Here’s How I Became a Full-Time Freelance eLearning Designer

Earlier this year, I shared with you that I made the transition into becoming a full-time freelance eLearning designer. And while I’ve been freelancing during my nights and weekends for the past several years, it has always been my long-term goal to make it my full-time gig—and trust me, it took a long time and a lot of work to make it happen!

Unfortunately, I think one of the biggest misconceptions folks have about freelancing is that you just decide one day to quit your full-time job and start a business. Well, I’m here to tell you that assumption could not be further from the truth! And while there are some folks out there who haphazardly make the leap like this, the reality is that most of them fail.

For me, the journey to becoming a full-time freelance eLearning designer is something that I’ve been working towards for many years. And the truth is, I never had a specific date in mind for when I would make the transition. Instead, I focused on a set of goals and milestones that would ensure my success when the time came, no matter how long it would take me to make it happen.

And that’s exactly what I want to share with you today. In this post, I’ll share the three steps I took to become a full-time freelance eLearning designer.

I Established My Brand

Here's How I Became a Full-Time Freelance eLearning Designer | Tim Slade | eLearning Blog

Here’s the thing: when you work as a full-time freelancer, you only get paid when you have work, and you only get work when you have clients, and you only get clients when they know who you are! Because of this, I can’t overemphasize the importance of having a strong and well-established brand!

For me, I started working on my professional brand back in 2012, when I created my first online portfolio and blog. At the time, I was working as a Senior eLearning Project Manager for the State of Wisconsin. And to be honest, I had no plans of becoming a full-time freelance eLearning designer, but I figured an online portfolio and eLearning blog would help my career in the long run.

Shortly after launching my online portfolio and blog, I started getting contacted by various companies, interested in hiring me as a freelancer. After picking up a few side projects, I quickly realized that I could use my nights and weekends to make some extra money, and that’s exactly what I did!

Since then, I’ve put a considerable amount of effort into building and nurturing my professional brand. Over the years, I’ve made huge efforts to maintain my eLearning blog and share my expertise on social media. In 2013, I also started speaking at various eLearning conferences and hosting free eLearning webinars. And by doing so, it’s not only helped me to transition into freelancing full time successfully, but it’s also helped me to get new jobs and negotiate higher rates for my work.

I Found My Niche

Here's How I Became a Full-Time Freelance eLearning Designer | Tim Slade | eLearning Blog

Becoming a successful full-time freelance eLearning designer requires you to know your talents and how to align those talents with the right clients. And while some clients are looking to hire a freelancer to accommodate some sort of capacity constraint, the vast majority of clients are looking to hire a freelancer to make up for a lack of capability. In other words, they are looking to hire a freelancer for the specific and unique talents they offer.

Having been on the side of having to hire freelancers in the past, I can tell you that a freelancer must be able to define the services they offer and why their talents are unique. The truth is, most clients don’t care how many years of experience you have under your belt or whether or not you have a degree—they care about what you can do fo them today!

In fact, in all of the years I’ve been working as a freelance eLearning designer, both part time and full time, I’ve never once been asked to provide my resume, education or work history. And why is this? Well, these things don’t really have any correlation to the unique talents I can offer right now. Yes, they’ve contributed to my expertise, but clients don’t really care how you developed your talents, they only care that you can put those talents into use to solve their problems.

So, how do you find your niche? Well, it’s simply a matter of paying attention to the types of work or projects you’re both successful at and enjoy the most. From there, you then need to determine whether or not it’s marketable and in-demand within the industry.

For me, I discovered that my niche is to develop eLearning content that is both ascetically pleasing and user-friendly. And while this might seem broad, the truth is there aren’t a lot of freelance eLearning designers who can execute the development of an eLearning course, while also applying strong graphic design, visual communication, and user interface design skills. This is my niche, and it’s what I’m known for, hired for, and it’s how I market myself within the industry.

I Diversified My Income

Here's How I Became a Full-Time Freelance eLearning Designer | Tim Slade | eLearning Blog

As I mentioned earlier in this post, before I made the leap into freelancing full time, I spent many years freelancing during my nights and weekends. And while the extra money was great for paying off extra debt, growing my savings, and taking a few vacations along the way, its was never enough to replace the income I made from my regular, full-time job.

The reality is, even when you’re a full-time freelance eLearning designer, there are only so many hours in the day and week that you can contribute to any number of projects or clients. Eventually, you’ll reach your own capacity limit, and you’ll have to decide whether you want sub-contract the extra work or hire your own employees. However, this isn’t possible for most freelancers, as it requires you to have enough cash flow or savings to cover not only what you need to pay yourself, but also those you hire. And frankly, most freelancer (including myself) don’t make the transition into freelancing to hire and manage the work of other employees or freelancers.

So, how do you make enough money to live, when you can only take on a limited number of projects at any given time? Well, for me, rather than hiring additional help, I decided to take the route of diversifying my income in other ways.

Let me break it down. As of right now, custom eLearning development and design only account for about 40% of my total income. The rest is generated through the other services and products I offer. For example, I facilitate in-person eLearning workshops and offer one-on-one consulting. And while these services account for another 30% of my income, they still require my time and capacity.

So, in addition to the services I offer, which require my time day in and day out, I’ve also created several different services and products that provide me passive income. For example, back in 2017, I self-published The eLearning Designer’s Handbook, for which I earn royalties each month. Earlier this year, I launched The eLearning Designer’s Academy, which offers self-paced online courses for new eLearning designers, and each time someone purchases a course, that’s income that contributes to the bottom line. Finally, I’m also an instructor for LinkedIn Learning (formally Lynda.com), which also pays royalties each month.

