Ep. 126: How to Start a Freelance Web Design Business When You Have No Portfolio


So you want to start a freelance web design business, but you’re just getting started so you haven’t had a paying client yet.

Which means you don’t have a portfolio… So how are you going to get someone to pay you to build a website for them when you don’t have any client work to back you up?

And since you haven’t had any paying clients, how can you even call yourself an actual web designer? You don’t have much experience, what if you mess something up? You shouldn’t charge that much when you’re just getting started. You definitely need to spend more time learning, because what if someone asks you for something you don’t know how to do?

You just need more expertise, and the only way to get it is to work for free for friends and family until you have a good enough portfolio. And then you can slowly start charging for your work as you learn more.

Eventually, you will know everything there is to know about web design, and then people will be lining up to give you their money!

No. No. No and no!!!

This is what most new freelance web designers think, and it’s so overwhelming that most of them never get started, or they quickly burn out before they ever start to make any real money.

What if there was another way? A way to build your credibility without having a portfolio or having to work for free?

I’m here to tell you that there is another way. I found it, quite by accident, and I’m gonna break it all down for you today.

So back in 2014, I was working at a nonprofit doing a hybrid job of marketing and IT support. I had been at the company for about 7 years and I was making great money… but I was miserable.

Every week sitting in the same rush hour traffic, listening to the same garbage morning radio show, rotating between the same two pairs of Express Editor pants, 5 New York & Company tops, and rotating between the black or brown pair of sensible Franco Sarto booties.

Every day, doing the same pointless busy work, listening to the same complaints, navigating the same office politics.

Every night, coming home too stressed out and exhausted from the drama of the day to think about what to make for dinner which led to the inevitable conversation with my husband:

Me: “Where do you want to go for dinner tonight?”

Him: “I don’t care.”

Me: “Me neither, I just don’t want to make another decision, my brain is fried.”

Him: “Okay, how about Flanagan’s?”

Me: “Eh, I’m not feeling it…they don’t have anything healthy…”

Him: Annoyed look.

Me: “Okay, fine, whatever, that’s fine. I’ll find something I can eat there.”

And then I eat a quesadilla washed down with a few Miller Lites for good measure, and now I’m finally feeling relaxed.

Go home, go to bed. Sleep like crap. Wake up, start over. Waiting for the weekend. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The one thing I loved about my job was WordPress. It’s not something I learned in college, it was a skill that came from me being a natural problem solver (and honestly a little bit of a rebel).

I discovered WordPress around 2005. I worked at a law firm, and there was a guy who had scammed thousands of people out of money in a Ponzi scheme. Our firm was tasked with auctioning off all of his assets and distributing whatever they recovered to the victims – and they needed a way to be able to quickly communicate updates on the asset recovery to thousands of victims.

Our website was not that nimble and required paying a ton of money to our web developer to update, so I did some research and discovered WordPress. I pitched the idea to my boss, offered to roll up my sleeves and figure it out and that’s when I fell in love with the power of WordPress.

And then as I moved forward in my career and listened to people complain about how much time they spend doing ridiculous things that should be easier, I realized… WordPress can do that. There’s a plugin for that. We can automate that. We don’t have to spend tens of thousands on fancy software and hire web developers because I can totally build that.

So that’s what I did, and I loved it. What I didn’t love is all the red tape involved. The meetings. The chain of command. The slow pace of progress – or the complete reversal of progress when people felt threatened by change.

Then one day, I’m sitting in my beige office and I hear someone say, “Have you ever had 7-Up Salad? It’s got lemon jello, lime jello, marshmallows…” and I started to feel all panicky and I thought, “This cannot be it! There has got to be more to life than this!!! I cannot do this for the rest of my life!” And the panic was quickly replaced by the guilt because I made good money and great benefits and I should be happy with what I have so stop complaining because there are people less fortunate than you in this world, now get back to work!

Around the same time my best friend had asked me to read Chalene Johnson’s PUSH with her, where you figure out ten life goals, and then the PUSH goal is the one that when accomplished makes all of the other goals easier.

So here’s the conversation I had with myself as I was trying to figure out my PUSH goal:

Okay, so I want to eat better, exercise more, lose weight, be less stressed and spend more time with my husband. What’s going to get me there? Being in control of my time and schedule. Okay, how will you do that? By being my own boss. How can you be your own boss? Start my own business. What are you going to do? Build websites with WordPress.


So I’m at the gym one day trying to exercise my way out of that quesadilla/Miller Lite habit I mentioned earlier, and this girl asks me what I do for a living.

