How to Get Started Freelancing

I have worked for myself almost as often as I've worked for other people, and one question I'm sometimes asked is, "How do you get started?" The rules below are the advice I give people who want to become freelance trainers (which is the most rewarding work I've ever had).

  1. Start in the backup band.
    Be a helper at a gig someone else has organized in order to learn the business and make contacts. If it's commercial training, the lead instructor should cover your travel and accommodation and pay a few hundred dollars for a day of your time; if it's not, ask if they will let you teach one hour of the class and then give you feedback.
  2. Start with friends.
    Is a friend or colleague working somewhere that would benefit from training? If so, see if they can introduce you to their boss or to someone in HR (which is often responsible for arranging training).
  3. Start with conferences.
    Many conferences have a tutorial track; take a look at what's 6-12 months out and contact the organizers or the tutorial chair to see what they're looking for or whether they want what you already have.
  4. Go where other people aren't.
    Lots of recovering academics teach programming or data science to pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions. Fewer think about less glamorous industries like trucking or office building management, but they need help too.
    1. Use examples that are directly relevant to their field.
    2. Talk to a few people other than your initial contacts to get a sense of what the average community member actually knows.
  5. Charge the going rate.
    You would expect to pay between $300 and $1000 for a day-long conference workshop; assuming a 20-person class and a 50/50 split between the instructor and the venue, that works out to $3K–$5K for you. You should always add travel costs and accommodation on top of this, but none of my clients ever agreed to pay me for my travel time.
  6. Negotiate for prep time.
    If you are offering a workshop at a conference, the organizers probably won't pay for your prep: they'll assume you already have a course. If you're going on site to train a single client, ask for $50–$100/hr to prepare custom material, but don't be surprised if they say "no".
  7. Never give away the rights to your material.
    I strongly recommend publishing training material under a Creative Commons license, because if it's any good, it's going to wind up on the web anyway. If you'd rather keep it to yourself, that's OK, but do not let a client tell you that they own it or have an exclusive right to its use unless they have paid you (well) for the privilege.
  8. Talk to your employer.
    Many people start training professional on the side and only switch to it full-time once they're sure they can support themselves. I've never heard of an employer saying "no" to this, but:
    1. Tell them up front: they're going to find out eventually, and if you've tried to hide it from them, they'll wonder what else you're not telling them.
    2. Keep your training separate from your day job. Back when I was multi-tasking, I only developed training materials on my home computer and only answered training-related mails when I was at home.
    3. Offer to do some in-house training for free (where "free" means "during work hours, as part of your regular paid employment"). If you want to use material you've developed in your job externally—e.g., if you created a course for a university and now want to use those lessons at conference workshops or elsewhere—make sure you confirm in writing or by email that your employer is OK with that before you do it.
  9. Create a professional-looking website.
    And make sure your LinkedIn profile is up-to-date, because potential customers are going to check you out before signing anything. Your website will usually not include your rates: for whatever reason, people seem not to post those. Instead, it should have:
    • contact information (not your work email if you're starting part-time);
    • a brief biography;
    • samples of your training material;
    • a couple of short videos of you in action;
    • a calendar of upcoming engagements (or of conferences you're going to attend or other places you're going to be, because even if you're not teaching there people can use the opportunity to say "hi");
    • some recent blog posts related to what you teach or describing recent engagements) (with an emphasis on "recent": if the most recent post is two years old, you're not helping yourself);
    • praise from previous clients (or professors you TA'd for, or anyone else); and
    • the Code of Conduct for your workshops.
  10. Don't be afraid to say "no".
    Most people have a to-do list; if you're going to any kind of independent consulting or training, you should have a to-don't list as well. Mine includes:
    • Don't insist on teaching in person. I have another blog post brewing about how to provide interactive online training, which I think provides most of the effectiveness at a far lower cost to family and the environment.
    • Don't agree to "one extra thing" without first confirming that you're going to get paid for the work.
    • Don't work cheap in the hope that training will lead to consulting work: it does happen, but it's uncommon enough that I can't afford to bank on it.
    • Don't stop teaching for free. I've run half a dozen free classes for public libraries over last three years because I think that public libraries are one of the crown jewels of civilization and I want to help them however I can. I've also run classes for local companies in exchange for donations to charities I want to support, which is better for both parties once the tax implications are sorted out.