You can’t get clients without a portfolio...but you don’t have a portfolio because you don’t have clients.

Are you a new freelancer stuck in a no-gig rut? The truth is that almost no paying clients will hire you without a portfolio or resume of some kind. The good news is that you can build your portfolio from nothing – thousands of people have done it before you.

Here are a few ways you can do it.

Shift your mindset

1. You are a professional. The first thing you need to do is shift your mindset away from “job seeker” to “professional.”

Your relationship to clients is not like your relationship to an employer. You are an independent professional providing a specific set of valuable services. You are giving clients solutions to their problems. You are not going to be trained, you are not going to be guided. The more you act like a job seeker – seeking validation for who you are rather than acting like a trustworthy expert – the harder it will be to find the kinds of clients you want.

This is something that’s hard to understand for new freelancers. But it’s imperative that you treat yourself the way you want to be treated by clients.

2. Your portfolio is now more important than your resume. While your client list is important, new freelancers can go very far with a solid, well-rounded portfolio. The quality of your work will get you gigs – so don’t despair that your resume looks sparse.

3. Make your own opportunities. Job boards are a small fraction of the gigs you can get. Many early freelancers start at online job boards and this is fine – there are many great gigs online – but in my opinion, this is not a good starting place for people with little or no portfolio.

Most freelancers get jobs through word of mouth. Most people who need freelancers don’t post them anywhere and instead rely on personal relationships and contacts. And you can benefit from this by being the enterprising freelancer that reaches out to potential clients directly. More on that below.

The main point is: the smartest new freelancers don’t just take advantage of good opportunities. They make their own opportunities.

4. Don’t undervalue what you know. Perhaps you’ve never had a freelance writing gig, but you do have a lot of know-how in a certain field – let’s say dance, for instance. Now is the time to use your dance experiences to your advantage.

Make a list of all the things that you have particular knowledge of. Include the weird stuff; even a secret passion for Kimbap counts. In the beginning, you’ll be targeting clients specifically in these areas of expertise. You’ll be contacting the dance organization that needs blog posts; you’ll be writing food reviews for restaurants on your blog. This will be the first step to finding a niche and specializing your career – more on that below.

Get your first clients

There are two common options:

  1. Do low-cost (or free) work to build up your portfolio
  2. Complete your own projects

There are undoubtedly more solutions, but these are the most widely used. Let’s go in to the pros and cons of each option and concrete steps carrying them out.

1. Do low-cost (or free) work

Pros:

  • You’ll find clients fairly easily
  • You’ll be able to work for high-quality organizations
  • If you work for non-profits, you’ll be giving back to your community
  • Your pro bono clients will be the most willing to give you testimonials and share your information with their contacts

Cons:

  • You’re not paid well (duh)

Here’s how to find these types of clients:

1. Look on oDesk or Elance. There are a wide variety of clients, including those who will care more about their bottom line than your lack of experience. Payment is guaranteed – and that’s always a bonus, as you’ll learn.

2. Look on catchafire.org. They have thousands of projects that professionals can complete for non-profits.

3. Contact a non-profit whose mission you support and offer your services for free. No need to try to be “selly” – just explain that you want to build up your portfolio and would be willing to do some work in exchange for a testimonial. Trust me, they’ll respond.

The key is defining a small project to work on with them. Once they have you for free, they’ll want a long-term relationship and a 80-page report. Don’t overwhelm yourself or over-promise. Try to pick a project with a small scope (10-20 hours max).

4. Talk to a local business owner. As I explain here, this works!

"I know a freelance web developer who frequented a local comic shop. One day he looked at their website. He saw that it was an eyesore and they were missing out on a big opportunity to list their high-value vintage comics online. He already knew the owner, so he walked right up to him and pitched his idea of creating a more full-featured website with an online store.

Turns out the business owner had been thinking about doing this for a while, but didn’t want to get “stiffed” by a freelancer found online. Although the price the store owner pitched was lower than what my friend frequently got per hour, my friend negotiated a big chunk of store credit to make up the difference."

5. Reach out to an organization or business in a field that aligns with a particular area of expertise you have. As we discussed above, you should never undervalue the power of your side interests in appealing to potential clients.

If you’re brand new to illustration, but you love gardening passionately and have a few self-initiated illustrations of gardens and veggies to show, you should approach a grocery store, local farm, or CSA to offer your services. You will enjoy these projects more. You’ll also discover the power of specialization: clients are much more likely to pay a good rate to experts or people who clearly understand their particular business than to a generalist.

6. Get work from someone you know. Send an email to your friends, family, and any previous co-workers that you’ve started your own business. Ask them if they’d pass on the word to people who might be interested. There’s no shame in having your first gig come from your uncle who runs a law firm.

7. DO NOT go to a content farm, scammy online work agency, or other service offering to pay you $0.0002 a word or $7/hour on Craigslist. While this can seem better than working for free in the beginning, they're not worth it. These types of clients are likely to forbid you to put work in your portfolio and give you low-quality work that doesn’t demonstrate your true skills or allow you to grow.

2. Complete your own projects

Pros:

  • No outreach required (very introvert-friendly)
  • You don’t have to deal with clients
  • You can create the type of work that would appeal to your dream clients
  • You can work on your own schedule (which is especially important if you have a lot of family commitments or are still working a 9–5 gig)

Cons:

  • Personal projects in your portfolio don’t have the same weight as client work. However, for creative fields, a stellar portfolio of personal work can go a long way
  • It’s easier to get stuck in your personal style (so your portfolio won’t show variety)
  • It’s hard to keep yourself motivated

How to do it:

1. Take your work seriously. If you want to develop a strong portfolio, you’re going to have to produce a lot of pieces. Many freelancers can get by with 3 or 4, but I would suggest doubling that. Every field is different, but the more the better.

2. Keep a schedule. Make a commitment to work on a personal project for your portfolio for an hour a day, or whatever works for you.

3. Set deadlines for yourself (and keep them). Ah, self-motivation, how fickle you are! Lucky for you we’ve got some tips for how to keep your own deadlines.

4. Come up with imaginary clients with different styles. As I said above, the biggest danger of working on your own portfolio is that all your work looks similar. Clients want to see that you can solve their problems, not just apply your particular style to their project. If you’re an artist, you might also want to provide your work on a variety of media: on a tote bag, on a poster, on a brochure. Take pictures of your work in these formats rather than just providing the design files.

Veteran freelancers, what did you do to get gigs in the beginning?

Other resources you might be interested in:

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