I’ve been wanting to write this post for months, but for a variety of reasons (mainly my own perceived ignorance and lack of “expertness” on these subjects) I’ve put it off. Now, because of some reasons I’ve articulated in a bit more depth in an accompanying post I’ve shared on my Christian blog, “Eyes Right,” (“An Entrepreneurial Tipping Point”) I’m finally writing it. I’m sharing these lessons learned and bits of advice in the hope that they may prove helpful to you as you pursue your own educational consulting work either part-time or full-time. Please do not perceive me as saying “I’m an expert on this” or “I figured this out.” I haven’t, and I’m still trying hard each day to learn more, listen better to others, and better apply what I’m learning. I have been a full-time digital learning consultant since February of 2009, for 4.5 years, and in that time I’ve definitely learned a TON. Hopefully some of this can be helpful to you.
1. Your Digital Footprint is Key
A lot of educators as well as other adults in our society today are very paranoid about sharing things publicly online. For me as an educational consultant as well as author, however, I’ve found my “digital footprint” is an essential part of the way I market my services and communicate my credibility to potential employers. Here is a recent case in point. This week on Friday I’ll be keynoting the Florida Art Education Association’s 2013 Conference in Daytona Beach. In my preparatory phone call with a conference organizer last week, I asked how they found me and why they invited me. It turns out a former attendee recommended me as a speaker in a post-conference evaluation. (To that person who I don’t know, I’m deeply thankful!) Then they Googled me, read about my work, and decided to invite me to keynote their conference. Without my “digital footprint,” this speaking opportunity wouldn’t have happened. It did NOT originate with websites where I publish or share content, it started with a personal recommendation from someone. But without the digital footprint, their invitation wouldn’t have been extended.
Last fall I employed a local high school student (Jackson Fall) to help me redesign my primary websites and craft a custom, professional logo which could “brand” these sites as mine. That turned out to be a great decision, since I have some web design as well as graphic skills but am NOT an extremely gifted digital artist. Kevin Honeycutt’s “Launch Me” program and advice regarding social media marketing also played a significant role in my decision to work with Jackson on this “digital footprint” facelift. There are still a few more things I’d like to tweak, but my primary personal website (wesfryer.com), my blog (speedofcreativity.org) and my handouts wiki on Google Sites (wiki.wesfryer.com) now all have a common logo and look/feel. This is something I wish I’d done several years ago, and I’d recommend a similar process of paying careful attention to logos, social media marketing, and even PAYING for professional help to other aspiring educational consultants.
The biggest key to a successful digital footprint is regularly publishing and “claiming” digital content you share online. I do this most frequently through Twitter, but also on my blog and a variety of other websites I maintain. Don’t underestimate the importance of your digital footprint, and PUBLIC sharing of your ideas on a regular basis via social media.
2. Mail Filtering, Web Forms, Email Aliases and Other Essential Tricks
It’s likely that everyone reading this post currently receives an overwhelming amount of daily email. Email can be cumbersome, but for most of us (including educational consultants) it’s essential. It’s a primary way people contact us to request our services as consultants. One of the ways I learned to not miss important emails awhile back is to create custom filters in Gmail and then set those messages to forward to me via SMS. I still miss some emails, but this technique has been HUGE for me.
It’s also been super-helpful to create web contact forms on websites I maintain using the free WordPress plug-in, Contact Form 7. I first learned about it during a past OKC WordPress User’s Group meeting. To avoid spam, it’s a good idea to try and NOT put your email address online. A contact form is one way you can let people contact you, but not give them your email address. I use a “Booking Inquiry Form” to try and route the inquiries I receive for presentations with it to Brenda Druecker, who is my scheduler. There are always people who will contact you through OTHER means, however, including email and social media. Custom web forms can help though.
I also learned a few years ago to use (and pay) for an official email alias address through PObox.com. I first saw Larry Lessig use this on his website, and figured if it was good enough for him, it could work for me! It has, and my PObox email address is the one you’ll find on my official contact page. I try not to list my actual email address anywhere online. I still get a lot of unsolicited email (mainly from people who want me to blog about their product or announcement) but this has helped a lot to reduce my spam quotient.
