Always learning - Learning Experience Designer Cath Ellis

Cath Ellis Freelance Podcast.png

When she found herself knocking back freelance opportunities every week, Cath left her full-time job behind to start a business.

Her only regret?

Not having done it sooner.

Cath’s been lucky in that she’s not had to search for work. Through SEO, website strategy, and word of mouth, she’s moved from one job to the next and worked with an array of international clients.

And one of the biggest benefits of having no boss, Cath says, is the freedom to learn and develop in your own way.

“I’d rather be an innovator than be following everyone else. I’m busier than ever but I’m learning more than ever.”


Cath Ellis: I started my freelance journey just a little bit more than two years ago. I had been working in the private sector, and I jumped out and went to work for the government. I'd worked for the government previously as a learning designer, and the last government job that I went to work for actually wasn't really ready for me. They didn't have a learning management system in place. They didn't really have anything in place, and I just felt that I wasn't just getting very much out of my work, and I was getting requests through my website for freelance work, "Was I interested?" and I kept saying, "No." I was getting to the point where I was knocking back a piece of work a week, which is really, really good, and my partner just said to me, "Right, that's it. I think you've got to give this a try." So that was it.

Cath Ellis: Started taking clients and gave it a try for a month, working on top of my job, and then I decided to do it full-time, so I quit my job, and just said, "Look, I'm leaving. Going to pursue my dream. Start my own business." And that's it. It's been fantastic. I've been in a very lucky position, Steve, where I've not really had to look for work at all, it's just one job after the next, it's just come through. I've been extremely lucky.

Steve Folland: Amazing. So just to rewind, how long had you'd been doing learning experience, you know, working in eLearning and stuff like that? How long had you'd been doing that before you made that jump?

Cath Ellis: I had been doing it for about 10 years. I started working in training actually, working for Carnival Cruise Lines out in Miami, so I was running a crew training centre, and this was around 1999, you know, there wasn't any eLearning at that time, but there was PowerPoint. So it was putting together training packages for crew members to learn basically how to do different things. I'd say, maybe around 2001 I was starting to do some training, showing them different things like blogs that were out there, very simple form of blogs, and it was really running a training centre for their own professional development. So I started building little things while I was on the ships, and that went on to me leaving the ships, coming to Australia, and yeah, I was working for a big government department and working in the media, an online learning unit.

Cath Ellis: I started out working as a curriculum trainer, developing curriculum, and they just identified that again, I was quite sharp with my design skills. this what happens to instructional designers, they all seem to go down this path. They end up, anyone who's quite tech-savvy, ends up doing eLearning.

Steve Folland: So in the 10 years that you were working in the government, what were you doing behind the scenes? because clearly we reached a point, like we skipped a bit of story where people are looking at your website and going, "Oh, can we hire you? Can we hire you?" One a week. So what were you doing to build your reputation outside of your actual paid full-time job?

Cath Ellis: That's a good question. I actually had just a resume in the beginning, and it had a few screen captures of work, so it really wasn't a live version of anything, it was just an image, and it was a nice looking resume. I basically converted that into a portfolio, and because of my work with the police, I could't really share anything, and even in the private sector, it was very [inaudible 00:04:08] it was a company's IP, I couldn't share that, so I started creating my own, just some little micro-components, like little mini-games, just to showcase my skill set, and I'd talk a little bit about what I did, and yeah. That's what I did to showcase my work.

Steve Folland: And how were you getting word out there that that existed?

Cath Ellis: I've had a presence for quite a long time on the web. Just my SEO was working really well, especially in, I'd say, in the last three years I was ranking quite high with my SEO for certain eLearning terms. So if you put in a term like, eLearning designer, instructional designer, you didn't even need to put Melbourne, I was coming up quite high because I was presenting a lot of information and was obviously getting a lot of interest in my portfolio and my blog. So it was just a natural just coming through Google. There was a little bit of word of mouth as well. I was being approached by a number of government departments, so there was just a, I think, positive word of mouth as well.

Steve Folland: How has that changed now? Like if we go to your website now, how has that changed, if at all, since deciding to go freelance in the last couple of years?

