How to Build a Creative Freelance Portfolio Without Giving All Your Work Away

I recently asked the Asian Creative Network what questions they had about freelancing. One major theme that came up repeatedly was how to get started in freelancing:

  • How do I build a portfolio?
  • How do I get started if I don’t have any connections?
  • Do I have to work for free while I get established?
  • How do I get experience if I don’t have any experience?!?!

One solution for all these questions: Create spec work.

Notice that I didn’t say free work. There’s a lot of understandable resentment among creatives who feel undervalued or taken advantage of while they’re portfolio building, or even after they’re established. You offer friends and family discounts or freebies to get work samples, but mixing personal with business is its own sort of nightmare. And it’s so easy to feel attacked by sites like Fiverr or 99designs that seem to encourage a race to the bottom.

But here is the tea Auntie is brewing today: Quit complaining and do the work. Only you can make spec work beneficial for you.

There’s a huge difference between creating speculative work and working “for free.” Spec work should provide you some quantifiable value. You get portfolio pieces and the ever-nebulous “exposure,” of course, but you can also learn new skills, refine your workflow, and attract the attention of people who want to hire you. The key to making spec work work for you is taking control of the process, both mentally and practically.

Here are five ways to get the most out of spec work or portfolio building:

Create the kind of work you want to get hired for. 

Many aspiring freelancers make the mistake of taking any gig that pays or promises exposure. On the one hand, money is money. But if you want to be a wedding photographer, dozens of architectural photos in your portfolio are just going to confuse your viewers. There’s nothing wrong with doing work that pays the bills. But make sure you reserve time to create work that fits your niche, and spotlight your ideal work in your portfolio and marketing.

You don’t even have to have a client to do this. If you want to be a freelance graphic designer for retail companies, design some sample catalog pages. Freelance writers, write blog posts about topics you want to cover for external publications. (Ghostwriting is a potentially lucrative field on its own, by the way.) Styled photo shoots are popular in the wedding and events industry because everyone walks away with quality marketing images and new relationships with other vendors.

For example: Designer Jessica Lau is teaching herself UX design. Her portfolio has real-world samples but also speculative redesigns for apps and websites. These hypothetical case studies give Jessica a chance to practice her skills and explain her process to potential clients.

Make things that will attract the kind of client you want to work with.

If I’ve learned anything in my freelance career, it’s that client fit is arguably more important than project fit. I can only speak for myself, but if a client is relatively organized and motivated, I’ll jump through flaming hoops to get them what they need. Conversely, a project could be my “ideal” kind of work and generously compensated, but if the client is unresponsive or micromanaging, I’ll be cranky the entire time. There’s no such thing as a perfect client, of course, but you can save yourself a lot of time and frustration by being intentional about attracting (or repelling…) the right people. So think about whom you’d like to work with and create spec work that will appeal to them.

If you want to work with socially conscious nonprofits, make sure to talk about how your own beliefs inform your work. If you want to work with people who appreciate unconventional design, you can’t put cookie cutter samples in your portfolio. This principle also applies to how you present your work or interact with clients. If you really want to work in digital marketing, think about requiring a baseline level of tech-savviness to work with you. Someone who can’t upload a file successfully probably isn’t going to understand the value of digital marketing anyway. It might sound harsh to build in ways to exclude people, but trust me: doing this will bring in better qualified leads and save you time and hair-pulling.

For example: Email marketing guru Val Geisler posts detailed analyses of the email marketing strategies of various software companies. She doesn’t get paid for these, but she shows her expertise in the area and the level of detail and investment she requires from her clients. This strategy works especially well because these software companies are all looking to see what their competitors are doing, which leads them to Val’s site and cues them to think, “Hmmm, maybe we should hire her to do that for us.”

Ask the client to help you.

I try to be partner with my clients rather than just a hired set of hands. This is especially important when doing spec work. If you’re doing a project without monetary compensation, you need to split the labor with the client and the client should cover any real costs. If you’re building a website, ask the client to provide copy and photos. (You might need to guide them in how best to do that, and in certain cases, it may be faster to just do it yourself. But consider sharing the load.) If you’re doing a styled photo shoot, the client should be the one booking and paying for the venue.

You can also use spec work to test and refine your workflow. Try out different onboarding forms or file delivery systems. Test some new filters or lighting setups during a photo shoot even if the final shots won’t be used by the client. Use a spec project to play with a new WordPress theme. Make sure your client knows that you’ll be doing some of this process testing, and ask for their help to better serve them.

