Appendix L: 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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".
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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);
- the Code of Conduct for your workshops.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.