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On becoming a freelance career coach, resume and LinkedIn expert while raising kids in Madagascar

  • Alison Rakoto

  • From Boulder, CO, USA
  • Coach, Life Work Purpose at alisonrakoto.com

  • Business Model: Freelance
  • $6,500monthly revenue
  • $5,500monthly profit
  • All info self-reported by interviewee
  • Published January 9, 2020
  • Reviewed and edited by Rita Epps

Who are you and how do you make money online?

My name is Alison, I am a human potential coach with a background in applied positive psychology and career coaching. For the last year, I’ve also been studying life coaching to increase my capacity to support my clients to achieve success. 

As a coach, I offer career, executive, and human-potential coaching to empower smart, hardworking individuals, to achieve their dreams with confidence, joy, and grit.

I do this by leveraging my passion for human potential, my knowledge of positive psychology, my strengths as a career coach, and my own experience as a working mom, former executive, expat, and business owner.

My primary focus is women aged 30 to 45 and in particular mothers.

However, I also work with single women, women with no kids, and men who have similar goals/challenges to some of my female clients, such as being immigrants/expats/fathers and/or seeking out a pivot career due to a desire to connect their work to something bigger. 

My primary revenue source is the career and executive coaching and resume writing/LinkedIn strategy. 

For the last year, I’ve been transitioning my revenue model to the one that is more reliant on coaching, and moving away from the resume writing (and LinkedIn profile writing), except as part of my coaching service.

I am slowly working to build passive income streams, but I’ve not adequately leveraged this yet in my business. 

What makes me unique is that I’ve managed to:

  • create my business while raising 3 kids – with one of whom I was on bed rest for the entire pregnancy;
  • being a military spouse – whose husband was deployed for 8 months out of 12 until 2018;
  • going to school online and remote;
  • learning to work with and manage PTSD as a coach (supporting my husband);
  • and all the while building my expertise as a career coach. 

Over the last two years, I’ve invested about $12,000 in my education, obtaining an Applied Positive Psychology Certificate from the Flourishing Center in New York and then studying coaching through the International Coach Academy.

I’ve now paid for all my studies and I’ve started to also work with two coaching groups (HireClub & Collective Gain), in addition to my private coaching practice.

As an independent worker, my revenue varies.

But in general, I make about $2,500+ per month on my resume packages and about $2,000+ per month on individual coaching sessions.

I get periodic bumps to my revenue through small group coaching, special events or consulting contracts.

We also rent out our house in France for $1,300/month, and we make about $1,200 in Airbnb revenues through two bungalows we own in Madagascar (where we currently live).

For my current fiscal year, this means that I am averaging about $6,500/month in 2019.

And I’m on track to increase my revenue by another 30% in 2020 – by offering a twice a year blended group and private coaching program.

Start-up costs and educational fees have made for high expenses in the past.

However, I recently made my final payment for my continuing education, so now my expenses will consist of things like:

In total, this is an average of $450/month.

Previously, my monthly expenses were about $1,000 because they included $510 for my coaching program.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

I am a firm believer in the mantra: “Start the day how you intend it to go.”

From Monday to Friday I generally wake up early (before 6am). I like to give myself 5 or 10 minutes to cuddle my husband or a kid and think a bit about my day before I get up.

When I do hop out of bed, it’s usually to do a CrossFit or yoga workout from 6am to 7am. 

Before and during my workout I drink water, after which I drink black coffee (two or three cups), and get my kids off to preschool.

Most days of the week I also do an intermittent fasting schedule and refrain from eating until lunch.

My kids’ school is near my office, which I lease in our local coworking space. Around 8am after I drop off my kids, I generally start my workday with some time planning/journaling or catching up on email.

My morning hours are also available for clients to book coaching calls and so I often have a few zoom video calls in the morning or I do coaching practice/study with the ICA program. 

I’m working on re-establishing a 20-minute meditation routine at noon, but I’ll confess it’s one thing I let slide way too often, even though I know the benefits are huge. For some reason, in this area of my life, I still tend to put client work or family first. 

From 12:30 to 2pm I take time off to eat lunch at home with my family.

I adore this part of living in Madagascar.

