9 Killer Ways To Build A Freelance Portfolio From Scratch
Here I was, graduation nearing the door, with no freelance portfolio to speak of.
You could say that school papers and reports are technically writing samples, but in reality they won’t hold water in a freelance portfolio. Nothing says wet-behind-the-ears to potential clients like showing them your Psych 101 paper.
Luckily with a bit of creative ingenuity, you can get 4-5 samples under your belt pretty quickly, but first you have to ask yourself what kind of things you want to write.
NOTE: I’m showing you how to create a freelance writing portfolio here, but these 9 methods can work for anybody trying to build a freelance portfolio from scratch.
Do you want to be a copywriter? A journalist? What about a blogger?
Thanks to content marketing being all the rage right now, blogging isn’t a bad way to go. Writing news for certain websites isn’t a bad option either, and it can lead to A LOT of opportunities. I group copywriting into a different category altogether.
Before you even begin beefing up your writing portfolio, a wise word of advice is to think about what you want to do.
When you figure that out, you’ll be ready to start building your freelance portfolio.
Where I Got My First Writing Gig
To answer this question directly, it was Craigslist. I was paid exactly $30 to write three different letters to potential investors for a marketing company. Each letter was about 750 words. All-in-all, I was getting paid about $5 per hour by the end of it.
How did I find it? I navigated to the section called “writing gigs” near the bottom right of the “Baltimore” homepage, and found the listing there. Every city/area has this section.
Crazy enough, they never asked to see my freelance writing portfolio. This was one of those black swan events that only happen once in a blue moon.
If you want to move over to Upwork (where the bulk of the freelance work is), you need samples.
Ironically these letters did count as writing samples, but they were quite terribly written. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Afterwards I was pretty keen to get an “actual” clip for my portfolio.
Where I Got My Second Writing Gig
Near April I started writing at a brand new baseball website, which is a gig I got through Craigslist as well! It was manufactured and run by a group who had already successfully grown a Hockey website, so I thought it was pretty promising.
I asked them if I could write about the Orioles (my home team), and they had no problem accepting my proposal. Why? Because I wasn’t getting paid for any of this.
Even though I wasn’t getting paid, the site looked incredible. The editors were using Getty Images (an expensive photo marketplace) to source the feature pictures for all the articles. Sections were split up on the homepage by AL, NL, and all eight divisions.
It was actually pretty fun writing about my Orioles, and I got to get an inside look at how WordPress blogs operated at the same time. I also received the invaluable experience of working alongside editors, which served my virgin writing mind well at this point in time.
The people running the site saw advertisements as the magical route to monetization. You’ll hear monetization come up more in this blog, but for now let’s just say this wasn’t a great plan.
The whole venture only lasted two months. The owners decided to focus on Hockey instead, and they stopped accepting articles. It didn’t matter anyway. I got what I came for (and had quite a lot of fun doing it, by the way).
Enough about me, let’s talk about 9 ways you can build a freelance portfolio from scratch!
P.S. PIN THIS SUCKER
1. Start Your Own Medium Publication
WordPress isn’t the only way to start a blog, people. With platforms like Medium out there crushing the game, you can get started blogging in as little as 60 minutes.
Medium is like Twitter, except you post articles there instead of 140-character tweets. It’s awesome. You can follow people, see their articles on your homepage, and already be right alongside a vast community of people (60 million readers per month) instead of trying to find them yourself on social media.
The great thing about starting your own Medium “publication” is that you can tell people you run a publication. It sounds awesome, doesn’t it? You can also manage a team of contributors and call yourself the Editor.
Not only that, but it’s insanely easy to set up a Medium publication of your own–and they look gorgeous. Because the’re gorgeous, one person even asked me whether they’d be a good spot to actually “host” their freelance portfolio. It was a good idea, but ultimately unpractical.
With the publication you could cover sports, use it as a personal blog, or interview people and post their thoughts for the masses to see. I like Medium publications so much because they makes you look, sound, and behave more professional. Potential clients will be blown away.
To start a Medium publication, hit the “Publications” button on your profile drop-down menu..
Then click “New Publication” on the following screen.
If you think you’re okay to figure the rest out, give it a whirl. IF NOT, I’ll show you how to build a Medium publication in a couple weeks, so make sure to subscribe here to get every post. I’ll also send you a badass ebook about how to find remote work.
2. Guest Post On Blogs / Medium Publications
Even if you’re looking to get into copywriting or technical writing, landing an article on high-profile sites will IMMEDIATELY lend you credibility to potential clients.
The more the better. I’m not saying you should shoot for a spot on Forbes just yet, but even getting a guest spot on ambiguous blogs/publications will do wonders for your freelance portfolio.
You might have to do a little explaining in your cover letter, i.e.
“I’ve been published on the Tom Kuegler Is Awesome Blog, which gets about 15,000 unique visitors per month, and is quickly blossoming into one of the premiere publications over on Medium.”
