CXO

Going out on your own

You've got skills and qualifications. But do you have what it takes to become a successful independent trainer?


So you’ve been doing the training thing for about two years now, and you’ve decided you really enjoy it. You like the classroom environment, and you like helping people learn about technology. But there’s a problem. You’re not making as much as you would like, and you’re not sure what to do about it.

Sam, the guy in the next cubicle at the store where you’re employed, says that being an independent trainer is the way to go. Sure, Sam’s often full of hot air, but this time it sounds like he’s onto something. You’ve heard that independent trainers make mucho dinero, and Sam’s got stories to tell. “You ‘member Cathy, that CNE from store 212? Didja know she’s out on her own now? Man, she’s making $1,000 a day and only working about every third week! I heard she bought a Porsche, put in this giant Jacuzzi and owns some small town in Georgia.” After listening to Sam and his tales of low work, high money, and the freedom to be your own boss, you’ve just about decided it’s time to sing that Johnny Paycheck song to your boss, print some business cards, and start raking in the dough.

Hold it right there, pardner.

Before you go off half-cocked and wind up empty-handed, let’s take a long, hard look at the independent trainer gig. There may be some pieces of it, some nuances, that ole Sammy isn’t privy to. There may be some issues you need to think through. In short, life may not be greener on the other side of the employment fence.

Show me the money
First, let’s look at the money. Are there people really making $1,000 or more a day? Sure, but only for the high-end, certified classes. Rates are a combination of two forces: perceived value and supply and demand.

Perceived value is related to the up-front knowledge (read: certs and experience) required to teach the class. The pecking order runs roughly like this:
  • Advanced technical topics with tough certifications (Cisco)
  • Advanced technical topics with somewhat tough certs (Exchange)
  • Regular technical topics with certs (NT 4)
  • Advanced technical topics without certs (using non-MS courseware)
  • Regular technical topics without certs
  • End-user training (Office, Windows 98)

The other driver is straight-up supply and demand. In the past year, for example, a slew of MCSE folks have moved into the training pool. As a result, the rates for the core MCSE courses have gone down dramatically. The optional and elective courses are still up there to some extent.

Where is the demand? Two areas: development and new products. People who can teach Visual C++ are in high demand as are people who are certified to teach SQL Server 7. One is a fairly difficult development language, while the other is a new product that everyone wants training on.

Of course, to teach a certified class, you have to have certifications of your own. To do the high-end Microsoft work, you need your MCT at a minimum. For Novell, you need your CNE, and the CNI wouldn’t hurt. Don’t have them? Sorry, can’t teach for us.

Don’t forget that the money doesn’t flow in steadily—you’ve got to learn to deal with the feast or famine dilemma. You’ll either be drowning in work offers, or you’ll be twiddling your thumbs. Much training work is cyclical or seasonal; you’ll be busy February to May and September to November, but summer and holidays are dead.

Of course, like any business—and if you are on your own, you are a business, albeit a small one—you will have to deal with cash flow and accounting. Teach a class in January and you may not see the payment until April. Some companies pay in two weeks, but most take at least a month. Some training firms only pay the instructor after they get paid by the client, which means your money comes at the end of the second billing cycle.

You’ll have to deal with taxes, FICA, Medicare, insurance, tracking mileage, and all the other fun things currently dealt with by your company’s accountants. You’ll have to generate invoices, track expenses, and watch your overhead. (Do you really need that new book on NT?)

Let’s get a life
Finally, there’s the lifestyle of the independent. Depending on where you live, there may not be enough training in your area to support you. What do you do? Sign up with a broker or three, of course. (We’ll look at training brokers in a future column.) If you are fortunate, you’ll begin to get calls and e-mails along the lines of: “We’ve got a VB 6 class in St. Louis the week of the 20th. Can you teach it, and are you available?” If you’ve got the cert, and aren’t already booked, pretty soon you’ll find yourself wandering through the St. Louis airport, trying to find the rental-car counter, and wondering where your suitcase is. You’ll spend the week in a motel, eating every meal out alone, and wondering how soccer practice or the band concert came out.

During the week, you’ll find out through e-mail that the next class—the big one, remember, where you were going to break that $1,000-a-day barrier—has been cancelled. (“The client figured it cost too much to bring you in, so they decided to do it themselves.”) And it suddenly hits you: you have nothing lined up for the whole month of June. So you get on the phone and the e-mail, trying to scare up something.

Am I painting it too bleakly? Perhaps. There are people making a very good living doing training as an independent, but they typically fit this profile:
  • They have a number of certs in high demand
  • They are excellent trainers and have the evaluations to prove it
  • They don’t mind living out of a suitcase for weeks on end
  • They know how to manage their money
  • They aren’t shy about promoting themselves

If you fit this profile, and if you have some money saved up to tide you over during the slow startup period, then perhaps the independent trainer life is for you. But there’s something to be said for the training center employee life, as well. After all, Sam’s been telling you all these tales, yet he’s still there, right?

Bruce Maples is a technical trainer and writer. Bruce is certified in several Microsoft technologies and frequently travels to client sites to troubleshoot problems and train employees.

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