Everyone does it, so it’s easy to get in!

In the afternoon I do client work or coaching calls, occasionally taking off the afternoon to go to the beach with my family or run errands. 

I keep a pretty standard Monday to Friday schedule with business hours.

However, I only work about 30 to 35 hours per week, given that I take long lunches and make the time to run errands or attend to family during the week as needed.

When I am most efficient, I work in time blocks focusing on one major business area per day, while blending in coaching and client work. 

On Saturday and Sunday I give myself the time and space to sleep in…

…but over the last few years, as I’ve managed to improve my sleep, I really don’t need more than 7.5 hours of sleep.

When I first started to work for myself, I thought I might mix my schedule up more, but ultimately the kids are gone during the day and home in the evenings, so, for now, this is what works.

As the kids get older, we are considering how we might do some world schooling and more flexible travel schedules.

So my next stage is really to establish a passive income that is meaningful to me. 

I started my business remotely from France by accessing English speaking clients primarily in the USA, but also in the Netherlands, UK, Dubai, Singapore, Australia, etc.

I built my career coaching business 100% remotely…

…and sometimes I do miss a person-to-person communication.

This is one reason I work out of a co-working space, and I am looking at how I can work more locally. 

In fact, my goal for 2020 is to dedicate a portion of my coaching business to serve some clients face-to-face here in Madagascar. 

My husband and I are also looking at how we can host or lead retreats in Madagascar, but that may be a project for 2021 as we’ve got other things we’d like to build out first.

He is a retired special forces soldier who now teaches CrossFit and leads adventure tours in Madagascar, so we’ve got some interesting opportunities to create something unique! 

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea for your business?

My last salaried job was my dream job.

However, it kept me and my husband on separate continents and countries most of the time.

I loved my work, but in 2013 I left my role as the Executive Director of an NGO working in Haiti – in which I made about $60,000/year – to join my husband in France. 

When I arrived in France, the only thing I knew for sure was that I was done and over with working for someone else.

I knew that I wanted to build a freelance career, but I had no idea what or how.

Having worked in administrative roles up to the executive level, I did have the skills to be an “over-skilled” virtual assistant. So with the guidance of a friend who was also a remote VA, I signed up for Elance (which is now Upwork).

On Elance, I connected with a few fun entrepreneurs doing primarily communications, PR and content writing.

I delved a little into sales, but even for a purpose-driven business, I found direct sales to be mind-numbing. About 8 months into my freelance VA journey, I reached out to my aunt, a retired high school career counselor.

She guided me to do a strengths inventory and to pay attention to what I was really good at. At this point, I realized that I’d pretty much talked (or written) myself into all previous jobs. 

Looking back, it was in about 2004 that I’d taken a Resume Writing Workshop led by Liz Ryan of the Human Workplace in Boulder, Colorado.

She taught us how to tell our professional narrative and write a human-voiced resume. This got me the next 4 or 5 job offers – even without having the proper background experience. 

Around this time I also read “The Gift of Imperfection” by Brene Brown and did it as a workshop class.

By the time we finished the class around March 2015 and I’d given birth to my daughter, I realized that what I had cultivated was a magical set of skills, experiences, and insights that allowed me to write compelling resumes and LinkedIn profiles to get people hired in jobs that aligned with their strengths, passions, and values.

And so, I became a resume writer. 

After a few years of writing resumes, I naturally transitioned into offering career coaching as well.

The more I worked with job seekers, the more I desired to deepen my skills.

I also noticed that often times an individual’s inability to get hired didn’t have anything to do with their resume or skill set…It was an underlying issue.

Such as confidence, limiting beliefs or simply a terrible job search strategy and bad advice from their inner circle.

This led me to study positive psychology, which then led me to also study life coaching.

All in all, I feel like my life has come full-circle.

As a youth, I used to tutor and coach my peers, both officially – as part of the “Peer Tutor” program in my school – and unofficially.

As a manager, I used to coach my employees and help them set career goals, hold them accountable and make sure they got the training they needed to do their job well. 

As a career and life coach, I am finally able to do a job I love that is aligned with my natural strengths and talents.

