Many freelancers dream of the day that they'll have sources of income other than from client work. Some hope to stop taking clients for good in favor of selling online training instead.
Carrie Dils did just that. A long time web developer, Carrie adopted the WordPress platform to do client work as a freelancer. But it was when she started training people over at Lynda.com that she became well known in the WordPress community.
Now, you've heard me say over and over that you should never build your business on virtual land that you don't own. So in this case you may be surprised that I think it's fine that Carrie teaches over at Lynda, as long as she finds a way to attract her students to her own site in some way so she can establish a direct relationship with them.
Carrie plans to level up once more in the coming year. Listen in as we discuss her plans and brainstorm some of the ways that she can continue leveraging the customer base of Lynda to build a robust training business all her own.
The Show Notes
Creating Online Courses to Level Up from Freelance, with Carrie Dils
Carrie Dils: Hi. I'm Carrie Dils. I educate others on technology and business by podcasting, teaching online courses, and having good old-fashioned conversations. I am completely and utterly unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable, the show for people who can get a job, they're just not inclined to take one, and that's putting it gently. In addition to this podcast, thousands of freelancers and entrepreneurs get actionable advice and other valuable resources from the weekly Unemployable email newsletter. Join us by registering for our free Profit Pillars course, or choose to sign up for the newsletter only, at no charge. Simply head over to Unemployable.com, and take your business and lifestyle to the next level.
Brian Clark: Carrie, it seems like ages since I saw you in Cabo, or weeks.
Carrie Dils: I know. We haven't floated in the pool together in at least two weeks. It's crazy.
Brian Clark: I know. What is this winter thing I'm doing? Actually, like I told you, after Hawaii and Cabo, I was ready for some good ol' Colorado winter. How's things in Texas?
Carrie Dils: We're having our one week of fall.
Brian Clark: I remember it well. I was there a long time.
Carrie Dils: The trees change colors and the leaves all fall within a one-week period.
Brian Clark: Yep. All right. Yes, we did get to catch up a little bit in Cabo, but I wanted to get you on the show because you've got one of those stories of taking opportunity as you find it and then leveling up and growing from there. That's a big theme for us here at Unemployable.
I want to talk a little bit about your background. Before you discovered WordPress, a lot of people know you within the WordPress community, but what was Carrie doing before 2005, or whenever it was, that you said, “Hey, this WordPress thing could be on to something”?
How Carrie's Background Eventually Led Her to WordPress
Carrie Dils: Yeah. The quick story is, after I graduated college, I had a skill in web development. This was in the late '90s so that was not as common at the time. Anyway, so I started out freelancing just as a way to make some quick cash after college, found out that I really loved it, and then worked in the web industry for a number of years until I got really tired of sitting in a cubicle.
I wanted to be unemployed, or at least employed on my own terms, and had this random dream of opening a coffee shop. I had no clue what that would entail or what that even looked like. So I went and took an entry-level position with Starbucks to figure that out, worked my way through the ranks there, managed with them for several years, and finally figured out I absolutely, under no terms, want to open a coffee shop.
But it was while I was working at Starbucks that I had started to supplement my time there with dipping my toes back into the web development waters. A fellow that I worked with told me about WordPress. I was astounded by the fact that it was what it is out of the box in terms of the content management system.
Those are things that I had built in the past, just good old-fashioned HTML and a little server-side scripting. This software that was completely free that did all that for you, that was mind-blowing. That was probably around 2010 or so. The rest is downhill, or uphill?
Brian Clark: Yeah, we'll go with downhill, or uphill, actually. It depends on how you're looking and where you're standing. So Starbucks, now I know why Brian Gardner is so fond of you.
Carrie Dils: I know, right? I bribe him with …
Brian Clark: He says hi by the way. I just talked to him before we went on. For those of you who don't know, Brian Gardner is the founder of StudioPress, one of my business partners, and he is a Starbucks advocate of the level that he should be paid by the company. It's very odd. That and Disney — they should be sending him checks.
