How to start a portfolio career

Launching a portfolio career is easier than you think. Follow these 8 simple steps and start landing paid work.

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A portfolio career is something that many people aspire to. It offers you the freedom to pick and choose what you work on, who you work with, when you work, and how much to charge. 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, 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 motivation, and an ability to provide a product or service that other people want.

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 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 a month.

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 full time role 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 singular. Often the best option is to monetise one skill in multiple ways. For example you could offer your services to companies, train people in your skills, or mentor others aiming to get to your levels.

Typically, if you can make your skills more specialised and differentiated, you will earn more.

For instance rather than being a contract lawyer you could specialise in specific types of law; rather than being a generic project manager, become an expert in a certain type of project such as a new product launch, 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. Optimise your LinkedIn and network

How you market yourself is dependent on your product or service, but a common thread that runs through all portfolio careers is that your personal credibility is essential. For many industries, the most important platform for explaining who you are and looking impressive is LinkedIn.

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With a portfolio career in particular, your name is the search term that people will use to find you. Given LinkedIn’s powerful link authority this makes it very likely that your LinkedIn profile will be the first impression people will get of you on a Google search. Make sure you optimise your profile with these easy steps.

Expanding and nurturing your network is also one of the most effective ways to win work. Again, here LinkedIn is really helpful. The Sales Benchmark Index found that 98% of sales reps with over 5,000 Linkedin connections meet or surpass their sales quotas, so if you’re not utilising it yourself then you’re missing an opportunity.

Somebody landing on your LinkedIn 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 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 website (see later step) can have a positive impact on both your website traffic and conversion rates.

Getting your LinkedIn profile right does not need to be overly complicated. Make sure you choose

  • a custom header image,

  • a clear profile picture

  • and fully describe your experiences and provide proof points in the form of work examples and referrals.

You should then tweak your LinkedIn page and add a few more connections every week.

Forever.

3. Brand yourself

Your potential customers will assess the quality, value, and distinctiveness of your work based on visual clues. In the past you could do this with fancy suits, business cards, club memberships, shops, and offices. Now you need to project your professionalism digitally.

You need to stand out. What unique words, phrases, images, videos, 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?

You also need a coherent visual identity across your entire digital presence - website, LinkedIn, other freelancer platforms, presentations.

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 lost client. The wrong word or phrase could lead to clients not understanding what you offer and therefore will click away.

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Beyond your digital profile, ensure that your other interactions are also aligned. In these days of video calls, think about your hair, clothes, backdrop, 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

1
register a limited company
2
register as a sole trader.

In the UK you can do either through Companies House, which acts as the official registrar for all UK companies.

There are, arguably, 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 pays tax through income tax, whilst the director of a limited company can pay themselves in dividends which are 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 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.

5. Create your website

In a recent study 81% of people said they would think less of a company if they had a bad website or no website at all. In the past this would have been a complicated and expensive thing to do. However, there are now dozens of website builders available, including Wix, Squarespace, and Weebly. 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. 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.

© Jane O'Sullivan / The Portfolio Collective 2020

6. Launch your marketing

Once you have a site, your voice, and your offering, you’re ready to start showing 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.

A great way to boost awareness, traffic, and leads is through digital marketing.

There are thousands of options for marketing, not all of them digital. To maximise your chances for success, it’s essential to market 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 and Google search, 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. If you’re selling a consumer product perhaps influencer marketing or ads on social media could have the highest returns.

One thing you need to learn is how to run an ad campaign, such as Google’s Adwords or Facebook Ads Manager. These may seem daunting at first, but with a few hours of messing around with one platform, you can 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.

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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, website, and any other relevant work platforms – the next obvious step is to actually 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.

However your first connection happens, you need to proactively seek to offer help to potential clients. Learn about their problems and work out a tailored solution that will make their lives better, at a price that works for both them and you.

Common mistakes at this stage are to either sit back and wait for the website to deliver customers, or to “spray and pray” with undifferentiated pitches and emails. Unless you get very lucky, both these approaches will fail.

A smaller number of thoughtful, personalised proposals almost always pays off best.

8. Manage your finances

Managing your money is an essential foundation of 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 in the right way 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.

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There are great software options for managing this, such as Xero and Receipt Bank. 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.

 

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2 responses to “How to start a portfolio career

  1. Very insightful, Ben.
    I remember the amount of time and effort it took me to land my first paid project. Most of the people try and lose hope too soon. The journey becomes relatively easier as you build credibility in the market over time, but a great many are not able to cross this first critical hurdle.


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