The Freelancer’s Definitive Guide to Creating a Killer Online Portfolio

Austin L. Church
June 17, 2021
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Over the last 12 years, I have cracked the code on the do’s and don’ts of an online portfolio. Are you ready for the first surprising insight? Your online portfolio isn’t as important as you think. Before you hang me for treason, hear me out. The biggest mistake most freelancers and consultants make is overvaluing their hard skills, meaning the ones represented in their online portfolios. At the same time, we tend to undervalue other skills and benefits that matter as much or more to clients. Examples of your past work check only one box in the client’s “Should I hire this person?” list. Other factors like how you position yourself as a freelancer and your perceived authority, as well as your freelance offers, personality, pricing, values, and character, often carry more weight.(Be sure to check out “How to Position Yourself As a Freelancer & Raise Your Rates”)Having 5-12 impressive projects under your belt doesn’t hurt your chances of getting that first conversation, but if you’re newer to the freelance game and your online portfolio is thin or nonexistent, try not to get mired down in discouragement.Clients give exactly zero craps about how many guest posts you published on sites they’ve never heard of. Please, please don’t fret over things that don’t matter. (More on that in a moment.) Instead, use this post to avoid pitfalls and dead-ends, focus on what matters, and create your freelance portfolio quickly.By the time you finish reading, you will have answers to these questions:

Let’s begin.

What is an online portfolio?

Your online portfolio is an easy-to-access place where you share projects you’re proud of. An oil painter has a gallery where people can see her recent canvases and read little cards that explain the painter’s thinking or process. Your portfolio serves the same function. It shows off your talent and removes reasons for not getting in touch with you.In this day and age, anyone can claim anything online. “Look at these projects I did for Nike, Apple, Red Bull, Yeti, and Tesla!” exclaims the bozo who has never worked for any of those brands. Instead of claiming that you can deliver on your promises, you show the results of past projects. This proof sets you apart from the posers.

How important is your freelance online portfolio?

Is it okay if I gripe for a minute? I see some bad freelance advice floating around out there and I want to comment on it. Each month, I receive emails from freelancers who say something to the effect of “My biggest challenge is having nothing in my portfolio.” Here’s one a freelancer writer named Michael sent me:

Friends, you don’t need a stunning portfolio to get freelance clients.Michael’s desire to prove his talent speaks well of his commitment to craft and his desire to truly serve his clients.He’s right in assuming that a strong online portfolio will sometimes help him compare favorably with other freelancers. Soon enough, however, Michael will make the same discovery I did back in 2009. Many freelance clients don’t have excellent taste. They lack the sophistication or aesthetic sensibility to judge between two writers and pick the freelancer who stands heads and shoulders above, talent wise.Am I allowed to say that? Well, I said it.

Clients say yes to ugly logos, horrifying websites, and vomit-worthy copy ALL THE TIME.These clients fall into two categories:

  1. Don’t Want To Clients
  2. Don’t Know How Clients

As long as you deliver decent results, Don’t Want To clients are satisfied. You served them by taking the project off their plate. I hired a landscaping company to mow my yard for the same reason. I want to do something else with Saturdays.Some of your clients will fall in the second Don’t Know How bucket.Many of them aren’t good judges of quality. They cannot differentiate between effective copywriting and page-filling fluff. Even if Logo B looks superior to an identity designer’s trained eye, they will pick Logo A. What this means is that Don’t Want To clients aren’t always buying quality (which you would demonstrate with your portfolio), and Don’t Know How clients won’t immediately disqualify you because your portfolio looks weak to you.If a client does mention your thin portfolio, this wording will help you reframe your inexperience as a benefit:

To be honest, I'm pretty new. That works in your favor because I'm very motivated to do my best work for you and build my portfolio. Can you share 3-5 examples of what you like? Chances are, I can do better.

Thankfully, this won’t happen often. For those of you just starting out, I have two more pieces of good news:

  1. Your early clients will likely come from your existing network—friends, family, acquaintances, and business contacts. They will already have some familiarity with your skills.
  2. A cognitive bias called the Halo Effect works in your favor.

If people like you, they assume you’re competent. Once you land the project, you will never give them a reason to believe otherwise, right? Pro Tip: A clearly defined and satisfying client onboarding process will help you position yourself as an expert guide. Feel free to steal mine.

