Starting a company means a beginning. It’s a “Once upon a time…” that you desperately hope will turn into a “…happily ever after.”
You go into the story with an idea and whatever money, talents and reputation you personally have. Eventually, you hope to close on some investment money and begin hiring people. You hope to ultimately build something worth building.
Yet, in the beginning, your personal resources are all the building blocks you have to work with.
Having worked for two startups founded by very successful entrepreneurs – and quite a few whose founders were not well known – it was amazing to see the difference in the caliber of investors and potential early employers who were willing to take calls.
I was in the room when a formerly successful entrepreneur pulled out his cell phone and called (with no appointment) one of the partners at Greylock, with little more than an idea. I’ve also watched founders struggle to get meetings with much smaller firms, even with working prototypes and revenue.
The point is that, when you’re on your own, you want to have a personal brand that carries some weight.
There are a lot of tricks to building your brand equity. I’m a fan of writing blog posts on lots of websites and running micro targeted ads online until I’m famous to a small handful of people, their families and friends. But everyone has a theory on building a brand—be it PR, social media, public speaking, or dressing up in a Lady Gaga meat suit. So, let’s talk about the brand you want to build, rather than the tactics needed to build it.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
We all know the saying, “Fake it until you make it.” There is a story of that sentiment working for a 17-year-old kid who snuck into Universal Studios with dreams of becoming a big-time Hollywood director.
But is faking it until you make it really a good idea for most people?
Excuse me while I rewind to last year. I worked for a company that placed a massive emphasis on personal branding—particularly upon the CEO’s personal branding. That meant setting him up with speaking gigs at some of the world’s largest conferences (almost always speaking using the buddy system). A ghostwriter created 90% of the CEO’s frequent blog posts. Other employees’ blog posts were sometimes misattributed to him because everything came down to making the CEO look good.
We began to call that CEO, “the Wizard,” because we weren’t supposed to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. His image was more smoke and mirrors than substance and reality. To frame the problem more clearly: for that CEO, the legend was greater than the man.
Personal branding is clearly important, and, thanks to social media, everyone (famous or not) has a fairly public brand. What you write, what photos you post, and who you are spending time with all come into play. And it will help or hurt you in life. (Yes, it looks like your mother was right about that one.)
What? You don’t believe me? Imagine trying to make a career change from a not-that-famous porn star (more of a porn character actor really) to a Southern Baptist minister. I wish you good luck, my friend. You will need it. The first time a member of the flock does a quick internet search of your name, your future as a minister will go up in more flames than are contained in a fire and brimstone sermon.
Making Your Personal Brand Work
By the same token, personal branding can help get you a job, a client or an investor. I’ve picked up many of my clients from blogging or social media. Since I want to be known as both a photographer and digital strategist, I’ve worked to share information about those topics on social media. I’ve also worked to gain third party recognition in the form of work features, guest posts, public speaking and interviews.
Personal branding, done correctly, is nothing more than showing yourself in your best light by highlighting your interests, achievements and best ideas. It backfires when you exaggerate about your knowledge, background and skillset. If I started talking about my abilities as singer as being on par with those of Freddie Mercury, it would be quite a letdown for people when I finally burst into song. Believe me on that one. My version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” sounds a lot like Animal’s from The Muppets. This is what could be called a “house of cards.”
When you build a good brand, you highlight your strengths and become more valuable as an employee or business partner. If you build a house of cards you fall down in the first wind.
Thanks to the internet you can seem credible in anything to at least a few people who have limited knowledge of your claimed expertise. But, if you pretend to be a world-renowned cardiologist, you will be exposed the second someone standing next to you has a heart attack. You will eventually make fool of yourself (not to mention the poor schmuck with a bad ticker).
Happily Ever After
I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “Can you ‘fake it till you make it’? What about that 17-year-old kid who snuck into Universal Studios and crayoned his name onto an empty janitor’s closet, all the while insisting he should be a director?”
Well, he ended up directing Joan Crawford before his 18th birthday and, in 1995, he won the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award for his work.
But before the kid accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award, even before haunting the janitor’s closet at Universal, Steven Spielberg had spent years working in film. While still in high school, he penned screenplays, directed movies and won film festivals. His work spoke for itself quite well.
You could say that spending a summer slipping past security to meet executives at the studio was Spielberg’s pre-internet equivalent to Facebook workplace targeting. And his “Once upon a time…” set him up for a “…happily ever after.”
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