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July 26, 2011

3D Tips for the Part-Time eLearning Freelancer

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Written by: Kevin Thorn
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One of the best pieces of advice my father gave me was, “Discover what you’re good at and then learn how to make money at it.” Just like most obedient young boys, I totally ignored my father’s advice.

Success-guy-photoEven though I’ve been drawing and cartooning my whole life and developing elearning for the past ten years, I never put the two together. I’m a decent artist but most artists are their own worst critics, and even though I was passionate about it, I never once considered earning a living doing it. That is until I got serious and decided to officially freelance while working a day job.

Some of you may know me through Twitter as @learnnuggets and some of you may know my work through NuggetHead Studioz. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t have years of experience freelancing let alone freelancing full time to share success strategies. I do have some ‘getting started’ experience and things I’ve learned in the past year that I’ll share what I call my “3D Experience.”

Okay, so you have this thing you’re really good at. You’re really passionate about it and you want a piece of that industry’s pie. What’s next?


Deliberately deciding is crucial to your success. Think of it like a New Year’s exercise plan. You’re all excited about starting to exercise every day and lose the holiday weight. Off you go and usually within a month the ‘every day’ turns into ‘a couple times a week’ until eventually you don’t have the staying power to continue.

  1. Commit to a maximum amount of time. You might be willing to put in a lot of hours, but make your maximum a rational and reasonable amount of time that will still keep your family in balance. If you’re like me, it’s also keeping my chores up to par. I decided I could commit to 20 hours a week max. That’s four hours a night with weekends off or three hours a night with some work on the weekend.  This plan works for me because I am my family’s night owl. I get quality, evening  family time, and then, when my family goes to bed by 9:00pm, I get to work for a few hours.
  2. Treat it like a job. I treat it like a second job. Many part-time evening jobs are retail or restaurants. They typically close late, and if you’re on the closing shift, you’ll be there another hour or so shutting down. Time is time, and if you’re going to work hard, you might as well work hard for yourself.

Think in terms of cost when deciding the amount of time you’re willing to commit. Go easy on yourself if you’re unsure; say ten hours a week. Remember, you still need to change hats when you go to your day job the next morning, so you want to ensure you’re still getting proper rest – and getting the work done.


Next, know what is it that you are going to do. Think of your skills and your talents. Describe what you will be doing to yourself before you start telling others. If you don’t know, what makes you think they will know? Definitely, differentiate between practical work and consultation.

  1. Are you going to be doing the practical application of the work? If so, to what degree? If you’re a designer/developer like me, you have to be honest with yourself about how long it takes to put something together. Whether it’s an illustrated graphic or developing an elearning course, describe the boundaries. I started off with offering the full bucket load from cradle to grave. Everything from instructional design to publishing and LMS support. That’s a lot for a shop of one to handle. I’ve scaled back and focused more on what I do best – design/develop.
  2. Are you going to be a consultant? If so, to what degree? A consultant brings years of practical application experience to a market where others hire you to help them down a path you once traveled. It’s still time invested but a different kind of time. Lots of phone calls, emails, managing calendars and perhaps even some traveling involved.

Describing what it is you are going to do – and what you’re not going to do – sets boundaries. Not just for your prospective clients, but for yourself. The boundaries will keep you safe from bidding on a project that may be more than you can chew starting out. They’ll also keep the stress at manageable levels.


The phrase, “Under promise and over deliver” comes to mind. When you bid on projects, be honest with yourself about what you can deliver. Not so much in terms of the project itself, but how many current projects you have and how many you can balance at one time. I manage anywhere from 4-6 at any given time. Usually I have 3-4 illustration/graphics projects (which take less time), and/or 2-3 elearning projects (which are spaced out in terms of their production). I do this simply because I’m creative, and creative people (me at least) get bored easily. I need multiple projects at one time so I can switch between them often. And often, one project helps solve problems in another.

  1. Add a minimum of 20% time to every bid. Even if you know without a shadow of a doubt you can make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich in five minutes, bid six minutes. Why? Part time freelance is still life, and the dog is going to run away, your kids will want to play a game, you and your spouse may need to consume an evening talking about something more important. If not the normal stuff, then—even worse—the really crazy will happen. Multiple things will interrupt you. Plan for it.
  2. Don’t overcharge. It’s very attractive to get all caught up in the world of being your own boss and wanting to make your first million dollars in the first year. Stay humble. Do the work. The rewards will come in due time.

NuggetHead Studioz has only been an official business for less than a year. I have much to learn and only share these thoughts from what I’ve experienced already in that short time. Your situation will be different so just think through it carefully to ensure success. Oh, and of course…just do it!

Author: Kevin Thorn

Kevin works in elearning design and development for Auto Zone. He’s an award-winning Articulate developer and a professional graphic artist.

About the Author

Kevin Thorn
Kevin works in elearning design and development for Auto Zone. He's an award-winning Articulate developer and a professional graphic artist.


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  1. I think this is great advice not just for a creative freelancer – but for anyone trying to get their “side hustle” up and running. I’d also apply the “under-promise & over-deliver” axiom to yourself, when setting the goals mentioned in #1.

    Don’t over-promise to yourself on the topic of what you can accomplish while you still have a full-time job and other commitments. Much better to gradually work up to a sustainable pase of production and commitments. You’ll feel proud and accomplished when you exceed your goals!

  2. Thanks. I have been struggling with this for a long time. This was a help. It is a challenge having work handed to you and working in situations where one depends on the wisdom and leadership from several levels within an organization. I have some potential opportunities as I type this and I am anxious to get them started. Thanks for the advice.

  3. John Stather

    Thanks for this post! I am a teacher of Design & Technology (In the uk) looking to develop what is currently an interest in developing rapid elearning products for school into a side income. This is proving tricky, but by setting small goals and specific nights of the week to work on my projects I am getting slowly through. My only problem is creating high quality work quickly enough!

    • Hey John,

      Small goals is really the secret. Whether they be daily, weekly, or monthly your satisfaction of growth is met by building upon one thing at a time. As you may know, quality and quantity is hard to do even for the most skilled and talented. Focus on quality and perfect your skills and methods. Along the way you’ll discover your own best practices to become more efficient and thus produce more in less time. You’ve already “Decided” now take some time to “Describe” what it is you want to do. Then “Deliver” it. Good luck!

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