How To Find Your First Clients And Build A Portfolio

3rd August 2020 No comments

Back in June I gave a virtual presentation at the Student Opportunities Festival. I was asked to participate by the National Student Television Association, who had their annual awards and conference postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.

You can find my full presentation here.

At the end of my talk I took questions from the audience. One of these was “How do you find your initial clients and build a portfolio?”

You can watch my response in the short video above. Or continue reading for a more expanded response to this question.


What Is A Portfolio?

For anybody pursuing a career in the creative industry, having a portfolio is essential. If you don’t know what this, a portfolio is a way for people to see examples of your work. You can see ours here.

How your portfolio is presented is entirely up to you. In the world of video production, a modern portfolio can be a website or an online profile on a website like YouTube or Vimeo. Different creatives will use different platforms depending on the format of their work. A photographer may use Flickr. A writer may use Medium. A graphic designer may use Dribbble.

Generally speaking, your portfolio should reflect the type of work you want to do. If you want to be a wedding videographer, your portfolio should include some weddings. For sports broadcasting, you should have some work related to sport in your portfolio. If you want to make music videos, your portfolio should include music videos. And so on.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Before you can add a piece of work to your portfolio, you’ve got to do the work to begin with. So how do you find those initial projects? (The ones that will help you build your career and get you the next project. And the one after.)

Finding Your Initial Clients

I’m going to assume that most people reading this are students or recent graduates looking for work in the world of video production. In which case, you’re either starting with a blank sheet or with the videos you’ve created while at university.

If your ambition is to work at a video production company, the videos you made at university could very well be enough to get your foot in the door. When applying for entry level jobs, creative industry employers will often see the potential in your early work, even if it’s not completely relevant to what you’ll be doing in your role.

For example, we never make fictional short films at Southpoint Films, but we can tell if a fictional short film has been edited well when someone’s applying for an editing role with us. After all, we made many films like that when we were students ourselves, and we know what those experiences taught us.

However, an employer or client with less experience hiring creative people might be less likely to give you a chance if your portfolio doesn’t accurately reflect what they’re looking for. To build your portfolio effectively, you’re going to need to do some work that aligns with the type of jobs you’re applying for.

The “Chicken and Egg” scenario

Now we’ve encountered a “chicken and egg” scenario. How do you get this initial work if you don’t have a portfolio that reflects the jobs you want?

If you’ve read my previous article about finding work experience, a lot of my advice is going to sound very familiar. Why? Because creating opportunities for yourself requires the same approach regardless of what the objective is. (Whether the objective is to gain a portfolio piece, to add to your CV, or to earn money.)

The first step is identifying the sort of people you want to work for.

If you want to become a …

  • wedding videographer, you need to seek out people who are getting married soon.
  • corporate videographer, you need to seek out people who run businesses.
  • music videographer, you need to seek out bands.

.. And so on!

Networking events could be a good place to start meeting these people.

Filming A Music Video As Part Of The River Studios Development Programme
Many of my early freelance projects were for local musicians, who were happy to throw me a bit of money for a video to help me build my portfolio.

Working For Your Portfolio

When you’re first starting out, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to land the highest paying clients on day one. In fact, you’re probably going to have to do some work for free in exchange for a few desirable portfolio pieces. If you’re getting a valuable portfolio piece that you can use for leveraging future, higher paying opportunities, sometimes the effort can be worth it. (You can read about how I built my business here.)

But hang on – before you rush out and start emailing every potential client you can find with an offer to make a free video for them, there’s an important caveat.

You should never do a freebie for someone that can afford to pay you for your work

Rule one of portfolio building is never to offer your services voluntarily to someone that can afford to pay you. Your skills are valuable. Your time is even more valuable.

A simple rule of thumb for offering freebies is to ask yourself “is anybody else involved getting paid?

If the answer is “yes“, don’t work for free.

And if you answer “yes” to “will my work directly result in a financial gain for someone else?” then you absolutely should not be working for free either.

Charging something is better than charging nothing

There’s a very fine line between building your portfolio and being exploited. You won’t always tread it perfectly. There are still times when I give my time voluntarily, and there are still times where I get it wrong. But being commercially minded from day one will help you avoid making the worst mistakes.

Even if you charge a reduced rate in exchange for the ability to build your portfolio, you’ve established a commercial relationship. If you continue working with the client in the future, you’ve already established that your time and skills are worth something.

In my experience it’s far easier to ask for more money in the future than it is to ask for any money. Clients won’t always pay what you’re asking for, but it’s an easier conversation than asking to now be paid for something you previously did for free.

Additionally, charging for your work allows you to put a cap on the project when you feel like the budget has run out. This prevents those initial projects from dragging on and on and on and on from when your portfolio benefitted from them.

Volunteering the right way

If you’re not feeling confident asking for money yet and want to volunteer, that’s OK. Just make sure you volunteer the “right” way. Here are some suggestions.

If you want to…

  • make corporate videos or branded content, offer your time to a charity that you care about. Don’t give your time to a business that will benefit commercially from your voluntary efforts.
  • become a wedding videographer, film the wedding of a friend or family member who doesn’t have the budget for a video – or simply ask if you can make your own video for “fun”, even if they’re hiring a professional videographer as well.
  • make music videos, offer to film a video for a friend’s band – or go to gigs and offer to help local, unsigned artists.
  • work in sports broadcasting, offer to film little league matches for grassroots local teams.

When considering a voluntary project, I always ask myself if my paying clients would be upset that I was giving my services to someone else for free.

“What makes this project different enough to justify me not charging for it?”

The answer should always be crystal clear.


Now You Have A Portfolio…

If you’ve followed along so far, you should now have your very own portfolio. Congratulations! Now you’ve got to work hard to maintain it, keep it up to date and grow it as you develop your career or business. This is a perpetually difficult, but equally rewarding, part of being a member of the creative industry.

The important thing to bear in mind is that success doesn’t happen overnight.

If you’d like to know more about my own experience building my business, check out the full presentation I gave in June.

Good Luck!

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