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How to Build A Great Portfolio Even If You Have No Clients Yet

How to Build A Great Portfolio Even If You Have No Clients Yet by Narrativity Consultants

Sometimes passion can seize you from the get-go. Sometimes it takes a few tries, a few dead ends before you find it.

Now you’ve found something that you’re 80%-90% sure could be your passion. But you’re the kind of person who wants to take action. Someone who’s not satisfied with daydreams and wishful thinking. You want to live your dreams. So you want to get started today.

But you’re seeing your role models or competitors being bombarded by orders and requests on social media, while it's hard for you to get ONE client.

At this stage, it’s easy to be discouraged by their success and popularity. But the reality is, they started out just like you -- with no clients to buy their product or service. And like you, they wanted to take the first step, and did.

The rest is history (or so people are so fond of saying). Wait, where’s the part where you can replicate and put into action??? They’ve probably mentioned it, but it sounded too vague to be actionable.

“I worked hard and invested my time into learning to sharpen my skill.”


You need to create a portfolio.

Yeah, yeah. You know you have to work hard, but to what end? The answer is towards building a great portfolio so that people can see your work. Portfolios aren’t just limited to artists and designers. With any product or service you want to be selling, a portfolio is the best structure for the effort that you will put in.

It doesn’t have to be on a portfolio platform like Behance. Social media accounts and blogs are great alternatives because that’s where other people are. (Be sure to create an account specifically for your portfolio -- don’t mix it with personal stuff!)

In this article, we’re going to show how you can build an awesome portfolio despite having no clients to sell to. Our imaginary friend, Nadia has volunteered to be the example for this post, so read on to find out how she does it!

How to Build A Great Portfolio Even If You Have No Clients Yet by Narrativity Consultants

1. Find your niche or specialty.

Do you have a friend who you can describe with just one word and people will instantly know who that is?

That friend probably has one thing about them or something that they always do. For example, Lisa has extremely curly hair. So people call her "Lisa Rambut Kerinting". That's how she's remembered.

It's normal, right?  People actually categorize other people all the time, especially with strangers. So how can you use this fact to create a memorable portfolio?

Action: Do only one thing at a time.

We're not saying you should do only one thing for the rest of your life. But in the beginning, keep things simple for you and other people. Focus on as few products / services as possible.

How to Build A Great Portfolio Even If You Have No Clients Yet by Narrativity Consultants

You may think that Nadia is limiting herself too much, but if she only said that:

  • She bakes: A lot of people bake. There's nothing special about that.
  • She makes French desserts: There's many types of French desserts, some of which are incredibly hard to pronounce, much less remember.

Her focusing on only French cakes makes it super easy for people to remember her. In fact, a one-line description is more than enough to get her noticed. Let's compare these two examples of how Nadia might be described by acquaintances:

  • "I know someone who bakes French cakes named Nadia."
  • "I know someone who bakes named Nadia."

Which one stands out more? The mention of “French cakes” is out of the ordinary and specific enough to pique the listener’s interest.

Focusing only on one thing when building your portfolio can also help you develop the skills to be an absolute boss at it. A professional is not a Jack of all trades, Master of none.


2. Create imaginary scenarios with imaginary clients.

It’s hard to create a product or perform a service if you don’t know what your objectives are. If there’s no box, how can you think outside of it?

When clients tell you their needs and objectives, they’re essentially giving you the chance to use your skill to solve their problem. You need to show that you're capable of solving the clients' problems.

Action: Create ten complete client profiles.

Look at your product or service and think about the kind of people that would be interested in it. For Nadia, cakes are a regular part of events, so her clients are most likely people who are hosting an event. This is what she created for her client profile:

How to Build A Great Portfolio Even If You Have No Clients Yet by Narrativity Consultants

The details are a bit sparse, so let’s add some more so that Nadia will have more material to work with:

  • The client’s dress could be purple.
  • The decorations could be in white and silver.
  • Other dishes served at the wedding could be Ayam Masak Merah and Daging Salai.
  • The wedding could be held in an air-conditioned hall.

Nadia will then have to design and bake a cake that fits with all these details. It’s much more challenging than just baking a cake for nobody. The next client profile could be someone who’s hosting a surprise birthday party for a dear friend. What will her objectives be?

Once you get down to it, creating client profiles is great fun. If you’re running out of ideas, get your friends to suggest details so that you’ll end up with different and interesting (imaginary) clients to work with.

You’ll never know if the next person browsing your portfolio is a potential client who identifies with the client profile. The effort you put in will show that you’d be perfect for the job that potential client had in mind.

