Many startups today are founded by a technologist or an engineer. Every idea that sparks a new company seems to come from deep knowledge of how to create a new product or process -- or improve upon something already in existence. While these types of founders build good products and solve real customer problems, they often discount the importance of brand.
Personal branding is now your résumé. It's how you define yourself if you're looking to build a reputation as an expert, get a side gig or even find a new job. It's what you leverage if you're looking to start something on your own, whether it's a social media following or a career as a speaker.
Recently, there's been talk about how "showing your work" has become an expert's calling card. For example, a lot of colleges and universities now use Instructure's tool Portfolium to help students track their accomplishments and create a real-time digital portfolio of their best work and core skills. This is built into Canvas, a learning management platform that many schools use as their online learning system.
That's absolutely a form of personal branding. For most of us, it hasn't been that organized. It's great to see, and it will put Gen Z in the best possible position to succeed. And the fact that educators now see that as vital means we entrepreneurs should as well.
The founders of the future are going to be that much more prepared. Right now, they might be learning a skill to get a job -- but soon, some will be using that skill to create a company. And branding is important for both startups and founders.
Branding for a Startup
In a sea of competition, a strong brand helps a startup get noticed. Most sales decisions are made prior to ever talking with a salesperson. What your website says and how it looks, the compelling points of view you're sharing in your thought leadership, your engagement with your audience via social channels, your reputation with your customer base -- these are all brand elements that make the difference between success and failure.
Startups have a lot of audiences: customers, investors, competitors, influencers. A well-built brand speaks to all of them and gathers momentum. In the early phase, being seen as weak by any of those audiences can impact your future growth trajectory.
For a lot of startups, technology is table stakes. Other digital interactions have led customers to expect their experiences to be outstanding. It's the brand side of the house that ends up determining why one startup is chosen over another.
"One mistake I often hear from technical founders is that brand is all fluff. Brand is your point of view within your industry. Brand is how you engage with your audience, both online and off," said Kyle York, CEO and managing partner of York IE. "Brand is not fluff. Your brand is your fingerprint. You leave it behind on everything you touch, and you don't exist without it."
York helped build a successful company, Dyn, which was acquired by Oracle for $600 million. After three years at Oracle, he and other Dyn alums decided to go back to using their go-to-market experience to help the entrepreneurs and startups they invest in build stronger brands. They were recently featured in TechCrunch discussing a new model for how early-stage companies get funded -- and branding is a key component of that strategy. The stronger the brand, the more options a startup creates for itself.
Branding for a Founder
A founder is three things:
1. The first salesperson: Having a strong brand makes it easier to get meetings with prospects.
2. The head recruiter: If you have a strong brand and reputation, the best people will want to work with you. Hiring the best will help your company scale.
3. The fundraiser: So much of funding is based on your network. How can you tap into a network if you don't have one?
If you try to build your personal brand the day you launch your startup, it's too late. You need to invest in building your brand for years before you ever get the entrepreneurial itch. It's a conscious decision in preparation, just as much as R&D or market research might be. And even if you decide not to start a business, a strong personal brand will still help you in your current career. Consider Elon Musk, who's well known for his innovative mind beyond Tesla and SpaceX -- his brand outpaces that of even his companies.
"One of my core values is playing the long game. Think of every tweet, blog or LinkedIn profile update as an investment in your future," said York. "You won't have a blue checkmark tomorrow, if ever. But you will be projecting how much you care and the type of person and worker you are. That reputation is priceless, and it transcends whatever current role you're in."
Think about what you want to be known as the go-to person for -- that's likely where your expertise lies and where you're most likely to want to build something later. Build your social media around your thoughts in that area (and your philosophy of business in general). Launch a blog to share your insights. Write a guest column here and there. Speak to groups, whether it's on a local or national stage. Investing in yourself will pay dividends.
Make an Effort to Share Knowledge
Sharing knowledge can be a great way to slowly gain a reputation for being the best. I recently appeared on The Business Method and had several people reach out to say the information I shared helped them with a current problem. This is just one of the many podcasts or platforms you can utilize to share your expertise and build trust with the people you help (or hope to).
Some people worry that sharing their knowledge is equivalent to giving away the "secret sauce" or rendering themselves obsolete. But knowledge hoarding doesn't boost your profile -- it reinforces the idea that you're only willing to share your expertise if it benefits you. That's a quick way to ensure nobody invests in you the way you've invested in yourself.
Being able to give and also promote expertise is a great way to continuously elevate your brand. We gravitate toward what we believe based on our perceptions. Take a look at how the world sees you, and consider how you can make the world see more.