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How to build your portfolio with freelance projects

By Randle Browning Posted Mar. 15, 2016 Reading time: 7 minutes

When I first learned to code, and started looking for freelance web design projects, I felt like I was in a Catch-22. My portfolio was totally empty; but I couldn’t fill it with impressive projects without any clients. It’s a tough spot to be in in an industry where your work is much more important than your skillset. You don’t land big clients by listing your coding chops on a resume. You get those high-paying jobs by showing them what you can do. In other words, clients want to see proof of what you can create for them before they give you a check.

But after working with freelance clients as a beginner, and coaching hundreds of students through the process of getting their first clients, I can tell you that building an impressive portfolio as a beginner is totally possible.

 

Should I do free projects to stock my portfolio?

Now, it’s easy to do a few projects “on the house” for your friends or family, or even for a more traditional client. But I’m willing to bet you didn’t learn to code just so you could give back to the community. You probably wanted to make some money off those highly in-demand skills too. Even though it might be scary to ask for money the first few times, I’ve found — and talked to many freelancers who agree — that charging for your projects even as a beginner ensures that:

  • your client will take your work and your time commitment seriously;
  • you will take the project more seriously.

Think about it: if you get a set of free concert tickets, how upset would you be if you missed the event? Or if you were late? Now what if you paid $50 bucks? Might be some encouragement to get off the couch and put on real pants, huh? The same holds true with freelance jobs. When there’s money at stake, it makes everyone take the deal more seriously, from sticking to deadlines, to getting feedback on your designs. And believe me, as a beginner, you already spend tons of time just figuring things out. You don’t want to waste more of it going back and forth with a client who isn’t taking the project seriously.

Besides, you have skills that other people need to make their businesses run, and that’s worth some money, even if you’re just starting out.  

 

How to find your first freelance clients

So where do you find those initial paying clients when your portfolio is [imagine the sound of crickets chirping here]?

Start with your local community

Your local community is a great place to start, especially if you’re already plugged in. Does your favorite coffee shop have a website from the 90s? Do you find yourself searching for the takeout menu of your favorite Indian place; but it’s nowhere to be found? Or have you noticed a local boutique that could benefit from an online shop? Even if a stranger would be nervous about hiring you, someone who knows and trusts you will be more willing to give you a chance to show what you can do.  

Join an online group

But you don’t have to give up on your personal network if you live in the middle of nowhere. I got all of my early freelance gigs through my Skillcrush network. After I took a career blueprint, I joined an alumni community board where I could ask questions and keep up with my classmates. I found my first gigs listed there! Find an online community that resonates with you, and stay engaged. It’s easier to get jobs from a small pool of people in a community than in a more public setting.

Don’t forget about job boards

That said, you can find freelance projects on job boards. How novel! In a world where I got my last job offer via Gchat, it’s easy to forget about more established resources like job boards. Look at boards that feature a lot of temporary projects (I really like Idealist!) or cater specifically to freelancers, like Freelancer. Following a few best practices can really up your success rate with job boards as well.

Get referrals from previous clients

As soon as you get that very first client, you’ve locked onto the lifeline. Here’s what I mean. One of the reasons it’s tough starting out is because it’s much easier to get clients from word-of-mouth than from a cold email. It makes sense. Clients would rather go with someone a friend recommends than take a chance on a freelancer who might not pan out. Make sure to ask your very first clients to tell their friends about you, feel free to ask them for testimonials (you can even help them with the testimonial, if they don’t know what to say), and see if you can credit yourself on the project.

Specialize in an area you’re already an expert in

You might be a beginner in web design, but I bet you have some expertise in another field, especially if you’re transitioning out of an industry and into tech. For example, I started coding after I had just finished graduate school in English, so I had lots of experience with literary and publishing communities. Largely because of that, I started out doing freelance projects for authors and speakers in that space. We had common ground and those clients trusted me to understand their needs and problems.   Here’s another example: Jen Kehl was a blogger who took a course on WordPress so she could fix her own blog without asking for (or waiting for) help from someone else. With her new skills, she was able to build a freelance business helping other bloggers like her with common problems like migrating sites, setting up SEO, and customizing WordPress themes. No matter what field you’re coming from, chances are some people in that industry could benefit from your new web design skills. And because you have a history and you understand how to help them, they’re much more likely to trust you, even if you’re a beginner at web design.

 

Starter projects

I’ve talked to so many beginners who think that they can’t put anything in their resumes except for entire websites coded from scratch; and that is so not the case! Your web design portfolio can include everything from simple concepts to complete polished websites, and everything in between.

Customize a theme

A great first project to add to your portfolio is a simple customized theme or template for a CMS or platform like Squarespace or WordPress.com.   It’s good for you because it’s much simpler than building a site from scratch. Most likely you’ll just need HTML and CSS to update colors and fonts or modify layouts. Plus, you’ll get practice working with a client. While you can’t make tons of money off projects like these, they are a great stepping stone and will give you something you can add to your portfolio. Just make sure to explain exactly what you tweaked when you showcase the work on your site.

Create an email template

Another great project to add to your portfolio is a custom HTML email template using MailChimp or another email marketing service. Email marketing is a basic need in many businesses these days, and you’ll likely be able to create a custom template using just HTML and CSS. Like customizing themes, these templates might not pay as well as larger projects, but you can definitely feature them in your portfolio.

Build a simple website

Remember that local community you planned to tap into? An excellent first project is to build a super simple site using basic HTML and CSS (and maybe a few jQuery plugins) for a local business. As long as the clients don’t need to be able to update the site themselves, a custom static site should be just fine for them. One-page resume sites are a great place to start.

 

Next-level projects

Starter projects can be a great way to start adding substance to your portfolio, but eventually, you’re going to want to start showcasing some more complex work, so you can raise your rates and build up your reputation as a web designer. Luckily, you don’t have to go from that 1-page website to a 100-page e-commerce site. There are plenty of next-level projects in between those extremes.  

Build a custom WordPress site

When you’re ready to take your projects to the next level and start getting hired for more complex (and higher-paying projects), look to WordPress. Not only does WordPress make it possible for you to build a robust site with lots of functionality even when you’re just starting out, it’s also something that clients want. Think about it: would you rather have a website you can’t update without asking for help and paying a designer, or a website you can add your daily specials to, or use as a blog to promote your business? Rather than building a theme completely from scratch, use a starter theme like Underscores, Hatch, or Bones that gives you the bones (!) to go from. Once you have a few custom WordPress sites on your portfolio, you’ll be able to get more momentum in terms of the rates you charge and the demand for your work.

Update an out-of-date site

In the aftermath of Google’s “mobilegeddon”, lots of companies and professionals have realized that their old-fashioned, static websites need a serious update. If a site is old enough, you’ll probably want to start over, but some clients will want to work with you to make an existing site responsive. These kinds of projects can be really tough, especially depending on how organized the code was to begin with; but they can help you build out your portfolio while you’re working on your mobile design skills. Another option is to take a static HTML and CSS site and make it interactive by adding some JavaScript or jQuery functionality, like smooth scroll, a Twitter feed, or an image slider.  

 

Why you should start before your portfolio is ready

Now, if you’re looking at a completely empty portfolio, the thought of adding all these projects can be intimidating. But here’s the thing: You don’t have to wait ‘til your portfolio is stocked with impressive work (or until you really feel like a web designer) to start booking clients. In fact, you’ll notice that plenty of these projects depend on you working your way up from those first simple projects to more complex websites. Even if you just started learning to code, it’s better to start going after the clients you want now than to wait till you feel like you’re ready. Before you know it, you’ll be looking at an impressive portfolio with your name on it!  

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