Six ways to grow your freelance portfolio WITHOUT working for free

Woman working on her freelance portfolio

The “working for free” debate continues.

Last week, I asked the Linkedin hivemind whether creative professionals should work for free. Opinions were mixed, from those staunchly against the notion to those in favour of the longer-term benefits of pro bono work.

I summarised the debate in an article here on Linkedin, so give it a read if you’re interested to see the general consensus and my own opinion (spoiler: I don’t like free work).

Many freelancers believe working for free is a great way to grow your portfolio. However, many of us are concerned that the notion of “working for free” perpetuates the persistent undervaluing of our skills in the industry 📝

We also have bills to pay 💸

So, in my rebuttal to the arguments in favour of free work – here are six ways to grow your portfolio WITHOUT working for free:

✔️ Use work from past employers

You may need to ask permission but if you left on good terms then I expect they’ll have no problems with you including a couple of blog posts or design projects you worked on while in-house.

✔️ Make the most of your own content

Are you a web designer? Your website is an example of your work. A brand strategist who developed their own brand? Bam! Another one for the portfolio.

✔️ Focus all of your attention on getting your first paying job.

Attend networking, post on Linkedin and send LOIs. Do not be afraid to sell yourself. If you’re good then people will pay for your services – even if you start at a lower rate, it’s better than free.

✔️ Sign up for job board sites like UpWork and Fiverr.

Although often a trudge through the mire of underpaid jobs, these sites are a great way to get the ball rolling. I made a pretty penny on UpWork while living in Bali last year and, although it was mostly a mind-numbing content churn, it paid for plenty of Bintangs.

✔️ Reach out to friends and family

Offer your services at “mates rates” to friends and family, whether they run a business or simply need a poster or some social media posts, don’t be shy about asking for a small fee to cover your costs and buy some food. Freelancers need to eat too.

✔️ Start a skills exchange

Are you a photographer needing help with branding? Offer a fellow brand strategist a skills swap – A day photoshoot for a brand strategy analysis, for example. Although you’re not getting paid in cold hard cash, you’re still getting something from this deal and that’s what matters.

Remember to always ask for testimonials. Every word of endorsement helps towards getting you the next paying job. Freelancing is like an avalanche – it starts with a few drops, then a flurry, then you’re crushed under the weight of your own client base.

Good luck!