What’s more, it’s a field of work in which I can constantly seek to improve and learn, so I am never bored!

Doing this work and moving freelance or independent has been a leap of faith and hard work.

It has meant living “paycheck to paycheck” and sometimes I’ve wondered how I’d pay my bills, but there’s always been more money and enough money.

We live well and we live a life we enjoy, aligned with our values as a family.

For those who want to move remote or build their own business, I’d advise to be inspired by those who are “an overnight” success but to keep in mind that, based on the experience of the real people I know on a similar path…

…it takes several years to build your base, figure out your path, and earn an adequate, and then a comfortable income.

If you can, it’s wise to start your business as a side-gig or from a secure base in which you are able to reduce your living expenses. For example, by moving in with your parents or relying on the support of a spouse.

I wouldn’t have been able to take the path I took if my husband and I hadn’t already made the choice to live off of his income so that I could stay home for the first few years of our kids’ lives.

I could have gone back to a 9-to-5 job, but my choice and my passion were to build my own independent business and career. 

Financially speaking, the first year I quit my job and moved overseas I only made about $3,000 working part-time on Elance.

The next year about $5,000.

And since then, each year that I’ve worked for myself, I’ve increased my income by 30% to 50% over the previous year. 

Most of the income growth has been intentional, and partially inspired by one of my earlier coaching friends who said to me:

Figure out what you want to make in a year, then work backward: how many hours do you want to work in a month/week/day…and then figure out your daily rate.

Now you’ve got a baseline for projects and even for an hourly rate!

When I did this, I decided that in my ideal world I’d work 40 weeks a year for 30 hours per week.

And that my minimum hourly rate would be $75/hour and my ideal: $150/hour.

I’m not quite there yet – in that I don’t get paid for all my hours – I am still putting time into my processes, writing, marketing, coaching certification.

But when I am getting paid, I do net a minimum of $75/hour.

To see this difference broken down, consider that when I started writing resumes I was doing them for $125 and now for $550, or more.

Many of these resumes are for career pivot clients and folks that need a lot of deep thoughts and TLC. I spend a minimum of 5 hours on each project and sometimes 10 or more hours. 

At $125 after PayPal takes their 3% I was making $10 to $25 an hour.

Now, at $550 I occasionally get a project that drops me down to $50/hour, but generally, I make $75 or more on my resume work and at least $100/hour on my coaching. 

In other words: people will pay you what you think you are worth.

With higher rates, I’ve not had a decrease in clients or in the quality of clients. In fact, I’ve had more clients. 

How did you prepare to launch the business?

When I started to write resumes, I had all the skills I needed.

At this point, I’d been voluntarily writing resumes for peers and myself for years. I was already in my mid-30s and had been working since I was 16.

My biggest challenge was imposter syndrome and a tendency towards perfection.

I bought a few resume writing books and reading them reinforced that I already knew what I was doing with resumes.

And in fact, I was ahead of the game when it came to LinkedIn.

Once I got my imposter syndrome handled, my business started to grow.

Editor’s note: you’ll find a list of celebrities who’ve suffered from imposter syndrome in our article about rapid skill building.

I’ve also had to work on my writing skills. I’ve excelled at writing my entire life, but I love words and I love to write, so I always need to cut, refine and refocus.

I’ve hired a UX writer and designer to help me with my website.

One skill I suppose you could say I had to learn is figuring out when it’s best to do something myself, and when it makes more sense to hire help.

If I am trying to net $100-$150/hour and I waste 10 hours doing a task that someone else can do in 2, I really should hire help!

To date, I’ve not really created a product.

However, I did design a blended group and private coaching program for my final project in my positive psychology program. I am now launching this program in January 2020.

The process has been a mix of doing market research, leveraging what I already know based on my past clients and coaching experience, talking to my coaching peers, and also implementing ideas and evidenced-based research gleaned in my positive psychology studies. 

When I first started to blend life coaching and positive psychology tools into my career coaching…

…I was nervous that I was full of shit.

But what I’ve learned from studying, reading peer-reviewed studies, undergoing mentor coaching and my own personal experience is that pure coaching and even blended coaching (what I usually do) are almost magical.

