It's not often that you go to a marketing conference and meet a guy who has a somewhat random job at a university and also has photos with Will Ferrell in GQ, but it's not every day you meet personal branding expert Leonard Kim, either.
I generally dislike marketing conferences, but I recently went to the San Francisco Growth Marketing Conference speakers' dinner to catch up with a few of my favorite people, like PR expert Clayton Wood.
While sipping a glass of champagne, Clayton introduced me to a Korean guy he knew from L.A. named Leonard Kim, who apparently also writes for Inc. magazine.
When I asked Leonard what he did, he told me he worked for USC, and I asked what kind of startup that was, thinking I had misheard him.
When he said that he worked for the University of Southern California's web team for their medical enterprise, Keck Medicine of USC, I felt like an idiot. But most people at the speakers' dinner either do marketing at big companies like Uber or are marketing experts with their own tech companies or consultancies. Then Leonard mentioned something about growing Keck's Twitter following from 5,000 to 30,000 in between January and May this year, and although that could have been bots or fake followers, my ears perked up.
Anyway, I decided to add Leonard on Facebook. Since we were seated at different tables, we started chatting through messenger, and I realized he was even more unusual than I had thought.
Unlike most people in Silicon Valley, who jump on the opportunity to brag about which company they work for or how important their role is, Leonard tells people at marketing conferences that "he works at USC" to avoid small talk because he dislikes networking.
Eventually, Leonard told me what he really works on: a course at InfluenceTree that helps entrepreneurs and career-driven individuals build up their personal brands. He also helps several highly successful entrepreneurs build and maintain their online brands through creating and syndicating compelling content.
Through our conversations, I learned that he only started writing three years ago, and did this because he was sick and tired of being at the bottom of a dead-end job at a Fortune 100 company. After a little prying, I found out that in 2014, he earned only $31,057, of which 100 percent came from his job. In 2011, he made $13,223.33 (not a typo). In 2010, he was almost homeless and living with his grandmother.
The more I put the pieces together, the more strange and interesting it all was.
Although Leonard didn't seem to care much about money or what other people thought about him, I could clearly see that he had enough money to do whatever he wanted, go wherever he wanted, and work whenever he wanted. Although he won't tell me exactly how much money he now earns, he just test drove a Lamborghini in Malibu last weekend.
So how did Leonard go from being pretty broke and nearly homeless to hobnobbing with L.A.'s most successful entrepreneurs?
After talking with him more, he told me the five most important things that helped him reshape his career:
Leonard used to make a healthy living doing sales, but he wanted more.
After failing an attempt to create his own business, he went to work for a real estate investment firm and investment fund. Then the market crashed. Next, he worked for two startups that failed. Back in 2010, things got so bad that his electricity was shut off for six months of nonpayment, for a bill of only $450. Shortly after, he was evicted from his home and had to move in with his grandmother for a while.
After repeated misfortune, he realized that he needed to stop chasing a dream, and got an entry-level job at a Fortune 100 company to pay the bills. While there, he reflected upon his life and all the mistakes he had made, and learned how to budget and save his money for a rainy day.
That financial stability gave him the balance he needed to plan out his career.
2. Take calculated risks.
Originally, Leonard had plans to move up the ranks at the Fortune 100 firm. After outperforming his department without a promotion for two years, he knew there was no future at the company.
He needed to take risks, but none that would jeopardize his income, because he didn't want to be homeless again. He started writing in his free time, on the bus ride to work, and published his content online. All he had to do was commit his time, which didn't interfere with his responsibilities at work nor his income.
When Leonard started writing, he wanted to write about all the failures he went through. He asked his friends if he should do it.
Everyone told him no.
But after he saw how James Altucher revealed everything for the world, Leonard began looking to him as an inspiration for his own writing. Leonard reversed engineered the hero's journey by homing in on a niche and showcasing his failures instead. His writing polarized audiences as he discussed topics most people were too terrified to share publicly, but doing this also quickly earned him the trust of thousands of readers.
4. Build a fan base.
Leonard didn't write to get fans. Nor did he write to build a business.
He wrote because he just had an insatiable desire that kept telling him to write. When he did, the feedback was so positive that he started to attract tens of thousands of people who followed him. What helped secure Leonard's fan base was that he responded to every single message he received with personalized advice. This kept his following strong and engaged with his content, and also opened up doors and opportunities for him to network with successful people from all walks of life.
5. Blend back in.
No one wants to be an expert in failure.
There really is no way to make money off it. So Leonard did what Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump did after they built their fan base. He blended back into the crowd and positioned himself as what he wanted to be seen--a personal branding expert.
He had the proof he could do it, too, as he had built and reshaped his own brand by himself.
His content has been read 10 million times, translated into multiple languages, and featured in leading publications, and he's collected well over 250,000 social-media followers. Now he spends his spare time teaching others how to do the same.
These five things are what really changed Leonard's life--and made him as successful as he is today.
Have you reshaped your life yet? How did you do it?