Dealbreakers 🍋

How to avoid these client-repelling red flags in your portfolio and emails

You might be the total package, but you're turning off potential clients

By Shea Lord |
January 7th, 2023
Dealbreakers 🍋

How to avoid these client-repelling red flags in your portfolio and emails

You might be the total package, but you're turning off potential clients

By Shea Lord |
January 7th, 2023

Read time: 3 minutes

Most of these red flags are not make-or-break. But when you’re doing cold outreach or trying to improve your inbound marketing, you need to consider how others perceive you.

Your emails, portfolio, and online profiles are your digital freelance storefront. Make sure it’s inviting to the right people.

Beware: judgment calls below. This is subjective stuff. Not all opinions are my own, but most are.

Your Approach

🚩 Don’t pitch slap new connections. If you’ve just met/connected online, launching into what that person can do for you is an abrasive way to kick off the relationship.

🚩 Be very careful asking for someone’s time. Asking to pick their brain, buy them a coffee, or if they will review your portfolio, is requesting a chunk of their most precious resource. If this is coming from totally cold communication, you risk creating a negative first impression.

🚩 Your email/message is too long. If brevity is wisdom, the opposite is not the impression you want to make. 150 words MAX. Bullet-point links and services.

🚩 Your tone is a red flag. Writing can be a delicate thing because, more than your intention, it really comes down to how the reader interprets the words.

  • Using needy or over-zealous language. They don’t need to know how much it would mean to you to work with them. Desperation is not a good look.
  • Overly formal language feels out-of-touch. “Sir or Madame,” or “To whom it may concern,” or “Sincerely.” Try “Hello,” “Hi,” “Thanks!” or “Best.” Graduate to “Hey” when the relationship grows.
  • Using informative or educational tones can read as condescending. Give respect to receive it. Save any teaching moments for discovery calls. Assume the person reading your cold email knows what they need.
  • Being casual upfront is a risk. Don’t assume everyone is comfortable with you dropping f-bombs or using emoji in professional correspondence. If that’s your “thing,” that’s cool. You will find exceptions to the rule. But in the meantime, many potential clients won’t feel like they can trust you to be professional.

Your Portfolio

🚩 The page won’t load. Optimize your images. Likely one of your GIFs is too big. Aim for 2 MB or less.

🚩 No “About Me” section. Prospects want to get to know the human on the other side. Keep it short and personable.

🚩 NSFW content. Even if the person reviewing your portfolio doesn’t care, they may not be comfortable recommending your work to another colleague.

🚩 No relevant work. If my product is fuzzy socks, and all your work content is 3D sports logos, I’m going to have a hard time seeing the potential.

🚩 No case studies. How much of the project did you do? What were the constraints? What’s your process? How did it help your client? Where did the work come from and what does that mean for me (the client)?

🚩 Too many disparate services. Your web design services and flower-arranging services don’t need to be displayed alongside your motion design services.

🚩 Unclear navigation. Viewers will bounce if they can’t find exactly what they’re looking for. A Work page and an About page are really all you need. Put your email on both of them.

Your online profiles

🚩 No profile picture, or a drawn picture. Your photo doesn’t have to be professional, but I promise you’ll get more responses if your prospects can see the human that they’re talking to.

🚩 No written word. Demonstrate your communication skills somewhere. Your client is going to be relying on them.

🚩 Agressive comments. Assume all of your internet activity is public, or will be made public eventually. Assume that potential employers and colleagues will see it. No one wants to deal with bad attitudes at work.

  • Even if your frustration is self-directed, putting it online won’t strike confidence in your ability to help a client through a tight spot.
  • Standing up for yourself or others in a bad situation is necessary. You can use your judgement to tell the difference between whistleblowing and lashing out.

Your reel

🚩 It’s too long. 60 seconds max. If you have an exception to the rule, you’ll know it.

🚩 It’s full of tutorials and templates. Producers will recognize them. Direct clients may not.

🚩 Epic score. Epic music paired with underwhelming visuals will call your taste into question. Think about what your clients want to see/feel. Corporate Memphis design ≠ action movie music.

🚩 Popular music. We know you don’t have a license for it. Invest $15 for a track from AudioJungle.

🚩 Really long build for your name in the intro. You may take yourself and your work too seriously. Exception: if it demonstrates great animation.


This list could go on forever. Let’s call it a day.