A portfolio career is something that many people aspire to – especially successful professionals. It offers you the freedom to pick and choose what you work on, who you work with, when (& where) you work and how much to charge. You also decide on what you learn and how fast you learn new skills.
However, for many years there was a common belief that this was exclusively something for the most accomplished CEOs and academics. It used to be seen as only for people towards the end of successful careers – sitting on boards, making speeches, advising senior executives or making high level investment decisions.
This is no longer the case – portfolio careers are now possible for anyone with good wifi, self discipline and an ability to provide products or services that companies or other individuals need.
Portfolio work pays well too, with hourly and daily earnings typically two to three times higher than for similar permanent roles. Therefore if you can build a portfolio of paid work activities of over 20 hours per week, you can likely earn more than you would in a permanent job.
The primary boundary that stands in the way of people establishing a portfolio career is that they don’t know how to start one. It seems a bit risky and complicated.
It doesn't need to be.
Yes, there are many tactical skills to learn and hurdles to overcome, but if you take a step-by-step approach, it is achievable. With focus, you can even get started and win work within weeks.
There are eight steps to start a successful portfolio career:
1. Define your monetisable skills
The single most important element to define before starting a portfolio career is what you are actually going to do. What product or service will you provide?
This does not necessarily need to be the same thing you have been doing in your main gig or something that you currently do as a side hustle. Launching a portfolio career is a good opportunity to refocus. The important thing is that it has the potential to make you enough money and satisfy your career and lifestyle aspirations.
In terms of deciding what this is, your offering does not need to be only one thing. Often the best option is to monetise a combination of skills in multiple ways. For example you could offer your services to companies, run workshops to train people in your skillset, plus mentor others aiming to get to your skill level.
For instance rather than being a generic marketing expert you could specialise in specific types of marketing such as B2B SaaS, community management or marketing analytics; rather than being a basic project manager, become an expert in a certain type of project such as a new product launch, international expansion or a fundraise.
Companies often have enough generic skills in house, so are more likely to outsource specialist work. There is also less competition for specialist work, so with demand high and supply low, you can earn more.
2. Grow your LinkedIn network - with purpose
How you market yourself, and who you market yourself to, is dependent on your product or service, but a common thread that runs through all portfolio careers is that your network is essential. For most portfolio professionals the most important platform for building your network is LinkedIn.
If you are going to try and connect with more people to expand your network in useful directions, you need to ensure that when they Google you they are impressed by what they find. Given LinkedIn’s powerful link authority, this often means that your LinkedIn profile will be the first impression people will get of you in search results (typically profiles on The Portfolio Collective come second). So make sure you optimise your most visible online profiles. Empty or undifferentiated profiles don’t win you work.
Expanding and nurturing your network is one of the most effective ways to win work. Again, LinkedIn and The Portfolio Collective are really helpful. The Sales Benchmark Index found that 98% of B2B sales reps with over 5,000 LinkedIn connections meet or surpass their sales quotas, so if you’re not utilising such platforms yourself then you’re likely missing an opportunity.
Somebody landing on your profile isn’t necessarily just looking to find out about you – it may be part of research into you and your services. In some cases, potential clients may find you via LinkedIn and then go to your TPC profile or personal website to learn more.
According to research from eConsultancy, LinkedIn is responsible for 64% of all visits from social media channels to corporate sites. In other cases, potential clients may visit your website and then visit your LinkedIn profile to check who you are and your credibility. So having a great LinkedIn profile in conjunction with a great web presence (see Step 5 below) can have a positive impact on both your online traffic and conversion rates.
Getting your LinkedIn profile right does not need to be overly complicated. We have created a guide to optimise your LinkedIn profile here.
You should then tweak your LinkedIn page and add a few more connections every week.
3. Brand yourself
Your potential customers will assess the quality, value and distinctiveness of your work based on visual clues and memorable stories. In the past you could do this with fancy suits, business cards, club memberships and offices. Now you need to project your professionalism digitally.
You need to stand out. What unique words, phrases, stories, images, videos, awards, logos, etc will newcomers notice about you? How do you explain your underlying motivation? What evidence will you use to reinforce your claims of expertise?
Do you develop a logo or have a colour scheme? Maybe a favourite font. According to Forbes presenting a consistent brand across all platforms can increase revenues by up to 23%, so defining your brand and using that definition wherever you communicate is often a key driver to success.
In addition to focusing on impressing, make sure you don’t let yourself down with the details. One spelling mistake could lead to a missed opportunity. The wrong word or phrase could lead to clients not understanding what you offer and therefore will click away.
Beyond your digital profile, ensure that your other interactions are also aligned. In these days of video calls, think about your hair, clothes, Zoom backdrop, lighting and sound quality. Your personal energy too.
They all matter.
4. Set up your company and business foundations
You do not need to start a company to start a portfolio career, though this is one of the most common ways that people start.
Although there are a few options, the main two are to either
In the UK you can do either through Companies House, which acts as the official registrar for all UK companies (other countries have something similar).
There are typically more benefits to registering as a company rather than a sole trader – key amongst them being that as a sole trader you are liable for any losses made by the company whilst a director of a limited company is not. You also pay more tax as a sole trader, because you pay income tax, whilst the director of a limited company can pay themselves in dividends, which are typically taxed at a lower rate.
