Building Your Portfolio With Zero Clients & No Spec Work

Creating A PortfolioWe’ve all been there before — no clients, no work for our portfolio and nobody giving us the proper direction to move forward. Potential full-time freelancers are often scared because of this instability and not knowing where they’ll find those first portfolio-building jobs (if they aren’t allowed to pull their work from their previous employers website).

So how do you build your portfolio with zero clients and zero spec work? In this article I hope to show you some clear cut, easy methods to building an awesome portfolio that will attract your perfect clients and also showcase your best work — all without doing spec work and without having any clients.

Why Avoid Spec Work?

For anyone who is new to freelancing or has been living under a rock for a long period of time, spec work is where people and/or companies have “contests” or ask the potential designer/writer to create something and only get paid IF they like it enough to buy it. The end result could possibly mean you get paid for the work, but then again, in most cases the work is passed on to someone else and you’re out the time, energy and creative juice you put into the work.

The killer part about spec work (from what I have seen) is that it’s very hard to put pieces in your portfolio from spec work you’ve created. Either the person/company will ask you to remove it because it doesn’t show their website/copy (ie: they’ve chosen another person’s work and yours should not be shown to the world) or potential clients will look at it like you weren’t good enough to make the final cut so something must be wrong with you. You don’t want that.

The topic of spec work regularly generates a lot of debate, though. Most people believe that it devalues the work of designers/writers/freelancers everywhere — and that it should be avoided. On the other hand, some people say that spec work is okay for new freelancers and students to use for building a portfolio. Personally I would avoid it, for the reasons above, but where you fall in this decision is ultimately up to you.

But I Don’t Have Clients, What Do I Do?

The answer to this is quite simple really — you can build your own portfolio and make your own sample peices. Here are two steps that will help you come up with a great plan to get your portfolio built and land the types of clients you want:

  1. Create your portfolio in the style you like most — Do you like to create grungy, beat up websites? Or what about clean cut “web 2.0″ style web designs? Does your copy tend to be edgy and a bit crass or do you write strictly professional, by-the-book copy? Whatever your style is, make sure your portfolio portrays that. If you write romance pieces, there’s no need for your website to look like it’s in the music industry. Same goes for the designers who create sleek, blog style layouts. Why would you want to showcase your work with a portfolio that looks like it belongs to a punk-rock band?
  2. Create personal portfolio pieces — For the same reasons as above, create some portfolio pieces that are built with your personal tastes. If you don’t want to attract the 50+ age group, do not design to cater to their needs. The Hot Topic store doesn’t attract people who are business professionals or in the hip hop industry because that is not their target market.

The benefit to creating work you like and enjoy is that your work will be great. The quality will be awesome because it’s what you like. Not only that, but you’ll attract the type of clients where you can create even more work like that. What’s not to love about being able to do what you want, when you want? Thats one of the biggest benefits to being a freelancer, right?

So class, what have we learned today? :)

Below is a quick breakdown of the things I hope you’ve learned today:

  • Spec work isn’t a good option for building a portfolio
  • It’s ok to have no clients when starting
  • Design your portfolio in the style of clients you want to attract
  • Create personal pieces for your portfolio in the style you like most
  • Attract great clients because of it!

In this article we’ve gone over the important aspects of why spec work is bad for portfolio building, and what you can do when you’re just starting out and have no clients to build up your portfolio.

What do you think about building a portfolio with no clients? There are lots of other possibilities out there — what are your thoughts? Do any of you experienced freelancers want to chime in and offer some advice?

As always, we value the input of the readers here — you are all awesome! :)


  1. says

    Ah, very good advice! I ran into this problem with my first few design jobs (which I wended up getting around the same time), as I had basically class work and nothing else to show. I ended up starting what turned into my first business, a culture magazine that allowed me to experiment and make mistakes (and many successes!) while at the same time building up my portfolio VERY quickly.

    I’m torn on spec work, because although I wouldn’t take any (and haven’t ever, except for the required in-class contests), I think they do nicely segment the industry, which allows me to very easily justify my pricing to clients when they ask.

  2. says

    Friends and relatives have provided me with plenty of work to get a portfolio together and is often a great resource. You might have to do one or too sites for free, or ‘mates-rates’ or maybe even barter – I’m doing a set of icons for a friend that is going to do the photography for my wedding in return.
    I’m currently working on my first standards-based site for a friend’s startup and then I’ve got a therapy site to do for another. After that, there’s my relative’s damp proofing company to design a site for and I’m even going to work on a wordpress installation for a 3rd party company I deal with through my day job.
    Ask around, you’ll probably find someone needs something doing.

