How to Get Good Web Design Clients Even with a Tiny Portfolio

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Hi, I'm Chris and I'm super glad you're here. 7 years ago I taught my self-web design and freelancing. Now, I do my best to teach others what I've learned so they don't have to struggle as much as I did.

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Don’t want to read 1000’s of words on getting good web design clients even with a tiny portfolio? No worries. Listen to the podcast.

Here is the conundrum: good clients are looking for web designers with a strong portfolio before they hire them. But, how do you add to your web design portfolio if no one wants to hire you because you have no portfolio?! It’s like this weird web design catch 22.

Don’t get discouraged. It’s a struggle that we all face because at one point or another we were all beginners. 

There are plenty of ways to attract good web design clients even with a tiny portfolio.

Take my story as an example:

When I got started in freelancing I had 1 website and 1 really bad landing page to show off. Just links with a background image that wasn’t even responsive.

Despite that, I was still able to land some solid gigs and build my web design portfolio while getting paid to do so. 

How did I do it? Let me show you

1. Work with what you have

The first thing to do is take what you have even if it’s not much and throw it into your portfolio.

So, start brainstorming. Have you ever made a background for your phone? Use it. What about that invitation you made for your nephew’s birthday? Throw it in there.

I used a slide deck that I had made for a friend of mine.

An image of the slide deck I made for a friend to communicate how you can use anything in your web design portfolio even if you don't have a lot

Notice the lightbulb icon in the image. Funny thing is years later I was hired as a Senior UX Designer for a project. The logo for the project happened to look eerily similar to that icon. So, I’m pretty sure that portfolio piece had something to do with landing that web design client.

At first, you might think that you don’t have anything BUT the chances that you have something to put up are pretty likely. So, dig through that box in your closet or some hidden file on your computer and find some portfolio gold.

2. Don’t Highlight Your Lack of Portfolio

Just because the 3 things on your portfolio are all you have doesn’t mean you have to tell that to the world.

Hear me out. I’m in no way telling you to lie about what you’ve got. If you don’t have integrity you won’t make it as a web designer.

But, there’s a difference between being honest and being self-deprecating.

 When I didn’t have much I would say things like, “Here is my most recent project,” and then show them the only website I had ever done.

If they asked if I had more I would tell them, “I’m currently working on building my portfolio. That is why I’m offering such a great price. But, I’m confident you’ll be happy with the end product, AND I’ll work hard to make sure you’re 100% satisfied.”

But, that’s a far cry from “Sorry I haven’t done much.”

One speaks confidence in your ability to figure things out and the other is like you’re apologizing for wasting their time.

3. Work with people you’re already connected with

Your first clients will likely either be friends, family or someone connected to those two types of people.

Donald Miller from Storybrand talks about building your first bouquet from the flowers closest to you.

That’s a really fancy way of saying when you’re first getting started don’t try and approach complete strangers to find work. 

When I was first starting as a web designer I made a list of 100 people that I knew that could potentially use a new website or a website refresh.

These were folks that already had a business or were planning to start something soon.

It might take a little bit to get the wheels turning on who those people might be in your life. BUT, once you spend a little bit of time people will begin to start coming to mind.

If it helps think about the people you interact with on a daily basis. Then go to people you interact with on a weekly basis. Then keep going until you just can’t think of anyone.

4. Ask for Referrals

Once you’ve asked your list of 100 people that you’re already connected with, ask them if they know someone that might need your help.

My very first website wasn’t from someone I asked directly. It was from a friend who mentioned someone they knew might need help.

How did my friend know I’d be interested in helping? Because I asked them to keep their ears open for anyone that might need my help.

The most basic question people are asking themselves before they hire you is this:

“Can I TRUST this person to do a good job?”

Your job is to prove yourself trustworthy.

You do that by either having proof that you’ve done something like what they’re wanting before, that’s your portfolio, OR from the words of previous clients, those are your testimonies from previous clients.

If you’re just starting out you likely don’t have much of either of those things. SO, you have to figure out a way to get a potential web design client to trust you for another reason.

And, there is no better way to accomplish that than with the referral of someone that the potential client already trusts.

And, this isn’t something that you only do when you’re first getting started. Referrals are the life-blood of any good web design business.

But, when you’re first getting started you have to prime the pump a bit by asking your friends and family to be your referral.

5. Use What You’ve Done Wisely

The first website I made used a platform called Optimize Press. So early on, I highlighted the fact that I had Optimize Press experience. 

Almost all of the gigs I got in those days were because someone was looking for a freelancer with Optimize Press know-how. 

Typically, clients have a preferred platform or plugin or system. AND, they’re looking for someone that has experience with that specific platform or plugin or system to help them.

So, what have you worked with? Some specific WordPress theme? Some specific plugin within WordPress? Be as specific as possible. You can’t just say “Magento Experience.” You have to narrow it down much much more to rise to the top. 

I know this seems weird. The temptation is to tell people that you’re good at everything because you’re afraid you might miss out on an opportunity.

But, the funny thing is that the opposite is true.

The more specific you can get about what you can do the more likely you’ll attract good web design clients without having a big portfolio.

6. Show Them with a Mock Up

You’d be surprised at just how bad the average web design pitch is.

I say that because I’ve been the recipient of said bad pitches.

I don’t know why but for some reason I get a ton of requests on LinkedIn of web developers and designers offering to build a website or an app for me.

