What do you do when a prospective client asks for samples or a link to your portfolio and you don't have anything relevant to share? How do you get the work to build a portfolio without the portfolio that will prove you can do the work? How do you get experience when you have no experience?
This episode gives you some suggestions for what to do when you don't have examples of previous work to show new clients. (Spoiler: don't make it up!)
"If you're just starting out as a freelancer, or you're offering a new service, what do you do if you don't have samples to share? Some folks would say just say you do, just lie – I totally disagree with this! You don't have to pretend. There are strategies you can use instead. Here are a few of my favourites." -- Louise Shanahan
Mentioned on this episode
Joel Klettke – @JoelKlettke
Case Study Buddy
Say hi to Louise!
LinkedIn: Louise Shanahan
Music credit: Just Smile by LiQWYD
Cover art: Hello I'm Nik
Welcome to 15 Minute Freelancer, your snack-sized guide to being your own boss and building a business and life you love. I'm your host, Louise Shanahan. My LinkedIn bio says I'm a freelance health copywriter. But for the next 15 minutes, I'll be tickling your ears with practical strategies, behind the scenes stories, and nuggets o' wisdom so you can create a freelance business that works for you. Whether you're just starting out or you've been self-employed for a while, I'll be right here with you to help me navigate the ups and downs of freelancing life. So, grab a coffee relax and join me for 15 minutes of freelancing fun. Don't forget to hit subscribe!
Hello, and welcome to another episode of 15 Minute Freelancer. I hope you're really well today. Here's a question for you: how do you get experience when you have no experience? How do you get the projects you need to build a portfolio? Whether that's writing samples, design, work, video photography, or whatever it is that you do – how do you get the work to build a portfolio without the portfolio that will prove you can do the work?
This actually has a name: it's called the permission paradox. It's that kind of unwritten rule that you need experience to get experience. You know, when you apply for a job, you often need previous work experience. But it's really hard to get that first foot in the door. If every job ad says you need x years of experience, how do you get that very first job? And when you're starting out with any new venture, whether that's freelancing for the first time, changing career or offering a new service, selling a new course, you don't always have the proof that you can do it or that your system works. You need someone to take a chance on you. You need permission to demonstrate your ability. And that's the permission paradox. And that's what we're talking about today.
And it's fair enough, really isn't it? If someone's going to hire you, they want proof that you're able to deliver what you say you will. They want to see an example of your previous work. They want to know if your approach has helped previous participants or previous customers get results before they feel comfortable parting with their hard-earned cash.
And this, incidentally, is why copywriters banging on about social proof and testimonials so often. But it's hard to provide that evidence or social proof if you've never actually done the thing yet. It's a catch 22 isn't it? If you're new to freelancing, or if you're pivoting into a new service, how do you convince people to hire you? This might also be relevant if you have done similar work before, but that project is covered by a non-disclosure agreement or NDA, which means you can't share it with prospective clients. There are some folks who would say if you don't have the experience yet, or you don't have samples to share, just make it up. I know, I've heard people say that, just lie! I was gonna say, no judgement, but kind of judgement!
They might say if you know you can do the work. That's all that matters. I'm not really sure I agree. In fact, I definitely disagree with this, I don't think you should invent or overstate your experience for three main reasons.
Firstly, when you provide a service, you're building a relationship based on trust. If you want it to be more than a one-time thing, if you want the client to listen to your advice to hire you again, to recommend you to others, they need to believe in you, they need to like you. It's like when people lie about their height or age or you know, whatever characteristics on dating apps, you're gonna get found out eventually. That's so awkward! It doesn't matter if you would have been a perfect match. It's too late, you've already been exposed for lying about who you are.
Secondly, it's actually not unreasonable for a client to expect you to have some first-hand experience. With the online, creative services that a lot of us are offering, the barrier to entry is so low, which is brilliant in many ways. But it also means that anyone can stick a website up and say they're in business now. So how are clients meant to know who's legit and who isn't? They want to see previous work. It's fair enough. We do the same when we're hiring people, don't we? Like if a plumber is coming to fix your toilet, you want to be sure that they know what they're doing, and they are going to flood your bathroom. It's not unreasonable for a client to expect you to have that experience.
Thirdly, you shouldn't need to trick someone into using your services. There are other ways to win clients. You don't need to exaggerate or make stuff up. And it's really worth thinking about at this point. If you're just starting out, what do you want your business to be known for? What are your values? What do you want people to say about you?