“I’m in IT. Oh, and I do web design on the side.”

I immediately feel my face get hot. Why did you just lie to her? You’re not a web designer! You’ve never had one client, liar!!!

“Ohmigosh, do you know WordPress? We use it at work and our developer ghosted and I’ve got this event coming up and I need major help.”

Wait, so I can come to your rescue? She had said the magic words. We set a coffee date up, and I had my first client.

A few weeks later, I mention this side hustle to a friend.


“You know WordPress? My dad’s site got hacked and he doesn’t know what to do. Can you help?” Um, yep. I’ve cleaned a hack or two in my day. I can help.

The following week, I get a phone call from a vendor at my day job. “Hey, who built your website? We have to move all of our clients to WordPress and we need help!”

And before I know it, I’m working an extra 40 hours a week outside of my day job.

But I’m not the web designer I always imagined – a creative genius who is building gorgeous, innovative websites that I’m proud to show off. I’m a pixel-pusher, taking orders and barely charging for my time because I feel bad that I’m not an expert certified web designer who can code a website from scratch with a degree in computer science – and these people really need my help! I can’t ask them for more money when they ask me for more changes – but I’m super resentful when they do!!

Blend all of that with a family emergency and I was perfectly poised for a breakdown – which came in the form of me losing my ish on a coworker, sending a poorly written apology email, and taking the rest of the day off.

This is too much. I’m wrapping up these client projects, and then I’m done, I thought. My dream of becoming a freelance web designer had died.

Or so I thought.

Because if you’re anything like me, once you REALLY want something, you’re not going to stop until you figure it out.

I was on my way to work, and instead of listening to garbage morning radio I had started listening to podcasts, and this particular morning Chalene Johnson was interviewing this guy, Pat Flynn, who makes money by giving away everything he knows about creating passive income online, and he earns affiliate commissions on the plugins and themes and hosting and services people bought to implement what he taught.

Wait, what??? It’s like I heard a record scratch in my own mind. This is a thing? You mean, I can create videos teaching everything I’ve learned about harnessing the power of WordPress over the past several years and make money from it – AND I won’t have to work with clients? Um, SIGN ME UP!!!!

At that moment, everything changed.

In my spare time, I started researching affiliate programs and was astounded at how many there were for products and services I already used. I began to outline my tutorial videos and scheduled time to record them. In the evenings worked on building my website and signing up for affiliate programs. On the weekends I recorded my tutorials and added them to my website.

In just a couple of months, I had created the 5 Day Website Challenge, a free 5-module video course that teaches how to build an entire WordPress site, the same exact site I built for paying clients with no steps left out. It had a few affiliate recommendations in it for tools that I used myself and were teaching inside of the training, but 90% of it could be done at no cost to the Challenger.

Okay, it’s done… now how do I get people to find it? Which led to the bigger question that I had failed to ask myself before diving in a building the thing… Who is this actually for?

There have got to be more people out there like me, I thought. Women in their mid-thirties who just looked up one day and thought, is this it? Is this all there is to life? I had a different dream, and now I’m just trapped and I want the freedom of being my own boss, being in control of my time and taking the glass ceiling off of my earning potential. Women who want to start an online business like that B-School thing I kept hearing about or like Chalene teaches in her Marketing Impact Academy. I want to help those women build their websites so that they can have their dream too!

The other thing that I knew from listening to Pat Flynn and Chalene Johnson is that I needed to build an email list. And so I set my WordPress training up to be something that I’d give away for free in exchange for an email address so I had that part down, but I wasn’t quite sure how to go about building my email list.

So I just Googled “how to build an email list” and I found Nathalie Lussier’s 30 Day List Building Challenge – and the strategies I learned in that training are what led me to my very first subscriber and my very first affiliate commissions, and the realization that I had created something that people really, really need.

So I put my head down and focused on list-building. Get as many people as possible to sign up for the 5 Day Website Challenge so I can earn affiliate revenue and not be an order-taking pixel pusher (outside of my day job anyway).

What I did not expect is that my dream clients started asking me to build their websites for them. Powerful women building life-changing online businesses wanted me to build their websites.

And at first, I told them no, I don’t work one on one with clients. I just teach you how to DIY. And I was also very CONFUSED –  why would you want to pay me when I’m showing you exactly what to do – for free?

But then it hit me.