Carrie Dils: Sarah McLachlan, too.
Brian Clark: Yeah, come on. Let's not go there. I mean, you know?
Carrie Dils: I know. We don't want to bring the crowd down.
Brian Clark: Yeah, he's constantly embarrassing me on Twitter with the Sarah McLachlan references, but we're going to let that go. Okay, so WordPress. Yes, that is interesting because, of course, I've been publishing online since '98 — Dreamweaver and awful HTML templates. I was never a technical guy.
When I saw WordPress, I was like, “Are you kidding me? This is such a leap from doing it the old way.” Yet now, WordPress is so popular that we have an entire other generation of people who actually struggle with it. They don't even remember or understand how we used to publish on the web because that would really freak them out.
Carrie Dils: Back in my day, we had to code HTML by hand.
Brian Clark: That's right. But you obviously saw a need there. So you had web development skills. You find this great CMS as a platform. It's growing, obviously a lot by 2010. How did you decide to enter that market?
Carrie Dils: Basically the same way I was getting business before I went to Starbucks. That was a referral network, so just letting people know that I was available, hanging out my shingle, if you will. A lot of those clients in those early days were people that I knew or were somehow connected to locally, a lot of small businesses here in the Fort Worth area.
Brian Clark: You're obviously now heavily involved in content — your site, the podcast, et cetera. Did you start doing content marketing as a way to get clients before you shifted your model?
Carrie Dils: It's so funny. I've been a Copyblogger fan and watcher, in an uncreepy way watching, since the beginning, I guess. I found StudioPress pretty early on, and then of course the association with Copyblogger. Reading all your content and your philosophy of give it away. Give away good information and people will come.
My intent wasn't really to attract clients. It was more just sort of writing as I learned and giving that back to the community. As a result, it was this interesting … I don't know if it really is interesting, but I managed to build a following of my content that was not at all my target customer, if that makes sense.
Brian Clark: It does, and it happens all the time.
Carrie Dils: Yeah. Had I been more intentional, I guess that could have been a different story. I'm not sad it turned out that way. It was just I didn't realize it until I was several years in that that's what I had built.
Brian Clark: So the audience you attracted was not necessarily the type of people that would hire you. I see this happen in the writing space. When I started Copyblogger, I gave tips about writing, but I wanted to attract writers. I was not a service provider. We wanted to eventually sell them products, which is how everything happened. You were providing client services and talking maybe about design and development, and you attracted other designers and developers?
The Silver Lining of Attracting the ‘Wrong' Audience
Carrie Dils: Yup, and a lot of, I guess you'd call them, the DIY folks who weren't necessarily highly technical, but they didn't want to hire somebody or didn't have the budget to hire someone for web services. They'd read my tutorials or whatnot. Yeah, I attracted people like me.
Brian Clark: Yeah. It happens, and that's why anymore — and I think this is going to be a focus for us in 2017 — just talking about that intentional strategy. Who are you trying to reach? What do they need? How do you need to communicate to them? It's so simple when you boil it down that way, but it's just a common thing.
I think focusing on the strategy level is something that, in my mind, is the one thing that if people take that time at the very beginning, then that doesn't happen. But during the early days of blogging, like in 2004, 2005, that was so common. You had these people with great big audiences and nothing really to do with them.
Carrie Dils: Yeah, exactly. Like you said, it's so simple. It's so utterly obvious, but if you don't think about it.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it's common. But it seems to me that there was a silver lining here. Okay, so let's talk about the client side of things for a while. Once you got onto WordPress and that was your platform, how long were you essentially a freelance developer?
Carrie Dils: For the entirety of the time since I've been working with WordPress — so since 2010 or 2011, whenever that was — I've been freelancing that whole time with the exception of a six-month stint where I tried agency work. Once again, I really am not kidding when I say I'm unemployable. I unemployed myself right out of that job and back into freelancing again.
Brian Clark: I don't blame you. Agencies can be an odd community of people.
