The Rejection-proof Freelance Portfolio Formula

Let’s rewind a bit. You woke up this morning and decided you want to be among the many remarkable individuals who freelance.

You proceed to take a look at the fluff-free guide to pre-freelancing. Start to follow it and are now sending out proposals. Life is good. You’re waiting for responses to roll in. You’re amazing at what you do so people should be blowing your inbox up by now.

Hours turn into days, days into weeks, and you went from wanting to freelance to filling out job applications.

You didn’t realize how much work it was to land a single client. Good news! You’re not alone. Most freelancers hit this brick wall when seeking their first client.

I get asked the same question more often than not, “why isn’t anyone biting?” Then I ask them to send me the link to their portfolio or Upwork profile and review it as if I’m hiring them for my project. Usually, the answer is “No” simply because I don’t have the right information or enough information at all.

Keep in mind, when someone is looking to hire a freelancer, they’re getting hammered with proposals. You need to make it easy for them to digest your awesomeness instead of sending them to a site filled with random information about you and your work.

Now that we’ve established that you have a portfolio made for rejection, let’s focus on building a “rejection-proof freelancing portfolio”. Well, it’s not 100% guaranteed that it will land you clients, but it will be 100% better than what you have now!

If you take this approach and still don’t land a client after a few months, I’ll help you find one myself. I’m saying this because I’m sure it won’t happen.

The structure of the “rejection-proof freelancing portfolio” goes a little something like this:

  • Your background – a quick history on who you are
  • Core expertise – what you kickass in the most
  • Personal projects – are you passionate or nah?
  • Paid projects – the other people who decided to give you a shot
  • Additional awesomeness – skills that complement your core skill
  • Conclude with personality – thank them for reading all this

With that being said, let’s get into some specific details on each section.

(disclaimer: I’ll be using software developing analogies, if you want one more specific to you, just ask!)


First: Your background

This is the first section that someone will see when they land on your portfolio. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Name
  • Professional desired title
  • Your niche over the past 5 years

It’s a no-brainer to add your name, but your professional title is a little different. We know work titles are usually BS and cause more issues than they solve. Each person/company views titles so differently that I typically hate to mention mine. Yet they’re still necessary because that’s what people search for when looking to hire.

If a company needs an experienced developer, they’re going to search for “Senior Developer.” Don’t be that person who prefers to be called something different such as “Architectural Chief Engineer Ninja” because you find it more refreshing. We’re aiming to land gigs, not look cool. Choose a title that people actually search for.

When mentioning your niche, keep it brief, practical and specific. Ideally, a single sentence should suffice.

Don’t say: “I make dynamic websites for companies!”

Do say: “I’ve been working in the finance sector creating real-time dashboards for power users.”

Why have a niche? Because nobody in their right mind is looking for a generalist freelancer. If they’re looking for a generalist, you don’t want to work with them. Trust me on this.

And this is not the time to write a memoir. The last thing you want is to be ignored because you decided to write a fluffy novel for a person who’s been looking through dozens of portfolios for weeks. Don’t expect them to read. Expect them to skim.

If you want to tweak this area, feel free to do so just be sure to keep it short and to the point. Go look at some Yelp reviews to get an idea on how to scare people off. Those are perfect examples of how NOT to explain your background.


Second: Core expertise

This is the area where you let the world know where you kick the most ass in. Feel free to brag a bit. If you don’t think you’re awesome, why should a potential client who doesn’t know you? The key here is to highlight your assets.

Have a list of tools that you use with expert like precision? List them and talk about the situations you were in that ordinary people wouldn’t be able to handle.

Have a few development languages that you know inside and out? Talk about how you got to this point in your career and why it was important to acquire this level of mastery.

Here are a few sentence starters:

  • I’ve been perfecting my skills in…
  • I’m amazing at…
  • I’ve been using XYZ each day for 6 years

Talk about how you got this awesome:

  • Did you work with some of the best people in your niche?
  • Were you at a company that gave you exclusive training?
  • Did you read every single book about your core skill?
  • Are you glued to your phone every night reading about ways to improve?

Whichever path you took to get to this point, just remember it’s important to paint the timeline. Nobody just wakes up being amazing. A little backstory can go a long way in establishing trust.

If you don’t feel like you’re at the point to speak highly of your skills, talk about the steps you’re taking to get better. Mention goals you’ve met and plan to complete as it helps establish a timeline.

Pro Tip: Remember to speak confidently, nobody wants a timid person attempting to tackle their project. If you lack confidence, but know you’re pretty awesome (example: you get a lot of praise for your work), just pretend to be confident behind the comfort of your computer screen. All the internet trolls are doing it nowadays!


