Editor’s note: This is a guest post from bow-tie making entrepreneur and designer Tim Aton, who writes more good stuff, over here.

I wonder if you’re familiar with the term ‘Imposter Syndrome?’

It can wreak havoc on any designer’s self esteem. No matter what level you’re at, no matter how many clients you have, at some point, every designer has asked the question: “am I the real deal?” or “am I worthy enough to call myself a professional?”

What is “Imposter Syndrome”?

The official definition (according to Wikipedia) is:

A term coined in the 1970’s by psychologists and researchers to informally describe people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.

In other words, it’s when you don’t believe you’re good enough. Imposter Syndrome is not just a designer’s problem; it exists in almost every other profession.

You’ve probably heard it the most amongst freelancers, because it attacks your self motivation, which can be a block to forging ahead on your own.

My Story

These kinds of questions were swirling around my head when I first began to dabble in design. Being interested in the subject, I had made some things here and there, but certainly nothing professional.

I had also never designed for someone else. The pieces in my portfolio were of my own inspiration.

There I was, 19 years old at the time, a few things in my portfolio, no clients, and big dreams of being a fancy full time freelance designer.

In the design space, influence is not linked to how old someone is, but rather it’s about talent. To get ‘talented’, you have to put in a lot of time and practice.

I practiced and honed my skills often, but because I was new people treated me like a kid, not showing me the respect I deserved for the skills I had developed. It’s a pay-to-play game and respect/influence is the currency.

Few Portfolio Items

Potential clients want to be able to see what you’ve done in the past to help them decide if you’re a good fit for what they need.

Building a portfolio takes time. Projects accumulate over time, just as your skills do. When starting out (and not having any clients), coming up with projects to do can be especially hard. At least, it was for me.

No Clients

Here’s where there’s a vicious cycle. Because I didn’t have any work to feature in my portfolio, clients wouldn’t come. But because I didn’t have any clients, I didn’t have anything to show in my portfolio.

The other problem with having no clients is the lack of income. Most people freelance on the side until they make enough to pay for full time resources. In my case I didn’t have extra time in the day that I could use to build my freelance career.

If it was going to work for me I needed to get paid from the start.

Big Dreams


Okay, maybe not so big. My ultimate goal was to make a full time income freelancing. Nothing special, in fact it’s probably what a lot of people dream of doing.

I didn’t let any of these stop me, though. Every designer was in my place at some point. I wanted to figure out how they got from where I was (nobody designer with little experience) to where they were (professional designer with an endless stream of clients).

There must have been something different about the designers that made it through and the ones that fizzled out.

And then it hit me. As I was looking through the designers that I follow on twitter, I noticed one particular designer’s work, and headed over to their portfolio. I was definitely producing work at a higher level than he was, yet here he was on Twitter, making all kinds of buzz about why he’s the best.

That’s when I figured it out.

You need to fake it till you make it.

Act like you’re a pro until you are one. It’s such a simple concept it is often overlooked.

So I started looking at other professionals. What were they doing that I was not doing?

What processes did they have? How did they present themselves online? How did they market themselves?

I then started implementing these things.

The Results

Just a week after I started implementing the things that the designers on my list were doing, I got my first client. Two weeks after that, a local big-wig design agency reached out with a job opportunity.

People were treating me like a professional.

What changed?

It was the result of five simple things that I did to present myself as a pro and counteract the imposter syndrome…

Find role models


The very first thing I did was find designers that were similar to where I wanted to be – people that I could learn from.

I made a list of these people and documented several things about them.

Things on that list included:

Style — Dark, light, colorful, clean, artistic, minimalistic, these kinds of things.

Content — Do they show all of their work, only the best things, or only a couple things? Do they write about each project in depth? Do they have a blog?

Marketing — How many times do they post to social? What do they say? How are they getting leads? What is their focus on their website?

Likes — What specific parts of the website did I like and why?

Dislikes — What would I do differently or change about the site?

To make this part a little easier, I’ve put together a pre-formatted spreadsheet template that you can download for free. That way you can stay organized without wasting time with pesky spreadsheet formatting.

Once you start to build up this list, you’ll start to see a pattern form.

For instance, when I put my own list together, I always liked the super minimalistic portfolios with really unique copywriting. You might like more of a promotion blog type portfolio, or maybe something colorful and more abstract.

These are things you want to note, as they will com in handy when designing and building your own portfolio site.

Identify your ideal clients

The next thing I wanted to do was figure out exactly who I could help. I mean, really niche down.

I knew If I could narrow my target down to someone I knew I could help, that would boost my confidence.

To figure out who that was, I had to do some soul searching. I kept in mind this great Scott Dinsmore quote:

“What is the work you can’t not do?”

1. What do you find yourself working on when you have nothing to do?

This may be difficult for some. Often it is right under your nose. You don’t notice it because you’re so used to it. It’s that natural draw you feel.

For me it was two things: UI design and online marketing.

The one I ended up settling on was online marketing, because although I love UI design, I had a lot less experience there than I did in online marketing. With that in mind, I could then figure out who needs my help.

2. Who really needs your services?

There is someone, whether it be an individual or a business, that needs what you provide today. In fact, they needed it yesterday.

I knew that local, mid-sized businesses needed my help designing, purchasing, and managing Facebook Ad and Google Adword campaigns. The goal here is to just get really specific.