If you know you can deliver the goods but you don't quite have the proof yet. Here are some things that you can see and do instead. First of all, consider walking your client through the process. When I first started out as a freelance copywriter, I was in this exact position of not having many samples and not really knowing how to convince clients to hire me. Someone wanted me to write website for them. But my samples at that point were mostly just articles, which was fine, it showed I could write. But it wasn't really what they were looking for. Could I manage a whole website? I didn't have a website to point to, to see, yeah, I can do this. And I read some advice shared by Joel Klettke in The Copywriter Club Facebook group. He's a successful copywriter and founder of Case Study Buddy, and he advise talking the client through your process when you don't have samples. It was a few years back, but you might be able to find it.
If I remember correctly, he said something about just owning it. Like, look, I haven't done this exact thing before, so I don't have samples. But here's the process that I'll use to get you XYZ results. And this also works if you've done similar projects before, but that work is covered by a non-disclosure agreement, so you can’t share it. You explain exactly what you will do at each stage of the project and how that will get the client their desired result. Relate it to something that you have done showing how that experience is relevant to this situation. For example, say you’re a freelance health coach offering a new group programme, you might say, this is the first time I've run this course in this format. But I've used this exact approach with one-to-one clients 1000s of times, and I got these results. You're not exaggerating anything. People can trust you when you describe the kind of results you can get them. That gives them reassurance that you're not just making it up as you go along. You do know what you're doing, you have a plan, and they can trust you.
The next approach is to refer to industry experts and demonstrate your expertise through your understanding what they did. Use stats or case studies to show you know why their approach works and explain how you apply it here for your client. It's obviously not as powerful as having your own case studies. But if you can show you understand what they did, why it worked, and how you can make it work for the client is still an effective way to build trust.
Another way is to find ways to give the client more control. The challenge for the client in this situation is that they may like you, but they're handing over large sums of money, sometimes not their own money. And they may worry about not getting a return on that investment. How are they going to explain it to their boss, if you ghost them? Maybe they've heard horror stories about freelancers ghosting clients or submitting half-assed work, which unfortunately happens. Your job is to reassure them that that is not you. In whatever honest way you can, you need to reassure them that you are trustworthy and reliable. One way to alleviate any hesitancy on their part is by reassuring them that you'll check in regularly to make sure they're happy and let them sign off on each stage in the process before you move on to the next part. That gives you both a bit of cover if things maybe take a left turn further down the line.
Have a think about how you can minimise the risk for the client. I wouldn't necessarily offer a money back guarantee or anything like that. But you could consider some sort of value back guarantee. So that might be saying something like, I don't have a sample, but here's my process, here's my relevant experience, here's how I'll keep you in the loop and so on. And to make sure you're totally comfortable, I can throw in an extra round of revisions for free, or something like that. Make sure it makes sense for you. Obviously, that will be different depending on what your business is.
And finally, be honest and think strategically. Is there a way to be honest about the fact that you don't have equivalent experience and actually turn that to your advantage? Could you invite your prospective client to be a beta tester for your new service, for example, or position it as an opportunity to test drive a new offer? Incentivize them to take a chance on a newbie or a new offer with an introductory rate, in exchange for some constructive feedback, maybe? Obviously, you want to make sure that you definitely get that feedback, because that then provides the all-important social proof for the next client who hopefully will be paying full price. I don't generally recommend doing work for free. This is a question that comes up a lot in the freelance world. And generally, I would say no, you should always be compensated for your work and your time. But there are some scenarios where it can be a good move, if you do it strategically and you know that you're getting something else in return that's valuable to you. Maybe we'll talk about that on another episode because it's quite a big conversation, I think.
I hope that gives you some ideas for how to solve the old permission paradox and get experience even when you don't have any experience, and prove to clients that you can do a brilliant job for them even when you don't have that solid proof just yet. And if you've been in the game for a while, I hope these ideas may also give you some prompts for new ways to talk about your services when you're speaking to potential new clients about a new service. As always, let me know how you get on. Give me a shout if you have any questions and good luck. Thanks for listening, and I'll be back in your airports next Friday.
You've been listening to 15 Minute Freelancer with me, Louise Shanahan, freelance health copywriter and content marketer at thecopyprescription.com. If you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe, leave a review or share it with a freelance friend. And if you've got a freelancing question you want answered on the podcast find me and say hi on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram. Thanks, and until next time, happy freelancing!