Cath Ellis: Yeah, well, it's definitely more focused on me being a freelancer. In the past, like I said, it was a bit of a resume that had a portfolio in it. I've actually built a brand around it, so I've got a nice logo, and a color scheme, and that's what I use for everything. Very much the same. Quite a lot of positive word of mouth from people, and recommendations from people. LinkedIn has been quite good. My network is quite large, but the majority of people come through my website. I have a nice quote calculator. I think that attracts quite a lot of interest as well, so whether that's people who actually want me to do work, or they just wanting to get a gauge of how much something costs. I call it kind of a guesstimate, so again, just having tools like that on your website can get a lot of people in and get a lot of people interested at least onto the site, and then they can move around and see what you're doing and your type of work.

Steve Folland: How does the quote calculator work? Like did you create the code and stuff yourself?

Cath Ellis: No. I used a plug-in. My website's just on WordPress, so I used a quote calculator that was available just through Envato, and just started to think about different types of courses, and what would be some good examples. So someone can go in and see different types of courses, whether it's a conversion, so that's someone who's maybe got an old Flash course that wants to put it into HTML, or you've got a course, maybe a custom Bespoke course that needs to be done from scratch. Normally we'll put it, or give people options to choose a certain amount of time that the course may be. I'm quite passionate about things like learning being very short because we're all very short of time, you know, we've got so much on our plates, the last thing I want is a bad learning experience. So another thing is I generally don't quote more than 20 minutes because I don't really want to be building things that are an hour long, or something horrific like that. So a client will get a good understanding of what I provide just through something like the quote calculator, and I show visual examples of the type of work that you'll get for that price.

Steve Folland: I'm presuming that ... a lot of back and forth email contact?

Cath Ellis: Yeah, and it's good because for clients who, you know, sometimes it's a hard conversation to have, "What's your budget?" because they'll always come back and say, "Well, I'm not sure." So for me to just say, "Look, just jump on the website." Then they know how much I cost for eLearning, and it kind of takes away that difficult conversation, you know? I quite like it because up front they can work out how much it's going to be to work with me, and the type of work that I do, and then the work that I don't want to do, I just don't advertise that I do it. And I've learnt that. I've had some examples of work that I go, "I don't want to do this type of work" and I've ended up taking it out of my portfolio because I simply don't want to do it again.

Steve Folland: Yeah, so even if someone comes to you and asks for it, you're like, "Nah."

Cath Ellis: I do. I honestly do, because I'm quite passionate about feeling so confident that if I do a piece of work for a client, I would want to be proud enough to show that in my portfolio, and if something isn't going to be a positive learning experience, and I'm sure you've done eLearning, it's got such a bad rap, I just say, "Well, I'm not the right person to do this piece of work, so maybe I can recommend someone else." Or if I think it is bad enough that they wouldn't even want to do it, I'd just tell them, maybe try LinkedIn, or another network, so ...

Steve Folland: That quote calculator is a great idea for like qualifying and having that conversation. Have you got other processes in place to sort of like streamline onboarding and so on and so forth, like to work with your clients?

Cath Ellis: Yeah, I do. Look, and I've learnt the hard way because in the beginning I would have these long conversations with people. I'd spend so much time chatting about it, and I'm sure you've done this as well Steve, and then they turn around and they say, "Oh, this is my budget." And I go, "Well, god, you can't get anything for that." I've wasted all this time. Someone told me, just ask them straight off the bat, what's your budget? And there's a guy who I absolutely love, Chris Doe, from the Future, and that's very much his thing, he's all about strategy, and straight off the bat, what's your budget? So right there, and then he can say, "Look, I'll work with you between this much, but for that budget, that's not going to get you very much, or it's going to get you this kind of product, and I don't do that kind of product."

Cath Ellis: So, for example, there's a government department that I met with this week, and they want to talk about fraud, and were talking about doing a podcast. The kind of conversation that they have with me is they want something really engaging, and they want something really now. Okay, well what have we got that's out there now ... So eLearning's not eLearning as such, it's falling into really design. The agencies are doing, an instructional design. I do a lot of website development, and I rarely think about the way that I chunk content down the same way that I do for learning content, so it's an interesting space.

Steve Folland: I mean you just mentioned it, agencies, there's a lot of agencies who work in this field. Do you sometimes get hired by agencies to do stuff, or are you like, "No, I will create it all."?