Carrie Dils: It was a good experience, but that's not my home.
Brian Clark: Yeah, got it. So you're still taking clients even today?
Carrie Dils: Fewer and fewer. 2016, for me, has been a year of trying to get more into the online education side of things. As I've spent more time building that up, I've tried to replace time that I would have done client services by investing my time in doing online courses. 2017, I think I'll probably see a complete phase-out of direct client work.
Brian Clark: That's what I like to hear. Okay, let's talk about that, because again, you say, “Well, I didn't think about it, and I maybe attracted the wrong audience,” but when you think about where you're heading and where you went, you attracted probably exactly the right audience. If you can teach the less technical DIY-ers and maybe the entry-level developers and designers through online courses, that's my kind of business model. It sounds like you're digging it as well.
Carrie Dils: Yeah. And it's interesting that you mention the silver lining in that because I've never really thought about it that way, but you're exactly right.
Brian Clark: Yeah. Okay, when did you create your first course?
Carrie Dils: Probably mid-2014.
Brian Clark: Okay, you've been at it for a while. Now, are you doing everything over at Lynda.com, or do you use that platform as an entry level and then bring people over to you in another context?
Carrie's Approach to Using Lynda.com for Her Courses (and the Benefits)
Carrie Dils: That's a good question, Brian. To date, everything I've done except for one course has been through Lynda.com. In 2017, my hope is to split that. Still continue doing courses for Lynda, but then to also do courses under my own brand that wouldn't necessarily be right for the Lynda platform.
Brian Clark: Yeah. Lynda, even after the LinkedIn acquisition, it's a pretty solid educational platform compared to some of the newer options, which I won't mention by name. Lynda has that really solid cred with serious developers, designers, all the more technical education. Can you explain how Lynda does compensation for you when they basically sell an all-you-can-eat buffet for $25 a month or whatever it is?
Carrie Dils: Yeah. It's a lot like writing a book. There's an advance that you are paid when I agree to come on and do a course. I get 50 percent of the advance when I sign a contract and then the remaining 50 percent once the course is actually published in their library. Then after that, the course earns commissions on some voodoo formula — I've actually seen it, but I can't even recall it — but based on the number of Lynda members and the number of times your movie or your courses are watched in relationship to other courses.
Then once the course earns back in commissions what they paid you in advance, then you start earning monthly commissions. I'm probably answering more of the question that you wanted to hear, but everybody talks about the elusive ‘make money while you sleep' sort of thing. For me, I'm making money while I sleep, but it's a way of putting a lot of upfront work in to get the recurring revenue down the road.
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Has Lynda pulled any rule changes on you that caused you to lose sleep like some of these other platforms?
Carrie Dils: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, they've been really wonderful to work with. I have contracts with them. The way that basically works is they would have first right of refusal if I've had a course idea that I wanted to do.
But in the past, everything that I've thought might possibly step on their toes, I've contacted them and asked them, “Hey, this is what I'm wanting to do. Is this going to be a conflict of interest or whatnot?” Every time they've greenlighted me and said, “Go do it.” They've been wonderful to work with.
Brian Clark: That's awesome. We're big advocates of not building anything on anyone else's property, but we have talked about before how, if you can work with someone like Lynda that's not going to pull a bait and switch on you, then you're actually in an environment of actual paying users. Every one of them that takes your course, you don't own the customer relationship, but you know that they have paid money to be educated. They're interested in WordPress.
It seems to me that there's an opportunity for you, and I think we touched on this a little bit in Cabo, about how you might be able to sell the next level — whether that be a more advanced course, a mastermind community, coaching, whatever the case may be, back over at CarrieDils.com, right?
How Carrie Uses Digital Sharecropping to Her Advantage
Carrie Dils: Yeah. That's such a great point, too, and I love what y'all have talked about. I think ‘digital sharecropping' is what you call building out your house on someone else's property so to speak. One of the reasons that I do want to do courses on my own versus solely doing things through Lynda is exactly what you said about knowing who it is that I'm serving. I have zero clue who takes my courses or what their demographic is, what they're looking for.