How to Make an Online Portfolio Quickly

Do you have a few work samples and nowhere to put them online? I’m going to give you some online portfolio examples for inspiration.Designers can use portfolio websites like Dribbble, Behance, and Instagram. Graphic designer Neda Mamo uses Behance. She grabs attention right away with fun, colorful design work samples.

Marina Pavlovic showcases her minimalist UI/UX web designs on Dribbble and makes it obvious she’s available for hire:

Writers publish writing samples on Medium for free. You can also set up your own website with a blog section and Work or Portfolio section. If you want a website that actually gets clients, read this post. I recommend customizing the Divi theme from Elegant Themes (affiliate link).If you’re in money-saving mode, then look at the various free portfolio websites. This article from The Write Life gives 10 options. Freelance Writer Mechelle J. Little opted for a free online portfolio website called Journo Portfolio.

Do not let the abundance of options cause analysis paralysis. Free or paid? Self-hosted or not? You have two even easier options that will do in a pinch:

  1. Put together a GDoc or Google Slides presentation and export the PDF version. That way, you can deliver your online portfolio as an email attachment.
  2. Put project examples and files in a GDoc or Dropbox folder and share that link.

When in doubt, use a free online portfolio website. You can always delete the account later if you change your mind.Let’s now shift gears and get to the big worry new freelancers have.

How do you build a freelance online portfolio with no experience?

Building your online portfolio seems like a chicken-and-egg scenario: “I need a portfolio to get clients, and I need clients to build my portfolio. I’m stuck!”Another concern that I hear from freelancers I coach is, “Won’t clients just leave if I have no experience? I haven’t been doing this since 2009 like you.” We all have to start somewhere. You can build your online portfolio in weeks instead of months with four simple tactics:

1. Help friends.

Let’s say you are a creative copywriter trying to break into the industry. Find a friend who needs help with something. Offer to write the first draft for free or at a steeply discounted rate. (Think of it as a marketing expense). For example, I wrote a new bio for friends in a band. They used it on their website.

2. Help nonprofits.

What organization or cause do you care deeply about? You can give back to the community and build up your online portfolio at the same time. I wrote menu copy for a restaurant owned by a local nonprofit. This writing sample found a place in my online portfolio.

3. Pick brands you love.

Here’s a secret that most freelancers miss: You don’t have to get paid for the project in order for it to be “valid". So think of a brand you love, and then dream up a spec project. You do the project. Send it to the brand’s CMO or marketing director. At worst, you won’t get a response. At best, you have expanded your online portfolio and your spec work starts a real conversation.

4. Put out the work samples you want to get paid for.

James White at Signalnoise turned me on to this approach. He started designing posters for his favorite movies from the 1980s. Someone at Canon Canada found the designs, and James got hired to produce illustrations in celebration of Canon Canada's 40th anniversary.The point is, not having many or any paid freelance projects under your belt doesn’t prevent you from showcasing your skills and creativity. Use the ideas above to create your minimum viable portfolio as quickly as possible, and then to shift your focusing to getting new project leads (also known as, marketing).

What if you’re an established freelancer wondering what to include in your online portfolio?

Here are the types of projects that deserve a place in your online portfolio:

  • Projects that you’re proud of. For example, my team at Balernum helped launch a new pet wellness brand.
  • Examples of work that you want to be known for. Are you a graphic designer who wants to promote mental health awareness? Take cues from James White who I just mentioned and make that work on your own.
  • Small pieces of bigger projects that demonstrate a particular skill. Writers, don’t shy away from including a list of your best-performing subject lines or headlines. In a similar fashion, graphic designers, photographers, and social media managers can rep Instagram posts that got high engagement.
  • Projects that show off your interests, personality, or values. For example, I wrote a children’s book called Grabbling that I’m really proud of. Do I expect to get hired to write another one? No, but I do like showing potential clients that I’m multi-faceted.
  • Projects that show your versatility or range. Are you a freelance photographer who can produce beautiful portraits, food photography, and product photography? Or was there a project where the natural light was disappointing, but you still pulled off a great shoot? Tell the story that teases out the project’s challenges and peculiarities.
  • Projects that show your experience in a specific niche or industry, especially if you’d like to get more clients in it. Maybe you’re a product designer who has 12 years’ worth of work experience designing brands and packaging for the food and beverage industry. Perfect! Create a dedicated landing page where you gather all of those projects and unpack your process.
  • Projects that show your ability to get results. If you create and optimize Facebook and Instagram ad campaigns, then talk about return on ad spend (ROAS). If you’re a social media manager, show the before and after screenshots of each client’s audience size.
  • Projects that show a mix of your hard and soft skills. For example, if you’re a software engineer and you solved an especially gnarly math problem for a freelance client, then be sure to tell that story.

