Do the portfolio hustle. Capture attention, muscle out competitors and get better clients

By strategically working for free, you can hustle your way to a great reputation which you can leverage to double your freelance rate down the line.

Your portfolio is everything. How are you supposed to win any clients without proving what you can do? Your portfolio will determine the perception your potential customers have of you. It can be the make or break factor with regard to winning those lucrative projects.

The trouble is, if you’re just starting out or haven’t yet got a roster to write home about you don’t have to much value in your portfolio. Bummer, right?

The result is lots of scrapping to find clients and a healthy dose of disappointment.

Does this sound like you? If so, I have a few ideas and the first idea is to work for free.

Yep, free.

Take on Free Work to Build your Portfolio

Every day, hundreds of your wannabe compatriots decide to take up freelancing work within your space. You are competing against all of these people and as such, you need to situate yourself in such a way that you stand out from the crowd. You cannot do so without a good portfolio, a portfolio which is filled with clients who have strong brand recognition at that.

One of the core factors I talk about on Freelancelift is finding better clients by being more specific about who you’re actually serving.

When I launched Brandshank for example, I did so targeting specifically the music industry. The obvious goal was to hit the lofty heights of a with with Universal or Virgin Records.

Winning these types of customer isn’t easy though. You need a track record.

So, I began to map out a route. In any industry there is a pyramid of excellence. If your ideal customer is at the very top then they need to be sure you’ve performed at a level sufficient to making the step up to the top spots.

By strategically working for free, only with clients you feel can help raise your own profile you can build up your portfolio and gain this track record, the path up the pyramid. Although you won’t be getting paid for the work per se, those few days you spend delivering a top notch service to those clients could mean you’re in the driving seat to land the top bracket of paying customers in the future – customers who are going to invest in you and help you to grow your business.

So where do you start?

Your Hitlist

You need to figure out who your customers really are and narrow down who you want to work for. This way you can ensure that your portfolio features customers who are targeted to that vision, and that your portfolio is going to attract customers who value you.

I recommend building a criteria for your ideal A List client. Take this as an example:

– Client must have credibility in their area of expertise.
– The brand must be recognisable and established.
– The brand must be connected and relevant to my vision.

Side note: I put together a playbook for pinning down your vision and finally figuring out who your ideal customer is. Get it for free, here.

Creating a specific list of A List clients is rather simple – you should have a go right now. Once you have established who your ideal client is, you can begin to draw up that path to the top of the pyramid.

Get started

Get clear on who you’re really serving and start plotting a map of credible ‘stepping stone’ clients you can reach out to, offer your services for free on a new marketing campaign they are starting. If you know that a brand is building a new website, offer to assist with some consultancy as to the UI flow or if their site could be better, point out how and indicate you could help for free.

Enough to enable you to take credibility for the project. It only takes a few free projects for big brands to make your freelance portfolio stand out from the crowd. By having recognisable logo’s on your work you will have the building blocks to create a business that is considered a thought leader.

Forget for a second that you’re working for free here but don’t let your other client obligations slip, consider this a promotional activity. Speed of execution is not the deciding factor here, a solid, well thought out approach is. Quality matters, so keep your current clients happy while going down this route.

The backwards sales pitch

Here is where it gets interesting, you want to present what you’ve completed in such a way that it appears a no-brainer for your prospect to use in some way.

Any salesmen reading, look away… now.

“You’re providing the solution first, working backwards from there to agree a fee of zero”


Wow, all that work for nothing? Well not quite, more on that later.

You should approach your prospect in a mature, sensitive way that matches their personal preferences. This normally manifests itself as email but more recently Facebook or Dribbble for designers has worked well. Here’s a backwards sales pitch you can swipe right now (via email)

Subject: An idea/feedback for [prospect-name] [your-skill] enhancement/improvement

An idea for Ownerd web design

Feedback on Ownerd content and improvements

Ideas for Ownerd site functionality enhancements

Dissected: There is no mention of an offer here, you’re providing ideas/feedback for enhancement which tends to get both thumbs up as an indirect sales approach (especially when there is no “sale” to be made after this.)

