Getting Started in ID.
If you’re an introvert like me, building relationships might seem daunting. I’m not a gregarious person, and “schmoozing” just isn’t something I do. One of my first mentors in this business is a very outgoing person who naturally draws people to her. For a while, I worried that I wouldn’t be as successful at client relationships because I couldn’t mimic her style. But Susan Cain and her excellent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, helped me realize that my own style works just fine. I care about people and the work I do, and that comes across to my clients. Find your strengths, and don’t try to copy other people’s styles.
When you build relationships with your clients and they know you do good work, you are more likely to get repeat business. I have some repeat clients who keep me fairly busy on an ongoing basis. And I have others whose projects are more sporadic.
Repeat business really is the sweet spot for freelancers. You don’t have to spend your (unbillable) time looking for work and writing proposals, and you get to work with clients you already know who understand your processes.
How do you get repeat business? One way is to directly ask for it. Call or email a past client and ask if there’s anything you can help them with. Another way is to keep in touch with phone calls or personal notes on occasion. This helps keep you at the forefront of their minds.
Earlier this year, I sent a somewhat random email to a former client—one I hadn’t worked with for two years. I wanted to introduce her to someone with mutual interests whom I knew she’d enjoy meeting. The introduction (over Zoom) went over very well, and she followed up by calling me. Turns out, she’d been thinking about me and had another project she wanted my help with. Would she have reached out if I hadn’t first contacted her? Maybe, but I think probably not.
That’s why it’s a good idea to keep in touch with clients you’d like to work with again. Remember the saying “out of sight, out of mind.” It doesn’t hurt to occasionally remind your previous clients that you still exist—and that you’re thinking of them. But don’t cross the line into spamming them with marketing pitches.
P.S. Right now is the perfect time to send out holiday cards (or ecards), with a personal note. It’s a thoughtful gesture that has the added benefit of getting your former clients (and other contacts) thinking about you too. Remember that not everyone celebrates the same holidays this time of year, so be inclusive.
Getting to know other people in L&D is beneficial in so many ways. First and foremost, you can learn a lot! Everyone has different strengths, and I don’t think I’ve met one other person in L&D from whom I couldn’t learn something.
Another great benefit of getting to know others in this field is that, once they know your capabilities and strengths, they may send work your way. I’ve referred work to someone else when I was too busy to take it on, and others have done the same for me.
Another way many L&D freelancers get work is through registration on sites like Upwork and Learnexus. Although I am not active on these sites, I do have a (wonderful) client who looked me up on LinkedIn after seeing my name on an initial Upwork search. And I know other L&D professionals who regularly get work through these sites.
Joining L&D organizations is another great way to build your network and find work. That doesn’t mean you have to shell out big bucks for memberships. There are plenty of free organizations, such as groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Slack. I’ll list a few at the end of the article.
Even if LinkedIn is the only place you post your resume, it’s a powerful site. Make good use of it! Not sure how? Devlin Peck has an excellent article about How to Use LinkedIn Effectively.
Remember the 5 Rs of getting clients as an L&D freelancer:
- Repeat Business
What have I missed? What ways of getting clients have been most successful for you? Let me know in the comments.
The following resources were mentioned above:
- How to Become an Instructional Designer: The Ultimate Resource List
- How to Get Instructional Design Experience to Build Your Portfolio
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking (affiliate link)
- How to Use LinkedIn Effectively by Devlin Peck
- The Freelance Instructional Designer
- Freelance Instructional Designers, eLearning Developers, and LXDs
- Instructional Design Jobs
- Instructional Designer
- Association for Talent Development
- Chief Learning Officer
- eLearning Industry
- Freelance in Instructional Design and E-Learning Industry
- Instructional Design Central
- Instructional Designers
- The Learning Guild
- Training & Development
Other Free or Low-Cost Organizations:
- E-Learning Heroes (Articulate)
- eLearning Industry
- The eLearning Designer’s Community
- The Learning Guild
- The Training, Learning, and Development Community (TLDC)