I had earned their trust by peeling back the curtain on my process. I had built credibility by freely giving away my knowledge. And people felt like they already knew and liked me because I shared stories like this one about why I was giving it all away for free to them because I didn’t want them to be held back by the tech.

I didn’t have to “sell” my services, people were asking me if they could BUY from me. It’s a business owners’ dream!

And I said no!!! Can you believe it?

And I said no because I was afraid. I didn’t want it to feel like how it felt before when I had no systems, no processes, no boundaries and no help and placed no value on my skillset or my time. Plus I still had a day job and I wanted to have somewhat of a life outside of it!

By then, I had released a paid WordPress training course that was not making the millions I had expected it to make, so I set up a consultation with a sales expert who had taken my 5 Day Website Challenge. She had reached out to me for some advice and when I read her website copy I knew she was the person who could help me sell this course!

That free twenty-minute conversation changed my life. I walked away realizing that it didn’t matter how I had learned what I knew or whether I knew everything there is to know, my years of knowledge and experience MATTER! The fact that I know how to find the answers quickly MATTERS. The fact that I want to help people get what they want MATTERS, and it all has value.

And when I decided to put systems and processes in place and create a web design package together that I knew I could deliver while still working full time at a price that felt good to me, I started to say YES to people that asked to work with me.

And every time I worked with a client, I learned something new that would lead to a change in my process or my pricing. Oh, that took WAY longer than I thought it would. I need to charge more for that next time. We got off track here, how can I prevent that from happening with the next client? I need help, I’m going to bring in some subcontractors so that I can get all of this work done on time.

And over the next two years, I consistently grew the passive income I was making from courses and affiliate marketing, and the time-for-money income I was making building websites for clients.

When I got to the point where I was completely maxed out on time and the amount of money I could make while still having a day job, I put in a 7-month notice at work. I gave them 7 months because I’d also been promoted to an executive role and I wanted to give them plenty of time to find a replacement.

I quit my day job on January 2, 2018, and I’ve consistently earned between $8,000 – $10,000 month since becoming self-employed.

So here are five things that I want you to take away from my story:

  1. You don’t need a portfolio to build credibility. I still don’t have a portfolio on my website! Simply give away everything you know for free by creating tutorials, training, and content. It positions you as trustworthy and as credible to people that need what you have to offer.
  2. You can call yourself a web designer whether you’ve had paying clients or not. If you know how to build a website (code or no code), then you can call yourself a web designer. Or if you’re not ready to say that just yet, you can offer web design services. Or say you build websites. It’s not like being called Doctor. No one has to bestow the title upon you.
  3. You are definitely going to mess things up, but like Marie Forleo says, everything is figureoutable. Something is not going to go as you expect on every single project, but if you’re a problem-solver, if you’re persistent and you’re willing to dig in and figure it out, you’ll be fine. Yeah, you might lose some time, but you’ll know for the next time you come across that same problem!
  4. You are never going to know everything there is to know. You just aren’t. There’s no better way to learn than as you go in real-life situations. Yes, it might take you longer. But are you confident in your ability to find the answers as you go? If you’re not confident, there’s no amount of learning or schooling that can get you there because you will always run into something you don’t know how to do.
  5. Please don’t work for free or barter for experience or exposure. You’ll end up working for that client for free (or super cheap) forever. How do you draw the line between what you’ll do for free and what they have to now pay for? And once you get some paying clients, who is going to come last? Yep, the client who doesn’t pay you. And then they get resentful because now they are in a bad spot and you’re not available to help them. When you work for free, you also start getting referrals of clients that also can’t afford to pay you for your services. Your time and knowledge are valuable, even when you’re just starting out, and it gets even more valuable over time. You have got to start right out of the gate setting firm boundaries on your pricing, otherwise, like me, you’ll feel resentful, burnt out and at risk of giving up on your dream! If you’re going to spend any time doing something you aren’t immediately getting paid to do, spend it on creating free content that builds your credibility and putting together packages of services you feel confident you can deliver!

So how do you start a web design business without a portfolio or having had a single client?

Start by building the best website you’ve ever built for your own business. Pretend you are your own dream client and just knock your own socks off.

Then, start creating content that helps other people get what they want and positions you as someone who knows her stuff. And give it all away for free to attract traffic to your website. You’re not giving away your time for free, you’re giving away your knowledge. There’s a difference.

Then go create something extra awesome to build your email list, build trust over time through consistency and then let people know when you have open development spots on your schedule and set up free consultations. You’ll be closing sales with confidence in no time, and you’ll look back at the days where you worried about not having a portfolio with fond memories.