A Day in the Life of an E-Learning Freelancer

Have you been reading Allison LaMotte’s recent “day in the life” articles? I love these articles because they give you a genuine glimpse into her past life as an instructional designer and as an e-learning project manager. Reading her articles got me thinking about my own past as an e-learning freelancer. Over my five years of freelancing, I did it all—instructional design, e-learning development, QA, and project management. And looking back on it now, I can’t help but wonder: how did I juggle all of those roles … and not lose my mind?

The result of my little trip down memory lane is this article. In it, I’ve followed Allison’s lead, using her familiar “day in the life” format to give you a peek into my typical workday as an e-learning freelancer. And spoiler alert: it’s exhausting. Here we go!

7:00 a.m.

I set my alarm today for 6:00 a.m., so I’d have some time to respond to all the client emails I didn’t get to last night. While it’s cozy working from my bed in my jammies, I realize I only have about an hour to shower, get the kids up, dressed, fed, and lunches and backpacks in order. The work-from-home nature of freelance life means work and family often intertwine, both competing for your attention.

8:30 a.m.

I’ve dropped off my kids, walked the dogs, and I’m finally nestled into my office chair to continue with my workday. Ding! It’s an incoming message from my partner developer (a fellow freelancer). He wants to Skype about our 9 a.m. meeting with Client A. We hop onto a quick call and get our thoughts in order.

I’ve found that some projects are simply too big for me to do on my own. That’s why it’s so important to network and build relationships with other freelancers you can partner with.

9:00 a.m.

After exchanging friendly greetings with Client A, we get down to business. My partner shares his screen and walks them through the alpha version of their e-learning course, slide by slide. Along the way, I explain to the client that we’re using placeholder images for some slides because the final graphics are still being created. I take notes about the client’s reactions and their requests. Sometimes I have to interject and gently remind them that we’ve built the course following the storyboard and prototypes they’ve already approved. I learned pretty quickly that clear communication and managing client expectations go hand in hand with e-learning projects—especially when you’re a freelancer.

10:30 a.m.

That one-hour client meeting has morphed into a 90-minute meeting and we’re still going!

The good news is that Client A likes the course we’ve built, overall. The bad news is they still want to make design changes. Time to hold trade-off talks to make sure the client really understands the impact of making such changes at this point in the project.

After a quick review of our project plan, my partner and I agree that we can make the changes without impacting the timeline, but there will be an impact to their budget. Some of their requests for custom graphics are out of scope and will result in additional costs from our graphic designer. The client hesitates for a moment but then agrees to pay for the changes so they can get exactly what they want.

Note to self: Write and email a change order agreement before the end of business today!

11:00 a.m.

After refreshing my coffee, I decide to get some more work done on a storyboard for another project. There’s a long way to go to get the storyboard finished, so I block out a full day on my schedule next week. With that day blocked on my calendar, I should be able to don my designer hat and really focus on the material.

11:45 a.m.

I’ve got mail! This time it’s from a prospective client—Client B—who found my portfolio online and wants to chat about hiring me to turn some instructor-led training content into e-learning. I get a fair number of these inquiries so I’ve already drafted a pro forma email response to RFPs. I quickly open up that saved draft, change the names, and hit send.

12:00 p.m.

Time to shift gears again! I have another client meeting to attend—this time with Client C, to do a needs analysis for a new project. Before we can get started, the client tells me that their budget for the project has been slashed, so it looks like I’ll need to do both the design and development work. I’m actually fine with that, as I love any opportunity to get paid to build my Storyline skills!

To close out the call, I review the project plan with them, clarify next steps, and then we wrap up the call a little earlier than scheduled. Yay!

12:45 p.m.

I’m relieved that my meeting with Client C ended early because I’m starving! There was no time for breakfast so I’ve been running on coffee and adrenaline all morning. Before I bolt from my desk chair, I take the precaution of marking myself “away” on Skype and blocking my calendar until 2 p.m. for some lunch and decompression time. Freelancing has taught me that it’s a good idea to build breaks into your workday or you’ll wind up with a major case of burnout.

1:30 p.m.

One of the best things about being an e-learning freelancer is that you have more control over your schedule … sort of. I’m cooking myself some lunch when I see an incoming email from Client B—the prospective client I responded to earlier today. They want to know if I’m available for a quick meeting today at 2 p.m.

Even though I’m dying for a break, I accept their invitation. Truth be told, I rarely turn down the opportunity for work. When you’re freelancing, it’s important to build a pipeline of work from various clients. That way if one client’s project stalls (oftentimes delaying when I can bill the next installment payment), I’ll have another one in my back pocket so I can keep a steady stream of income.

2:00 p.m.

Client B has a really aggressive timeline for turning their current instructor-led training into e-learning. They want ten 30- to 45-minute e-learning courses created and live on their LMS in just eight weeks! I’m not really sure I can do it with all my other projects—and without giving up my upcoming vacation time. And I’m really concerned about turning out a quality product.