See, that’s pretty cool, right?
If you go on Smedian.com, you’ll find a long list of Medium publications looking for contributors along with a “Contribute” button to request to be a writer for any one you want. Once you hit that button, an Editor will take a look at your Medium profile and decide to add you.
Before doing this, make sure to create a good looking Medium profile. Publish a few posts of your own, highlight some articles, and leave a few comments. Jump right in!
If you want to guest post on websites like Thought Catalog, here’s a list of 1,388 sites that accept guest posts.
Quick Tip: It’s actually really NOT that hard to get into Thought Catalog. Write about past relationships, make it a numbered listicle, and you should be halfway there already. If you need help with your submission, I’d be happy to help you look over it. Contact me!
I’ve already talked about where to look for writing “gigs” on Craigslist, but what about if you’re not looking for writing work? Well, there’s also sections under “gigs” relating to computer programming, graphic design, and tons of other creative work. If you have multiple talents (some of you do, I do not), then Craigslist can actually be quite valuable as a place to find work for your freelance portfolio.
Getting initial work through Kickstarter is one of my favorite ways to build a freelance writing portfolio. When you get to the site, just hit “Explore” in the top left corner–that’ll take you to all the different product categories on Kickstarter. Pick one you’re interested in, and click through to see some of the budding projects.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Since you’re a budding writer/graphic designer/freelancer/etc., the projects that have a lot of funding probably already have a decent team in place. What I’m saying is it might be a waste of your time to try to contact the creator of a project that’s received $2 million in funding.
They’re probably very busy, and since you’re just trying to get clips for your portfolio, the easiest path to reaching that goal is to pick projects that you’re genuinely interested in, and have less than 50% funding. Additionally it would also be wise to pick projects that have less than $10,000 in funding. If you’re really having a hard time finding any, then bump that number up to $50,000.
The reason I love this path is that you’re not just getting samples, you’re also connecting with other awesome entrepreneurs and doing them a solid at the same time. Who knows who they know? Who knows who they’ll come to know if their project takes off? Who says they won’t hire you outright if they suddenly receive $1 million in funding overnight? The possibilities are endless. Not only that, but let’s say you help them make a killer design or write some amazing website copy and it helps them secure their funding goals? You can now say that in your cover letters to prospective clients!
I’ll be honest with you, I wish I would’ve gotten more involved with Kickstarter at the outset of my writing career. I would’ve helped 10 projects if I could and even if one of them took off, I could very well be living in another country (or state) working on a project that’s destined for greatness. Who knows if this could happen to you?
How do you approach these people? At the top left of all Kickstarter projects is the name of whoever created them(pictured above). Click on their profile picture, then a screen will pop up like the one below:
Here’s what to email them:
Subject: I want to help your Kickstarter project *Name of Creator*
Hey *Name of Creator*,
First off I love your project. I think it has the potential to *Insert a non-generic compliment/observation here*, and I really want to be a part of it in any way I can. Do you need any help?
As for my background, I have a degree in ___________ from the *Name of your college* and I think I’d be able to help you *Insert what you think you’d be able to help them with here*.
I’m not looking for anything in return out of this, I’m just a young person who’s very eager to help out other entrepreneurs around the world. Let me know if you need any assistance with anything–I’d be happy to help!
This is perfect. And you know what else you can do? Take a look at their project in-depth, paying particular attention to what they do right and wrong. Does their website look terrible? Are they wording things appropriately? Sometimes foreign entrepreneurs who are bootstrapping their business don’t even use proper grammar. You can come through, edit their work, and make them sound 1,000 times more professional in an instant.
The only rule is, don’t ask for anything in return. You need to get comfortable doing favors for people. For one it makes you feel good and you come off like a decent human being. Second the person you help out will REMEMBER you and feel a personal connection because you helped them with their BABY.
Imagine that. Imagine you were trying to start a business, working 80+ hours per week on it, but knew absolutely nothing about graphic design. Then one day some random person emailed you and said they would help at no cost to you just to build up their freelance portfolio.
For one you’d be flattered, and second you’d want to find ways to re-pay them because of their generosity. I guarantee if your project did blow up and you did have the opportunity to pay somebody to design more items, that person would be the first one you’d call!
In conclusion, if you send the above letter or a variation of it to 10 different projects I guarantee at least ONE will get back to you pretty quickly (maybe even 3 or 4).
5. Go To Co-Working Spaces
A couple years back (when I first started freelancing) I found the owner of an app in Orlando and asked if he needed any help writing his website. In short, I knew he needed the help because I looked at what was written on his website and it was absolute garbage (so sorry to be blunt).
Despite his copy being less-than-stellar, I still wanted to help him because I thought he had a wicked-cool idea. After we got in touch, he agreed to meet with me and told me to come to this “co-working” space downtown. The co-what? I thought. What the hell is a co-working space?
