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Your Personal Brand Matters

If you don't control your messaging--someone else will. That goes for both your business, and your personal brand.

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Editor's note: This article first appeared on Mark Suster's blog.

I have long advised startup companies that if you don’t control your messaging somebody else will and your potential customers will form impressions of you shaped by somebody else or by nobody at all.

That's why it's important to establish a brand, know what your key messages are and communicate them often and simply.

I have published many of these PR Tips before.

Yet as obvious as it is to create messaging for your company, many people don't consider their personal brands.

Some will be quick to talk about "personal branding" as gimmicky or manipulative. It is neither.

It is simply the most important way to proactively control your career development and how the market perceives you. It will affect your ability to get the right jobs and promotions as well as your ability to attract talent and capital.

People form perceptions of you whether you like it or not.

Frankly, many of their views are shaped by unconscious biases, word-of-mouth feedback, stereotypes and how they perceive your communication style in the world of open, social communication fora.

As with company messaging you can begin to control your personal brand through careful communications and career choices.

This started as a post in which I was going to write out tips to personal branding and became in stead an essay of my own branding journey. In my next post I will take on the topic of how to control your brand. If you’re not in the mood for a personal essay as an example of personal brand management you might want to wait for my next post.

My Story

I was graduated with a double degree in economics & political science from UCSD in 1991.

I was 23 and had been programming computers, designing computer networks and selling software for 10 years. For 1991 I was very technical and also had a lot of practical business implementation experience in technology.

My first job after graduation was with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). My starting salary was $27,000. It was the midst of a recession and I was happy to have any job at all let alone what was considered one of the more prestigious business jobs at the time graduating from UCSD.

My colleagues that graduated with engineering degrees from UCSD were paid $31,000 - 15% more. That was fine with me - the market is the market.

During high school & college I had worked in a computer store selling, configuring and implementing software & hardware. I had a friend who joined at the same time with an engineering degree from the same university as me and held jobs in the restaurant sector in college.

She was paid 15% more. That was the market.

But what chapped my hide was that every early assignment at Accenture they divided teams, training and assignments into “technical” and “non technical.” My friend was in the former, I was in the latter.

Literally every project I started I had to sit down with the manager and explain that I wanted to be on the technical track. “But you’re in the business group!?!”

Fuck.

I worked hard at telling everybody I knew that I was technical and wanted to be technical. There was no open source, no code repositories like GitHub, no knowledge hubs like StackExchange. In today’s market you can prove your worth, in 1991 that was a bit harder.

I decided I wanted to transfer into the super technical group at Accenture that focused on computer networking. This was pre Internet. I struggled to get the group to take me - they only took engineers.

Every time I approached Network Solutions (or any technical group in Accenture) they wrote me off as “a business guy” since I studied economics and was on the Accenture “business track.”

It literally took more than a year and a completely ballsy move to get Network Solutions to accept me.

After 3 years as “the business guy” I was now going to get a chance to work with the deeply technical group and earn my reputation.

It took 3 years at Accenture of telling people I was technical to get taken seriously. Every project, every conversation was shaped by people’s perception of my undergraduate degree in economics and my “track” at Accenture. My brand was “business guy.”

It took exactly one day to change that. One.

It was in 1995 when I realized the power of personal branding.

I showed up in Sophia Antipolis, France (living in Antibes if you know the area) and I was in “Network Solutions.”

I worked on some initial projects in Brussels, Budapest, Basel and then Rome.

On every project that I arrived on the project manager put me in a corner to huddle with the super technical team. Large swathes of people gathered in units to address business problems but that wouldn’t be me. I, of course, knew nothing about business. I was “technical guy.”

Instant. I wore my brand without saying anything. I was defined. I was in Network Solutions. We were the team that called in when your local team lacked the technical resources to solve the most difficult problems you had. Sure, you had a team of 100 of which 30-40 were engineering undergrads. But they weren’t good enough for our problems - we were the tech rescuers. The deep problem solvers. The team from HQ sent to sort you out.

I can’t make this up. One day I’m the business weenie and the next day I’m the technical geek simply because a piece of paper and a process says so. And the whole world just accepted that.

Strange.

