Considering freelancing or consulting in the L&D world?

Over the past year or two, I’ve met a number of people who are exploring the idea of either taking on some side projects or leaving their full-time job and focusing wholly on freelance or consulting work as instructional designers, elearning developers or coaches.

This is the path I took, beginning in 2012, with a side hustle until I partnered with a friend from college and turned it into an actual company with 5 other employees.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Elaine Biech who has been doing her own thing – quite successfully I might add – for more than 40 years and has published EIGHTY SEVEN books! She had a lot to say about lessons learned and some very helpful advice for those looking to become their own boss through freelancing or consulting in the L&D space.

Transcript of the Conversation with Elaine Biech

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, your host and also the CEO and Co-founder of Endurance Learning. And our Train Like You Listen podcast is brought to you by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid authoring tool for instructor-led training. It’s award-winning now! It’s the winner of a Training Magazine Network Choice Award for Authoring Tools. Basically it’s like Instant Pot for training lesson plans – you put in a few ingredients like: how long is your presentation going to be? How many people will attend? Is it going to be in-person or virtual? What are your learning objectives? And then it spits out a lesson plan. That’s Soapbox! If you want to know more information about it, go to soapboxify.com

I’m very excited here to talk to you today about the idea of going out on your own and starting your own business, especially focused on training and development. I’m joined by Elaine Biech, who has been doing this for 40 years. Elaine is an author, consultant and ATD volunteer. She has 87 published books and a 40 year career for ATD in all capacities. Elaine, thank you so much for joining us.

Elaine Biech: You’re welcome. Glad to be here.

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: And so when it comes to this topic of building a consulting business, we like to always allow our guests to introduce themselves briefly with a six-word biography. When I think of this topic of starting your own consulting business or building your own consulting business, I would say, “Owning a business wasn’t my plan”. How about you, Elaine? How would you introduce yourself to our audience today?

Elaine Biech: I’d introduce myself by saying, “Get up and go to play”. Everybody says, “I’m getting up and going to work”. But I think you should love what you do so much that you can say, “I’m getting up and going to play”. So Monday morning you hop out of bed and you say, “Job, I’ve missed you so much! I can’t wait to get back to you!” We spend so many hours at work. We should love it. Really, really love it. And that’s what consulting is for me.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. Yeah. I want to get into this because the idea of finding your passion and then making money doing what it is that you’re passionate about, I think is kind of the Holy Grail of the work world, at least from where I stand. So can you share what might be some good reasons for someone to decide that they want to start their own consultancy, whether it’s a training facilitation company or e-learning development or instructional design or coaching or whatever it might be?

Why You Should Become a Learning & Development Consultant

Elaine Biech: Okay. So I think that there is only one really, really good reason and there’s lots of other sub reasons. And that really good reason is: because you want to. If you want to do it, you should. 

But some other reasons: first of all, it’s profitable. It’s a profitable business. Research has shown that most people make more as a consultant than they do on the job. For me, after 40 years of business, I’ve made more than my salary every single year, except maybe the first year. And one year I even made about 20 times the amount that I would have been able to make in a salary. Now that was a blip, obviously, but it’s possible. 

Yes, it’s profitable but I think that it’s much more than a job. Consulting is, right now, more in demand than ever, so it’s a great time to take the leap. There’s a shortage of employees and so they’re filling those jobs in, because the work still needs to get done, with consultants. I think some other reasons is that as a consultant, you get to do the meaningful work that you choose.

For me, I get to be my own boss. I get to make a difference in the world. I get to be creative. And finally, I think that in this day and age, there’s just no such thing as a permanent job. Permanent jobs are gone. So again, the most important reason to be a consultant is because you want to. You need to at least try it or next year you’ll be sitting here saying, “Gee, I wish I had”. So try it.

Brian Washburn: And so are there any reasons that you can think of that would be bad reasons for somebody to make that leap and go off on their own?

Why Your Shouldn’t Start Your Own L&D Consulting Business

Elaine Biech: I think that there are some people that just aren’t suited for it. I think that you have to be able to be a business owner. You have to want to do it. You have to like sales, you have to like marketing. So if you absolutely couldn’t overcome those kinds of things, then I think you shouldn’t do it but–. And if you like the security or pseudo-security, I might add, of being an employee then go for it. Do it.

Brian Washburn: Yeah.

Elaine Biech: But you can overcome all of the negative things.

Brian Washburn: So, and this gets into the next question that I want to ask because there is a big difference between, let’s say you really like facilitation and so you want that to be your business. There’s a big difference between being somebody who works internally for a company and all you do is facilitate, and running your own business that might revolve around facilitation. Can you talk a little bit about what some of those things that people would want to keep in mind? What some of the key differences are between working internally as an employee for someone else, and the world they’d be walking into if they were to start their own business?

