How to get work when starting out as a web designer (and you still don’t have a portfolio)

You’ve been learning HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and have just built a simple WordPress Theme from scratch.(Congrats! That’s not a small feat!)

You can do at least basic website development but, sigh, that won’t get clients swarming your inbox or a job at a digital design agency.

So, what now? Experienced people on reddit say that you have to start building your portfolio.

And there you go: re-designing and re-developing a website for a non-profit. For free.

What can you do to actually start getting paid for your work?

I suppose you already know your options: odesk.com, elance.com, freelancer.com, guru.com, /r/forhire or whatever is your favourite online job board for freelance web designers. But have you tried any of them so far?

I guess you haven’t. And I think I know why.

It’s because the only evidence of your work so far is a WordPress theme that you’ve built yourself from scratch.

And you feel that’s not enough.

So, you think you have to practice web design for free so you’ll be able to build up that portfolio.

But building a portfolio can take months…

And you don’t have time(or money) to waste.

That’s one vicious circle:

no money > need clients > clients want to see previous work > need to build portfolio > work for free > no money

But the circle keeps repeating only because you assume this:

“People on odesk.com and elance.com want people with experience right?”

If you believe that, you should read the next line.

You can get paid for your work NOW

Even with the skills you have now.

Even while still building your portfolio and reputation online.

Even when starting from square 1.

But the problem is, you’ve got your focus on the wrong prize.

Contrary to what you’ve been told, your portfolio is not the first and most important asset you have to build. The key here is the word reputation.

And we’ll get to that in a minute.

Why you NEED to start small

People posting website-related work online don’t always need a new design. Some of them want a technically capable person (like you) to install WordPress and a theme for them. Just to set their site up. Sounds too simple, doesn’t it?

But once you complete a simple task like that you will have history on the platform you use. This will work in your favor the next time you apply for a job offer there. That’s how you build your experience, your reputation and get paid on the way. Plus, landing smaller, simpler task-oriented projects is way easier than landing a $1000+ project.

What you need at this point are happy clients.

Clients that will look for your services again and will recommend you to their friends.

Let me say this again: “Get out of the preparing-to-become-a-freelancer cave”

There is no point in building your experience in isolation, all by yourself, depleting your savings. You know enough to help somebody now. It just may not be with web design, not just yet.

So once you land some of those more technical (and simple for you) jobs, you’ll be able to land more, and more. Somewhere along the way people will ask you “Hey, can you fix this thing on the theme for me?” and you’ll do it. Then you’ll add it to the list of your skills.

Your next job that includes installing WordPress, set up and theme customisation will actually require creating a child theme creation. The gig you land after that could be to make a theme from scratch. Notice the trend here?

Clients always need more work than just the project they’ve initially posted. This is your opportunity to baby-step out of your comfort zone into the place where you are confident you can add this new service to your list of skills.

Usually clients would want to save the time and hassle of finding another person, evaluating their skills and building a relationship from scratch. That’s why:

Once a client has trusted you with small tasks, they are much more inclined to trust you with a job slightly bigger than the one before.

They would choose you if they worked with you, liked you and, therefore, trust you.

Earn money with your current skill-set (even if you think you suck)

Remember this: there will ALWAYS be people who know less than you.

Or they think completing a certain task is a waste of their time.

This means that there is always someone you could help, even with your current skill set.

Trade time for experience wisely and it will start to pay off

Building up your freelance/remote work career, with small tasks in the beginning, will boost your confidence.

You’ll know with absolute certainty that you can get a job done.

The other benefit of going small-tasks first is that the more work you complete on a certain platform, the more trustworthy you’ll look to your next potential clients.

But how to land that coveted “first freelance gig”?

Show the client that you understand.

Show them that you know what their problem is.

Tell them how you plan to solve it.

Tell them what will they gain from your solution.

Your level of command of English also makes a huge difference. Online work platforms are filled with freelancers that have trouble communicating with the clients, let alone taking care of their precise needs.

My baby-step freelance experience

I got my first odesk gig because I managed to carefully explain to the guy (a native English speaker tired of working with people who can’t understand him) that what he wants done “won’t take indefinitely. Here is what I would do. It will take me this much time approximately.”

It was expected to be a simple job, and I completed it for 2 hours. But I didn’t stop there. While discussing the task I was consulting him on Skype about various other web-admin stuff that needed to be done.

Our conversation revealed a lot of opportunities for me to help him further. What came out of this? We developed an hourly relationship where we started planning and working on his new website.

So, once you have access to people don’t be afraid to help them and plug your knowledge without being asked (where applicable).

Over delivering (and under promising) is never a bad strategy.

Next actions:

  1. Register on an online job board/platform
  2. Search for the simplest job that you think you can do. Something that would take you less than a day, heck, even less than 2 hours.
  3. Apply for the job restating the problem they have (in your own words). Tell them how you plan to solve it. Your goal is to make the client feel confident with your level of communication and understanding of the job.

And while you’re installing WordPress for clients and dreaming of building websites that you’re proud of…

Learn web design beyond HTML&CSS

Knowing the tools of your trade— HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Photoshop (and many others) is different from knowing how and when to use them.

When you only perfect your knowledge of the tools you get websites that are frustrating to look at, to say the least.

And then you look at professionally designed websites. They seem to have that inexplicable synergy about them.

Do you want to know what that magical halo about great design is?

Would you like to learn the basic principles that make up for a good design?

You’re in luck, because I’m sharing these and many other awesome tips you need to get started with web design in my free course “Web Design Beyond HTML&CSS”.

It won’t cost you a dime to enrol, but I bet it will help you design better web sites.

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