How to ACTUALLY Get Web Design Clients When You Don’t Have a Portfolio

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Look, I’m gonna be honest with you. You’re probably going to be unhappy with me by the end of this post.

You’re starting a web design business. You have the skills. You have the motivation. You have the passion and patience to see this through to the end.

But you don’t have customers. And you want some. Nay, need some. Badly.

Well, I have good news and bad news.

Good news! I have some ideas for you that will pay off.

Bad news… 95% of you won’t even bother attempting them

And that’s because they’re not easy. It’s not easy building a web design business. There are no shortcuts to success here.

But, for the other 5% of you who are all-in, this can pay off big time.

I’ve been in your shoes before. I know what you’re feeling. It sucks. But that means I also know what it takes to get web design clients when you have no portfolio to show for it.

And I’m here to share my experience with you. Let’s dive in.

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The #1 problem freelance web designers face (and what to do about it)

You know you have the skills to build killer websites for small businesses everywhere. The problem is, you can’t prove it.

And with the insane level of competition in the web design industry, you’re gonna have to prove it. One way, or another.

When I first started out as a freelance web designer, here are the steps I took to land my first client:

1) Work for free (or heavy discount)

You see? I told you you were gonna hate me by the end of this post.

You are going to have an extremely difficult time convincing someone to hire you when you have zero proof of your skills and abilities.

By offering your web design services for free, you accomplish 6 things:

  1. You stand out from the crowd (because no one is offering free web design, I guarantee it)
  2. You alleviate all of your client’s concern and anxiety about hiring an inexperienced web designer
  3. You build an awesome website that you can now add to your portfolio, drawing in new future business
  4. You gain a new relationship to add to your network for potential future referrals
  5. You get a 5-star review to add to your Google Places profile
  6. If you don’t get a 5-star review, you get valuable feedback on why not and improve for next time

Trust me, there is a lot of value in all of that.

I know, it sucks. And it’s completely contradictory to the ol’ “charge what you’re worth!” mantra.

But if you want to grow fast, this is the way to do it. You’ll be able to charge what you’re worth in the future. I promise.

My first 3-4 websites were all built for free or a steep discount. It gave me all of the things listed above. (Minus the Google Places reviews… I was way too slow to catch on to that. Don’t make my mistake!)

From there, I was able to land my first web design client with one of the largest media executives in Canada. Who wrote me a glowing testimonial that I still feature on my website to this day.

Baby steps guys. It all starts with free…

2) Carve out a niche for yourself

Don’t just build websites, build websites for somebody.

Do you do web design? Or do you do web design for photographers, consultants, corporations, bloggers, restaurants, etc…

Niching down will make it much easier to create content for that niche, which will then help you to rank higher in Google for competitive keywords, which will in turn bring in more business.

Me? My niche was fast web design. I could get your website built and designed in under 24 hours. I still can.

There was much less competition in this niche. Over the years, as I slowly built my portfolio, grew my network and made killer content on my blog and YouTube channel, the hard work paid off handsomely in Google rankings that brought in tons more business.

I became an authority in that niche.

Once that happens, you can start to expand to other niches. But you have to start small first.

3) Tell your story (and be honest about it)

“Fake it til’ you make it” is just not a good idea. That’s what every other web designer out there is doing.

“We will build you a professional, beautiful, custom WordPress website that will bring in traffic, sell to more customers and… blah blah blah…” – Every Web Designer Ever

Why should I work with you? What do you bring to the table? Who are you?

You might think you’re boring. You’re not. You have a story to tell. Everyone does.

I am very open about the fact that I built a web design business to spend more time doing the things I love. I want to work smart, not hard. (Which, ironically, requires hard work. I know, leave me alone.)

Of course, there are lines. I still value my privacy. More so than many other marketers these days.

The point is to let your personality shine in every aspect of your business. Don’t be shy. People are drawn, not to the powerful and successful, but to the meek and humble. It’s humanizing.

Whatever you do, never try to appear bigger and better than you are. It’s deceptive and gross, and incredibly easy to spot.

4) Network wisely

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Stephen R Covey (author)

There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to your current network for help. Even if your current professional network mainly consists of just family and friends.

Tell them what you’re doing and why. And that you’re looking for your first clients and are willing to sacrifice to get them. It’s not desperation.

Do not spam. No one likes to get a generic email or Linkedin message preaching about why you should be hired for their next project.

Get to know people. Find out what problems they’re struggling with and solve them. If you can’t, tell them why.

These days, a good 20-30% of my business comes from referrals from satisfied customers. I like to throw them $100 to thank them for each referral they send my way.

Be genuine, helpful and honest. Your network will grow fast. Trust me.

5) Find your perfect clients on Google Maps

Skip the Upwork profile for now. Here’s a real tactical tip for you:

  • Get on Google Maps and pull up your neighborhood. Then find all of the restaurants, dental offices, retail stores, nail salons, and barbershops and check out their profiles.
  • In it, you will find a link to their website. (Or you won’t find a link at all, which is even better. That means they don’t even have a website!)
  • If their site is garbage, pull as much of the content from it as you can, then rebuild it for them. No, I’m not kidding.
  • Then, once you’re done, email them with a link to their brand-spanking-new website, and ask for their feedback.
  • If they love it, sell it to them.

That’s it.

Yes, you’ll end up doing some work for free. Not everyone will buy the site from you once you’ve put in the effort to build it.

And you’re going to have to brush up on your sales skills in order to convince people to buy.

But if you can get a 20-40% close rate with this strategy, it’s more than worth it for a scrapping new web designer like yourself.

I told you this wasn’t going to be easy, didn’t I?

Rinse and repeat

“That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only which gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on its goods.” – Thomas Paine (author)

Those 5 tips are more than enough to get you started. The rest of it simply comes with hard work and patience.

Which is why you really need to know why you’re getting into this in the first place.

I’ve had intrepid web designers, young and old, reach out to me with all sorts of motivations. The desire to live the life of a digital nomad, complete freedom and control of their personal time, or simply to provide for their beautiful family.

Keep that end goal firm in mind while you make this journey. It’s going to push you through the hard failures and fuel your successes.

And don’t forget to tell your friends about where you learned to do it.

(Just kidding. But not really.)

Picture of Patrick Antinozzi

Patrick Antinozzi

This post was written by an organic being with the help of AI. Pretty wild that I have to disclaim that, eh? I'm just trying to provide value. It's not always the prettiest or the most succinct.

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