Every once in a while, a few times a month, I'll get emails from somebody that says, “Hey, I took your course, loved it, la la,” which is awesome. In those cases, I get a little bit of insight into who those people are, but when I release my own courses, I'll have that … advantage seems like the wrong word to call it even though that's what it is, of knowing exactly who my customer is and then how I can serve them in maybe different ways than however they originally came to me.
Brian Clark: Does Lynda allow you to do some sort of call to action in the course that says, “For supplemental material, this or that, whatever, go to my site and sign up,” so that at least you could begin that email relationship with people who've taken your course?
Carrie Dils: Yeah. You know, I've had that same thought, and the answer is no — no blatant things like that. I can share my social media. During the course, if I have a tutorial on my site that's relevant to course content, I'll point people to that.
Brian Clark: Right. That's good enough.
Carrie Dils: But generally speaking, what you mentioned, no, there's not an opportunity for that.
Brian Clark: Yeah, okay. Seems like you've got some cool things.
Carrie Dils: Womp womp.
Brian Clark: No, no, I love this because you're trying to expand your training business in 2017. You've got opportunities for it, even though you're close enough it sounds to make a living already off the training, which I think is fantastic. It's just where do you want to go from here? That's the constant thing. Just like you moved from freelancing to training. Then it's like, “Okay, what more can I do here?”
I wanted to talk to you about — you said you wanted to do some courses that wouldn't fit into Lynda — but let's talk about the courses you've made so far since 2014. First and foremost, and this is where people get hung up right from the beginning, which is how do you figure out what topic within WordPress or your sphere of expertise is there a hungry market for? Is it just based on your own observation of what's happening out there, or do you have more of a methodology?
How to Identify a Hungry Market — and How Lynda.com Helps Validate Course Ideas
Carrie Dils: It's kind of a combination of ear to the ground — what you're hearing people talk about and ask questions about — and then good old-fashioned Google research, see what people are searching for and the topics that seem to be most common.
But even for a company like Lynda, who has tremendous resources to know what their customer base is looking for, sometimes even still courses fall flat. You think you've got one that's going to be a winner, and it's a total dud. Sometimes even when you have data and think you're making an informed decision about a course topic, ultimately the audience is not there. And that's fine. Live and learn.
Brian Clark: Now, that leads in to another point — and again, we've talked about this — the whole idea of selling something that doesn't exist yet as a way to gauge market interest is one of the beauties of online courses if you had the mindset that, well, courses are taught, for example, in college in a semester, so you don't just pay your money and get dumped on a bunch of stuff all at once. You show up and take it over time. Does Lynda require you to deliver the course all at once, or do you deliver over time?
Carrie Dils: The course is delivered all at once to the platform. Now, how people choose to consume it is up to them. It's broken out into sections, chapters, and so forth. It could be consume at your own pace. I know you've done a variety of different types of courses. There are some where you're just putting the content out there, and then there's some where you're actually dripping content out over a period of time.
Then there's others where you actually have some sort of a direct interaction with the people that are taking the course. Of course, that would be a much smaller group in order to make that manageable. But yeah, I would like to experiment more with what you were talking about. We talked about this at Cabo. I love that idea of testing the waters with pre-purchases to validate an idea. If it's not there, well, you can not invest your time creating the course.
Brian Clark: Yeah, you don't have to do it. Everyone has misses. No one is infallible. The fact that you have to create the course, deliver it, and then find out that it's not going to work is especially painful, I would imagine.
Carrie Dils: Yeah, it is. That's why I'm glad that there's an advance regardless.
Brian Clark: So basically Lynda is validating your idea to the extent that they're like, “Okay, we'll pay you the advance,” and you know you like the book. Even if the book makes no royalties, you got the advance.
Carrie Dils: Exactly. There's a little less risk for me than if I was to do that same thing just under my own brand.
Brian Clark: Makes sense. Now who do you work with there in order to submit an idea and get it evaluated and approved?