Cath Ellis: It's really interesting because the agencies that approach me say, "I'm looking for someone to do a project next month." And I say, "Well, I'm fully booked for three months." I am lucky in that sense that I am able to book work in advance. It's quite niche, learning design, and the time it takes to negotiate and talk, I look at it like as, okay, I'm booked. So the agencies that have approached me, I did do some work in the beginning with agencies, and sometimes they did all the design, for example, they did all the assets, they did all the audio, they did videos, but lately I've not been working with agencies, and now I just say, "I don't have the availability to take on a last minute job with an agency."

Steve Folland: So that means you do everything yourself? So you do all the research and client development? You do the writing that might go with it, creating, designing, like everything?

Cath Ellis: Yeah. Yeah. So I normally do a learning strategy first, and then I do a course overview. So the course overview would be really the equivalent of thinking about a wire frame, "Okay, what order are we going to pop on the pages? What content is required?" From then, I'll do a visual mock-up, and I will then go to Storyboard. So basically Storyboard's filling in a document, word-for-word what we put in each of the slides, or in this game, etc., what are we doing.

Cath Ellis: After I've done a Storyboard, I go to development. Sometimes I'm more agile, I'll do bits so that we don't go off track, and once I've done the build it will go out, it will be tested, I implement changes, and then it will go live, and then in best case scenario will do some kind of evaluation so we can make sure we've got some user feedback. Sometimes clients want it, sometimes they don't.

Cath Ellis: Yeah, it's a big job, but I enjoy it. I'm not ready to give up that design work, so you know people have said, "Why don't you build a bit of an agency for yourself?" But I really like working with a client on what their challenge is, and how we can change behaviour within their organisations through that product.

Steve Folland: So you could bring on other freelancers, for example, to do elements for you, but actually you enjoy it?

Cath Ellis: Yeah, I love it. I really love it.

Steve Folland: That seems like a long process, you know, these are big projects, there's a lot that goes in there. So how do you manage your payment sort of structure across that sort of thing?

Cath Ellis: Well, mine's pretty simple. I book quite common, I think, 50% up front, and then 50% at the end. Depending on the size of the projects, I might run a couple of projects at the same time. So it's worked out for me so far, but I'm starting to dabble in things like Alexa skills, and things like that for the learning and development. So these might not be the kind of price range of a traditional eLearning course, but they're certainly an interesting space, so I might price it a little bit different within milestones, maybe, but at the moment it's working well.

Steve Folland: You mention Alexa skills, so is that something that you're always conscious of doing, of like looking at what is next, and what you could offer to people? Is it because people are coming to you asking for something, or is it because you are suggesting it to them and seeing what's happening in your field?

Cath Ellis: A lot of it's suggesting, to be honest. To be able to sit in a meeting with a client, or have them on the phone and say, you know, we're spending hours. So I had a government department saying we were spending hours creating videos showing managers how to do things, and all we need is a process, how to fill out a leave form, how to do this, how to do that, and I said, "Well, simply put, we can do an Alexa skill which is built off a Google sheet, that is dynamic, you can change it, you won't need me to do that. I can put it in the skill using variables, and you can basically have them around the office, and the managers can just say, 'Hey Alexa.'" She's lighting up now, she's next to me, hey Alexa-

Steve Folland: Do you know what? Loads of people listening to this will be having the same thing. I did it in my vlog, and then I got loads of people saying ... I said her name, and then I said, "Play SIX music in the kitchen." And loads of people were saying, "I don't have speakers in my kitchen. She's having a breakdown."

Cath Ellis: But if you only just have them dotted around, and to think about that as learning, you know, it doesn't always have to be this thing through the learning management system. So yeah. Look, and that's the interesting thing, that I'm always looking to see what's out there? What could be applied to learning? Or the more important question, how would I like to learn if I had to learn this? So it's good. It allows me to be innovative.

Steve Folland: And then you're blogging about that sort of stuff, as well, are you?

Cath Ellis: Not as often as I should be, but my New Year's resolution is to blog a lot more often. Yes.

Steve Folland: So did you find that you had more time to be sharing? Because you know, we talk about how blogging and building and etc. helped you get to the point where you could go freelance, but you were doing that when you had a full-time job, i.e. you could go home at the end of the night. You're finding less space to do that now, are you, that you're actually freelance?