There are multiple options to choose from when you set up and they are entirely dependent upon your individual circumstances, however it’s important to make a decision early on about which works best for you.
It is also simple to do. For example, in the UK you can go through the Companies House website – the entire process should take no more than 20 minutes and only costs £12.
You will also need to open a business bank account with the right functionality to meet your needs. This can take a few weeks, as the banks have to do background checks on you.
5. Create your web presence
In a recent study 81% of people said they would think less of a company if they had a bad website or no other form of web presence. In the past building a website would have been a complicated and expensive thing to do. However, there are now dozens of website builders available, including Wix, Squarespace and Shopify. These allow you to quickly and easily create a professional looking website without needing to get any specialist developers involved.
Templates are a helpful and efficient way to get started, but if you want to appear on page one of Google search results you MUST ensure that you have original content to stand out. Anything copied and pasted from another site won’t appear in search results. You should also complete a Google My Business listing as a way of ensuring that Google actually does find your site and understands what you do.
You should expect sites to be accessed through a variety of devices and the site must look good on all of them. Keep in mind that Google now applies mobile-first indexing, which means it predominately uses the mobile version of content for indexing and ranking websites. So if your site isn’t optimised for mobile, that can hurt your chances of getting found.
Is a website essential? Not necessarily, but if you don’t have a website you need other forms of ‘web presence’ to demonstrate your expertise, such as a profile on The Portfolio Collective, an active Instagram feed or a collection of articles on Medium.
6. Boost awareness
Once you have a site, your voice and your offering, you’re ready to start explaining your offering to the world. You could sit and wait for website and LinkedIn traffic, but you could wait a while, and the volume of work may not be enough in the early months.
There are thousands of options for marketing, not all of them digital. To maximise your chances for success, it’s essential to be active where your audience is spending time, and that is often on digital platforms.
If you’re offering a B2B product you should generally focus on platforms like Linkedin, Google search and The Portfolio Collective, where you are most likely to find your audience. If you’re offering something B2C and highly visual then Instagram might be a better option. If hyperlocal, Nextdoor or Facebook can work well.
You also need to consider which is the best way to market your product/service based on your brand and offering. If you are a thought leader, taking a ‘content marketing’ approach could be most effective, creating articles or videos to demonstrate your expertise. If you’re selling a consumer product perhaps influencer marketing or ads on social media could have the highest returns.
One thing you may need to learn at some stage is how to run an ad campaign, such as Google’s Adwords or Meta (Facebook) Ads Manager. These may seem daunting at first, but lately artificial intelligence has made them much easier, and with a few hours of messing around with one platform, you can typically get the hang of it. Once you have learnt one platform, the others are much easier to learn. It can even become a bit addictive playing with ad images, calls to action and targeting, then seeing the results in traffic and engagement.
Effective marketing is essential to the success of a business. A study from Marketingsignals showed that 90% of new businesses fail within 120 days, and the most common reason given was “inability to compete or deliver online marketing”.
7. Land your first paid project
After you have put your offering out to the market – on your LinkedIn, TPC Profile and any other relevant work platforms – the next obvious step is to proactively try to win work.
Your first sale is a critical proof point and confidence booster for you. It is something that entrepreneurs always remember. It is even referenced in popular culture with “the first dollar” – a common cliche across TV and film.
Turning a lead into a paying customer takes work. It won’t just happen for you.
- You can pitch for work on the various online work platforms,
- you can reach out to your network and join networking events here within The Portfolio Collective,
- or you can engage with your website visitors.
Some of our most successful members within TPC have (after completing their profiles) set up dozens of 1:1 calls with other TPC members, to discuss possible collaborations.
However your first connections happen, don’t start by asking for work. First, seek to offer help to those potential clients. Learn about their problems and opportunities first, then work out how you can help them succeed, at a price that works for both them and you.
Common mistakes at this stage are to either sit back and wait for your web presence to deliver customers, or to “spray and pray” with undifferentiated pitches and emails. Most likely both of these approaches will fail.
A smaller number of thoughtful, personalised thoughtful discussions almost always pays off best. You may also want to consider taking on some pro bono projects to get a bit of experience under your belt – that way, it’s easier to land that first paying client.
8. Manage your finances
Managing your money is an essential foundation of portfolio career success. You need to be able to invoice easily, pay bills and complete tax returns with minimal effort and mistakes. You also want to ensure that you minimise your tax bill (legally). Many portfolio professionals are intimidated by finance, or neglect it for too long and create a mess for later. Better to get started in the right way.
Ensuring that you invoice your clients correctly and that they pay you is essential. So is working out which of your costs you can expense and logging them in the right way. Once you have some income, you will need to decide if you pay yourself a salary or dividends, as there are tax implications.
There are great software options for managing this, such as Xero (for invoicing and tax returns) and Dext (for receipt management). There are also many accountants out there who can help you out for a one-off fee or a monthly retainer.
The key is to get on top of it from the beginning.
TPC Catapult Course
If you are keen to launch (or relaunch) your portfolio career, and would like to do it as a cohort with structured materials, weekly check-ins and support from experts, you should consider signing up to our Catapult Course. You can learn more and sign up here.
Think this sounds like the right path for you? Come along to our monthly Get started event for new members to find out what a portfolio career could look like and how The Portfolio Collective can help you take those first steps towards professional success – and don’t forget to connect with our community!