Marketing, Design, Writing & More

Developing A Portfolio From Nothing To Build Work Experience

Developing a Portfolio From NothingThe old adage of “You have to give a little to get a little” is what comes to mind with the portfolio development process. There are a good number of people on freelancing sites such as UpWorks and oDesk that are trying to learn how to nab that first job. Those are the people that come well prepared with a reasonably filled out portfolio along with a sales pitch. The downside is it’s all pitch with no portfolio, a website, some job history or much else beyond a well crafted copy & paste text linking to projects they “might” have done. You have to have a leap of faith if you are going to go with someone that fits this profile and comes with nothing but words.

If the above description feels like a shortcoming that you are having or you have been passed over for jobs several times, then this could be what’s holding you back. I get so many messages from people trying to get that first job and it can be heartbreaking. They are willing to work for next to nothing just for good feedback, and no one should have to beg for work. This is the world we live in though.

The Employer View

As an employer I look at several things such as portfolio, location, profile, ratings, feedbacks, along with anything else that’s available. It’s this “employer view” that I hope to discuss so that you get hired easier and faster. Since I am the type of person that likes to take chances; I tend to hire more folks without any jobs in their portfolio. I always want to write amazing feedback and give them 5-star ratings to get them started. They have no idea that I feel this way though and that’s the one thing I can’t show.You have to trust the employer as well and view my feedback and history to see if I am going to benefit you. I never want to take advantage of someone in these exchanges and I hope you don’t either if you are on the employer side of things.

All of this research comes at a cost, and sometimes it comes with horrible results. My point is that I know you are good at working online and you might be an amazing coder or designer that I want on my team, but this is about you coming to the table with a portfolio. I want you to finish this post and start a portfolio or build on top of an existing one. You always have time to churn out another piece that might get you that job.

I have been let down or left with a terrible unfinished project that had to be redone and I have to own that. High risk can equal high reward, but often it’s more of a trial by fire and hoping the “Hail Mary” pass comes through in the last seconds. I am older now and hopefully wiser so these chances I took a decade ago are gone. I now scrub portfolios, interview potential hires and get that warm fuzzy. I study people and if you are an employer that takes high risk then maybe this will help you slow down and verify. I have thrown thousands of dollars to freelancers and about 75% of it was great. The 25% that wasn’t could have been avoided by doing my research.

The Freelancer View

People who have no portfolio or jobs previously to the one I am hiring them for usually have to take the very minimum in salary. On the flip side, I have to expect that it’s not going to go perfectly because I don’t truly know the skill of who I am hiring is without past feedback. It’s a trade off, but when things go right on both sides, a business relationship develops and that can be almost impossible to find. Admittedly, In over 15 years of doing this I only have 2-3 freelancers I have worked with for years. Maybe it’s 1 out of 200 of so. If you find that then it changes a lot of my advice.

We have to address that there are not a lot of people like me out there that are willing to hire someone just to give them a shot. Some developers just don’t have the cushion to risk on jobs that go south. There are ways to increase the likelihood of steady employment by taking the time you could spend applying to jobs and use it to develop your portfolio. It’s so easy to do if you focus and become creative without the monetary incentive involved. I go back to the days I was in college working on my design degree and I churned out project after project for the grades. I was paying to go to school and producing pieces that I could use in my portfolio. Do you see what I am getting at? I think you might benefit from one of the following ideas if you are not creative or you want your time to benefit someone without the exchange of money:

  • Find a local business and offer them your services for free to build your portfolio out.
  • Reach out to a non-profit charity and ask them to allow you to develop something for them.
  • On freelancing sites, bid on jobs for the bare minimum to build feedback and your portfolio.
  • Start creating your own stuff and build your Git or Behance accounts if you are a designer. Also Deviant Art.
  • Create tutorials on YouTube and show off your knowledge to potential clients or students. Sal Kahn did this and look where it got him…
  • Go to a church or small business and ask if there is anything they need and donate your time.
  • Search around the internet and find problems people are having and build an app, plugin, or add-on to solve it.

Sometimes you don’t need to be hired just to gain the experience needed. Search for problems that need solutions and just do them for free. Yes, I am aware that giving away your talent isn’t easy in all cases, but we all start somewhere. After you gain the feedback, portfolio, and contacts, you will have a much greater success in people taking you serious and hiring you. In some cases you might even get hired for a higher salary if they see you have the right pieces in your portfolio.

Of course, you could have been doing these types of things over the last few months, but it’s better late than never. Start finding things to put your name on!

The Right Proposal

Let’s say that you think your portfolio is just fine. One other factor that could be holding you back is your proposals. I tend to choose the ones that stick out. You know, the unique ones that took the time to read the job and say, “This is how I would approach your job”. You wouldn’t believe how many freelancers just copy & paste hoping one will reply. If this is you then stop it. Every proposal should be unique to the job being applied for. Being clear in your solution to the job is also highly effective along with a reasonable timeline. There is something to be said about reasonable timelines as well. Most employers actually don’t know what a job involves most of the time. They simply want their WordPress to be fixed. I know plenty of those guys and gals so I want to cover that as another consideration.

Things that catch my eye when combing through proposals for my jobs are:

  • Place of Origin: I prefer hiring people from the U.S., Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, Romania, and a few other places. It has just worked out better for me in the past. (Not much you can do here)
  • Reasonable Process: People who are friendly, make clear they have read my post, and give me an idea of what they will do to solve my issues.
  • Go Beyond: A big plus for me is if they are willing to go the extra mile and improve upon my goal and give me an idea of how they will do the job better.
  • Timeliness: Responsive messages are always appreciated.
  • Communication: A quick run down on how you communicate, your working hours, your strengths, and a one sentence pitch on why I should choose you tends to seal the deal.
  • Solid Profile: I look for a picture of who I am working with along with as much information about you and your expertise. It feels more complete.
  • Portfolio: Yes just like this post is all about. You have to have a portfolio that matches my taste and shows me who you are in your work.

The bottom line is that you can’t go looking for a job without some kind of proof that you are good at what you do. An employer needs to know what they are bargaining for and what you are capable of delivering to expectations. If you can do all of those things I mentioned above then you will nail a large majority of your proposals.

Build the Right Portfolio

The last thing I want to go through before we wrap up is what you should be adding to your portfolio. It should also be noted that it’s okay to have separate portfolios for different jobs. If you are primarily a logo designer, I would expect a reasonable amount of logos in your portfolio to cover the span of your professional career. I understand that there are NDA’s in the field as well so prepare to do fun projects on your own. Create fake companies and then create logos for them. You can apply this to all specialties you can think of. Everything from a writer to an ad designer. You should be able to produce several pieces to prove to an employer that you have what it takes.

I caution anyone with tons of work that amasses over the course of years to break your talents down. Put them into separate portfolios and have them ready for different jobs. The one thing that frustrates me in this area is when I want to hire someone to design a landing page and all they can show me it banners, logos, and blog posts on their website. I want to see landing pages and so do other employers so please consider this. All your work is important and to organize it like your sock drawer is more manageable to digest when someone is trying to see the area that the job requires.

Last Words

Take your time, and build your portfolio as much as you can. Make up companies or projects that are just there to show off your skills. There are a lot of people like me looking for the right person to hire. Please, if nothing else…be personable. Get those jobs, be proud of your work, and kill it each and every time. If I missed anything please let me know in the comments below. I want this to be a discussion worth having.

Watch me narrate this on YouTube below:

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