There may be bad coaches and uncoachable people. However, coaching done according to the ICF guidelines with a client who is ready to change or enhance something about herself or her life is highly effective. 

How much money did you have to spend to get started?

My first start-up costs were whatever it cost to join Elance – maybe $12 – I don’t actually remember!

When I decided to officially focus on resume writing in 2016 and leave my other writing and VA gigs in the dust, I bought a new MacBook Air.

That year I spent about $1,800 on equipment, which I was able to deduct from my taxes as a “start-up” cost.

In the end, my computer paid for itself by facilitating my ability to get more clients. 

My longest-standing expense is an annual LinkedIn Premium membership.

From 2018 to 2019, I had continuing education costs of about $12,000.

Most things I’ve bought with cash. However, for my continuing education, I made a loan and paid it off over several years. 

I’ve also bought a new printer, bullet journals, markers, pens, mobile data plans when traveling and that sort of thing over the years.

Talk us through your first few months (or first year) in business.

Did I have any doubts? 

Yes and no.

My father is an artist and worked as a freelance illustrator while I was growing up. So I knew already that working without a consistent salary can mean famine or feast.

This is one reason I’ve been working hard to diversify my income sources and find different ways to make income from my coaching. 

My husband got pretty stressed about it at times…

He would be really excited when I made $3,500 one month and then he’d freak out when I only made $1,000 the next month.

I knew what I wanted, and you could say I surrendered to the process: the ups and downs have been less stressful for me than for him.

Although, it is stressful when your spouse is mad at you and wants you to just go back to a normal 9-to-5 job. 

We’d get through this by me running the numbers and pointing out that in France, where we were at the time, I could work 35 hours a week out of the house and likely only bring home $1,500 a month, because of the types of jobs available in our region.

I’d remind him that me working from home gave us the flexibility we needed as a military family.

Editor’s note: you might also enjoy our interview with Esther Inman, another military spouse and a mum who grew her virtual assistant business to $50,000 monthly revenue.

And in the end, when he retired last year, it gave us the flexibility and the security to move overseas again – because my job came with me! 

It has been very lonely at times, especially when my husband was deployed away from home.

But I was lucky to find the Digital Nomad Girls group and I am one of the founding members of the Inner Circle.

For the last two years, I’ve also had an accountability partner – another DNG – who is based in Mexico and we chat daily via Whatsapp or Zoom.

Since we’ve been living in Madagascar, I also work from a coworking space and I really enjoy the 5-minute walk to my kids’ school and then to my office.

I am an extrovert so all these little opportunities for human connection and talking to people on the street are important to me! 

It might sound crazy, but I’ve done this without working crazy hours.

Ever.

I used to work crazy hours in my previous salaried life, and one thing I’ve insisted on for myself and family is that family and mental health comes first.

For example, if I am sick or my dog is sick or my kid is sick, etc. – I am honest and I tell my clients. To date, everyone has understood and respected my choice. 

The biggest mistake I made was hiring a dear friend to be my VA.

We both went into it with eyes-wide-open and agreed that we’d be honest with each other, but unfortunately, the work I needed her to do didn’t quite match her wheelhouse.

We ended the business relationship on good terms, but our friendship is not the same.

If I could go back, I wouldn’t do it again. 

How did you make your first $100 online?

My first $100 came from VA work for an investment banker/vegan blogger from the Netherlands who was all about the 4-Hour Work Week. I found him on Elance. 

My first resume client came a year later for a software consultant who was also originally from the Netherlands. He paid me $125 for that resume and then he hired me to be his VA at $25/hour doing various ghostwriting projects for his business, LinkedIn, and resume updates.

After a year we bumped my rate to $50/hour and then to a monthly retainer.

He referred me to a few friends and then I started to go to Elance, LinkedIn and my own network for resume clients.

Editor’s note: see what Ivan wrote in his proposal to beat 50 other freelancers and get a job on Upwork.

How does the business make money today?

My clients come to me through referrals, LinkedIn, and coaching groups, such as HireClub.

Customers return to me because I help them.

About 20% of my clients are return clients. Another 20% to 30% are referrals from previous clients. 