Someone needs your talent. It’s just a matter of identifying who that is.

Once you know who your ideal client is, everything becomes clear.

You know where to find them, what to say, and you know they are going to love the work because you’ll produce something great for them.

Build a portfolio of things those clients would want to see


Let’s recap a little bit. At this point I’ve been researching what others in my space have been doing, documenting the changes I would make, and I’ve identified who needs my services the most.

Now I needed to prove to them that I could actually perform.

The key to this step is to get into the right mindset. All you have to do is think:

“If I was my client, what would I need to see in order to hire me?”

This goes back to the ideal clients. You really want to step into their shoes.

Would they want to see a bunch of examples of past clients? Would they want to see more diversity? Are they more interested in quantity or quality? These are just a few examples of how to get started.

Being in the online marketing space, I knew I had to show metrics. My potential clients wanted to see an increase in some statistic (sales, traffic, leads, conversion, etc). If you were a graphic designer, for instance, you’d show logos, websites, print designs.

But wait, what if I don’t know what my ideal client wants to see?

Now you have a nice long list of all the freelancers in your space and what they’re up to. Read their websites. Look for their social posts. Who does it sound like they’re targeting?

What kind of work are they showing on their portfolio? This should give you some clues as to what kind of things to make and show.

Cold email the right way

Once I knew exactly who I was targeting and had a portfolio full of things they want to see, the next step was to actually go out and find these people.

I had no network, no list, no platform, no audience, nobody. I had to start from zero.

I just wanted to point that out because we hear so many success stories of people who have all those things. What a surprise that they succeeded with the following they have, right? Not me, I was starting from the very bottom.

Not having an audience left me with one option: cold email.

Historically, cold emailing was not the most efficient way of generating leads, but at this point it was my only option. I needed to get myself out there somehow. But I didn’t just go bombard people’s inboxes. I had a carefully laid out formula for a written email. Here’s what that looked like:

Hey [name],

Just ran across your site as I was looking into [industry]. You have a great looking site, but I noticed you [some small online marketing mistake].

You can quickly solve that by [easy solution]. That should help you [benefit if they did the change].

By the way, I’m a/an [title], so I do this kind of stuff for a living. If you need any other help, my home base online is here (link to website).

Have a good one!


Let’s break this down to really understand why it works.

1. Their Name

The very first thing I do, which is immensely important, is address the person by their first name. That makes the email more personal, and shows that I know who I’m talking to.

2. Their Business

Next, I show how I found them based on their industry. This makes the client feel good because it shows that others are finding their site as well. After that, I find some simple way I can help them improve their own site.

Potential clients love this because I am providing free value in this cold email. If they act, they can improve their site for free. I reiterate this by telling them the benefit they would get if they were to make this change.

3. My Business

More often than not, the client is not technical enough to actually make that change. So, I explain how I do these kinds of things if they didn’t want to do it themselves.

Also, notice the slight size difference between the two paragraphs. You always want to talk more about the client, and just hit toward yourself at the end.

4. Quick Out

After that, I say a quick sincere goodbye. This subtly shows that I care about their time and know that they have more to do in the day than just read my email.

It also shows that I have limited time, giving the ‘illusion’ of more clients — meaning more credibility.

Another thing to note are the first words of every section. The first two are about them. The vast majority of the email should be about them. Only the third, smaller part is about you.

This takes a little work. You have to find clients and you actually have to care about them. You have to know who they are. You have to know how to help them. You have to take the time.

I know it’s not what you want to hear. Most people want an easy, scalable way of finding clients.

In the beginning, that doesn’t exist. This is how it works. I know because I did it.

Start writing publicly


The final piece of the puzzle is one that is almost always overlooked.

As well as building your portfolio and searching for clients, you want to be building influence. Because, while you might be able to get clients slowly through cold emailing, to truly grow as a freelancer, you’re going to need credibility.

One can achieve influence by publicly providing people with free value.

Often this takes the form of a blog. The one thing that I found that separated the highly successful freelancers from the average ones, was that the pros we’re writing often. And not just writing, they were dishing out loads of extra value to their potential clients.

This concept doesn’t have to be used for just writing. Content can come in the form of video, audio, and text.

If you are better at expressing your ideas visually, create videos. If you like to describe things with voice, do a podcast. The key here is to put out some kind of valuable content.

In writing articles about the issues your prospects might be having, other people can start finding you.

Slowly but surely, the number of people who find you will grow to be more than you can find yourself.

Here is an overview of what you need to do:

1. Create a library of role models, even your ‘competitors’ for inspiration
2. Describe an ideal client and how you can help them
3. Develop a killer portfolio
4. Write a effective email template
5. Build a lead-generating machine (aka a blog/podcast/video)

‘Imposter Syndrome’ can be rough. It stifles motivation, and without a plan, it can look like there’s no way out.

There is a way to overcome it. If you do the steps outlined in this guide you will not only feel and act like a professional yourself, but others will start to see you that way too.

I believe that you can take what I’ve learned and make it into something of your own so that you’re not stuck in a state of inaction.

You are more capable than you think you are.

Posted by Alex Mathers

Alex is a project starter, sometimes finisher, writer and illustrator. He started Red Lemon Club in 2009 with the aim of helping talented creative people leave their mark.

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