Freelance Heroes

Aug 02, 2012

Hi, and welcome to the "Freelance Heroes" thread, a place where Articulate Freelancers help each other. Got a question about freelancing? Or perhaps you have an e-learning asset that may be valuable to those "doin' their own thing"? This is the place to share--to give.

To start things off, I'd like to share a short list of questions that help me figure out what kind of training a potential client wants. (So often they have no idea what they want.) The list is far from exhaustive, but may be of some help. Looking forward to meeting you. --Daniel  

1293 Replies
Holly MacDonald

Bruce, I have had this on my radar for awhile as you are quite right, you can grow a service business, but it is hard to scale. There are many options for developing products, as by-products of your service work. I've got a few ideas up my sleeve, but haven't executed anything yet. Common ones I've seen in our industry: books/ebooks, courses and training on the toolset.  

I have been lucky enough to work on a project that involves teaching tech start-ups some business acumen. One method that's included is the value proposition canvas that could help crystallize ideas around customer needs. It came after the business model canvas, another very popular tool out there to help companies create and test their business models.

Not sure if you are looking for any information or just others that you might chat with on the topic. If so, count me in as one who is exploring companion products.

Hope that helps,


John Cooper

I like this discussion.  It reminds me of, many years ago, when I first quit corporate life and decided to set up my own consultancy.  I had experience of selling IT systems and also Marketing - so I figured I knew how to do it!  I targeted one particular large construction company and was able to get an appointment with the Head of Group Training for Europe through, even though I say it myself, some very clever and imaginative direct mail and telephone follow -up.

I was so full of myself that I had got this appointment, I just forgot the basics. Even before I had sat down, This Senior Director looked me straight in the eye and said "What exactly does your company do?".  It seemed, to me, like an age - but it was probably only a few seconds - I froze!  I had no idea what I was selling!

Salespeople refer to it as the 'elevator conversation' - you are in your client's offices and you meet the CEO in the elevator.  he enquires about you business - if you can't explain what you are selling and why your client should buy it in 30 seconds then forget it.

Suffice it to say I never got any business from that construction company.  But I never made the same mistake again!

John Cooper

As a follow-up to my anecdote - I don't think it matters too much whether you are selling a product (like packaged e-learning) or a service like e-learning development.  Both models have advantages and disadvantages.  I agree, however, that you do need to be selling something other than yourself to be able to expand the business.

Software product (like off-the-shelf e-learning) is good in that you develop it once and then reap the rewards (assuming it sells) over a period of time.  But beware, it also means you have to have a support operation to iron out the bugs, user difficulties etc.

As Holly said, e-books are good!  No maintenance...

Bruce Graham

Thanks John.

Yes - Elevator Pitch, however I could just say "I'm Bruce Graham - I create eLearning in many forms, where appropriate, and it will help to reduce your corporate losses, increase profits, or reduce personal/business risk".

That would not be the "product" though. That's just me, which I no think is not enough.

It's just not a facet of our career choice that I see discussed very often, and I wonder if we should look at it more, and/or in more depth.

john faulkes

This is an interesting discussion and highlights a dilemma that many non-corporate people experience.

My main business is not instructional design, I do a bit of it, but all of my work is basically a 'service' for customers of some kind.

Many people (including me at various times over the years) aspire to create and market a 'product' of some kind which may grow 'independently' of themselves. I know some contacts who have done it and some (more) who have tried and failed.

There is some interesting research you can access (look up Porter's Generic Strategies in Wikipedia if you have some time), and I have heard some people use and adapt this usefully.

  • One basic commercial strategy is 'cost leadership'. The key factor here is 'efficiency'. It mostly applies to major retailers and doesn't (much) to us.
  • Another strategy is 'product development'. The key factor here is 'differentiation'. i.e. your product does something novel, that customers will pay for. (Before getting too excited about this it is always worth looking at potential products being taken apart on TV, on Dragons Den or its US equivalent!)
  • A third strategy is 'bespoke service'. The key factor here is 'trust'. Most of us are in this mould.