3. All Prices are Negotiable
One of the hardest parts of being a consultant is pricing your services. I’ve talked to LOTS of different people over the years about their prices for presentations and keynotes, as well as talked to many people involved in organizations who hire speakers for conferences as well as in-district professional development. Prices vary wildly. There are a LOT of people who I’m sure have figured out how to price themselves much better and more competitively to generate more regular work for themselves. This is one area I’m very hesitant to share advice, because I continue to SEEK it regularly. My best advice is this: All prices are negotiable. Prices people will pay depend on many factors, including how far you are away from your home. It is absolutely true that people are rarely considered “prophets in their hometown.” This was true for Jesus, and it is true for you and me. Universal human, psychological dynamics are at play here. It’s a bit weird when social media metrics play into these calculations (like “wow look at how many Twitter followers he has”) but in the end I don’t think those things matter that much. I’ve tried to develop a “daily rate” over the years for keynotes and workshops, but things really depend on when something takes place, what else I have going on, whether it’s in an area I haven’t been to before and want to visit to gain exposure, and other things. It’s a HUGE help to have someone book and schedule for you, because I find others can negotiate on my behalf much better than I can do it. I tend to want to give my services away, and I basically do this sometimes for local events. Pricing is tough to figure out. Talk to as many people as you can, find out what school districts as well as conferences pay for their speakers. You’ll almost certainly be surprised at the variance in amounts. When someone asks how much you cost, I’ve learned to respond with a question about what they are wanting. Some schools will (and do) pay a relatively small amount and then work you all day “like a rented mule.” I’m thinking of one school district in particular, which had me do five different presentations in a single day plus a keynote. I wish I’d charged them double what I asked, but I didn’t. Those things happen, but we file them away and try to be more savvy next time in our negotiations. If you arrange for someone to book and schedule for you on a fee-basis, I’d recommend not doing an exclusive deal. Also be wary of signing contracts which involve your intellectual property rights. More on that later. I’d love to hear your advice on pricing. It’s a very challenging subject for consultants, in my experience, but perhaps I have made this more complicated than it needs to be.
4. Find Reliable Monthly Income
In the 4.5 years I’ve been a full-time learning consultant, our family has been most financially secure (and my wife has been happiest, which is a HUGE thing) when I’ve had a part-time contract with some kind of company or school that provided a monthly, reliable income. I know some educational consultants receive a monthly check from their parent organization and then a check for each workshop or presentation they lead/share. I have not pursued these kinds of smaller, regular contracts for work as assertively through the years as I should have and wish I had. I’ve had several social media contracts with different educational organizations and corporations, and also had a long-term consulting contract with a school district. All of them provided RELIABLE monthly income which was incredibly wonderful amidst the uncertainly and inevitable delays which accompany educational speaking contracts. I definitely advise anyone considering full-time educational consulting to figure out how you’ll provide at least a portion of your needed monthly income with a continuing contract of some kind. Making ends meet without these kinds of contracts is INCREDIBLY stressful and difficult, in my opinion and experience.
5. Use Cloud-Based Invoicing and a Payroll Company
I’ve used a variety of invoicing software programs through the years, and am so glad I finally found and started using FreshBooks. The fact that it’s cloud-based (and therefore won’t “break” when I update my computer operating system to the latest version, when the software developer of my invoicing program hasn’t) is HUGE. There are definitely other good options out there to consider. I’d strongly recommend going with a cloud-based invoicing service.
I also recommend you use a payroll company to handle your tax deductions, tax forms, and payroll deposits. I use PayChex and have been very happy with them.
6. Make a Business Plan
I’ve started and incorporated several educational companies since I became a certified teacher in the mid-1990s, and I wrote a business plan for only one of them. I wish I’d written a business plan for my current educational consultancy. One of the main things I’ve needed and not had, in my current work, is a defined “bailout time” when I’d decide how bad my personal financial condition should be allowed to get before I threw in the towel and said, “I’m not doing this full-time anymore, we can’t afford it.” I recommend you do this if you’re going to become a full-time educational consultant. What’s your “tipping point?” You need one. Most small businesses fail. There is a good reason for this. It’s incredibly challenging to manage cash-flow as an independent business owner and meet payroll. A business plan can help. You don’t have to have one, but I think you’ll be smarter than me if you do. Get help writing it and refining it. Revisit it regularly.
7. Personal Relationships and Referrals are Key
My first bit of advice in this post focused on websites, social media, and your “digital footprint.” The most important part of any consulting business, however, involves personal relationships with others and referrals. 99% of all the speaking jobs I’ve ever been hired to do came directly from a personal referral. Never underestimate the importance and value of networking. This is something we don’t teach formally in many schools and we totally should. Also remember to ask for referrals. That’s something I’ve just started to do more intentionally. If people like what you share and do, ask them to let others know. Word-of-mouth is still the best way to gain new employment opportunities. It all starts with kindness and relationships, in my experience.
8. Self-Publish Your Book
You need to self-publish your own book if you want to be an educational consultant. We live in the era of self-publishing, where publishing has now become a button. All authors need to be their own marketers, and that’s been true for many years. Traditional publishers and traditional publishing CAN reach larger markets, but when you’re an “unknown” author it’s VERY hard to break into traditional publishing. I’ve found the process of writing and publishing my own books has been helpfully “defining” for me as an educational consultant. It’s allowed and also forced me to really define things about which I’m most passionate and most focused on as a professional. Others have found it to be a similar experience. A few weeks ago I shared a presentation about publishing and self-publishing at a local writer’s conference. I published my recorded audio from the session synchronized to my slides, as a “SlideCast” on SlideShare. I’d encourage you to check it out if you haven’t yet self-published. The session was titled, “eBook Self-Publishing w Amazon, CreateSpace & iTunes Producer.”