Cath Ellis: Well, you know what? I am busier than ever, but I make time to stay on top of things. You know, I'm always learning. So the thing is when you're working at home, you don't have a boss looking over your shoulder going, "Why is she looking at YouTube?" Everything I do is I'm learning. I'm learning something different. So my head's always ticking away, "Oh, god, I could use that. I could do that in a learning module." So I'm learning more than ever, but I'm busier than ever, but ... If that makes sense, Steve?

Steve Folland: Yeah. But then do you have time to show that learning in your blog the same way that you did when you weren't freelance?

Cath Ellis: Yeah, no. I've definitely haven't had time to blog as much, but I need to make sure I do that a lot more often.

Steve Folland: And you do speaking, as well? Don't you?

Cath Ellis: Do a little bit of speaking. So I was talking in Vegas in October, at Develearn, talking about using Alexa to deliver what I call, just in time training. So when someone needs training, they can get it straight there and then. I did like a, bring your own device, so I showed them how to do it. I think it's important to share skills, and show people how they can do different things. That's what I want to do this year, is share a lot more, new things to do within the industry on my blog, and on LinkedIn and other networks.

Steve Folland: And when you've done those events, because they sound like big events, are you approaching them, or are they coming to you?

Cath Ellis: No, I have approached them. So not at the stage where they've approached me yet, but it's still ... Like Develearn, I think, had nearly a thousand people apply to get a spot. I wasn't actually initially chosen, but they came back to me and said, "Look, we've got an opening, have you still bought a ticket to come to Las Vegas?" And I said, "Yes." So yeah. I was really keen to jump in on that.

Cath Ellis: And then look, I also picked up a few other things at Develearn as well, like I offered to do portfolio reviews, and things like that, and that's, you know, it's just building my portfolio doing things like that, so there maybe a time that I am being approached, but at this moment in time, I am not.

Steve Folland: That's cool. And it's all building your reputation as an expert?

Cath Ellis: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.

Steve Folland: Are you quite rare in your field that you do it all?

Cath Ellis: No, there's actually a lot of people who do it all. I don't know, maybe it's 30% of people might do it all. I'm rare in a case that I'm really quite techie, and I spend as much time as I do learning about new tools out there, but I have to do that to keep innovating, otherwise I'm just going to be churning out the same old stuff, and I don't want to do that. So it's great to be able to go to conferences and talk about new innovation, and how we can use it, and just seeing people's eyes light up and go, "Oh, yeah. I never thought about that. That was great." So I'd rather be an innovator than following everyone else.

Steve Folland: How do you stay on top of your workload, because there's obviously a lot to what you're doing, and sometimes you have multiple projects, you must be pretty organised?

Cath Ellis: Yeah, I use Trello. I put every single milestone on Trello, and I actually get clients on it as well. So I assign them to certain tasks. So in the beginning, we've got a really tight time frame, but they can see exactly what they're going to be doing, and where I'm up to at each stage. So it's really, really important. So Trello keeps me really, really organised, and keeps the client on track as well. It's been very effective.

Steve Folland: And how about managing your own time and your own day?

Cath Ellis: Yeah, that's a good question as well. I don't manage, unless I'm working on an hourly rate, which doesn't happen very often, I probably work between about 10:00 and 3:00, every day. It really depends on the milestone, to be honest, Steve. So it could be something like applying changes, and I've given myself three days, and sometimes there's very few changes that need to be made. I mean, when you work for yourself, you're going, "Okay, I'll apply those changes. I've got time left in the day, so I might do an update to my website. I might do a Facebook post." I might also have another client that's running at the same time, and I'm working til two in the morning, so it really depends on the milestone that I'm working on. Things like Storyboards and the development are normally long hours. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, I've gone in the right direction, especially with learning, I want as few opportunities to be out of scope as possible, so that's why I use Trello, and I use a lot of things like the learning strategy and the course overview to make sure that we're staying on track and things aren't changing. So that's normally how I work.

Steve Folland: And so if your working mostly 10:00 to 3:00, I mean, I like the fact that that makes it sound like if you don't have to be working/learning, it sounds like you make the most of the time off when it's there?

Cath Ellis: Yeah, well somewhat. My wife has a business as well, and of course, because I do what I do, I build in learning modules for her. I'm building a website for her. So really, the work never ends, but it's good, you know, it's very busy, but it's good busy, if that makes sense?