The subject is the most important element here, but within the body content you should address:

– A particular pain point this prospect might have (Tip: Think beating out competitors)

– That this is in no way a pitch, only a contribution from a fan with ideas

– That a reply is optional, you’d be just pleased they consumed it aka ‘an easy out’
This is killer, arguing against the primary purpose of your contact is a surefire way to ensure you do get a response.
– Cover that for now this is between you and them, but that you would like to add it to your portfolio / social channels if they chose not to take the idea on.

Here’s a quick example:

Hey Liam,

Love what you’re doing on Ownerd, just wanted to touch base and give you some feedback on a point you raised in a recent post by you on the speed of your list growth.

I have tons of experience in designing for conversion [content writing for conversion, plugin development etc] and just put some thought into a quick design change [big content idea, dev improvement idea] which I thought I’d share.

This approach has no ulterior motive just wanted to return the favour of you providing your expertise to me, by at least giving you something that I’ve learned from my 5 years’ experience in design.

I also note that you’re in a bit of a head-to-head battle with and this is something they’re just not doing either.

Anyway, appreciate your time in getting this far, I’ve compiled the ideas here:


If I don’t hear back from you that’s cool, appreciate you’re busy. For now I’ve kept this work between me and you and you have my permission to use it, with no cost. But just let me know that you’ve done that so I can jump for joy on my social channels.

Alternatively I can chat through with you how this might pan out if you wanted me to develop on this idea a little further.

My Skype is XYZ or hit reply.

Speak Soon!



Pushing your portfolio

It isn’t just the content of your portfolio that matters (although, this next step is rather pointless without a quality roster of clients).Also vital to the success of your portfolio is how accessible it is for your potential customers.

What you need to ask yourself is this – where are your potential customers looking for your services?

There are lots of great online platforms for freelancer portfolios, and platforms which are proven to attract big brands. Platforms such Dribbble, Forrst and Behance are typical examples, and these are ideal for any freelancer who works in graphic or website design. To a lesser extent, they can also be used by non-creative freelancers, including consultants, search engine experts and copywriters.

The best place to showcase your work is on your very own website, however. With your own site you are not confined to a limited amount of projects or by the size of your portfolio. You will also have free reign over how visual your portfolio is and you can customise the website to direct potential customers to your stand out projects.

Set up accounts on all of the major social media networks, and get the word out there about your portfolio. With a bit of luck, you may be picked up by thought leaders and potential customers.

Ultimately, your portfolio marketing activities should be designed to give your free work a maximum amount of leverage, and the best opportunity to reach your ideal customer. You can set this strategy alight by defining your hitlist.

The Bottom Line

1 piece of free work that takes you a couple of days to complete could result in around 5,000 visits and over 500,000 re-marketing impressions if managed correctly. By offering your services for free you can build your portfolio and gain credibility and ultimately bowl over that A List client.

This is just one of the many ideas I have for business growth, which I cover over at Freelancelift, which exists to provide actionable growth ideas for the ‘doing okay’ freelancer. An arsenal of posts, videos, playbooks and actionable content for freelance designers, writers and marketers to break through your earnings ceiling.

Learn anything? Please share

When you’re held ransom by client work and income instability how are you supposed to find time to work on “growth” (whatever that means).

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  • Sam W.

    Great article, Liam. Particularly the example letter. I noticed that you (knowingly?) used specific language there when referring to you free service. I think I too often come across as a perpetual volunteer instead of a freelancer doing a favor. Off hand, do you have or know of any additional resources that could help me better communicate that I’m usually doing this for pay?

  • Liam at Freelancelift

    Hey Sam, great question – thanks for asking it. I like the question so much I thought I ought to write about it so that others can benefit from my response.

    So check out the post you inspired here:

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