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7 tips for building a freelance portfolio

How do you build a freelance portfolio when you are just starting your online business? 

It’s the catch-22 of businesses and careers – you feel like you need experience in order to get the work and build the portfolio. But how do you get the experience with no portfolio to show off your skills? 

Chrissy Snow from Three's Company thinking.

It can be a challenge to get hired without that portfolio, right?

A challenge, maybe, but definitely not impossible! 

There are ways to build a portfolio when you are just getting started with your online business.

And it’s not about doing work for free (with one specific exception).

I know a lot of coaches suggest that you head to the content mills (if you are a writer) or freelance sites like Fiverr or Upwork for other service provider gigs. Or recommend that you offer to build or create or write things in exchange for a testimonial. 

Those are options. But I want to make sure you understand why they shouldn’t be your first choice. Even if you are just starting your online business.  

The problem with content mills and freelance sites is that you often will be fighting to be the cheapest option. And that devalues you and the great work you do. 

I talk about other things you need to know about starting your own business when you are over 40 right here.

If you walk away with nothing else, please know this: there are better ways to build your portfolio. And you can get paid to do it while still getting a really good testimonial.

So here are 7 creative tips for building your portfolio, even if you don’t have experience.

Tip 1: Use your network.

Is there someone who needs your expertise? If not, do they know someone who does? 

I say this all the time, but you don’t get to this point in life without a pretty extensive network. 

The advantage of leveraging your network to build your portfolio is that you’ve already established the know, like, trust factor. You aren’t some stranger on the internet.

So take advantage of the relationships you’ve built over time. You’d be surprised how many people really want to help and support you. After all, that’s kind of the point of a network – give and receive. 

So reach out. Let your peeps know what you are doing and pitch them. 

I was coaching someone recently who literally just needed to let people in her network know she is now building websites. She booked several discovery calls simply by updating her profile and talking about it.

So get the gig, and add your creation to your portfolio. 

Tip 2: Offer to work free for a non-profit.

This is one of my rare exceptions to the “work for free” rule. And I’d actually call it a donation rather than working for free. 

Reach out to your favorite non-profit organization to set up a chat about their needs and how you can fill them.

A word of caution, though. Treat this just like a paid gig. Be specific with your proposal. Set deadlines for the project – which includes deadlines for them to get you what you need to start your work.

This can be a really feel-good way to add to your portfolio.

Tip 3: Create the thing for your business and pop that into your portfolio.

Whether it’s a web site or a blog or branding, your business needs it, too, right? 

While the best case scenario is to feature client work in your portfolio, your own stuff counts, too. So don’t hesitate to put it out there and talk about it loud and proud.

Tip 4: get creative with Concept and mockup work.

When you are getting started, showcasing your range of talent and creativity is another challenge to tackle. 

You can have some fun with that by creating a client scenario and designing a solution. 

When you create that need that you will fill with your concept work or mockup, just be sure you are specific about who the client is and why your work product is the best solution for that client’s needs.

Don’t just create something pretty. It needs to solve a problem. That’s why people will hire you.

Tip 5: If you are a writer, consider doing guest posts and articles. 

Guest posts and articles are a great way to get your name out there while adding to your portfolio. 

Before you pitch, though, you will need to consider a few things:

  • Entrepreneur and Forbes are probably not taking your call right now. And that’s totally cool because there are other options. Look for smaller publications that focus on your niche. 
  • When pitching for guest blog posts, look for bloggers who speak to your audience but who don’t do exactly what you do. You want to give value to their audience in a way that complements what that blogger already is doing instead of competing with her.

Tip 6: Stick your hand in the air for a project with a current client.

This is a great option if you are pivoting in your business or if you are moving towards a more specialized version of what you already offer.

For example, perhaps you are currently a virtual assistant working with clients on administrative tasks, and you want to move to web design, graphic design, or writing.

Since you already have a relationship with your clients AND you know about their businesses, look for opportunities to jump in and help in the areas you want to specialize in. 

This approach allows you to get paid and build your portfolio at the same time! When you do a great job on these new projects for your client, she’ll also look to you for that type of work in the future. There’s all kinds of wins for you here.

Tip 7: Look for stuff that you can improve and pitch for the work – or just do it.

You do need to be careful with your approach here.

The idea is not just to find the ugly, but instead focus on how and why you would do much better. Make sure you are results-focused in your pitch.

If you decide to just go for it and 

  • draft a replacement email sequence 
  • or create a mockup of a new page 
  • or rewrite that sales page copy…

you have some options. You can simply add what you created to your portfolio.

OR (my preferred option), use it as part of your pitch. Either way, you add to your portfolio, but it would be even better to sign that new client.

And keep the following in mind as you try out these 7 ideas for building your portfolio…

First, DON’T undervalue your knowledge or your services. 

Fighting to the bottom is a losing game. There’s always going to be someone who is willing to do it cheaper. 

And a client who is focused on the lowest cost as opposed to quality of work and results may NOT be the best client for you.

Second, set deadlines. 

Whether you are working for a client, creating something for your business, writing a guest post, or working for a non-profit, always set deadlines.

Otherwise (and this is human nature), those things get pushed to the back of the line and don’t get finished. That definitely doesn’t help your portfolio.

Third, ask for testimonials. Every. Single. Time.

Think about it. What’s a must-do when you are buying something for the first time on Amazon? Especially if it costs more than $100?

You check the reviews, right?

Great testimonials + a killer portfolio will really help you build that know, like, trust factor. Which means asking for testimonials needs to be part of your process when you are winding down a project.

Have other questions about starting an online business? Or maybe you really don’t know where to begin? Join my free community where we talk about all the shifts – career, business, and life.