Our freelance clients need us to connect dots between our skills and experience and their problems and goals. The newly installed president of a manufacturing company may not know that getting your other client’s trade show booth designed, fabricated, delivered, and set up in only four weeks was a crazy Herculean feat. You have to give him a narrative that conveys the typical timeline, the drama, and your extra effort on the client’s behalf.How your portfolio frames a project or case study can make it boring or fascinating, forgettable or impressive.

What should you NOT include in your online portfolio?

I divide projects into two buckets: Portfolio and Payroll. “Payroll” describes the projects we say yes to because we need the money. There’s nothing wrong with saying yes to a project even if you’re not excited about the work or the client’s industry. Take the money, friend. Exceed the client’s expectations. Pay your bills and live to fight another day.A word of advice though: If you don’t want more of that type of work, then don’t include that project in your online portfolio. It’s better to have a small portfolio of projects you’re really proud of than one populated with projects you’d rather bury.Perceptions of your brand matter. If certain projects don’t accurately represent your skills or quality or reflect well on your judgment or professionalism, then don’t make them public.I once wrote a bunch of web content for a concrete polishing company. The work was… uninspiring. I had to pinch myself to stay awake. The client was thrilled with the end result, I deposited the final check, and I immediately told... no one.

Another client of mine, a medical device company, had a broken editorial and approval process. The marketing director once asked me to design a new email newsletter. The content she shared was riddled with confusing typos. I cleaned up the mess and sent a preview to the marketing director.She told me we had to use the original content. “Why?” I asked, incredulous. “A lot of it didn’t even make sense!” “I agree with you,” she said. “It’s bad. But it was already approved by my boss who wrote it. Honestly, I’m having to pick my battles.”I still got paid for all my work, but there was no way in Samwise Gamgee’s Shire I wanted a potential client to draw conclusions about my quality or capabilities from that project. Must I even say it? If you’re not proud of the work, don’t share it.Leave these projects out of your online portfolio:

  • Ones you find embarrassing
  • Work samples in industries or niches you find boring
  • Incomplete projects that suggest you cannot finish what you start
  • Ugly ones that suggest you have bad taste or cannot steer your clients
  • Bland projects that didn’t require much skill or creativity
  • Any projects that require you to offer a disclaimer about why you couldn’t use your full capabilities (Note: This is called whining.)
  • Projects where you do not fully credit other contributors

The last one is a big deal: Always give credit where credit is due. If you collaborated with other people, say so. Give those folks public high fives. Believe it or not, giving some or most of the credit away makes you look good.If the project involved bringing more polish or refinement to something that already existed, be sure to make that clear. A freelancer friend once put an updated logo in his portfolio. He failed to provide the backstory, and the original designer called him out. There was a kerfuffle.The portfolio best practices are clear. Err to the side of complete transparency, and when in doubt, leave it out.

Spend less time on your portfolio and more time actually marketing.

Your freelance portfolio serves as a sales tool. It shows off your experience and skill. Freelancers, creative professionals, and consultants are like actors and professional athletes. Prospective clients want to see what we have done, not hear what we can do. They want to see your film credits and stats. With that said, only a handful of prospects have ever asked to see my online portfolio. It is like a rain jacket. I’m glad I invested in it. It’s a useful tool from time to time. Yet, with proper planning, it is more of a precaution than an essential.Do I think past proof of experience and expertise matters? Yes. I don’t want to be any surgeon’s first operation. However, simply being likable and easy to work with is a good way to get your foot in the door. In my early days of freelancing, people who had never hired me and had never even seen my work would recommend me enthusiastically to other people. Why? We assume that people we like are competent. These people liked me. So I must surely be a good writer. What I’m describing here is a well-known cognitive bias called the Halo Effect I mentioned earlier. Our perceptions of a person’s single trait (“She’s funny” or “He’s kind”) color our perceptions of their other traits (“She must also be smart” or “He must be good at his job”).

