From the July 1997 issue of Startups

Portfolios are powerful and effective sales tools many small-business owners overlook. Having an eye-catching portfolio that showcases your work can put you ahead of your competitors and clinch sales.

Unlike a brochure, which you leave with clients, a portfolio is more comprehensive. It may contain brochures, as well as photographs and other visual examples of your work, and detailed descriptions of what types of work you do. Most businesspeople only have one portfolio.

"Verbal concepts and ideas aren't as lasting as pictures and other visual impressions," says Jeffrey Garton, co-owner of Paradise Designs Inc., a San Clemente, California, landscape-design and installation company. "If you can point to a picture to illustrate what you're saying, it will remain in a client's mind even after you've left."

You don't have to be a designer or an artist to have an impressive portfolio. Almost any product or service can be illustrated through pictures or other visual materials. If you clean houses, don't just say so--show potential clients photos of homes you've cleaned.

"Even consultants can use a portfolio to make their intangible services more tangible," says workplace training consultant Patricia Seeley, whose Reno, Nevada, company, Training for the Future, specializes in training for job satisfaction, productivity improvement and motivation. Seeley has filled her portfolio with a variety of visual materials, such as her biography, professional association membership cards and certificates of membership, testimonial letters from satisfied customers, information on the training programs she offers, and magazine and newspaper articles she has written.

Creating a portfolio that showcases your work is not very difficult, but it does take some time and thought. The following guidelines cover the basics and will help get you started.

What To Showcase

If you have a product or service that is easily pictured, such as custom jewelry or carpentry, then the bulk of your portfolio should consist of photos of your work. However, if your business doesn't naturally lend itself to photos, don't throw up your hands in defeat. Most businesses can be illustrated in some way; follow some of these examples:

  • Photographs of products, such as floral arrangements, furniture, gift baskets, computer systems, arts-and-crafts items; or photos of finished work, such as landscaped backyards, remodeled kitchens or bathrooms, painted homes, new roofs or clean, detailed cars.
  • Your business's Web-site address. A Web site shows you're on the cutting edge. Include screen shots of your home page in the portfolio.
  • Clips from magazines or newspapers containing articles about your business. These could be stories you've written or articles written about you.
  • Brochures illustrating the kind of products or services you offer.
  • Client testimonials or thank-you letters, including phone numbers for verification purposes. This creates trust in your work.
  • Documents that prove you can legally operate a business, such as licenses, bonds and proof of insurance.
  • Paperwork, such as memberships in professional associations or any awards you've received.
  • A complete biography of yourself. A bio differs from a resume: For one thing, it is more readable, usually written in paragraph form, and tells about your accomplishments in a more general way. Resumes focus on specifics in relation to qualifications and jobs held. Instead of reciting the specifics of each job you've held and your accomplishments, your bio should mention your career highlights and try to give a glimpse of your personality.
  • A list of the products or programs you provide, with a brief description of each.
  • Sample products, if possible; some items that would work well include jewelry, watches, wallets, food products (such as candy or nuts), artwork, small arts-and-crafts items (such as Christmas-tree ornaments, bookmarks or recipe cards), small apparel items (such as gloves, scarves or socks), stationery items (such as note paper, envelopes, pens or pencils), or cassette tapes of music or seminar presentations.

Choosing a Portfolio

This is no time to grab a plastic notebook and stick in some pictures. "Buy the highest-quality portfolio you can afford," says Seeley, who suggests looking in stationery stores, catalogs and art-supply stores.

An 8-by-10 or 11-by-17-inch portfolio is best because anything larger becomes unwieldy, and anything smaller doesn't have much impact.

Make sure to get a portfolio with a zipper, which will keep pages from becoming dogeared, says Matt Taylor of Wildwood Designs in Santa Ana, California, who provides residential and commercial cabinetry. He uses his portfolio often, especially when helping clients decide on a design.

Protect your photos and other visual materials with sturdy, plastic sheet protectors.

