How to Build a Portfolio That Drives Your Freelance Business

How To Build a Freelance Portfolio
One of the most important assets of your freelance business is your website.

Built properly, your website will market your freelance business, find clients for you, and sell products – all while you sleep.

You no longer need to knock door-to-door or walk into a business to find work. Finding quality work can be done from the comfort of your home. And if you’re an introvert like me, you know that’s an ideal situation.

To build an effective website that drives traffic and converts views into paying projects, you need a portfolio.

In this post, you’ll learn how to build your freelance portfolio the right way, how to decide what to include, and how to make your portfolio find work for you.

Building up a body of work

There are two ways to build up a body of work:

  1. Personal projects
  2. Pro-bono projects

Personal projects are great to draw attention, and I find them to be the most enjoyable. If you can get a consistent personal project going with regularly scheduled output, you will significantly improve your exposure.

For example, you might create an illustration every day and post it on Instagram. (Obviously if you’re a web developer, then an illustration a day wouldn’t make sense. Do what makes sense for your specialty.) Producing consistently is what will keep you on people’s radar.

As you continue to put out content, people will begin to notice you. Your work will gradually get shared more and more and as a result, prospective clients will notice your work. This will lead to paid work, which leads to new portfolio and case study pieces, which again leads to more paid work and exposure.

As you get the ball rolling, it becomes a cyclical process and your exposure will only continue to grow.

Doing work pro-bono is also a great way to build up a portfolio. You get to do great work for somebody who values it at full price.

You gain real client experience from this, but another benefit is a client referral. Since you’re doing this work for free, the client is more likely to reciprocate the kind offer by recommending you to everyone they know.

The root of every great portfolio

A portfolio is only as good as the work you showcase.

When you think of a portfolio, it’s common to think of it as a school portfolio – a large folder comprised of your best work over the past few years, which could entail a wide variety of work.

However, a school portfolio is very different from a freelance business portfolio. Rather than showcase everything you’ve had experience in, your freelance portfolio must focus on what you’d like to be known for.

In what area would you like to be considered an expert?

Are you a logo designer? An icon designer? Do you specialize in product design?

Make the type of work you specialize in apparent. Whatever work you want to be known for, curate your portfolio around that. Or else you’ll be a jack of all trades, and you don’t want that, do you?

Anything outside of your specialty is an add-on service.

For example, I design logos. But I also know how to design business cards. However, I don’t advertise that I design business cards. Rather, after I design a new logo for a client, I’ll upsell the service and see if they’d like me to design a business card with their new logo.

You have to treat the work in your portfolio like gold; moving forward, this applies to every project you choose to take on.

Consider this amazing quote from Brandon Rike at WMC Fest 2013, where he describes his work like a red brick. He strives to take on these red brick projects so he can build his brick wall of work:

If you were building that [brick] wall the number one thing other than mortar that you would want people to give you is one of those bricks. “Here’s a rock. I got a rock, man, here.” Well I guess I could put the rock in there — but I’ve realized that I need my work to be that red brick. I wanna accept the work that is a red brick. I want it to fit in that wall, because I want to fill up that wall over time. And sometimes people will give you these odd little jobs, and you have to figure out a time, should I accept that, or should I really keep waiting on these red bricks to put in this wall?

You’ll be tempted to take on every odd project that comes your way to build your portfolio and to make some quick cash, but know that compromising on your values will only be doing you a disservice in the long run.

You must curate your work to be seen as an expert in your field. This will drive the right clients to your website, and your work will convince them that you’re the right person for the job.

How to build your portfolio website

Here comes the daunting part – building your portfolio website.

If you cut corners here or try to build your website without web design experience, then you’re wasting months – potentially years of growing your freelance business.

Your website will become your number one asset, so invest your time, effort – and if possible – money.

If you’re experienced in designing and developing websites, then do your thing.

However, chances are you’re here because you don’t know how to build the best portfolio website. Don’t worry, there’s a solution for everyone no matter your current situation.

If you’re just getting started or if you’re short on money you can easily set up a free account on Behance, Dribbble, or if you curate what you share enough, you can even use your Instagram account as a portfolio. Don’t believe me? Check out Terence Tang — and as soon as you land on his account, tell me what you think he specializes in. There’s no doubt about what he does, right away you see this guy knows how to hand letter.

To get the full advantage from a free portfolio solution, be as clear as you can on who you are and what you do. Since your options are limited in terms of what you can choose to display, be specific and curate what you share.

Don’t let people put you in a box, define the box you want to be in.

How do you want to be perceived?

If you’re ready to take things seriously, then it’s time you invest in a website.

If you lack the skills and experience to design your own site, I highly recommend Squarespace as your go to website and online portfolio service.

However, if you’re looking for something more custom, you can hire a web developer. Just know this route will cost a good amount of money. But no doubt it would be worth the investment.

Tips to take your portfolio to the next level

You have your body of work built up, you have a great looking website, but now how can you get the most out of your work?

First and foremost, quality imagery makes a great first impression. Don’t throw up your work in a gallery and dust off your hands in a satisfied motion.

You have to be strategic about this stuff.

The thumbnails you use to preview your work and the copy on every page is what turns a pageview into a paying client.

It’s imperative that people get to know you. Having an about page clarifies the person behind the work, and that’s valuable to a client. They want to know who they’re working with.

Once you have your work and profile online, the best thing you can do is get another pair of eyes to look things over. Let someone tell you how you can improve your portfolio and website. It will never be perfect and you’ll constantly be iterating (e.g. updating images, rewording copy, adding and removing sections/pages, etc.)

Another thing you can do that’ll help you out tremendously is to look at your site from a client’s perspective. Pretend you’re someone looking for the type of service you provide. As soon as they hit your homepage, are they given the content they need to be instantly pulled in? Is your site making a good impression? Can the client get to know you, and is there a general flow to your site that naturally leads them to reaching out to hire you?

Getting your portfolio to work for you

Aside from a portfolio, what can you share to look legit? Could you offer a free resource like an ebook? Do you have a shop selling products? How can you prove that you know what you’re doing, aside from the images in your portfolio?

I can’t stress enough that a stagnant gallery of online work won’t get you noticed. You have to actively create something of value that generates traffic. Then your website should be able to convert that traffic into something more.

I had my portfolio online for three years before I really started putting it to use. In those three years, I never received one project from a client finding me. That’s because they didn’t know I existed!

I took a step back and did a complete redesign of my website. I built a strategy behind it that allowed it to work for me. Read more on how I built my website to make it work for me.

Right off the bat, here are several unique content pieces you can put on your website:

  • About page and work process page that go in depth on who you are and how you work.
  • Case studies showing your ability to deliver a real solution.
  • Blog posts that reference the type of work you do (i.e. if you’re a logo designer, what makes a good logo?)

Unique pieces of content are what drives traffic and increases conversions. How? For one, Google will start picking up your website. But by proving you’re an expert, you better your chances at a potential client contacting you for work.

Your case studies will sell your services, past resources you’ve created for client work can be repurposed into products, your blog will generate traffic – the possibilities are endless.

No one will know you exist if you don’t put yourself out there, so the sooner you can start producing content, the sooner your freelance business will turn into a sustainable career.