When it comes to return clients, we might start with a resume and then move into executive success coaching when a client gets hired.

Or we might start with pivot planning and then move onto the job search. And follow-up a year later with a new resume when the client’s ideal job or a promotion or a performance review comes up. 

Generally, once a client sees how working with me can help them get faster where they want to be, or they benefit from the self-awareness and self-care that comes from working with a coach…

…they come back for more.

To date, I’ve not really done much marketing outside of publishing on LinkedIn.

However, now that I’ve really found my niche and understood that I’d like to build a passive income stream (my goal is to take a one-month vacation each year), I am starting to watch my metrics, work with an SEO expert and even leverage Facebook advertising. 

I think a lot of times small business owners get burned out by putting the cart before the horse.

One of my favorite marketing businesses is a gal (and mom!) based in Australia. Her biz title is “A Brand is Not a logo” and so, although maybe you guys want to hear that all my love and dollars come from an amazing logo or marketing plan…

…the foundation of my business is an authentic and vulnerable connection to my clients, plus elbow grease! 

The crucial part of this story is that once I was clear on what I enjoyed and excelled at providing, my business started to grow.

Simply getting down to work and consistently providing the same service was enough to organically build my business at first.

Then came the website and now in 2020, I am really looking at how I can scale and grow to even bigger and better things. 

The lesson here for people starting out is that in 2020, even in the digital age, before you name your business or get a logo, or invest in Facebook marketing…

… what you really need to do is refine your audience, their needs, and your offer.

And then you need to let your inner circle know what you do.

And then you need to branch out a bit by networking either in person or online, continually refining and building.

Once you have a solid business base then it will be worth your while to invest in a proper website and real marketing efforts. 

Editor’s note: Alison’s advice for finding clients is similar to the three-step process we recommend here.

My husband is a great example of being an “overnight” celebrity – he has over 10k Instagram followers, but he’s built them without any business foundation behind.

And his 10k+ followers earn him no steady income.

Since 2014 I’ve seen plenty of other people who burn the midnight candle, work themselves sick, buy logos and build websites and then they see zero traffic – all because they never got clear on their offer first. 

And then they get depressed, and then they quit.

Don’t do that, please! 

Where I have had a ton of success is LinkedIn.

But even here I want to bust a myth.

To be successful on LinkedIn you don’t need to be an influencer!

I’ve gotten people their dream jobs by going from 8 connections to 85 targeted connections. The crux of LinkedIn is relevance and the right connections.

I started getting hired by clients I’d never even known were following me when I only had 500 followers. 

The key to success with LinkedIn is to get in front of your ideal audience and to test the waters.

For example, right now I am getting daily requests to connect to graphic designers and all sorts of B2B marketers. These folks may offer a service that I could someday use, but they are not my demographic or target audience and so I don’t accept. 

On the flip side, when I get a request from a female business owner or a start-up CEO or another professional whose profile fits the demographic of my ideal client or someone they might know, I do connect.

I think the biggest lessons are the following:

  • You’ve got to start somewhere.
  • You don’t have to have everything in place before you start.
  • You don’t have to be perfect, but you do need to be persistent.
  • Sometimes it is better to invest in help than to do it yourself. 

For example, I didn’t want to invest in a website, so I built my site on Wix, but after about a year and a billion rewrites, it was getting zero traffic.

Eventually, I moved my site over to WordPress and hired a UX writer who really made me target my website and my language.

Now I was proud of my website and started to share it more, and viewers started to grow.

I’d still not done any SEO work, because I’d looked into it and decided the resume writing and career coaching market was saturated. I thought: “Why bother with SEO if there is no chance in ranking?”

But then, I suddenly started to show up in organic search results.

How?

In April 2019, I started to write about the purpose and really go after my niche as a coach.

Previously, I’d been wanting to work with women and mothers, and in particular women, aged 30 to 45 who wanted to level up or go back to work, but I’d been timid about targeting them. 

When I started to target my ideal client, guess what…I hit organic search.

And the work I’d done previously paid off…more than one client told me that she’d been to my site and “I was the coach for her.” 

Recently, I’ve been contacted by clients who googled a subject and it brought them my way, so even just dipping my toes in SEO is paying off. 

