When I was 21, I quit my normal job and began my first “real” company. I say “real” because I had already attempted my own businesses before. One was a cake decorating business and one was a photography business.

But this one was for real. I called it Currahee, because I lived on Currahee Street, which leads directly up to the mountain where the guys in Band of Brothers trained in the first part of the movie. Currahee means “Stands Alone,” and I really did, because I was the only person in our little town of Toccoa who was an expert in how to create brands, from websites to film to print materials.

“But wait,” you may say, “When did you become an expert in those things?”

Great question!

When I started, I just knew were the basics. I knew that I owned and camera and could take decent pictures. I knew that I could build a website using basic HTML and some flash, which I accidentally learned at my previous job. I knew that I could design a brochure in Publisher. And I knew mostly that I could read a lot of books and learn how to do everything myself. I had been homeschooled, after all.

When you first start out, you may not even be able to convince people to do business with you. Why would they? You’re young and fresh and have no clue what you’re doing. But! Its’ really hard to resist free. So, you do free. Or, very very cheap. So, I swallowed my pride and did free work for all the most important people in town.

The most important thing to do when you start a business is to establish that you are an expert in your field. And to do this, you need to build a good portfolio. If you are a designer like I was, I designed for the most prestigious places in town. If you are in retail, bring in influential customers who will tell others about you. If you are a service provider, provide services for free or at a discount to those who will review you online.

My first brands were the Bed and Breakfast in Toccoa, the Chamber of Commerce and the Toccoa Falls College Admissions Office. And I did all those websites, some videos, print materials, t-shirt designs, speaking engagements on how to brand your company, and much more for a total of . . . You ready? $1700.

Yep, the first year in business I made $1700. Total.

I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time explaining why I chose these companies, but I’m going to give you some hints, and since you’re smart, I hope you take them, and use these tips for your own business.

1. “The Traveling Salesmen”: Simmons Bond Bed and Breakfast

I built the owners entire website, created a brochure, photographed every room, and made virtual tours for a total of $600. I made it absolutely beautiful. And for 10 years, people from all over the country who stayed at their Inn asked who did the website, and because I had done such a great job and worked so hard for no pay, the owner always told them Christy Harner did it, and I got thousands upon thousands of dollars of work from that one project over many years.

2. “The Influencer”: Toccoa Chamber of Commerce

I walked into the Chamber of Commerce office and showed them a video I created, for free, of Toccoa, and asked if the president wanted to use it as a promotion for the town. Since this was 2004, and having a video was pretty hip, she was thrilled. I then offered to redo their website for only $500. She signed on the dotted lines. I learned as fast as I possibly could how to build websites, hired my brother, and we built that thing with all the blood sweat and tears I had in me. For the next 5 years, I was the official website designer and brander for all new businesses who came to Toccoa. I held regular lunch and learns to teach all the business owners how to use Facebook, what a website was, and why they needed one, and I got business after business sign up to have me create their brands.

3. “The Cool Brand”: Toccoa Falls College Campus Preview Brands

Matt worked for the college admissions office when I was first starting out. He sat in a meeting where Amy, the director of the office was panicking, “Our graphic designer quit! And the only other “designer” is Ron, and all he knows how to do is PowerPoint and clip art! What are we going to do! We don’t even have a budget to hire someone! We have like $600 to build out the whole website, create t-shirts, design posters and brochures, and come up with the ad campaign!”

Matt raised his hand and noted that his wife was a graphic designer (circa, two months earlier) and that she was inexpensive. They were thrilled. So I built out the Toccoa Falls College Campus Preview 2005. It was pretty sweet. I learned how to use Macromedia Fireworks, and somehow figured out how to build the website. I took all the 2005 grunge design I knew and slapped that stuff together. And it looked pretty good. Or at least good enough for them to hire me back four years in a row.

So, now, imagine this: I know nothing about graphic design, I’ve just had a new baby, I’ve only made $1700 in my first year, I learned Flash, Dreamweaver and Fireworks AS I designed, and I make shit up every time I run a lunch and learn for the chamber. But what do people SEE?

“Oh, that’s Christy Harner. She is the exclusive web and graphic designer for the whole Toccoa Chamber of Commerce and any new businesses that come to town. She designed the Bed and Breakfast brand, and everyone who comes through Toccoa knows about her. And she runs the branding for all the Toccoa Falls College Admissions Events.

Not too shabby, am I right?

And that, my friend, is how to build your brand with a good portfolio.