Start a Web Design Business

How to Start a Web Design Business without a Portfolio

When you start a web design business, you may find yourself in a chicken and egg situation. You need examples of work to attract new clients—but you can’t build your portfolio without past clients… or can you?

Your Portfolio Matters

It’s true what they say; the work speaks for itself. All the strategically-crafted content on your website plays second fiddle to visual representations of your talent. Potential clients will make their gut decision based on your skills and style. Sure, pricing and soft skills may play a role in the project moving forward—but eye candy is the ultimate first impression!

For this reason, if you start a web design business, you must prioritize building your portfolio. In my experience, most clients aren’t going to dive deep into your body of work. They’ll get a sense of your capabilities and either move forward or move on.

You don’t need a massive web design portfolio to get new clients.
Starting out, take a less-is-more approach and offer up just a few really good pieces.

Still, the question remains; when you’re getting started in the web design business, how do you build a portfolio of work before you have work? Lucky for you, I have some answers…

Spec Design

This tactic is actually how I got my start. Whether it’s an international telecom provider or a local food truck, you don’t have to be hired by a company to create materials for that company. Pick an industry that interests you, find a brand that inspires you, and re-imagine their website, landing page, social graphics, or marketing collateral.

You have complete freedom to do as you please and flex your stuff without any outside influence. What a great opportunity to show off your aesthetic! There is no shame in spec design (although I recommend being forthright about it in your portfolio). As long as you aren’t falsely eluding to this company being an actual paying client, it’s a harmless and effective way to demonstrate your talent.

Friends & Family

Does Uncle Frank still own that bike shop upstate? What about your neighbor with the landscaping business? Everyone knows someone who needs a new website. If you can’t think of anybody in your immediate social circle, ask friends and family if they know anybody who might be in the market. Many freelancers in the web design business get started by helping out someone in their personal life as a favor.

With a little bit of effort (and a small step outside your comfort zone) you can easily get a project or two from friends and family. Let me be the first to break it to you; these are rarely high-paying gigs. In fact, you might be building Cousin Jennifer’s mommy blog for free. However, this is a great avenue to build your portfolio, gain experience, and start putting yourself out there as a web designer.

Free Work

I genuinely believe that people offering cheap (or even free) web design services weaken the entire freelance ecosystem. With that said, in terms of adding real client work to your portfolio, it’s low hanging fruit and you get a pass.

Creating a full website free of charge is a huge undertaking—one you’ll surely regret. Limit your offer to a smaller specialty service like logo design or homepage mockups. Post a brief, honest explanation of what you’re doing on sites like Craigslist, Reddit, and other social channels. Keep in mind, if you start to get overwhelmed with inquiries, you’ll need to delete the thread from wherever it’s published. To save you some time, I’ve provided a quick template below:

Hi there! My name is FIRSTNAME and I’m finally taking the plunge to begin my freelance web design journey. In an effort to establish my portfolio of work, I am offering SERVICE free of charge! No bait-and-switch, no up-sells, and absolutely no strings attached as long as I can use the finished product for my own personal marketing. Message me to get started!

Not many people I know work for fun. Trading time for nothing is no way to start a web design business—but it’s an effective path to building your online portfolio. It certainly doesn’t hurt to get some practice doing the dance with real-life clients either. Who knows, one of these freebie seekers might actually evolve into a paying client someday!

Personal Projects

Maybe you are particularly proud of a page you created in your web design class or perhaps you have a half-finished landing page from an app idea that fizzled out. Do you find yourself tinkering in Sketch or Photoshop? How about experimenting with cool CSS effects and animations? These personal efforts don’t have to be locked away in a closet. Show the world! Remember, above all, clients are vetting your raw talent. Budget, timeline and all that is secondary.

If you have hobby projects that showcase what you’re capable of, polish them up and add them to your portfolio! Who cares if it’s the digital equivalent of a napkin doodle? You only need a handful of great pieces to prove your skill. In fact, one might say including personal work not tied to a corporate entity shows authentic passion for the craft. Let’s not forget, your website is a piece of your portfolio as well.

In conclusion, if you want to start a web design business, you have to put your portfolio first. Of course, building that portfolio can be a challenge when nobody wants to be client number one. This is where your creative mind pays off! There are several ways to take charge and beef up that portfolio yourself before the real work starts to roll in.