3 ways to demonstrate skill, sans portfolio

If you’re like me and you’re transitioning from the corporate workforce into the freelance one, you’re probably familiar with the portfolio struggle. Every profile you create will have an option to link to your portfolio and most job postings you bid on will ask for one. It’s the most visible record of your past work and achievements.

Coming straight out of corporate town, you likely can’t use work from your previous job in your portfolio because it’s proprietary to the company you worked for. Sharing it (if you can access it) would be unethical.

Proprietary: n. held under patent, trademark, or copyright by a private person or company [a proprietary medicine]. — Webster’s New World Dictionary

So how do you showcase your skill? Change strategies. The portfolio is only one in a list of tools at your disposal. Until you can build a portfolio based on your freelancing work, there are plenty of other ways to prove your worth.

Create samples

If you work in an industry that’s focused on deliverables, like writing or design, create a few pieces that showcase your skill. And make them specific to the job you’re looking for.

This may mean that you create something new for each client you interview with. Or maybe you’re always creating something new (like blog posts). The trick is to provide enough of a sample that it represents your expertise without giving away your work.

Pro tip: Export samples to PDF format if you’re sending them out so they can’t be lifted by an unscrupulous client.


Send work out for publishing. There are tons of trade magazines out there accepting submissions from novice writers. The Writer accepts submissions for both its online and print versions. You’re a google search away validation.

Being able to point a potential client to work that someone else has bought is a testament to your skill. Look, potential client, other people pay for my work — you should, too. It solidifies your claim that you’re an authority in your industry, even without a folder of previous work to show off.

Pro tip: To give your article the best shot at being seen, make sure you’ve read the submission guidelines before you submit. Don’t just send your work out into the void and hope for the best.

Solve a problem

Not the current client’s problem, though. They don’t get that for free. Instead, talk about past or similar problems you’ve solved and how you did it. Walk the client through your process and talk about best practices.

In a previous post, I talked about addressing a client’s uncertainty by telling him more about my quality control practices. Remember, you’re an authority — act like it. This on its own can demonstrate your understanding of your role and the industry you’re working in. It might even help you avoid the topic of portfolio altogether.


Portfolios are useful, but by no means are they the only way of impressing future clients. If you can demonstrate that you know what you’re doing, it won’t matter that you lack a portfolio. Leverage what you have — the skills and best practices you gained, rather than physical evidence of work done — combined with one (or more) of the above methods and demonstrate your value.


Selling your value: What does it cost?

Probably the hardest thing about striking out on your own is finding work. Luckily, I started out with clients. But finding more is a challenge. Especially without much of a portfolio.

Is it worth it to work for cheap to build your portfolio? Some would argue yes. And I agree with them to a point. My strategy here is to proceed with caution.

I recently had an encounter with a potential client that really got me thinking about what my time is worth and how to sell my value as a relatively inexperienced editor.

The client had been burned on a job by a previous freelancer. The freelancer had delivered content that was well below the client’s expectations and the client was now in the position of paying someone new to fix it.

What the client told me was something along the lines of “I’m not trying to be cheap, I’ve just already spent so much on this job and I haven’t really gotten what I want out of it yet.”

I took a look at the links the client sent me and explained what I thought needed to be done and quoted an estimate on time and expense.

And then the client stopped messaging me. Damn.

I took a second look at our message history and analyzed what it is was the client was telling me they needed. And I followed up. This client had been burned by a bad experience and was looking for a solution.

I offered a courtesy proof and a fixed rate for the job. I offered the client the ability to exercise quality control over the content before it went live so that they could feel confident in the end product. Benefits over features.

A more experienced editor would have focused on this from the beginning. I’m still learning — I got so excited about the prospect of a new client that I didn’t pay close enough attention to their needs.

While I’ll make many more mistakes, this won’t be one I’ll be repeating any time soon.

Some people will argue that working for a reduced rate devalues your brand. I feel that. But sometimes getting a foot in the door is more important. And you can always renegotiate once you’ve proven your value.

If you have a similar story, tell me about it in the comments. Sharing our failures helps us grow!