  3. says

    Excellent post. When I was in this position I literally thought up of non existent companies and created branding systems for them. Logo, Business Card, Letterhead etc. And populated my portfolio with them. Even today after I have many clients and the work in my portfolio is mostly work I’ve done for clients, potential clients still refer to the work I did for my non existent companies as work they find to be of top quality.

    I suppose because I was not working for an actual customer when I designed the branding systems for the non existent companies, I was free to create without the usual client limitations. Once again. Excellent post.

    Everard McBain

  4. Dodi Rahmaninoff says

    Great Ideas!! thanks for sharing, as I just wanted to start my days as a freelancer, and this article is really helping me, and making me sure enough to not make some unpaid job, in other word, the spec job ;). Keep on posting, I know your article from this ( tweet, I think you maybe just wanted to know :D. Thanks once again for sharing

  5. says

    Another idea is to come up with a fictional business or two and use that as a basis for your portfolio. Then ask yourself the basic questions, what is their product/service, what is their target audience, what is the message they want to convey, etc.

    Come up with several designs for /these businesses; logos, brochures, flyers, website, etc. Not only does this help you build your portfolio, but it also has a couple of other benefits as well.

    First, it helps you learn to think about the business aspect of things, which is a benefit to your own business. Second, when you show it to a potential client and explain to them that these businesses are fictional it shows much more of your creative potential and problem solving abilities.

  6. says

    These are all nice suggestions for the design oriented portfolio, but what about the developer portfolio. Simply stating all the wonderful languages you can code is great and impressive, but people like to see what you have done.

    A nice way to get started is plug-ins. Write WordPress, Expression Engine, or even JQuery plugins and release them. Plugins are huge in open source development, and are a great way to get your name out there as a serious developer.

    Use Github. Whatever you seem to be working on, just post it up on Github and let other developers see what you are doing. This is a great way to network with developers too.

    Blog about your code with lots and lots of code samples. I am personally restructuring my personal site to contain all my code, and I will be posting anything I do with git. I think this is an extremely effective way to participate in the community and showcase your talents.

  7. says

    This article is really great for the beginners….

    When I was in the startup I also build some designs for my portfolio as a personal work. This helps to showcase your talent and creativity to the potential clients…

    Cheers for the post again…..

  8. says

    I’d suggest it might actually be worth considering a simpler approach to be honest. If you’re considering going full time freelance you might better off having a simple one page “portfolio” stating your key skills and perhaps some past clients you’ve worked for in previous jobs but without going into too much detail.

    With this being the case, you can then perhaps offer a PDF on request which details a little more about your skills and past experience.

    When looking for a freelancer, I wouldn’t go near someone who’s got a made up portfolio of non commercial work.

  9. says

    Good point James.

    I would agree that it is important to have “real” items in your portfolio. Although, I doubt anyone would request a PDF unless you have some amazing work. I would offer it as a download right on the page without a need to request it.

  10. says

    Thanks for all of the amazing comments everyone. I am glad you all like the article.

    @James – that is a good point. The thing that wouldn’t work with that though is the first time freelancer who hasn’t had a design job before and has no past client work to pull from.

    I do agree that “real world” work is a great factor in who gets hired which is why what Colin and the others in here said about creating either full packages for fictional business or even real, functioning websites as a basis for your portfolio works really well rather than just random logos & jpg’s of web layouts.

  11. says

    Excellent article, and may I suggest one more for gaining a portfolio?

    Number three: Work probono.

    There are many well deserving nonprofits who would benefit from a design makeover.

    Choose a subject that you are passionate about – saving whales, reducing the litter in your neighbourhood, whatever – and jump in.

    The great thing about working a probono is that business owners often donate their time to nonprofits too, so taking on a probono project gives you the chance to show a number of potential clients how you work and how professional you are.

    Because the resulting design is only a part of being a professional designer. How you manage a project (your professionalism) goes a long way to attracting and keeping clients.

    So treat the probono exactly like a paying job – use a contract with a proper creative brief, and make sure your time is respected. And if you choose well, you’ll have a fantastic piece for your portfolio (and a client kudos to boot).

  12. says

    Useful tips! However, the second point of the article can be brought farther: you can design in your style useful projects (not only fantasy work) for your own needs or for some good old friends. Design it well, code it (or hire somebody to do the sitebuild), and launch it! If you can pump up the number of visitors of your sites there will be lots of clients asking you to design their sites too!

    Good luck! ;)

  13. Leilah says

    This is an awesome article, and comes at the perfect time for me :)
    I thought that I needed to build my portfolio with one site for each vertical, even thought I don’t particularly enjoy those verticles. But it just makes sense to showcase the work you enjoy(and would want to do in the future). I can agree with all of the above as it just makes sense. Your best work comes when you are passionate about something. And how can one be passionate about Finance…for arguments sake.. I turned down a job in that verticle coz I was unsure if I could handle it, I wasn’t passionate about the subject and was afraid I wouldn’t be able to work my magic, so to speak. I don’t regret it anymore, thanks to this article :)
    That’s why freelancing is way better than 9-5 designing, you get to choose the jobs you actually want to do, and you never have to force yourself to be passionate about a verticle, just for the sake of a good design.

