When I ask people about their biggest challenges to succeeding at freelancing, one of the most common responses I get is “Building a portfolio”.
It usually sounds something like one of the following:
- “How do I build a freelance portfolio with no work experience? I’m new to freelancing / Upwork and I don’t have examples of previous work to show.”
- “How can I create a freelance portfolio in my field? Oh sure, you can create portfolios for freelance writers and designers, but I can’t because I’m a bookkeeper / lawyer / software developer / virtual assistant / other “non-creative type.”
- “How do I make a freelance portfolio if I can’t use my samples? I’ve done some relevant work I wish I could show, but it was for my employer (or previous freelance client) so I can’t use those as portfolio samples.”
If you listen closely, the underlying assumption is that you need to be able to show off years of previous work in your portfolio to look professional and win jobs.
This is exactly the type of myth many freelancing gurus and Old Pros have been perpetuating for years, but is it true?
Creating a freelance portfolio doesn’t need to be difficult
A couple of weeks ago I took my wife and 3-year old son to the grand opening of a new grocery store. There were balloons everywhere, and my son asked if he could have one.
My wife was about to tell him they were “just for show,” but before she could get the words out I’d already walked up to the store manager and asked if they had an extra balloon for my son.
She smiled and handed me an entire bouquet of balloons. When I gave it to my son he was beaming from ear to ear. But I’ll never forget what my wife said:
“Huh. It never occurred to me to do that.”
Here’s an uncomfortable question for you: How often do we choose a hard path in life just because an easier alternative never occurred to us?
Sure, putting in years of work will lead to a big portfolio… But what do you do in the meantime?
Do you just stay stuck in the catch-22 of “I can’t get freelance jobs without a portfolio…but how can I build a portfolio without getting any jobs?”
That’s one option. But I’ve found there are times in life when it’s OK — even preferable — to take a shortcut.
Yes, you can build your freelance portfolio the hard way — or you can use one of the following EASY portfolio ideas and give yourself permission to stop worrying about it and start doing work you enjoy:
How to build a freelance portfolio the easy way:
- Don’t have your own samples? Just critique someone else’s work
- Portfolio samples don’t always need to be finished projects
- Show the results of your work — even if they aren’t dramatic
- Write (mini) case studies on your freelance clients…or anyone you’ve helped
- You can use screenshots for more than just “creative” projects
1. Don’t have your own samples? Just critique someone else’s work
The next best thing to showing off your own work is talking about someone else’s work in a way that demonstrates your knowledge and expertise.
Here’s an example of simple, 3-minute website teardown:
Anyone can do this! Just use an app like Camtasia (you can even use their free trial) to record your screen while you talk. Keep it short and simple.
(And please don’t tell me “this is just for freelance writers/designers/web developers”! You can critique spreadsheets, Google Analytics dashboards, legal disclaimers, software, 3D renderings, translations, architecture, or anything else.)
2. Portfolio samples don’t always need to be finished projects
Once, when I was 17 and working in a restaurant, I helped a chef prepare stuffed mushrooms. My job was simple: to remove the stems.
When I finished, I went to throw the scraps and stems out. But the second before I dumped everything into the trash, the chef yelled, “WAIT — We can use those to make soup!”
Master craftsmen leave nothing to waste.
Similarly, one FTW student started writing a blog post using my Crystal Ball Technique and realized that — even without finishing it — it was enough to show off her writing skills. So she added it to her Upwork portfolio and called it a “blog post excerpt.”
The result? In less than the time it would have taken her to finish the full blog post, she’d already used it to land a new client!
There’s no rule that says your portfolio can only contain examples of completed projects. Look at the publishing business — an author can write a single chapter of a manuscript and use it to get an entire book deal! You can do the same with your portfolio.
You can do this with visual work as well. For example, graphic designers/artists can show sketches instead of finished images, UI/UX designers can show wireframes and mockups instead of completed apps, and web developers can build just one page of a multi-page website.
Of course, this works for non-creative work too:
Instead of a full manuscript, proofreaders can put a single page (or paragraph) of rough text in a Google doc with edits made under suggestion mode.