Seeing these results, I’ve hired an SEO writer for 2020 and will start publishing and tracking SEO.

The goal is to continue to grow my client base and ideally to increase traffic to the point where I get affiliate income from Amazon.

Return Clients: 

I’ve sent an end of the year thank you for the last three years.

Periodically I send messages to check-in on clients and I also follow them on LinkedIn.

Historically this has worked well for me.

However, for 2020 I am also implementing a weekly newsletter.

And I will be offering a subscription service to job search clients to support them during their job search and to encourage them to hire me as an executive or success coach following their hiring.

Ads:

I’ve never done ads for myself, but I know that on LinkedIn, short posts or video posts that do well organically are prime for becoming sponsored posts.

The same is true for Facebook and Instagram.

As I am trying to reach more women in 2020 and double my income again, I will be using various ads in 2020, but this has been a thoughtful and slow process.

I don’t like to just throw my ad money anywhere!

What are some of the challenges particular to this kind of online business?

My biggest challenge is that the west coast of the USA is apparently a hotbed for coaching. And it is 11 hours behind Madagascar.

I keep trying to target expats and anglophones from around the world, but so far my client base remains between 80% North American and 20% European & Asian.

I’d be thrilled if I could really build a money base in my time zone or within 4 hours +/- of my time zone! 

It’s also really hard to outsource and scale what I do.

My resume writing is really a unique technique that I’ve cultivated over the years. I’ve tried hiring a few people and training them and while they do OK it’s not worth the time or cost-benefit. 

For this reason, what I’ve discovered I can do to leverage my hours – is to teach/coach my clients to write their own resumes.

My hope is that eventually, I will put together a DIY process that results in my part simply being a resume critique with a small time investment of 1 to 2 hours max on my part.

And for those that are really time desperate, but not cash desperate, I can offer an executive-level service that is probably twice my current price. Money does talk! 

One of the things I really had to learn to deal with was questions about my writing.

Everyone has an opinion on a resume. Everyone can give an opinion on a LinkedIn profile. And so part of my development over time has been learning to walk my clients through the feedback they get on my product.

The first few times I got negative feedback it really made my blood boil, but given my line of work and my value of active listening…

…I learned to appreciate feedback and respond in a way that can best serve my clients. 

And so, when I get good feedback (as in an accurate criticism or correction) I welcome it and will adapt my client’s resume for free.

If they’ve received off-target or even shitty advice, I will politely and kindly explain how and why their friend/colleague/advice giver’s suggestions are not on point.

My clients really appreciate my ability to both accept corrections and clarify why things are the way they are! 

Want to start a resume writing business?

You can do it.

I’d look up everything ever written by Liz Ryan and Martin Yate. These are two New York Times level resume writers whose advice and theories meld with my own.

I’d actually avoid the advice of many resume writing certification groups as their advice is stuck in the 1990s. 

The second piece of advice I’d give is that you don’t need to 100% niche down, but it is good to be familiar with the field of work of your clients or at least to have the capacity to be an “overnight expert.”

You need to be comfortable with the subject area of the client and confident that you can guide them. For example, I have enough knowledge of the tech industry that I do all sorts of resumes for software and IT, but I’ve never once written a resume (or CV) for an actor or someone in the performing arts.

Most importantly, I always consider my client the expert in her field, and I make sure she understands this so that if I get something wrong or inaccurate, she is comfortable with correcting me.

My genius is the strategy behind the resume and the story told inside the content. 

If you were starting the same business today, from scratch, how would you do it?

I’d have more confidence in my niche. I wrote in a journal of what I wanted to do in 2014, but I didn’t fully embrace it until 2018!

For the first few years of my business, I really had business-related FOMO.

I was afraid if I turned down any offer it would shoot me in the foot, but in the end, I learned that saying no to some clients makes sense and that focusing on becoming an expert takes time and persistence. 

What books, podcasts, courses or other resources would you recommend to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Read/Listen:

Do:

Videos:

📚 Editor’s note: see our ultimate list of the best books for online entrepreneurs.

What are your top business tools?

Where can we go to learn more?

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