All-in-all, the remaining 30% of my income is generated passively, and it’s my goal to increase this percentage within the next few years.

The Bottom Line

Making the leap into becoming a full-time freelance eLearning designer, especially a successful one, isn’t something you just randomly decide to do. For me, the journey was paved with a series of strategic goals and milestones, enabling my transition to be a smooth one.

If you’re looking to become a full-time freelance eLearning designer, I hope my story inspires you to think about how you can increase your odds of success when you decide to make the leap for yourself!

If you’re currently freelancing full time, what other tips would you share from your experience? Share them by commenting below!

Tim Slade
Tim Slade is a speaker, author, and award-winning freelance eLearning designer. Having spent the last decade working to help others elevate their eLearning and visual communications content, Tim has been recognized and awarded within the eLearning industry multiple times for his creative and innovative design aesthetics. Tim is a regular speaker at international eLearning conferences, is a recognized Articulate Super Hero, author of The eLearning Designer’s Handbook and creator of The eLearning Designer's Academy.

25 Responses to “Here’s How I Became a Full-Time Freelance eLearning Designer

  • Michael Morton
    3 months ago

    Great article Tim, really useful insights! I’m considering following a similar path, so I really appreciate you sharing your experience.

  • Thanks Tim, this is helpful. I agree about finding a niche – and I’m still doing that at the moment. eLearning has become so broad with so many facets to it that I really think it’s important to go deep rather than wide.

    • I totally agree, Alex! While it’s great to have broad experience, it’s best to be good at a couple of really specific things. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Thanks for sharing Tim, an enjoyable read. As you know, I took the leap of faith into full time freelancing back in January 2017. The initial few months were difficult but it’s now picked up to a point where I seem to be constantly busy with different clients and new ones as well! My advice would be to also have a reserve cash fund, not only for the first few months but to see you through quiet periods, which happen now and again where work just slows right down, you still have bills and mortgages/rent to pay in quiet periods!
    All the best with you new venture and all your side products/services.

    • That’s great to hear, Lee! Also, thanks for sharing that tip about having a financial cushion! It’s extremely important and it’s something that I’ll be including in a future post.

  • Kim Woods
    3 months ago

    Thank you for sharing your experience! Appreciate the ‘peek behind the curtain’.

    • Daniel
      2 days ago

      Great article, Tim. I’ve been trying to make the leap into freelance e-learning development for sometime now, but still have many questions unanswered.

      Questions like: Does a freelance e-learning developer need to know graphic design too? If yes, what kind of graphic design tools and knowledge? Will clients ask for this? If you’ve posted anything about this, please do share the link.

      Also checked your portfolio and was blown away!!

      I noticed that you use Adobe Illustrator for your graphic design work. Is there any special reason for this? What type of graphic design work do you usually do with Illustrator.

      Personally, I find that both Photoshop and Illustrator needs a lot of space. And I’ve been trying to find something light which does not compensate with image quality.

      Once again! Thanks for sharing this great article.

      • I’m glad you liked the article, Daniel! To answer your question, I would say that it really helps to understand the basics of graphic design, especially if you want to be a freelance eLearning designer. Most projects will require some level of graphic design, and if you can do (without your or the client having to hire another person), it makes you that much more valuable. On top of that, designing your website, portfolio, business cards, etc. all require some level of graphic design. I hope that helps!

        As for additional resources, simply search Graphic Design on my blog and you’ll find a bunch of stuff! Best of luck!

  • Daniel Márquez
    3 months ago

    Hey, Tim! Thanks a lot for sharing this with us!

    This insights are very helpful, so I am kind of walking the same path at the moment.

    Best of luck!

  • Very interesting to see the story of where you started from and how you slowly built it up to offer more services. Slow and steady growth! I’ve heard from many people the advice that you should hold onto your job until you can’t do it anymore— because your side hustle and clientele takes up so much time that You can’t do both anymore.

    • Hey Daree! That’s such a great point and SO true! For me, I totally held onto my main job until it became a distraction from the work I really wanted to be doing. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Thanks for sharing your insights, Tim. I’m alao going through a phase right now as I left a job where I worked fir 12 years and klined a company for better salary but Im not liking the work abd its getting hectic so I wanted to take a decision to quit and become a full time freelancer

  • Shelby Morris
    3 months ago

    Hey Tim – thank you for sharing your journey which helps me with mine. It seems like most eLearning designers/specialists (or whatever they want to call us) have landed where we are today because we were good at that one thing. I hope to get out of my full-time job “box” and move forward with more freelancing so I can learn more about my brand.

  • Hey Tim, thanks for sharing your knowledge, this was very useful and inspiring.
    I can really resonate with what you wrote and going through the process myself.
    Being diversified is super important, especially in the passive income side, which I’m still trying to figure out.
    I’d love to hear more about how this process went for you at the early stages.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Oren! I’m glad you liked it! As for the passive income, it’s something that took me a while to figure out as well…and it’s something that I plan on writing about at some point in the future. Stay tuned!

  • Clarissa M Jarrell
    1 week ago

    I love this article. Thank you for your transparency!

  • Hey Tim, just read your article. Your explanation hits the nail on the head with all the grooves covered. The reading provided insightful info and serious pondering for the professionals thinking of making it a full time job.
    Liked the diversified income section. Smart way to generate extra income.

  • This is great information! One thing I would add is making sure you set your business up as an LLC at a minimum and hire a good accountant, particularly to help maximize your tax strategies. The business side of things can be scary, but even if you are only one person, you need to take the time to understand that aspect of freelancing.

    • I totally agree, Rebekah! The business stuff can be very intimidating…and it’s a huge investment of time. I spend several hours a week managing “the books.” Thanks for the comment!

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