  14. says

    In fact, creating a good portfolio applies to everyone in the marketplace and not just freelancers. In fact, my very first internship out of college, to apply, I had to go through an interview and have a portfolio with me. I got the internship over about 30 others, I think because of the extensive portfolio I had with me. Portfolios are also good to help one transition into a new job or even career. After all, if you show real results and ability in the portfolio, I think that means alot. Businesses are always worried about transitioning and getting a person to a certain level of productivity. What better way than a well assembled portfolio? Great post, thanks.

  15. says

    Nice article, fortunately (for me) I don´t have the problem of no clients and no book. I am an entrepreneurial type of person so I tend to start mini projects – t-shirts, stock Illustrations and so on if the work dries up… That said, I spent some time recently looking around the web for freelance opportunities and was utterly dismayed seeing platforms like design bay full of “3rd world” designers – I have nothing against the 3rd world but I can´t work for $3.50/hour! And therefore can´t compete with those who can, and do work for ridiculously shoddy pay. Unfortunately globalisation has hit our marketplace hard and I really feel sorry for those just starting out as freelancers who often have no other choice than to offer their skills for free on Spec jobs – 9.5 times out of ten the “client” soaks up all the ideas, and goes off in search of the next 3.50$/ hour “jack of all trades” to cobble together a solution that neither of them could have come up with if it werent for some poor struggling freelancer hoping for a break.

    For those looking to build a portfolio without clients my advice would be to join some of the more “serious” sites out there ,for example, oDesk and Elance for job listings and a mostly professional approach to working as a freelancer…

    I have recently signed up on and have already begun networking and collaborating with some of the really talented people I have met there. I would recommend Behance to anybody but especially to freelance freshmen and women.

    There really are hundreds of ways to go about building a portfolio of good work and with that in mind I would advise people to collaborate “pro-bono” on interesting and challenging projects rather than waste their time doing spec stuff. One really good site for finding such opportunities is; DeviantArt is also a good place to find collaborators and don´t forget Twitter either – I Always look there first if I need someone to help me out when my meager programming skills let me down and I know that others do the same…

    Being a Freelance creative is the Ultimate way to ply your trade, it´s damn hard work at times but I will never go back to 9-5 ing – ever.

  16. says

    theCount raises very valid concerns with the global industry. I think the only way around this is to be true to yourself. Many potential clients have no interest in working with providers that are out of the country. If a client is interested in only fast delivery and low price, chances are I am not going to feel comfortable working with them.

    That being said, networking can’t be beat. I know it sounds like a broken record, but when I dove into social media and started attending tweet ups, social media events, conferences, etc my potential and actual client numbers grew quickly. If you are in any type of freelance business and you are not networking, you are missing out on a huge opportunity.

    I don’t even visit freelance sites anymore. Beside Authentic jobs occasionally because they have awesome opportunities.

    If you are in the midwest, give me a shout, we have some huge things happening here.


  17. says

    Hey Mike .. nice tips This will really going to help me a lot… And i was worryin what to put in portfolio as i do work for company n cant put anything here on my site… but now with this post i found my way…. Thanx a lot …

  18. says

    This article is a great help and came at the right time.
    I was actually in the process of designing and implementing the new look and layout of my site when i came across this.
    I am new to the freelancing business, and have no actual clients as such.
    I do however have websites i have created for companies i partly own. The suggestions in this article and its comments have been really helpful and ill be coming here regular. Great site, great article, good job. Thanks a lot.

  19. Sean says

    If your starting out as a freelance try to get small clients with simple sites. Get clients that don’t have a clue about websites, they’ll give you the full creative control over their website.

  20. says

    ‘Get clients that don’t have a clue about websites, they’ll give you the full creative control over their website.’

    Until the wife/mother/kid down the street gets a look-see… ;-)

  21. says

    Great post as usual – I’ve definitely found a few tips to add to my future portfolio buidling efforts.

    When I was a first getting started I looked to help friends either pro-bono or extremely discounted pricing. This allowed me to build both my web design portfolio but also my internet marketing portfolio for everything from start up companies to a local charter school – which brought in a lot of referral business. From there I was off an running toward building a business.

    I think maximizing everything you can out of your initial work is key – I developed case studies, a design portfolio, tracking templates, useful stories and tips for my bog etc etc.
    Anything I could do to help establish both myself and my company as an option to consider I made sure to capitalize on!