And to make some of your blood boil, the gender bias was horrible. I worked in Rome on a small team with a really smart young woman named Elisabetta. She WAS an engineer and plenty technical. Yet when the senior leadership came into our room to discuss technical problems on the project they always discounted her and even worse always made her take notes and type up the results of our discussions. She had every bit as much experience and brains as I but she was put in her gender-biased, brand appropriate (for that country & time) place.

I hated that which is why the story still sticks in my head. It was embarrassing to witness yet it was one of the least forms of gender bias I experienced in my time working in continental Europe and Asia. Trust me I saw much worse in the 90s.

After a few years at “tech guy” I became frustrated that I was always relegated to solving just technical problems and I longed to be involved in the executive suite.

The World Wide Web was now being rolled out everywhere and every project was considering its Intranet strategy.

In 1997 I was sent to England to work on a project for the oil company Halliburton. Our project was evaluating their network infrastructure across their remote oil rigs and how to optimize them.

I had had enough. I wanted to do business projects and I got in touch with a guy from the strategy consulting practice in the telecoms & high-tech practice in London. I asked him if I could join his practice as the guy who could help him bridge technology & business.

Nope. You’re a tech guy. We take MBAs. You know, business people. Finance weenies not geeks.

No amount of persuasion would work so I asked simply if I could be staffed on one of his projects to teach some of his MBA geniuses about computer networks since they were working on defining telecom product offerings for the Internet age. I thought they might want to know a thing or two about X.25, ISDN, T3s, etc.

He took me. Geek boy. To help.

I worked on one project with Ameet. And then a second. And then he began telling his colleagues that I was useful even without my MBA. That increasingly strategy projects needed geeks.

I had to interview with independent people. I had to pass their silly “case interviews” where we got to talk about important stuff like why manholes are round, how many checking accounts there were in the US, how much a 747 weighed and other really useful stuff. A rite of passage, I guess.

And they accepted me.

And there you have it. It took exactly one day until nobody respected my technical skills any more.

I was now a PowerPoint weenie. An excel ninja. A professional bullshitter. You know, ask the client for his watch and tell him what time it was. I was a stereotype. A brand. I was a strategy consultant.

I immediately got to work at board level in companies. I worked on M&A strategies to look at whether one equipment manufacturer should acquire a wave-division multiplexing company (WDM).  I got to help a telecom operator decide whether or not to bid on 3G spectrum and how much to pay. We got to define Internet offerings for one of the largest telcos in Europe.

Yet everywhere I went I was now “strategy guy.”

Not technical. Not operational. Send me in a corner to work on slides, graphs, spreadsheets and charts.

Then I got my MBA at University of Chicago and reinforced my brand. What was nice was that I got to take some of my practical skills from consulting and apply them into class discussions with operational leaders.

Branded again.

When I decided I wanted to leave the world of consulting and start a company I struggled to get people to overcome my macro branding … “consultant.”

Not a doer. Not an operator. Certainly not a “CEO.”

To this day I still tell people the only way to be a CEO is to be a CEO. Nobody will perceive you as a CEO until you’ve been one.

Catch 22.

And then 2 weeks on the job you are suddenly a startup CEO. So the challenge is getting somebody to take that risk on you in the first place.

One solution I tell people is that if you want to eventually start your own company as CEO and raise money to do so, sometimes taking a less high-profile gig as CEO of a company in need might help both with the branding and the experience you need to eventually do it on your own.

I was thrown into the fire. I was CEO.

And suddenly, I was.

I was a CEO for years and from day 1 on the job I no longer had to persuade anybody.

When I started my second company I was a serial entrepreneur. By now I had the knack for this personal branding game so I made it easier for people. I introduced myself as a serial entrepreneur. I defined myself. I controlled my own brand.

It only took my saying it for others to start to say it. Ah. I got it finally. I could define my own brand rather than letting others fill it for me.

As you probably know I sold my company to Salesforce.com.

It won’t surprise you that the day after I was a Salesforce.com guru. I didn’t even say it - it just was. Everybody was calling me for Salesforce advice even though I had been working at the company for 5 minutes.

So many of my Salesforce.com stories have never been told because it’s such a private company so I’ve mostly tried to respect that and keep my mouth shut. But the truth is that I did give a short, serious contemplation to staying at Salesforce.com for the long haul and building my career there.