How the Course Approval Process Works on Lynda.com
Carrie Dils: Lynda's broken down into three primary types of education, and that's creative, technical, and business. Under each of those areas — and of course, my courses fall under the technical branch of that — they have content, what do they call them, content directors, content producers, something like that.
Basically, they're the person that I interact with, with course ideas. Sometimes they'll ask me to redo a course that's already an outdated course that's in their library. There are many of them in the company, but that's the position that I run through.
Brian Clark: Right. How many courses have you done so far? Give us an idea of some of the topics.
The Topics of Carrie's Courses and Her Most Popular Courses to Date
Carrie Dils: Sure. I've done 14 so far. A slew of them were specific to the Genesis Framework. Yay.
Brian Clark: Thank you.
Carrie Dils: And geared towards that DIY. As a matter of fact, the word ‘DIY' was actually in the title of these courses. Then some other WordPress courses around programming, CSS, and PHP, creating plugins. I'm getting ready to do a course in early January on Saas and Compass. Those are CSS nerd things.
Brian Clark: They were referenced repeatedly in the pool in Cabo by our WordPress nerds that we were hanging out with.
Carrie Dils: Yeah. You never know in how much detail to answer a question like you just asked. Depending on the audience, you don't want to have eyes glazing over.
Brian Clark: Exactly. What would you say has been the top three most popular or highest-earning courses for you so far?
Carrie Dils: Probably the most successful has been a WordPress.com Essential Training, which is beginner, beginner, to this is how we create an account moving through how to use WordPress.com. Then also I have a Building Themes from Scratch with Genesis that's done really well. That was a question I heard over and over in the community, and people not really understanding how to do that. That one, I was glad that it was well-received because it sounded like that was something people wanted to learn about.
Brian Clark: That's interesting because it's a technical topic, but it's also a business topic. You're essentially teaching people how to do work with WordPress and Genesis Framework.
Carrie Dils: Exactly, yeah.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that's a great combination. If anyone out there is listening, the intersection of technical difficulty and the opportunity to start a business, grow a business, expand a business, whatever the case may be is always … that doesn't surprise me that that did well.
Carrie Dils: Yeah, so I've been happy with that. Those are top two. The third one I can't think of off the top of my head.
Brian Clark: Okay. So what are you thinking about for 2017? You've kind of hinted that you want to do something that might be beyond the scope of Lynda. What would that be?
Carrie's 2017 Plans: Building a Bigger Platform of Her Own
Carrie Dils: That's a good question. I've carved out some time over the holidays to sort of reflect and think about what those things would be. But the direction I've started taking, and I do this with my podcast, but the audience that I want to work with are people who were like me a number of years ago, who are either wanting to freelance full-time or to move over into self-employment in the technical arena — so offering some sort of client services in WordPress. It doesn't necessarily have to be WordPress, but something technical like that.
Anything that would help them, and like you just mentioned, that particular Genesis course kind of bridges the gap between technical and business, but combining just like basic business skill and teaching … that's one thing I learned the heck out of at Starbucks is how to run a million-dollars-a-year-sales business. That's served me really well coming into this, doing what I do. Anyways, that's a tangent.
But people that haven't worked or been in those kind of roles maybe don't know what a P&L statement is or how to set a budget. Freelancing successfully involves a lot of business savvy. What I see a lot in the DIY-gone trying to hang out their shingle crowd is this, “Woohoo, I can charge $50 an hour, and that's awesome!” But then they don't …
Brian Clark: There's more to it than that, right?
Carrie Dils: Yeah, there's so much more to it than that. That's where I feel like if I can teach people how to do that, empower them to actually make a living doing something they love, that just sounds incredibly satisfying to me. I don't even know if I answered your question in a roundabout way, but that's the audience I want to serve. I need to spend some time thinking about exactly what sort of materials would best suit that audience.
Brian Clark: Okay, so I did see on Twitter that you announced … oh, this is your pinned Tweet. This has been since September. So you're writing a book.