9. Invest Time in your Spouse and Family
After your relationship with God, nothing in life is more important than your relationship with your spouse and your family. Invest time in them, by spending time with them. I have struggled and continue to struggle with this. Being an entrepreneur is VERY, VERY, VERY HARD. It is almost impossible for me to overstate the financial strains which being a consultant has placed upon my marriage and upon our family over the past few years. Of course people’s opinions about this vary, but I think if I fail in my roles as a husband and a father, I’ve failed in life. Remember this. Schedule dates with your spouse and your kids. This is something I’m trying to do better at now. It’s so hard, but it’s essential. More related ideas on this are included in the companion post I wrote on this subject over on “Eyes Right.”
10. Watch Carefully for Professional Detours
One of the things I’ve learned in my professional career, to date, is that you can’t and don’t want to try to “plan it all.” Life works that way for some people: They are born knowing their career path, and they seem to follow it to a T. That’s not the way life has played out for me, or for many other people I know. Doors open you weren’t expecting. Doors also close that you thought would remain open forever. You have to be flexible and adapt. Amidst change and uncertainly, I’d recommend watching carefully for “professional detours” which may not have been things you planned on or hoped for, but can turn out to be great blessings to you both financially and career-wise.
11. Develop a Standard Contract
I now have a “standard contract” I use when people book me to speak at events and share professional development, and I wish I’d created this a long time ago. One of the things I try to include, but organizations frequently can’t or won’t do, is to pay me at the time services are completed. Waiting for paychecks is one of the biggest headaches and stress sources in the consulting world. Ask people you know who contract with speakers, or speakers themselves, to share their contracts with you. Adopt and modify it to fit your needs, and if you can, get a lawyer to look at it for you. It’s nice to have a standard contract when you work with others. Not all organizations will use or accept it, some have their own contracting forms they have to use, but it’s a good way to put your professional foot forward and try to ensure you’re doing all you can to communicate your expectations clearly from the start.
12. Always Listen Carefully to Your Spouse
I’ve found over the years my wife is incredibly wise. I try to listen to her very carefully. Every marriage is different, but in ours it’s my wife who has better intuition and therefore advice about many things. I strongly recommend careful listening to the advice of your spouse. (I’m not being paid or coerced to write this, either!)
13. Expect Most Educational Organizations to Pay You Late
I’ve mentioned this already a few times, but it deserves it’s own entry in this list: Expect schools to pay you LATE. It’s rather incredible how long it can take to get paid for some presentations. There are schools and conferences who can and will delight you by having a check ready for you when you finish your presentation or workshop. I always ask for payment on the day work is completed if possible. It rarely happens. (Try to avoid hugging people when they present you with a check after your presentation or workshop, it tends to scare them off so they don’t invite you back, too!)
14. Find a Bank with Generous Overdraft Protection
Hopefully you won’t need this piece of advice, but I certainly have. There are lots of banks out there, shop around before you create a business account. I recommend finding one with generous overdraft protection. Ideally you want to have a large cushion of money in your business account, and pay yourself a monthly salary from it through your Payroll company. To avoid large tax burdens at the end of each fiscal year, you don’t want to make withdrawals or pay yourself disbursements outside your regular payroll. That can be hard to do, however. Shop around when it comes to your bank and find one that will be supportive of your small business.
15. Don’t Ruin Your Credit
This may be obvious to everyone, but it’s advice that may help someone else. It’s related to my advice about having a business plan and a “here’s where I throw in the towel to this full-time consulting idea” concept. Don’t ruin your credit. Credit can be easy to get, in some cases, but it’s also easy to mess up. It’s far easier to mess credit ratings up than to fix and rebuild them. Avoid the need to do that by not messing up your credit in the first place, either personally or for your business.
There may be more pieces of advice I could share, but that’s all I have for now that is “secular” in nature. If you want to read more, check out “The Entrepreneurial Tipping Point.” Good luck to you in your educational consulting journey, wherever it might take you and whatever season of consulting you might find yourself in today!
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On this day..
- Steve Jobs Inspired Me to Dream Big Again - 2011
- Jack Berckemeyer: Opening Keynote at Qatar Academy - 2011
- Marketing Flyer for the 2010 K-12 Online Conference #k12online10 - 2010
- Tools to simplify meeting scheduling - 2009
- A worthless worksheet and a voluntary VoiceThread - 2008
- Is technology at school an event or a tool set? - 2008
- K12Online discussions on EdTechTalk - 2007
- Turning to YouTube for an Origami Tutorial - 2007
- Meaningful professional development via book studies - 2007
- 2nd Grade podcast - 2005