Was this a trap or something?
I reluctantly drove my car into downtown Orlando that day, parked it in a garage across the street from a massive skyscraper, and went to the address he told me to go to. When I walked inside I was taken back completely. It looked like a hipster cafe mixed together with the offices at Google. They had those nap-pod looking things in the lounge and a coffee bar. They had a meeting room made of glass windows with a long table in the center. In the back they even had little cubicles where a wide range of personalities were working, talking, and laughing.
I figured out that co-working spaces are places for young entrepreneurs to have office space, a business address, and be able to network with other entrepreneurs around the area. You have to pay a membership fee every month (average is about $50), but the rewards are seemingly endless (i.e. samples for your freelance portfolio).
For one there’s a WIDE range of people there, from tech aficionados to graphic designers to writers. Second they all have a similar passion and drive to live a life different from most people, and that excited the hell out of me and should do the same for you. Third, you have a shot at building relationships with some of the most ambitious minds in your city. This, you’ll find, is worth the $50 in and of itself.
So what do you do? You go in there, request a membership, and pay however much money it is to get access Monday-Friday from 9-6 p.m.
Search for “coworking spaces in __your city here__” in Google Maps and start looking at their websites. I chose “Spark” in Baltimore, and once I got to the homepage, I clicked on “Memberships.”
Every co-working website should have a link detailing their membership plans. Let’s take a look at Spark’s membership plans:
As you can see, you could spend $15 per day for a 24-hour pass, or something like $225 per month for an undedicated desk. There’s co-working spaces out there with MUCH better deals, but I’m just trying to give you an example.
It’s a slight investment, but it WILL be worth its weight in gold.
You’ll find people are very outgoing there, so even if you’re an introvert and don’t know how to “network” just yet (I fucking hate that term by the way), don’t worry because at some point during the next 30 days somebody will come say hello to you and you’re off to the races.
6. Make Up Your Own Product
If you’re really having a hard time finding anyone who wants to work with you, you could always make up your very own product. Yes, you heard me.
The upside to this is that the possibilities are endless; you can make the product about whatever you want. You could design a poster for a fake event. You could write a sales letter for an imaginary social media marketing company.
Hell, I created my own magazine!
I know this is a last-resort type method to building your freelance portfolio, but the point isn’t that the companies you’re working for aren’t real–the point is demonstrating whether you can actually write, design, or create whatever it is you say you can create. Capiche?
I really wouldn’t recommend doing this as the other methods at least help you grow your personal network, but at least you know you could do this if worse came to worst.
7. Upwork Itself
On Upwork there are a LOT of really shitty jobs. Like, a lot. Some people like to pay $1 per 1,000 words, which make freelancers like me want to rip their hair out. They’re going to get absolute shit work with payouts like that, but I guess there’s non-native English speakers in other countries who can write a semi-mediocre piece that gets the job done.
HOWEVER. The people who post jobs paying $1 per 1,000 words of $5 per 1,000 words are coming at it at the angle of giving newbies samples for their freelance portfolio. Here’s a prime example:
To them, they’re paying you with experience and a (very small) amount of money. It’s not the greatest thing in the world, but it DOES accomplish two things.
- You get samples for your freelance portfolio.
- You start to build up your profile on Upwork by winning favorable testimonials and job histories. This helps people posting jobs to TRUST you, giving you that much more of an advantage in the market.
Those two things are kind of invaluable if you want to succeed on Upwork and win those killer contracts. It’s a semi-crappy option, but it’s also not the worst thing either. At least you’re getting paid SOMETHING, and building up your profile at the same time. Keep this in mind moving forward as a freelancer.
8. Email Non-Profits
I’m not talking about the Red Cross, I’m moreso talking about non-profits in your town! Do a Google Search and see if there’s any local non-profits in the area. Email or call them directly! Chances are they could use the help in just about any way possible.
9. Friends And Family
I hate to end this article on the typical “Look through your personal network!” routine, but this could be the quickest way for you to land samples for your freelance portfolio in the short term. Is there anybody you know who’s started a business, or even a blog? Ask to write their site (or a post) for them!
It’s low hanging fruit, but perhaps working with someone you know is the best option to get your toes wet at first.
I hope this list helps you build a badass freelance portfolio! I used clippings.me to actually create my virtual portfolio, and it’s a great option for anybody just starting out.
I provide coaching services for anyone wanting to get started freelancing or blogging TODAY. I’ve been a contributing writer to sites like The Huffington Post, Diply, Elite Daily, and Thought Catalog, and I can help you follow in my footsteps and really make a name for yourself online.
If you’re not quite ready to hop on Skype with me yet, download my ebook! It’ll teach you a little bit more about how to find remote work in the meantime.
If you’re interested in remote work, YOU MIGHT also be a fan of our podcast. We release interviews with bloggers, entrepreneurs, freelance writers, and solopreneurs every Wednesday. Find out more about it here.