The point about highlighting these three strategies, is that some wise gurus will advise that you focus on one only, and never get confused by messing about with others. A classic example is the talented person that is prototyping a 'product', offering it to some customers, then majorly changing it at the customers request, to get some money in the door. Another is the experience of running a major, innovative exercise with a client, and thinking "surely we have a 'product' here that others will love"...then over a few years finding out that no one at all is interested. (The key here is the word 'surely', of course, i.e. you have done no market research)

But there is really nothing to be criticized about people trying to bring dreams into reality, blurring the lines and breaking the mould. These wise gurus are not necessarily right. If you build a bigger business with a 'service' model, eventually your great associates will peel off and work for themselves, and compete with you. There are some big service businesses but they are in things like law, accountancy, mainstream IT, and not really in instructional design. If you want to be a tycoon you really need products, IP or serious trading deals, etc. It's just that the products have to be robust and usually you have to take a lot of risk and break your heart getting them going!


Jerson  Campos

Great time for this discussion as I should start thinking about this for my own business.  I consider my products  the services I provide and the graphic assets I sell through my website. Right now its characters, but I'll be adding some more items later on. Even though I started the business for the sole intention of just selling characters and other stuff I have created on my spare time, that has now become secondary to my consultancy services. But his product you are talking about is still you correct?  But it will be others that will be selling you as their product. I think this would be an ideal setup, because now you have someone else doing the leg work as well. 

Bruce Graham

Hey John! Thanks for chiming in. Hope you are well - are you still having building works done on the house? 

Great addition to my thought process...I guess I am the stage that says "Trust me...and trust my product..."  :)

Jerson - saw your PM, will reply ASAP.

Holly - will email you at some point re this, as I have an idea too :)

I really am still trying to make sense of this in my head, how to "...turn the dial up to 11" in terms of our businesses, for those that want to.

Nick n/a

I work with a product that is essential and in fact used by everyone and the number of hours required to generate a good income are actually quite few on a yearly basis. Everyone has need of this product regardless. However, as it has nothing to with ID, HR, eLearning, training I'll leave it out of this thread. It's in a different industry.

Nancy Woinoski

Bruce Graham said:

@Nick, I am not really asking a question, I am just trying to highlight a thought. If that leads to discussion - fair enough.

Given the world of today, and the technology we have available to help us, I can see more effective ways to grow a business than "staff" and "an office". I used the services of 9 people last year, some very intensively, my business grew, but I am still trading using my "name" as the basis for growth. Cathy has a great name, and a great "product", her blueprint. I merely used her as an example, there are many others who have made the transition to having this.

I do not think there is any difference between your friend and you - it is merely scaling. All of the business concepts are identical, but that is not what I am trying to discuss here.

All I am trying to explore is the CONCEPT of having a specific product to sell other than your name and your experience/expertise. Wondering who else does this, in this immediate community, if anyone. Most people here are one-person or small companies, selling "instructional design". I believe that it is also important to have something else, something where people can "buy" a certain number of "that thing". It generates revenue, and also assists sell the consulting and the person.

One person who does this and does it well is James Kingsley

Jeanne Bernui

Nick Elkins said:

Jeanne Bernui said:

Hi Everyone.  I'm working with an international client on several courses that will need translation into multiple languages.  Anyone have a recommendation on translation services for elearning?  Here's the list of languages they will need:







Spanish (I've got this one covered)

Portuguese (I might have this one covered)


Any recommendations would be appreciated!

Thanks!  Jeanne

Hi Jeanne,

We've done quite a bit of translation work for e-learning content. We're a custom course creation company, so we've mostly translated courses that we first developed in English, but we can certainly discuss what you're hoping to accomplish. Please check us out at Artisan E-Learning and let me know if you have any questions. You can also read my most recent blog post about E-Learning Translation tips here.

I also have contacts of multiple e-learning translation/localization vendors that I can share with you. 

Good luck with your project!


Thanks, Nick!  I appreciate the info!  I'll check out your site.

