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! :)