Carrie Dils: I am.
Brian Clark: Okay, so this seems to be tied in to your 2017 plans, Real World Freelancing: The No BS Survival Guide. I think a lot of people who listen to this show who happen to be freelancers will probably be interested in that. Tell me a little bit about that. That's a project that you're working on with someone else, right?
The Motivation Behind Carrie's Forthcoming First Book
Carrie Dils: Yeah, so working on it with a colleague, Diane Kinney. Here's what we kind of figured. I'm sure you consume a massive amount of content online. As we've consumed and just seen over the years the kind of content that people are putting out, there's so much, “Oh my gosh, you can be rich if you just do these three steps. You can be writing your blog posts on the beach after you've had artisan coffee and done your yoga.” It's just these kind of pie in the sky, ‘it's so easy to make money online' things.
People are selling you that, and I think what they're selling is they just want to sell you their product, not necessarily sell you true success. The No BS Survival Guide is like, “Let's get real. There's going to be a screaming baby, and you're not going to ever get out of your yoga pants some days if you work at home. It's hard to get those first clients and so forth and so on.” I just made it sound like a downer book. That's not it at all.
Brian Clark: This is awful. Stay in your job. No.
Carrie Dils: Don't quit!
Brian Clark: It's not. It's not awful.
Carrie Dils: But just reality, like this is what to expect. This is how you do things, and this is how you do things if you're going to be in the long game and not just flash in the pan.
Brian Clark: Yup, you're preaching to the choir. When I launched Copyblogger and was telling people in 2006 to sell with content instead of make money with advertising, we had to work really hard to earn the trust of people who didn't like that sentiment, like some of the early bloggers, and then we had to differentiate ourselves from the get rich quick Internet marketing crowd. It's important to say, “Look, this isn't easy, but we can help you do it.” It's doable.
Carrie Dils: Exactly.
Brian Clark: You just need to be prepared for reality instead of, ugh, laptop on the beach dreams. Who brings a laptop to the beach? That sand will mess your stuff up.
Carrie Dils: I tried it once, Brian. It was actually Cabo last year. The sun glare was so bad on my screen. I couldn't do it.
Brian Clark: Yeah. All right. Tell us where we can find the podcast, the site, whatever else you got going on, the book. I think people will be interested.
Where to Connect with Carrie
Carrie Dils: Sure. Well, get ready for the URLs. Here they come. The podcast is called OfficeHours.FM, and you can find that at OfficeHours.FM. Then there's my site, CarrieDils.com, and that's sort of the hub. You can find everything there. Then I hang out on Twitter. It's probably where I am most of the time on social media, and there I am @cdils. If I could, could I give a coupon, a Lynda coupon, out or is that … ?
Brian Clark: Absolutely.
Carrie Dils: Okay. Let me type it in to make sure. I always get it backwards. It's Lynda.com/Trial/CarrieDils, and that's a 10-day trial.
Brian Clark: Okay. We will put all these links in the show notes, so if you want to head over to Lynda. That would allow them to get into all of Lynda for 10 days, not just your courses?
Carrie Dils: Yeah, the whole kit and caboodle. I probably shouldn't say this out loud because Lynda might get mad at me. Well, not Lynda. She retired after LinkedIn.
Brian Clark: I would imagine.
Carrie Dils: Anyway, you can actually cover a lot of territory in 10 days, so don't sign up for the 10 days until you've actually got some time carved out. Then you can go through all kinds of stuff and then just cancel when day 10 is up.
Brian Clark: Okay. She is helpful, even if it's not in her own interest. Carrie, thanks so much for the time. It's been great catching up with you both here and in Cabo. We will talk in 2017.
Carrie Dils: Thanks so much for having me on, Brian. Great to chat.
Brian Clark: All right, everyone. Whether you're thinking about getting into online training or you just need a little help with WordPress or with your freelancing business, I hope this episode has been helpful. Thank you for listening. As always, keep going.