Internal L&D Practitioner vs. Owning an L&D Business

Elaine Biech: Well, the biggest one that I think I alluded to is that you have to start thinking like an owner. You will be an owner. You will be a business owner, so you have to think like one. You have to have a good business plan. You have to understand your customers and know what they want. You have to have a certain amount of self-confidence. 

I think the most difficult thing about being a consultant is you have to put a price on your head. Up to this point, if you’ve only been an employee, you know what the salary is or the wages are going to be. But now, as a consultant, you have to figure out how much you’re going to charge. And most new consultants don’t charge enough. I know I didn’t. And almost every single consultant I speak to is not charging enough. Remember, you’re gonna have to not only pay your own salary, but you have to pay your own taxes, your own social security, your insurance, your retirement plan. There’s no paid time off. There’s no paid vacation. So you have to think like an owner and think of all those things. 

The other thing is once people get started, once they have that price figured out, I think marketing is the biggest hang up. People have to– you have to sell yourself. And my– and a lot of people think selling is a dirty word. I know I had to overcome that, too. But my advice is to always see it as helping other people, not selling yourself.

Brian Washburn: So this idea of sales is really interesting because a lot of people are like, “Ah, I don’t like sales. I don’t like bothering people”. I’ve found that I get business just by having conversations about what I do and what I get excited about. 

I love nerding out over adult learning, over instructional design, over sharing some of the creative things we’ve done. And it’s almost like it doesn’t even feel like a sales conversation. I’m just talking about what I like to do. And you do need to kind of put a little bit of a pitch in there at some point and make sure that people know, “Oh, we’re not just kind of having coffee and talking about shop. You know, it’s kind of we’re– let’s talk about business too”. But when it’s something that I’m passionate about, it doesn’t feel salesy.

Elaine Biech: No, it doesn’t and it shouldn’t. But you do have to have that elevator speech in there. You have to be ready to say – when people say, “What do you do?” – you have to be ready to answer and respond to that. 

And I think what you’re also alluding to is word-of-mouth work. I can trace almost every single client back to my very first client, which was Johnson Wax. That is a real string over 40 years. I mean, if you name any of my clients, I can almost always find the path. And one client would recommend me to another client, who would recommend me to another client, you know? 

I remember I did some work for NASA and I was recommended to NASA by Johnson Wax. And NASA – I did their first all country webinar, if you will, ever. (CHUCKLES) It was way back into the 1980s. And, they took me by the hand and drove me – after that exciting event – they drove me to the Newport News Shipbuilding Company. And I– the Newport News Shipbuilding Company was– I was living in Wisconsin at the time – the number of employees was four times the size of the city I lived in. Anyway, those are the kinds of things that can happen. You need to focus on doing a good job. If you do the work, do a good job, you’ll be fine.

Brian Washburn: And so you’ve been doing this for a while. I’d love to know if you have a top fiveish– it doesn’t have to be exactly five – things that have made running your own business worth it for you.

More Room for Creativity as a Learning & Development Freelancer

Elaine Biech: Yeah, I think there’s one big one and then there’s some others that fall under it. One of the most important things is: I’m being my own boss. That is the most important thing. Organizations move too slowly for me. They don’t allow me to be creative, they don’t allow me to take the risks I want. Quite frankly, I’m not a very good employee. So Brian, don’t hire me, alright?

Brian Washburn: (Chuckles)

Elaine Biech: I’m not a good employee. But I think there’s other things too. It allows me to make my own decisions. It releases me from taking orders and attending boring meetings. I get to learn, learn, learn – which is my passion after books. And then I think another really big one that’s critical to me is it gives me the opportunity to support and inspire other people. Yesterday, for example, I spent two hours over coffee helping a woman start her own business – her own consulting business. That’s very rewarding. I love to inspire other people to do what’s best for them, to find their passion, as you mentioned earlier, yes.

Brian Washburn: And it’s clear that you’re very good at what you do. You’re a person who’s definitely in demand. I’ve been trying to get you to do this podcast for seven months, eight months?

Elaine Biech: Sorry!

Brian Washburn: I’m so excited that we were able to do this. So for those who are listening and who are thinking. “Huh. Elaine is making this ‘going out on my own idea’ really attractive”. What would be your biggest piece of advice or maybe pieces of advice you’d offer to someone before they actually quit their job and made the leap?

Advice for Starting Your Own Training Consulting Business

Elaine Biech: Yeah. I think the most important thing is to interview several consultants and learn more about the lifestyle. In fact, I have a list of questions that I’d be happy to share with anyone. If you email me at elaine@elainebiech.com, I will be more than happy to email that to you. 

But learn why they started, learn why they stayed. What would they have done differently? What do they wish they knew before they started? How did they market their services? All of those kinds of things – I think that’s important. You just don’t have to do it on your own. Ask other people for their advice. And then, by the way, follow up with “thank yous”. “Thank yous” are free. Share them freely. Send thank you notes.