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That’s why I encourage the freelancers I coach to spend less time perfecting their online portfolios and more time marketing, and starting new conversations. Once you win the project, you overdeliver. Never give clients the opportunity to doubt your talent or their decision to hire you. Once you get a client lead, shift the focus away from your online portfolio.You should always have your online portfolio ready. But if you do a good job asking open-ended questions (e.g., “What would you like to see happen?”) and helping the client get clarity around her pain points, problems, and priorities, then you position yourself as the expert guide. In my experience, these three things make proving my past experience (i.e. my portfolio) less important:

  • Creating space for the client to talk through her needs and get clarity
  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Helping the client define the next steps

The best discovery calls focus on the client’s desired outcome, not your skills. If you are asked to prove yourself, you’re already headed down the wrong path. But helping a client gain clarity and confidence proves your value.

Should I work for free while I build my online portfolio?

My default answer is “no,” but the better answer is “It depends.” The reason I am usually reluctant to tell my freelance coaching clients to agree to free work is for a simple reason: As a creative professional, you can fill your online portfolio with work samples without sacrificing creative control. Many new-ish freelancers mistakenly assume that a portfolio project isn’t legitimate unless money has changed hands, another person paid you to do what you do. That’s simply not true. Need more projects to fill out your online portfolio? Well, dream them up and execute. A photographer can go do a shoot. Recruit a friend and take headshots. Boom! You’ve just added to your portfolio. A writer can simply open a new document and write. Choose your target niche and creative constraints—writing a listicle blog post for the self-improvement niche—do your research, and start slinging words. Your future clients won’t ask and won’t care whether you got paid $0 or $100,000. What matters is proof of your ability to deliver. You do not, in fact, need to give anyone a steep discount or freebie in order to prove your capability. Never let anyone convince you otherwise.If there’s a friend, charity, or cause you really care about, then feel free to negotiate a win-win. You do some pro bono work (I know it’s semantics but avoid using the word “free”), and they give you a case study and testimonial in return.Otherwise, you can and should maintain total creative control.

What I Learned the First Time I Shared My Freelance Portfolio

The first time a potential client looked at my freelance writing portfolio, I was so nervous I could barely sit still. The agency owner’s name was Andrew, and we were sitting in his office. Other than a six-month stint at a creative agency, I didn’t have much experience. My portfolio felt thin and flimsy. It built the case against me, not for me. I was so green I had moss growing on me. Half the projects I had worked on at my agency job weren’t even finished, so I had resorted to filling out my portfolio with random projects from grad school and creative writing samples.Once Andrew finished flipping through the sheaf of papers—yep, I printed everything out—he put my mind at ease. “Your work is pretty good,” he said. He gave me some advice about my rates (“You need to raise them to be taken seriously”) and told me he’d put me on several projects as soon as he could find them. That experience produced a surprising result and even more surprising insight. Check out The Golden Suitcase video.

Remember that potential clients want to make convenient, easy choices.

Too many freelancers treat their portfolios as a monument testifying to their talent. Meanwhile, they miss out on two crucial truths:

  1. Clients can’t care about your portfolio if they don’t know it exists.
  2. Most clients will not have your sensitivity to quality and thus cannot easily compare your talent and quality to a competitor's.

Hiring a freelancer is a multi-faceted decision. How good you are relative to other freelance writers or designers isn’t the only consideration, or even the most important one.Why do people eat fast food if it’s bad for them? Because convenience trumps nutrition. Why do people drink bottled water even though plastic bottles are bad for the environment? Convenience.Your clients are also looking to make easier, more convenient choices. Just keep that in mind as you labor over your portfolio.The client’s “yes” may hinge on turnaround time, your attitude or personality, or your communication style, or even your willingness to accept a credit card payment today.

Make your best move

Making it this far says a lot about your commitment and dedication to your craft. Exquisite as your work may be, you still have to get it in front of people.Marketing isn’t as complicated or unpredictable as many people think. If you’re not sure how to get new freelance clients, start with these ten steps.

  1. Target a niche or market vertical you like.
  2. Assemble a list of 50 prospects.
  3. Track relationships in a GSheet.
  4. Brainstorm a bunch of different “touches.”
  5. Put in 15-20 “touches” and track the dates in the spreadsheet.
  6. Ask for a call.
  7. Look for opportunities to help and create value.
  8. Keep in touch.
  9. Treat this as an experiment.
  10. Measure and time-box the experiment.

To get started, you can use my checklist and templates for free. Put in your name and email address, and I’ll send you the download link for the checklist and tools.