Photo Quality is Key

One of the secrets to a well-received portfolio is the quality of the photos. "Don't include a poor photoof something," says Taylor, "because it won't do your work justice."

Although a photo shoot can be cost-prohibitive, it is sometimes possible to get high-quality shots without paying for a professional shoot. If your work is photographed for publication, you could ask the photographer about buying usage rights to the photos.

More likely, you'll have to take most of the pictures yourself. "I have a few professional photos in my portfolio, but most of them I photographed myself," says Taylor. "I take pictures whenever I finish a job I consider impressive." Taylor suggests the following tips for taking great photos:

  • Wait until the item is in use. If you want to take pictures of a product such as an outdoor patio cover and deck, do so after the customer has accessorized it so things look natural.
  • Keep it simple. Rather than trying to take pictures of a scene, simply zero in on your product or service.
  • Shoot many photos. If you're not a professional photographer, getting shots worthy of your portfolio will take several attempts.
  • Use 200-speed color film in a 35-millimeter camera. Try a variety of lens sizes, including a wide-angle lens, which can be rented at a camera store. Use a tripod, and learn how to work the manual setting on your camera to try different light exposures.
  • When at all possible, don't use a flash. Natural lighting makes for much better pictures with more depth.

Presentation Tips

Just as what you include in the portfolio is important, so is the presentation of your work. In general, most portfolio presentations shouldn't last any longer than 15 minutes.

Timing is also important when pulling out your portfolio. Garton likes to present his after he and the client have had a chance to talk. That way, Garton can tailor the presentation to his client's needs and show similar jobs.

During a presentation, keep an eye on the viewer for signs of boredom, which can be detected through body language. If he or she is leaning toward the portfolio and looking interested, then continue as you are. But if the person's eyes are glazing over or he's looking around the room, speed up the presentation.

When showing your portfolio, ask viewers to let you know when they see something they really like. This will let you know what they are looking for.

Throughout the presentation, it is important to relate the portfolio to the client. "Your purpose isn't to gloat

or to wow them," says Garton. "You want to relate what you've done in the past to what you can do for them now."

As a matter of fact, it's critical to be careful about what photos you do describe. Don't, for instance, point out a big, expensive job to a client who only has a small budget.

Maintain enthusiasm when presenting the portfolio, even if it's the tenth time that week you've shown your work. Clients want to know that you enjoy what you do.

Besides illustrating products and services, a portfolio legitimizes you in the eyes of potential clients by showing that you can produce quality work. After seeing your high-quality portfolio, clients will tell you what good work you do--you won't have to tell them.

Setting Up Your Portfolio

How you organize your portfolio will depend on the services or products you offer and your target market. Here are some tips for ways you can set up your portfolio:

  • If you are selling products, it's best to break them down into types. Cabinetry designer, Matt Taylor organizes his portfolio of cabinetry, molding work and ceiling treatments into different styles, such as modern, casual and traditional. This enables him to show a client a particular "look" without having to flip through the entire book. Use tabs to help you locate desired sections quickly.
  • If you offer a service, such as consulting, you can break the portfolio down into sections, such as the programs you offer, your biography and credentials and testimonials.
  • Consider your target market when designing your portfolio. If you would like to attract more business in a particular field, then highlight the jobs you've done in that area.
  • Don't overcrowd pages with too many pictures. Make sure each page has a focal point. Create impact by including different picture sizes.
  • When choosing pictures, use some restraint. It's much better to have 20 great photos than 50 mediocre ones.
  • Keep the portfolio neat and professional looking by not handwriting descriptions in the book. It looks more professional to have words printed on a laser printer.
  • Perhaps most important, you should update your portfolio on a regular basis. Add new photos and remove outdated ones every three to six months.

Contact Sources

Paradise Designs Inc., 915 Calle Amanecer, Ste. B, San Clemente, CA 92672.

Training for the Future, 7605 Palos Verdes Cir., Reno, NV 89502, (702) 856-1409.

Wildwood Designs, 1607 E. Edinger Ave., Ste. Q, Santa Ana, CA 92705, (714) 543-6549.