Brian Washburn: You know, I think that that’s such an important piece of advice is to talk with people who have gone down this path before, right? For somebody who’s going out on their own, even if you have the most original idea in the world, you’re not the first person who’s ever started a business. And so being able to–

Elaine Biech: There’s nothing new under the sun, right? Nothing!

Brian Washburn: I also loved the idea of a thank you. Which I think, you know, gratitude can go a really, really long way. 

Get to Know Elaine Biech

Brian Washburn: Elaine, I could talk to you about this for a long time. We’re out of time when it comes to the main questions here, but I do have a few speed round questions so people get to know you a little bit better here at the end. Are you ready for the speed round?

Elaine Biech: Sure. Go for it.

Brian Washburn: Alright. Do you like to take e-learning or take an in-person class?

Elaine Biech: In-person, hands down.

Brian Washburn: How about participate in a webinar or listen to a podcast?

Elaine Biech: Either one. I prefer a one-on-one discussion, just like we’re having right now. If I absolutely have to, a webinar where I can ask questions.

Brian Washburn: How about read a book or watch a movie?

Elaine Biech: Book.

Brian Washburn: How about use PowerPoint or Flipchart?

Elaine Biech: Both. I think that you need to use the best tool for the job. So do what you need.

Brian Washburn: Good answer. Fair enough. How about Poll Everywhere or voting dots?

Elaine Biech: Same – both. Which serves you better. And I think you need to think about your participants. Don’t think about yourself, think about your participants.

Brian Washburn: A participant-centered world, I think is so key.

Elaine Biech: Yup.

Brian Washburn: Now, did you invent that or was that Malcolm Knowles?

Elaine Biech: No that wasn’t (CHUCKLES)– you know, I think that was actually Bob Pike. I’m not sure, but it wasn’t me. I didn’t invent that. Thanks!

Brian Washburn: (Laughing) And for those who are listening at home, before we started recording, Elaine was telling me that early on she had a chance to meet Malcolm Knowles, and mentioned– shared with him that for a while she thought that she had stumbled upon something that was new and novel. And actually it happened to be just adult learning that Malcolm Knowles gets a lot of credit for coming up with. So what is the best piece of advice that someone has ever given to you?

Elaine Biech: Probably from my grandparents who said, “You can be anything that you choose”. And I was probably 30 years old before I realized I probably wouldn’t be the President of the United States. They believed in me so strongly, I believed in myself. I finally gave up that one at 30. So I wasn’t heading in that direction anyway! Ugh!

Brian Washburn: I was going to ask, do you regret that last choice?

Elaine Biech: Nooo!

Brian Washburn: What should people in the training field either be reading or listening to? Like a podcast or something like that these days?

Elaine Biech: Let’s see. Well, your podcast I think is fabulous. So I think that they should be listening to that.

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLES) Thank you.

Elaine Biech: Which they are already, so that’s good. But I think as far as reading goes, I think you need to stay up with your ATD – the TD Journal. And then check what ATD is publishing because– and especially their research reports – they’re really good. So also stay up with the industry you’re working in. So if you’re an employee or whether you have clients – what’s the industry that’s focused on? Stay in tune with hot topics, like I think the hot topics right now are: DEI, agility, the hybrid workplace. And then if you want some very specific books, I’d say: Think Again by Adam Grant, Atomic Habits by Jim Clear – great, great book. And Start With Why by Simon Sinek. Those would be the three books I’d grab.

Free Consulting Book Giveaway

Brian Washburn: And so before we leave, do you have any shameless plugs that you’d like to share with our audience?

Elaine Biech: Well, since this is about consulting, I think if anyone that’s listening is thinking about being a consultant, remember what I said earlier. You don’t need to do this alone. I teach an online course, or get one of my consulting books. And quite honestly, can I make an offer?

Brian Washburn: Of course! Yeah,

Consultant's Quick Start Guide - Elaine Biech
Email Elaine Biech to receive a free copy of this book!

Elaine Biech: I’d like to offer– I’d be happy to send a hard copy of The Consultant’s Quick Start Guide to anyone. All you need to do is email me your address and I’ll pop the book in the mail to you. Yes, a free book! Isn’t that a good way to bring your podcast to a closure?

Brian Washburn: I love that! We’ll put that in the show notes, too. For people who are just listening, if you go to trainlikeachampion.blog and read the transcript of this particular podcast, you’ll find contact information for Elaine there. And I would recommend taking advantage of that offer for the free book. Elaine, thank you so much for joining us. 

And for everybody listening, thank you for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen which can be found on Apple, Spotify, iHeartRadio, wherever you get your podcasts. If you happen to like what you hear, go ahead and share it out on social media, that’s how other people will find us and can also listen to future episodes. Until next time, happy training everyone.

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