Attract (and monetize) attention to your work.

Some creatives gripe about getting “paid with exposure.” It’s true that exposure doesn’t pay the bills, unless you’re an exotic dancer…eh, never mind. But it’s not completely worthless, and can even be lucrative. Likes and clicks aren’t dollars, but if you’re smart you can turn them into dollars. It’s 100% your responsibility to find ways to benefit from exposure.

Ask (nicely) that portfolio clients tag you on social when the finished product is unveiled, but make sure your own social accounts are updated and pointing viewers to your website. Get client testimonials for pro bono projects, but make sure to actually use them on your website and as social proof in your marketing. You can also use personal work to grab attention for the kind of work you want to get paid for. Start posting personal work on social media, particularly samples of things you’d like to do for clients as I mentioned above.

For example: Allie Lehman of The Wonder Jam did 100 Days of Painting and 100 Days of Styling projects “for fun” and to improve her craft. But she ended up selling some of her paintings and prints as well as booking photography gigs because of the work she shared. Her passion projects paid off because she had a process for turning admirers into clients.

Request non-monetary compensation.

Besides exposure, publicity, and referrals, there are other non-monetary forms of compensation you can consider for portfolio building and spec work. Nonprofit organizations may be able to provide in-kind donation letters for the value of materials used in your work. Consult a tax professional for how to deduct this donation from your personal or business taxes.

You can also barter. Aspiring photographers and models often do time for pictures (TFP) but you can also trade for goods and services. Maybe you can do some branding for a wellness studio in exchange for a year of massage services. (Sign me up!) Or you can do some website copywriting for a legal firm in exchange for them reviewing your contracts.

Personally, I don’t require a dollar for dollar value exchange when I barter as long as everyone is happy with what they get. Some people advocate exchanging cash twice or sending a postdated check as a form of deposit. It will all depend on the individual situation.

Manage expectations.

This applies to every stage of freelancing or creative business ownership. (I actually learned this from my boss when I worked in real estate.) But it’s especially important when you’re creating spec work so that you get the benefits you need and don’t wind up angry and resentful. Because no one wants to hire a cranky graphic designer who complains all the time about not getting paid enough.

One of the most important mindset shifts that freelancers often have trouble making is from being an employee to being a CEO. Whether you’re working for pay or on spec, you are the only one who can advocate for a process that works for you. You need to establish and enforce a timeline. You need to determine the project scope and deliverables. No one else is going to do that for you, least of all your clients.

When you work on spec, it’s important to draw boundaries and say no to what falls outside those boundaries. Right out of the gate, you need to establish who’s responsible for doing what. If the client doesn’t get you their logo and brand colors on time, you have to tell them their project will be delayed or canceled because you need to seek other projects. I used to be way softer about this than I should have been, and I lost a lot of time and income potential twiddling my thumbs waiting for clients. One of my mentors charges a $2,000 fee to pause a project, and that not only protects her from flaky clients but commands a much higher level of respect for her time.

Determine your norms for working with the client and stick to them. If you don’t want clients texting you at 3am about things that need to be done, don’t give them your cell phone number and don’t respond to texts beyond, “Let’s move this to email to keep things organized.” When clients show up unprepared for consulting calls, end the session after a few minutes but charge the full fee (if you’re charging). That’s time you could have spent earning money from someone else. It might seem overly harsh, but you are actually doing them a favor by not letting them waste their own time by showing up without their homework. (Can you tell that I taught high school?)

I know I probably sound a bit like a dictator, but I actually do see myself as a partner to my clients, paid or otherwise. But here’s the thing about partnership: a partner is not a hired gun or yes-person. As a partner, I have as much a stake in the final result as the client does. So I don’t let them waste my time or theirs.

Anyway, back to portfolio building and spec work. The key to making spec work productive and not an exercise in resentment ultimately lies in managing expectations. I’m not saying you have the right to be an asshole just because you’re doing something on spec. You should still treat barter or pro-bono clients with as much respect as you would a paying client. But you are responsible for enforcing boundaries and guiding the project to be a useful portfolio piece, a source of social proof and testimonials, and a productive learning experience for yourself.

If you’d like more personalized advice on building a portfolio or creating spec work as a way to get started in freelancing, I’m hosting a 60-minute group learning call on the subject on Wednesday, March 20, 2019. You can book a seat for $60, with a cap at 5 attendees so everyone gets the attention they need.

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