  22. says

    I would also suggest, that if you don’t have any clients and are looking to build your portfolio, check out 99 Designs This way you can be given a task to keep you focused, pick the projects that best fit your style, and have the opportunity to get paid if your submission is chosen.

  23. says

    The answer is non-profits. There are non-profits in every town desperately seeking help reaching out to their audience. You’ll feel good about the service you’re providing and if you’ve got a killer CPA – deduct some of those hours off your taxes as a donation.

    If you’re lucky – you might even get paid for your work. Not much but you’ve got to start somewhere.

    On the flip side – avoid non-profits who use and abuse their status to get things done for free.

  24. says

    I agree with the commenters above, that you should focus on putting real work in your portfolio. The reason being, it’s important to show that you work with people and can solve real problems. Here are some more examples:

    1. Do design work for an open-source project. There are plenty out there who could use the help

    2. Find a club, society, non-profit, etc and do work for them

    3. Barter your services. Offer to do a logo for a printer in exchange for business cards.

    4. Volunteer to work on social issues, political campaigns, etc where you can work in an advisory role.

  25. says

    The short answer is- most ideas you can think of are good enough to start a business around – in short you can probably make some money doing almost anything.

    The real question is whether or not your business idea is worth the risk, and will provide adequate reward if it works out. For sake of argument let’s say adequate return is enough money for you to live on, at least replacing your current income. Thanks in advance for your time and consideration.

    Simply put your unique selling proposition (USP) is the reason I’d buy from you and not a competitor.

    Continue Reading Steel Tarps

  26. Osvaldo M. says

    As Michael Risser said; a great way to have work on your portfolio is to come up with fictional businesses. I did that, not because i didn’t have anything to show on my portfolio it was mostly because i didn’t like either the final outcome (mostly due to clients requests to change this and that) or time/budget hadn’t allow me to push the project as much as i wanted. What i did was to take 3 big name clients (Nike, DC Shoes and Hurley i chose) and created 3 fictional campaigns for each of them. I created the 3 case studies, from brief and sketches to the final campaign, i detailed the entire process.
    Not only did i enjoyed doing it, my now-boss digg it so much he asked me for the files and now we have the Hurley campaign poster on the entrance of the office. I obviously listed my “true” work on the portfolio as well, though the first impression counts a lot in this business…

  27. says

    Your totally right with doing something you enjoy will yield to a more positive and better piece of work. I also think using something like Flickr or DeviantArt can work well as the amount of exposure of your design work could lead to some paid work.

  28. says

    The lay out work is the basic for the best service of the valuable and the main reason for the business success….as your comment the starting stage is the error and learning period for all…that is the best to know for other choices.

  29. Jason "Sheenyboy" Breithaupt says

    WOW!! :)

    What more can I say. I am a disabled computer geek that has always had a desire to “make it” online.

    My biggest stumbling block has been how to demonstrate my ability. Currently I am starting out trying to attract some work through freelancing sites, but my end goal is opening my own “Virtual Office” business.

    When I first had my idea I thought this will be so simple. Cost of the associated software alone will attract business. Well I have seen over and over again that this is not true. People just don’t seem to care that you have several thousands of dollars invested in the tools. What they want is “Madison Avenue Quality” at 3rd World prices.

    I am very new to the world of online freelance. and I have just garnered enough information to create a professional looking start.

    Thank you all so much for sharing these tips, I will most definitely be following what you all have to say, and checking out any additional posts that I can find.

  30. says

    This is the exact Building Your Portfolio With Zero Clients & No Spec Work | FreelanceFolder blog for anyone who wants to move out out virtually this subject. You observance so often its near tiring to converse with you (not that I truly would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new prolong on a topic thats been statute nearly for years. Prissy object, simply enthusiastic!

  31. says

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  32. says

    Thank you so much for this article! As a freelancer who started from scratch, I can attest that all of these methods for building a portfolio from scratch are completely spot on. I also highlighted your article as a reference to a blog post I just wrote. Thank you again for inspiration!


  1. […] Mike Smith from Freelance Folder: How do you build your portfolio without doing spec work and with no clients? Its simple: create it for yourself. “The benefit to creating work you like and enjoy is that your work will be great. The quality will be awesome because it’s what you like. Not only that, but you’ll attract the type of clients where you can create even more work like that. What’s not to love about being able to do what you want, when you want? Thats one of the biggest benefits to being a freelancer, right?” […]

  2. […] Building Your Portfolio With Zero Clients & No Spec Work – So how do you build your portfolio with zero clients and zero spec work? In this article I hope to show you some clear cut, easy methods to building an awesome portfolio that will attract your perfect clients and also showcase your best work — all without doing spec work and without having any clients. […]

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