Steve Folland: Yeah. And you work from home?

Cath Ellis: Work from home. Have a lovely house out in, I don't know if you know Melbourne at all, but I live in the Dandenong Ranges, which is out in the mountains. It's about 55 minutes from Melbourne, and yeah, it's just beautiful. Very peaceful. You get the native birds on the deck every day, and it's just paradise, and then my dog's driving me mad every five minutes, but it's good.

Steve Folland: So it sounds like work-life balance wise you're quite happy?

Cath Ellis: Oh, it's pretty good. Yeah. Like we did a bit of a cruise last year. We cruised from Sydney to San Francisco, because I had a Storyboard to write, and that was just brilliant, Steve, to be able to just sit in the cabin all day, the wife was happy on the deck drinking cocktails, and then I'd finish my day and I'd go up and enjoy it, and I thought, "God, this is a great way." I had a client in New Zealand which I visited, and a client in San Francisco that I visited. So really, we try and make sure that we, because she's running her own business as well, we try and make sure that we do our own thing, we get that break and we enjoy ourselves. But when it's busy, bloody hell, it's really busy. You know, but it's good.

Steve Folland: So you've got clients in San Francisco, how do you find working across the time zones?

Cath Ellis: It's pretty good. So San Francisco, if I get up at nine in the morning, or eight in the morning, I think it's 4:00 PM there, so that works pretty well, I can still ... If I have something to hand over, or if I need to meet with the client, it's still possible to do it. The UK's a bit of a different timezone, it's a bit of a weird one, but because my desk is just through the living room, I just walk out, get up off the couch, walk in. I do. I meet with people at funny times, but it works really well. You know, there's a lot of people who still want learning designers to be there in the office, and I don't know what for, so I turn a lot of work away like that, as well. You know, "We need you in Melbourne." "Okay, well, you're going to have to look for someone else because I work remotely." And if I can work with clients in San Francisco, and London, and all over, then they just have to trust that I'll get on and I'll do it.

Steve Folland: Obviously you work from home, you're very happy working from home, do you have any sense of community? Is there like a whole gang of learning experience designers hanging out online, or meeting in person? I don't know.

Cath Ellis: I run a meet-up every month called, something like eLearning Hangout, and that's been quite good, so I have a small network of people. I think there's a couple of people in London, the majority of them are from Melbourne, but I do advertise it on LinkedIn, and sometimes it's quite a good gathering. We generally talk about whatever. It could be, I think last time I talked about Prospero, which is a really cool new quote tool. So it's just really talking about what we've been up to, talking through some challenges, getting some feedback on things. So that's been pretty good. And I do a meet-up, Women in Business, that's local to the Dandenong Ranges up here, but really the people who come along are not learning designers, a lot of them are in the media space, but it's still quite interesting to talk about different things, and yeah.

Steve Folland: Yeah. That's cool. I see when you just mentioned Prospero, is it like, does it help you create proposals and things?

Cath Ellis: Yeah, it's a really great tool.

Steve Folland: I know that it is partly created by Ran Segall, isn't it?

Cath Ellis: It is. Yeah. I like him a lot.

Steve Folland: Yeah, obviously I'm going to in a moment say, go to, check out the links, but I will put to Ran's episode of He was a previous guest a couple of years ago, I think, and if you have not seen Ran's work. He vlogs every day. He still does. We spoke about it then, he still does it now, and as well as being like a designer, and as a freelancer, he also runs little start-ups, and one of them is Prospero, so really interesting, and I was just sitting here thinking, "I'm sure I've heard him mention that a lot in his vlogs."

Cath Ellis: Yeah.

Steve Folland: So yeah. Yeah, yeah. So appealing, but Ran's episode of being freelance is well worth checking out, as well. That's interesting. Oh, how it all links back together. I like it.

Cath Ellis: It does.

Steve Folland: Cath, if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Cath Ellis: It would've been to not been scared to jump in and start doing freelance work a lot earlier. I probably should have done it about two years before, and I know I would've been fine, but it was lack of confidence. So just don't be scared, give it a go. The worse thing that can happen is it's awful, and you just go and you get yourself another job, you know, so that's what I would've told myself.