I need time to think this one through, so I tell them I’ll review my schedule and workload and get back to them with an estimate before the end of the day. When you’re freelancing, it’s important to remind yourself that, unlike a traditional salaried e-learning job, you can pick and choose your projects. You don’t have to take crazy projects with unrealistic deadlines—and if you do take them, you can ask to be compensated more generously for a rush job.

3:00 p.m.

Finally eating my lunch! The day is flying by and I only have until 3:30 p.m. before I have to pick up my kids from school. While I’m grateful to have the flexibility to be more present for my family, the price of that flexibility is that I’m constantly juggling and multitasking, so it’s hard to find time to focus on any one project.

4:00 p.m.

With no more client meetings scheduled, I can finally shift my attention to my to-do list, which includes:

  • Writing up a change order for Client A.
  • Reviewing my schedule so I can provide Client B with an estimate.
  • Writing and sending that estimate to Client B.
  • Writing and sending a follow-up email to Client C to recap today’s meeting and our next steps in the project.

5:30 p.m.

I couldn’t quite get through my to-do list before it was time to make dinner. As I’m dicing salad veggies, my phone rings. It’s Client D. Two weeks ago, I sent them their final published e-learning course to upload to their LMS. Client D says the courses aren’t registering as complete on their LMS even after learners visit the required slides. They’re requesting my presence at an emergency meeting with their LMS vendor and all of the project stakeholders to try and sort out what’s going on.

6:00 p.m.

I hop onto the call and after a lot of digging, we’re able to isolate the problem to learners using an older version of the Chrome browser. Thankfully, Client D says they’re able to help those learners install an updated version of the browser. Phew! Crisis averted!

Although this was an easy fix, I’m reminded once again that my clients rely on me for technical support when the courses I create aren’t working as expected. Sometimes it can be really stressful—especially when your client has hundreds or even thousands of employees depending on the e-learning you’ve created.

8:00 p.m.

Dinner is over and the dishes are washed. Time to finish up and send off that estimate to Client B.

10:00 p.m.

All the items on my to-do list are done and I’m just about to call it a night when my development partner for Client A’s project messages me on Skype. He wants to know if I can do a quick QA of the changes he’s made to the course. There’s no time like the present, so I settle back into my chair and click the link to review the updated course.

10:30 p.m.

I found a few navigation bugs so I record a quick screencast to share with my partner. I also look over tomorrow’s schedule and breathe a sigh of relief when I realize that I have no client meetings. That means I can actually take a few hours to run some errands and grab lunch with a friend.

Socializing with others is super-important when you’re working from home full-time. Otherwise you can find yourself turning into a hermit!

11:00 p.m.

Doh! It just dawned on me that tomorrow is the last day of the month, so I’ll need to add doing my monthly billing to my schedule. While lying in bed I grab my phone and block out some time on my calendar. I also remember that I need to send a quick email to my accountant about paying my quarterly income taxes. These kinds of business management tasks take up so much more of my time than I ever imagined!

And with that, it’s lights out. Time to recharge my batteries and do it all over again tomorrow.

Lessons Learned

Looking back I realize that life as a freelancer was pretty grueling. Yes, it was nice to have more control over my schedule and work, but the reality is I had a lot more stress than I would have had as a salaried, full-time e-learning pro. Between client management, business management, and project management, I was constantly fine-tuning my effective hourly rate to factor in my operating costs, my software, my health insurance (which I paid for!), my marketing efforts, not to mention my years of training and experience. Some clients, especially new ones, didn’t really understand why my rate was different from other freelancers offering the same basic output, so I had to become adept at selling my skills, working to earn my client’s trust—and their repeat business—with each and every project.

Yes, the autonomy that comes with freelancing can be empowering—but don’t expect it to come without some costs. I can’t remember a single vacation I took over those five years where I wasn’t schlepping my laptop to do work in my hotel room while my family did fun things without me. I also can’t remember a time when I wasn’t worried that my pipeline would suddenly dry up and I’d be forced to drain my savings account to make ends meet. And no matter how hard I worked to build a steady stream of projects, there were always dry periods that were hard to weather.

While freelancing may not have been the easier life I’d initially envisioned, it certainly was a rewarding one. I can’t remember a time when I’ve learned so much about myself and took such pride in my work. And along the way I learned that I’m much more resilient, capable, business-savvy, creative, and resourceful than I ever imagined. After all, when you’re doing it all on your own, you’ve got no choice but to make it work.

Are you thinking of breaking free and becoming an e-learning freelancer? In addition to this post, here are some resources you may want to check out before you take that plunge:

So, freelancers, how does your typical day stack up against mine? What’s different? Please share your experiences and your questions below. I’d love to hear more about what you like and dislike about freelancing, and I’m sure others would love to learn from you too!

And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

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Kevin Thorn