It wasn’t meant to be.

When I left I was considering what next to do. I had two startups under my belt and both had exits. Neither became Google but I figured I had learned quite a bit about taking a company from cradle to grave.

I talked with a few VCs and batted around the idea of becoming a VC. I figured it was that or start my third company.

No prizes for guessing how my VC chats went.

“Hey, why don’t you hang out here and become an EIR?”

or

“You should really be an operating partner. You wouldn’t be a primary investor but you could sit on boards and stuff.”

or

“We have a principal program. You could maybe talk to us about that. But you don’t really have VC experience.”

No shit.

How can you become a VC unless somebody decides to let you become a VC?

I was back to the startup CEO chicken-and-egg.

Nobody saw me as an investor. How could I be? I was a serial entrepreneur.

Or rather I was a programmer turned business consultant turned tech geek turned PowerPoint weenie turned CEO. And at each stage people wanted me in a box that I felt compelled to break.

Enter GRP (now Upfront).

Luckily I had worked with Yves & Steven for 8 years. They said, “we’ve seen you in action across 2 companies and could really use somebody with your skills at our fund.”

Me, “As long as it’s as a General Partner - I’m in.”

And the next day I was an evil VC. Not kidding.

If I spoke at events about the dangers of raising too much money or setting your price to high it was no longer as the entrepreneur who had made both mistakes it was as the self-interested, only-saying-it-because-I’m-a-VC guy.

You really can’t win.

When I decided to start blogging again (I had done so as an entrepreneur) I thought about how to brand myself.

I was a guy who had built two SaaS companies and had sold to and worked for Salesforce.com. I could become the SaaS guy.

I was a Yank but had lived abroad for 11 years in 6 countries and was now a dual citizen. I could be International guy. But the travel would be grueling.

I was based in LA and thought there was an interesting angle there--I could be SoCal guy. Except that I don’t surf.

I thought about all of my experiences in raising money and working with VCs and I thought the think I wanted the most was operational experience and that was what seemed to be most missing in the VCs I had met over the years.

And as a VC I clearly had had the chance to see things more broadly than simply being an entrepreneur. I had a ringside seat to how investors thought, spoke and acted.

It was how I came up with "BothSidesoftheTable" to emphasize how I wanted to be perceived.

I knew that if I didn’t define myself the market would. Initially I thought it was too long of a name for a blog.When I looked at the competition it as AVC.com and Feld.com. Hmmm.

Well, I did make one clever move and bought BothSid.es, which I sometimes think I should brand a bit more/better. If you ever want a quick way to my blog, btw, you can just type that. Or even BSOTT.com but doesn’t quite roll of the tongue like "AVC".

I work with young people on their personal brand now all of the time. It is usually a version of

  • based on your skills, background and personality, how do you believe others perceive you?
  • how do you want to be perceived?
  • what makes you unique?
  • where do you want to be in 5 years / 10 years?
  • what things would you need to achieve in your career to change how others perceive you and / or actually change your REAL skills?

I recently had this chat with a young friend of mine. I perceive her as smart, ambitious, friendly, organized and helpful.

I told her I wasn't yet convinced that she’d make a good: product manager, designer, sales person, leader, CEO. I wasn’t sure what she was made of. Was she tough enough? Resilient? Persistent? Persuasive?

I didn’t yet have a chance to know that.

As you may know my personal brand is "blunt" (and if you didn’t, now you do) so I gave her the positives of how I thought people thought about her but also what I saw as some limitations she needed to fix.

I told her that if in five years she thought she might want to run her own company proving some of those things now--early--might make sense. I actually thought she should learn product management at the feet of somebody really talented in town. She knows many, many people in the tech sector but none yet brand her as that person.

First, live the brand. Then define the brand. Then communicate it carefully but often.

If you don’t define your brand, somebody else will.

Even after all these years and at 45 people are still trying to define me and I know if I don’t fill that white space they will.

Last updated: Jul 24, 2013

MARK SUSTER is a two-time entrepreneur who has gone to "the dark side" of venture capital. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a general partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. You can find him on Twitter @msuster.




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