Third: Personal projects

This is a loaded topic. Some people feel they shouldn’t have to take time out of their day to work on personal projects when they have other accolades (example: a masters degree). But one thing that personal projects do exceptionally well is that they show initiative and in some cases passion.

Let’s say I interview 2 developers with similar skills (soft skills and technical). One has 2 failed startups and 2 projects he’s actively hacking on while the other has a masters degree in Computer Science. I’m going with the person who tried to run a startup, twice.

This is a much-needed area in your portfolio as it shows initiative and separates you from the crowd.

Imagine if you were looking to hire someone and they had personal projects that aligned with your business. You would love to work with a person like that. Be the person you would love to hire.

Don’t have any? Good, this is where you mention your upcoming personal projects with an ETA. Link to a landing page or something similar to keep you accountable. Be prepared to speak at length about these future projects as they make fantastic conversation points.

An easy way to think about this section is to consider it personal “Research and Development”. You are literally pumping money back into yourself. You may not see it now, but later you will.

Pro Tip: Personal projects are where you’re free to experiment and not worry about people’s expectations. It doesn’t need to be 100% complete and bug-free. They’re usually a “permanent work in progress”.


Forth: Paid Projects

Paid project draw a close parallel to the “experience” section on most resumes. You know, the part where you write fluffy HR focused wording that sounds nothing like you. Don’t do that here. Be yourself.

For each of those projects let’s focus on:

  • type of project
  • a goal of the project
  • tools used or inspiration
  • how you went above and beyond

The type of project should be something simple that most people seeking talent like yours will understand. Example: WordPress site, custom software, logo design, etc…

The goal should add context to the type of project. Example: Client needs a WordPress site for their chain of restaurants. It may seem like unnecessary information, but the person who is looking for a developer to work on an app for anything food related would feel like they hit the jackpot. When going through endless amounts of proposals, having any experience in their related field helps you stand out.

Tools give the client something to google if they’re unfamiliar with how you complete your work. If the client is savvy in your expertise, it adds validation to your work.

Then we are left with the most critical section of them all: How you did additional ass kickin’ for this project. This is where you brag a bit and talk about how you really hit it out the park. Example: “The client needed to have the project done by the end of the month. I finished half-way through the month, so we had more time to tweak things and maybe implement some additional ideas I had.”

Keep in mind to be yourself. You aren’t trying to impress a potential authoritative figure (hr rep, a potential boss, etc…) as one would do in a resume. You’re informing people that you kick ass at what you do. Period. Guess what? That’s all they want to hear.

Pro Tip: Have no paid project? Focus on landing that first gig but in the meantime, work on a few more personal projects to have more talking points. The goal is to show this potential client that you know your stuff, not brag to them how much money you made. That’s none of their business.


Fifth: Your advantage

Similar to the section in paid projects where you talked about “how you went above and beyond”, here you want to apply that same concept.

Your advantage is something that complements your primary skills.

If the client is looking for someone to code a website, anyone can open a text file and write code. What skills do you have that go alongside those coding abilities?

Can you build a team? Great! Talk about your experience as it emphasizes strategizing.

Enjoy mentoring youth? Excellent! It shows you can educate.

Led successful projects? Good to hear as it shows you can hit goals.

Have a background in finance, but made the switch to coding? Talk about why you made the switch. Can you imagine the joy on a potential client’s face who’s looking for someone to start a coding project for their finance company?

Pro Tip: Consider this the area where you separate yourself from the crowd. These are the unique features about you that the client didn’t think to ask for.


The biggest Pro Tip: Be you.

People will always act like… people. It’s important to keep in mind that when someone is seeking a freelancer, they’re looking for someone they can trust. This means they’re looking to make a connection. It’s hard to trust someone if they’re pretending to be someone they’re not.

Why do I say this? Google some examples of cover letters, and you’ll see a sea of robotic personalities. When moving into freelance, people will often apply what they know from writing cover letters and resumes. But the key here is to let your personality show.

If you have a stern personality, be stern. If you have a bubbly personality, be bubbly. Don’t allow your first interaction with the client to be based upon a lie. Otherwise, you’ll need to keep up with that lie throughout the entire working relationship.


Your homework

First steps are important. Your first step should be to pick the most appealing section (we don’t need to work on them in order) and start drafting content. Timebox it for 1 hour. Repeat for the other sections.

If you get blocked or have a question, feel free to reach out!

Happy Portfolio-ing!

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