Bonus: Eventually, you'll be able to attract the kind of appreciative clients you'd be happy to work with.


3. Update your portfolio regularly.

Promise stuff, and then deliver. In time, people are going to look forward to your presence because you’ve always shown up with a new creation. They’ll be sitting around and going “It’s Wednesday – X said she’s going to post today!” Being part of someone’s daily or weekly routine is a powerful thing.

Action: Come up with a schedule for updating your portfolio.

Set down a time where you can show up and show people your work every week, but don’t sabotage yourself by setting unrealistic expectations. If you can only work on your portfolio once a week, then do it once a week. Over time, you can increase the frequency as you’ll be able to do your work more efficiently.

To be even more organized, plan ahead on the types of product or service that you’ll be doing. This way, you can make the necessary preparations like buying ingredients ahead of time. That’s what Nadia does!

How to Build A Great Portfolio Even If You Have No Clients Yet by Narrativity Consultants

You can see that she’s repeating the cake in Week 1 for Week 5. Again, this is so that she’ll be able to bake an awesome croquembouche, not just an average one. Practice makes perfect!

Action: Tell people about your schedule.

It’s an ego thing. We break promises to ourselves all the time and don’t lose sleep over it. But what about promises to a big group of people over social media? Now that’s a whole lot harder to break. This is a method used to form habits called ‘accountability’.

If you tell people that you will do X, you'll feel like you HAVE to do X.

If you don’t show up, people will think that you’re not serious about your dreams. That you’re all talk and no walk. Painful, isn’t it? This pain is precisely the thing that will keep you going after the excitement has worn off. Nadia made this announcement using a Facebook status update:

How to Build A Great Portfolio Even If You Have No Clients Yet by Narrativity Consultants

Now there’s no going back. Come rain or shine, she made a public commitment and she will have to stick to it (for the better). She'll have to update her portfolio, even if she's feeling lazy!

If you want something a little less hardcore, 3-4 people will work well too. This awesome article on Zenhabit discusses the kind of people that will make suitable accountability partners.


4. Write a case study on every work you put out

A case study is a record or a tutorial of how you do things. It's the BEST way to show people that you're a trustworthy expert and that people should buy from you.

Action: Explain every element of the product you created or service you performed.

If you’re someone who guides people (or clients) on how you do stuff, you will always be their favourite. They'll trust you MORE because they can see how much work you put into your product or service.

Let’s see how Nadia explains her creations:

How to Build A Great Portfolio Even If You Have No Clients Yet by Narrativity Consultants

She’s explaining why she chose those particular flavours and colour. Similarly, your explanations on your portfolio can be as simple or as detailed as you want!

Nadia can go a little bit deeper by explaining why the berry flavours complement the other dishes. Is it because the sweet and sour taste work well with spicy Malaysian food?

It’s really up to you. If it’s necessary, take the time to explain why you make certain choices or do certain things. If it’s not necessary, keep it simple. Not everything has to be explained in detail.

Nadia can also talk about why she uses a particular technique to mix the cake batter or to make the frosting. People who read her case studies will come back to read more, because she’s being helpful and informative.

Action: Explain every step of your process.

If you want to get clients and collaborate with other businesses, it’s important to show that you have a working process. A working process is like a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

Your SOP doesn't have to be complicated. It just needs to be clear to you and other people.

People don't like uncertainty or unpredictability. They want to know that their time, money and energy will be worthwhile when they hire or collaborate with you on anything.

How is this different from the action that we talked about just now?

This action relates to 1) your preparation before starting the work and 2) how you get to know the client’s needs and objectives.

By making sure that the clients' needs and objectives are heard and acknowledged, they will be more likely to feel at ease and trust your judgement.

Nadia said that she has a few steps that she consistently follows before baking a cake:

How to Build A Great Portfolio Even If You Have No Clients Yet by Narrativity Consultants

Figuring out the steps is very much trial and error. Only experience will teach you what steps are crucial and what steps are just for decoration. But in the meantime, take a look at your role models and see how they do their work. Their steps would have been perfected through experience so they will be a helpful place to start.


We have a favourite Chinese proverb that goes something like this:

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

Working on your portfolio doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing kind of adventure. A little goes a long way!

By the end of Month #1 you will already have four new creations to show off. By Month #5, you will have 20. Do the maths and see how rewarding it is to start today. Plan what you're going to do and then just do.

What platform (blog, website or social media) will you use for your portfolio?