Nancy Woinoski

Bruce Graham said:

Nancy Woinoski said:

One person who does this and does it well is James Kingsley

Yes Nancy, exactly. I believe it may be easier to create "technical" products rather than "ID-type" products.

Probably, I think with ID-type products you really need a certain name-brand recognition to give your product some legs. One way to do this is to get on the presenter list at the bigger industry-related conferences.  Focus your message around whatever it is you are trying to sell. Don't dilute your brand by offering all things to all people. 

I think it is easier to sell technical products provided they work but you have to overcome the barrier that many people in this industry want everything for free.

Bruce Graham

The learned and intelligent Nancy Woinoski said:

 Don't dilute your brand by offering all things to all people. 

...and that goes to the core of the "freelancer lifestyle".

Very often - we do EXACTLY that, through fear of just getting to that next Invoice.

It is INCREDIBLY hard to say "...thanks for the call, however - I do not really do that. Can I recommend Nancy Woinoski tho'?"

Nancy Woinoski

Bruce Graham said:

The learned and intelligent Nancy Woinoski said:

 Don't dilute your brand by offering all things to all people. 

...and that goes to the core of the "freelancer lifestyle".

Very often - we do EXACTLY that, through fear of just getting to that next Invoice.

It is INCREDIBLY hard to say "...thanks for the call, however - I do not really do that. Can I recommend Nancy Woinoski tho'?"

LOL - you have done that in the past (which I much appreciate by-the-way). I still struggle with this. Right now I am doing ID work on a leader-led training program. There isn't even an eLearning component to this project -  at least not yet.
Daniel Brigham

This is the thread that won't die, I gotta say.

Bruce, I've been scaling my expertise though authoring courses on Articulate and Instructional Design topics. In less than five months, over 3000 people have paid to watch my courses, and that's kinda neat. I am a commodity now, though under-valued.

Interesting question, Sir Bruce. Curious to what other have to say. --Daniel

Holly MacDonald

My comments here are for others who are reading this thread and wondering how it might affect them.

There are actually three things in this "product" conversation:

1. what's my product? - for most ID's it is going to be your own methodology/process and/or your unique style (this could be a visual presence that is recognizable, like an artist's style).

2. Can I productize aspects of my current work (selling your own skills, methodology or assets such as templates or characters or re-sell/license courses)?

3. Do I have product ideas for the industry that I have some unique ability to develop and build?

The first can be a product if you are efficient enough and can find economies of scale, or have a certain "studio" style. This needs time to develop. You might consider bundling or packaging your services, allowing customers to buy a package (for me, one bundle is customer training for software companies, which gets them: audit of existing approach, comprehensive training and performance support for users, and an onboarding schedule for new users) not just ask you to build a course.

The second is a way to generate passive income or supplement the lows in service businesses. These types of products are often derivatives of what you are doing now, but perhaps you are selling to other instructional designers, not your end client. This is a little different, but can be done. I mentioned them in an earlier post, and others have suggested them as well. Daniel's example is another.

The third is a more market driven approach, which is a bigger departure from pure service work. I think if someone goes into the second type, they should immerse themselves in the start-up culture, as there are lots of lessons to be learned about finding product-market fit, etc. Think of Bryan at elearning art or James at elearning enhanced or the elearning brothers.

All three are options for freelancers, and it's a good question to ask yourself. Selling services is hard, having a product line or option could help you develop a long term business. 

Hope that helps


Bruce Graham

@Daniel/@Holly - great stuff.

I think considering your mix of business is something that should also be intentional.

Tom speaks about "intentional design", and that's something that we should also do with our businesses - so I will spend 60% on consulting/building etc. and 40% on developing my spin-off products, or whatever.

This is really beginning to help me crystalise my thoughts about this whole topic - thanks for the useful contributions.

Daniel Brigham

Holly: I like your bundle idea: helps customers realize the breadth of what you offer. Also gets them thinking about the whole process. The more I think about it, with the lynda courses, I'm selling a personality as much as expertise. There are, of course, many people who know more than I do about certain softwares--yet, would you pay to hang out with them for a few hours while they teach you? Often, the answer is "Good God, no."

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. --Daniel

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