They take no time to get to know me and see that I myself am a web designer. And, for the most part I can tell this is the same copied and pasted pitch they’ve probably sent to hundreds of other people.

If you want to stand out before you have a strong portfolio then be willing to do work that might not result in anything.

Learn about the person’s business. Learn about what they like and dislike AND THEN take that knowledge and mock something up that they might be interested in.

Take their non-responsive website and make the homepage mobile-friendly. Send them a URL and SHOW THEM you can do the work they need to get done.

Or if you notice a few design elements that could be tweaked and really make a difference in their site, mock it up really quickly.

You don’t have to spend tons of time trying to make something perfect BUT you do need to make something that could potentially impress them.

One caution to this strategy:

It’s really hard to know what a person wants before you have a conversation with them. So, don’t go too far out of the box. In fact, keep it close to what they already have, just make some obvious improvements to it

Want a free Adobe XD mock-up to start with that you can take and customize to your potential client? I got you. Sign up below and I’ll send you one for free.

7. Play the Long Game

Realize that most clients won’t say yes to you right away. In fact, when you don’t have a big portfolio you have to expect to do a lot of work to make the clients feel comfortable in hiring you.

And, that plan and simple just takes time.

So, don’t get discouraged if you don’t get a ton of business the very first time you reach out to a potential client. 

Be willing to stay patient and keep coming back and checking in on occasion. 

A few caveats:

  1. Don’t become a web design stalker. If you check in too often the potential client will likely get irritated and lose interest
  2. Don’t always try to close the deal. Imagine going on a few dates with someone and every time you hang out they ask if you’re ready for marriage. That’s what it’s like when you always ask about getting hired for a project. Instead, bring up something related to their field. Or talk about something another company in the same industry did with their website that was effective.
  3. Realize when you’re getting the cold shoulder. This can be a tough one. Because you don’t want to run away at the first sign of resistance. BUT, if it’s obvious don’t keep trying.
  4. Don’t be pushy or get offended. I absolutely hate it when someone emails me and says, “at least reply with a ‘no thanks.’” Remember these people don’t owe you anything. You’re the one asking for something. So, you need to be 100% okay with being ghosted or ignored.

8. Add to Your Portfolio as Soon as a Project is Done

One thing that happens a lot as business starts to pick-up is that you begin to neglect your portfolio.

Pretty soon you look at your website and realize everything on there is embarrassing and you would never want a new potential client to see it.

So, when you’re first getting started it’s super important to make sure you are updating your portfolio as soon as you have an opportunity to do so.

But, be careful. You want your portfolio to be your BEST work. You don’t have to display everything you’ve ever done, in fact you shouldn’t.

I’ve done projects I’m not proud of as a web designer. Everyone has. But, I’m certainly not going to show those projects to potential clients.

When you’re first beginning you have less options to hide projects you’re not proud of from potential clients. So, you can’t be quite as picky. BUT, use your judgment and weigh the pros and cons BUT FOR SURE make sure you update your portfolio as soon as you can.

9. Highlight Other Proven Skills or Traits

Maybe you’re just getting started as a web designer but you have a ton of background in marketing. Or maybe you have another skill you’ve gotten paid for that has a proven track record.

Use that to your advantage.

So, figure out what other skills you have that you can highlight to make up for your lack of portfolio.

For instance, I have a business management degree. So, in every proposal I sent I would mention it.

And, I would assure them that because of my experience with business education I would have unique insight on how to make their website perform better for their business.

If anything use your interests to find common ground with potential clients. You’d be surprised at how far that goes.

One of my first clients on Upwork hired me because of the university I went to.

10. Communicate Confidence

Clients can easily tell whether or not you’re confident you can give them the end product they need.

You do that by not kneecapping the things you say. 

Instead of saying things like “I think I can do a good job and I hope you like it.”   You say, “I will do a great job for you. You will love what you walk away with.”

A lot of times the confidence you have in yourself will replace the need to have a strong portfolio. In fact, even if you have a strong portfolio you won’t get good clients without being confident in yourself

11. Build Your Own Portfolio

If all else fails you don’t need paid clients to build your portfolio.

You can either work for free or trade OR you can do your own concept projects. 

Build a website for a made up restaurant. OR take an existing website and redo it.

OR help a friend that needs a website as a freebie or a trade. Heck, start with your own site and put that on your portfolio.

Just keep moving forward. Stay busy even if you don’t have any work. Hopefully, you just love web design and it doesn’t feel like a job.

When there were seasons that work was slow, I kept working on other things. I’d redesign my site or make something just for fun. OR, I’d learn something new to be able to offer to future clients.

The worst thing to do is stop making stuff. Eventually, the work will come.

Don’t Let a Tiny Portfolio Hold You Back from Getting Good Clients

Having a tiny portfolio shouldn’t be something that keeps you back from getting good clients as a web designer.

At the end of the day, clients are people. They’re not machines. They’re looking for people they feel they can connect with and who will do a good job of taking care of them.

So, until you have a strong portfolio up your sleeve to show off to potential clients be sure to use what you have effectively. And, lean on your relationships with people who already know, like and trust you.

It won’t be long before you look back and find that you yourself have built a strong portfolio that demands the attention of any client

Small figurines on a counter


Hi, I'm Chris and I'm super glad you're here. 7 years ago I taught my self-web design and freelancing. Now, I do my best to teach others what I've learned so they don't have to struggle as much as I did.

Every week, I write an article and release a podcast episode. Sign up if you want to get notified when that happens.



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