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.


The entrepreneur’s guide to licensing

First things first. Before one can begin working as a freelancer, one must satisfy certain licensing requirements.

In Washington state that means state and city licenses. Basically, you need to be licensed where you work. My own experience was shades of “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” So I decided to write my own guide to save you some time and frustration. This is specific to Washington State, but maybe it’s easier elsewhere? If you have an experience you would like to share, tell me about it in the comments and we can commiserate. 

Before I started this process, I did some light research, reading several blogs to get an idea of what other people’s experiences had been. Most blogs were vague about the process and focused instead on the differences between a sole proprietorship and an LLC. There wasn’t really much instruction to be found on how to go about licensing your business, even on the actual licensing websites. For that reason, I’ll be focusing on the process. 

Having armed myself with as much knowledge as I could find, I got started. I gave myself 30 days to get my licenses to account for potentially slow processing times — because Vogons, affectionately referred to as government employees, are notoriously slow. Surprisingly, most of the processing is automated and takes little to no time. Just the 7 to 10 business days it takes to mail a hard copy of your license. But finding the correct paperwork is another story.

First off, it’s important to note that things must be done in the correct order. It’s disappointing filling out your paperwork only to realize that you can’t complete it. Trust me. In Washington state, you must first file with the Secretary of State — either online or by mailing in your paperwork. I filed online. It costs $20 more, but it almost immediately grants you your Washington State Unified Business Identifier (UBI) — which is required for step two. #worthit. 

Once you have your UBI, you can file for any city licenses you may need here. You just need to know which licenses you need. This is where I had trouble. Regardless of how tech savvy a person is, redundant links will almost always defeat you. Clearly, government sites are also built by Vogons.  

But, if you’ve been at it for an hour (or two) and haven’t made meaningful progress, ask your mom. Mine is a small business owner with loads of experience combing through government sites — it’s a talent I have yet to acquire. She was able to find this licensing wizard. If you don’t already know which licenses you need, I recommend it — there are a few hundred options.

The licensing wizard is a throwback to the early days of the internet, but it gets the job done. Just answer a few questions about how your business will be run. The wizard then provides a reference number and link to DOL site where you can apply for the appropriate licenses. 

I also chose to request an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS. It’s free and banks will require one to open a business account with them. This step is technically optional. It’s also the easiest, but you must complete this paperwork in one sitting. You can get one here

If you can cut through the white noise that comprises most of the Washington State websites, the process itself is pretty straight-forward. Hopefully this post clears the way for you to help yourself. And seriously. That licensing wizard.

New beginnings

I have transitioned to freelance status. This is business world speak for “I’ve quit my job, bought a couple of business licenses and am making a go of it alone.”

A season of change

I’ve never liked being on someone else’s schedule. Also, I’m not sure how much you know about copy editor’s salaries, but let’s just say it wasn’t paying the student loan debt.

More importantly, this has been a season of change for me and my family. My husband accepted a job offer in the Seattle area, a four-hour drive across scenic Washington state from our little corner of the world — Walla Walla. Four hours is a world away when you consider the wall that is the Cascade mountains separating Eastern and Western Washington — separating my family of four from my mom and stepdad. We’re a close-knit group and it’s been an adjustment. But my husband and I have goals.

The marketing agency I worked for in Walla Walla was more than accommodating, allowing me to take my position remote on a part time, experimental basis. They weren’t any more convinced about the long-term viability of the situation than I was. But we were all willing to give it a shot. Part time soon became on call, and on call soon sparked a conversation about freelancing. And here I am. More change. I’m calling it progress though, because perspective is everything in life.

Perspective of progress

Call me stereotypically millennial, but I’m loving the freedom working from home is affording me. I don’t have to wake up any earlier than my kids’ schedules demand in order to tackle the mountain of tasks in our morning routine. I don’t have to shoot anyone a message if I need to step out to take care of something non-work-related. I don’t have to schedule time with my family around a 9 to 5. I can also broaden my skills. I’m loving it. But will it pay?

I’m fortunate to have a spouse whose career is well-established enough (he makes good money) that if I don’t have a bunch of cash flow for a few months, we’ll be OK. But realistically, this is a business — making money is the basic goal. If I find some sort of fulfillment in my career along the way, all the better. I’ll let you know what I find!