Instead of putting together a 10 page report, research assistants can show just half a page of detailed notes on a random subject.
The possibilities are endless.
3. Show the results of your work — even if they aren’t dramatic
Showing screenshots of results you’ve been able to achieve is always a great idea. Even you’re not able to display the actual work itself (perhaps due to contract agreements), showing the results will get the point across just as well, if not better.
If you’re brand-new, keep in mind these don’t have to come from previous clients — they can be results you got for yourself, at a previous job, or even for a friend or relative.
They also don’t need to be dramatic or “hardcore” results.
A Facebook post with a bunch of likes and shares can work wonders if you’re involved in marketing, social media, or content creation.
An accountant can show how she saved a family member a couple of hundred dollars on their taxes. (If accountants can do this, I don’t want to hear anyone else complain that it doesn’t work for them, OK?)
If you’re a copywriter, you can write an email for a friend’s business and take a screenshot of the results in MailChimp. This will show clients that you’ve sent emails that have been opened and read by X-number of people. (Any client who wants help with their email marketing or copywriting will love this.)
If you’re still new or just don’t have any concrete results to share, don’t worry — as a copywriter, it was years before I had a single concrete result to show and I still managed to pull in a six-figure year on Upwork without it. But if you keep improving your skills and do good work you will eventually have results to show off.
4. Write (mini) case studies on your freelance clients…or anyone you’ve helped
A case study is a story about someone you helped. Here’s a real example of a case study on one of my students. Yours doesn’t need to be nearly as long — a few paragraphs (or even a few sentences) will do the trick.
And again, it doesn’t necessarily need to be about a client — it can just as easily be something you did for a friend, coworker, boss, relative, or anyone else.
Maybe you helped someone set up Google Analytics for their website. Maybe you showed them how to use Quickbooks. Maybe you created a Facebook page for their business. The “what” doesn’t matter — anything can become a powerful case study that shows off your skills.
If you’ve really helped someone solve a problem or accomplish a goal (even if it seems small to you) then there will be a story to tell. Even helping someone simplify their life by organizing their Google Drive files can make a great case study that can help you get clients.
5. You can use screenshots for more than just “creative” projects
You don’t need to be in a creative industry like writing or graphic design in order to build an impressive freelance portfolio.
I know of a clever lawyer on Upwork who created a portfolio filled with screenshots of custom contracts she’d worked on (edited to black out sensitive information, of course).
It doesn’t matter what type of work you do. Screenshots of spreadsheets, research documents, social media posts, apps and anything else you can imagine can all make great portfolio pieces that make you look smart and credible.
Action Time — How will you build up your freelance portfolio?
It’s cool to read blog posts about freelancing, but I didn’t create this site for your “edutainment” — I did it to show you that you have the power to do work you enjoy, charge what you’re worth, and have freedom and control over your life.
That doesn’t happen without ACTION.
So I want to challenge you to pick one thing off the list above, and block out just 15-30 minutes in the next week to make it happen. Then drop a comment below and let us know which one you’re going to do.
Please be SPECIFIC. Don’t just say “Screenshot sample” or “Case study” — tell us exactly what you plan on doing (e.g. “I’m going to write a blog post excerpt about fitness” or “I’m going to critique my sister’s web design”).
The more specific you get now, the easier it will be to follow through and start building up your freelance portfolio.
Join my free Mini-Course: Create your Minimum Viable Portfolio (MVP) and land your next client
Which of these sounds better to you:
- Spend months or years building up a “well rounded” spec portfolio, or…
- Create a Minimum Viable Portfolio (MVP) in ONE AFTERNOON so you can start getting paid to do work you love immediately?
If you chose 2, I’ve got something special just for you. Join my free email mini-course to learn how to create your MVP in a few hours, then use it to start getting real paying clients…TODAY.
The course is totally free. Here’s what you’ll learn when you sign up:
- How to use even a single portfolio item to craft killer Upwork Proposals and get clients who pay you to do work you ENJOY
- A complete list of easy portfolio ideas (including several bonus ideas and lots of real examples for inspiration)
- How to use your MVP to attract high-quality job invitations from great clients on Upwork
- And much, much more…