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John Stein


Founder of The Winning Formula®

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Eight tips I wish I had received before I started a training business


Just starting out as a trainer? Experienced trainer and consultant John Stein gives the community a few tips to make sure business gets off on the right foot. 

This year I celebrate 25 years in business as a consultant, coach and trainer. The commercial landscape has changed considerably over the years and the entrepreneurial journey has had many twists and turns along the way. I am often asked by other learning and development professionals – many of whom are considering the prospect of moving into the self-employed world – to share a few tips with them from the journey.

Here are my top eight.

The journey is not for the faint hearted

Getting your business off the ground will be tougher than you can ever imagine. It will take three times longer than you envisage to establish a regular income and the cost will be three times greater than you budgeted for. Feeling inspired and empowered by success on your journey will be balanced with moments of disappointment and frustration in the unpredictable learning world. Challenges will test your resolve, commitment and determination to succeed. Some friends and family members will support you, however many will not understand why you have taken the decision to work for yourself. 

You may have talent, bags of self-confidence and courage, but you should only embark on the journey if the desire for independence, work/life balance and ‘making a difference’ in the workplace will keep you motivated.

Securing your first ten clients is easier than you think

Many professionals fail to secure enough clients in the early days because they lack the necessary business development experience. Networking and selling does not form part of their natural skillset. Delivering learning solutions is what they do best. Persuading prospective clients of the merits of your work can be time consuming and soul destroying particularly if you are on the receiving end of a few early rejections. 

It doesn’t need to be like this – offering your services free of charge will secure your first ten clients. The majority (if not all) of your prospects will take up your generous offer. Crucially, you will gain valuable client experience, feedback on your performance and testimonials and references which can be used to secure future ‘chargeable’ work.

Your reputation is built in the Dog and Duck

You will undoubtedly spend a lot of your time with the decision-makers who commission you – entrepreneurs, chief executives, directors, leaders and other senior managers. Their feedback is invaluable. Helping them to achieve their development objectives is critical to enjoying a longstanding and mutually beneficial relationship. Reputation though, is built on the quality of work and results achieved with the direct recipients of your input. 

You may not realise it, but conversations between colleagues around the water cooler, at team meetings or after hours in the ‘Dog and Duck’ can often seal your fate or elevate your status. People will either be architects or assassins of your development philosophy. Never underestimate their influence.

Clients will love, marry and ultimately divorce you

Client relationships often mirror many individuals’ personal relationships. Courting – an old fashioned term I believe – is the natural starting point. The early ‘heady days’ create an atmosphere of intrigue, anticipation and elation as two parties commit to the same learning goals. The loving begins. Soon afterwards, marriage takes place. Stability, contentment and commitment underpin the relationship. All is well in paradise. However, relationships can change over time. Complacency can creep in. Heads can be turned. Other suitors may surface. Individual needs change. It’s part of life.‘Hero to zero’ springs to mind. Working with clients’ requires passion, innovation and a sense of humour. Even then, there are no guarantees. You are always an email or a telephone call away from a divorce.

The customer is not always right

Clients should always receive a professional service and a guarantee that their agreed development objectives will be achieved. They should also expect you to support their values and offer a level of independent perspective, professionalism and passion which is refreshingly different to their own organisation. However, employing you doesn’t excuse them from abusing their position and power. Using your intellectual property without permission isn’t part of the partnership agreement. Neither is taking the credit for work you have done. 

Respect is important in any business relationship and can be measured by the speed of payment received for the delivery of your services. Positive evaluation of your work will make you happy. Being paid fully and on time will inspire you to continue to deliver your best. Late payments or bad debts are unacceptable and unforgettable.

Life events will shape your career

Our life and career journeys are inextricably linked. To many professionals, their work is their life and it’s understandable when the uncertainty of future earnings is ever present.The learning and development world is always at the mercy of the economy. Feast and famine are commercial norms to many of our learning colleagues. However, I have often found that unforeseen events, chance meetings, setbacks, tragedy, illness or bad luck can benefit us in ways unimaginable at the time. 

Meeting F.W. De Clerk in the year Mandela was released helped me to improve my presentation skills. Working with Frank Price – author of Right First Time – inspired me to change the direction and focus of the business. Supporting my wife after a near fatal car accident allowed me the time to write my first book. Inspiration and opportunity appears when you least expect it.

Off-days don’t exist in our world

The expectation on the shoulders of all learning and development professionals is huge. Our role is very public and we are not entitled or expected to have an off-day. Individual coaching, team development sessions, workshop facilitation, motivational events, conferences and other performance formats leave us inspired, rewarded, exhilarated and at times exhausted. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s always a privilege to be involved in the learning and development journey of others. 

However, our participation on the journey comes at a price. Adrenalin plays havoc with our body, particularly if we are tasked with the delivery of many events over a short period of time. Being busy and delivering great work is extremely satisfying but you should always be aware of the need to pace and prepare yourself in readiness for your next learning event. Your client will expect optimum performance at all times. The time to rest is before you need the rest. Be kind to yourself.

Be authentic, original and memorable

My number one lesson focuses on the learning experience. The massive amount of available content and the creative link with the internet and social media has changed the learning and development landscape forever. There are so many supplier and delivery formats available nowadays, that unless you are authentic, original and memorable, you will struggle to survive. Evidence-based content and measureable outcomes are not enough to guarantee a bright future in the learning world. Good just isn’t good enough anymore.

Great learning and development professionals create great learning experiences and achieve great results. Anything less than great reflects badly on our profession and short-changes the client. Passion, drama, adventure, challenge and creativity should always form part of your learning experience.

Best wishes on your journey, wherever it may take you.

John Stein is the founder of the winning (formula)® and the author of the new leadership development parable Building the Pyramid

Author Profile Picture
John Stein

Founder of The Winning Formula®

Read more from John Stein

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