How to Build a Meaningful Personal Brand as a Startup Founder

02/22/2017 02:30 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2017
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For three years, building my own brand was dead-last on the priority list. I promised I’d get around to eventually—but first, I had a product to build, capital to raise, a team to grow, and a community to nurture. And wasn’t all this personal brand stuff just a popularity contest anyway?

Don’t make the same mistake. As startup founders, we need all the help we can get: We’ll need to persuade investors and inspire our team. We’ll need to delight users and move journalists. This is where your personal brand comes in, allowing you to reach like-minded people across the world and bring them together, in one place. Brand building, after all, is just relationship building at scale.

Good news is, you already have everything you need. Here’s how I turned my own ideas, passion, and purpose into a meaningful brand:

Know your purpose

Think of Silicon Valley’s brightest thought leaders: There’s Paul Graham, of course, whose essays paved the way. Niko Bonatsos drops nuggets of 140-character gold on Twitter. Mark Suster dominates Medium with stories on funding, Trump, and everything in between. In other words, there’s no one right way to go about building your brand. The only prerequisite is purpose.

Mine was paying it forward. Early-stage founders often ask me, “How did you raise funding as a solo founder?” or “When do you know you have product-market fit?” or more generally, “How did you do it?” With my personal brand, I wanted to answer those questions on a wider scale.

Pick one thought leadership platform

Now that you have a purpose, your task will be two-fold:

  • Generate new ideas
  • Get them to spread

Rather than overwhelming yourself with every social media platform under the sun, pick just one to be your megaphone. Then, break up your content into bite-sized pieces. For instance:

  • Instead of writing 1000-word personal essays, start with short LinkedIn updates.
  • Instead of filming a YouTube video, chunk it into quick Facebook Live videos.
  • Instead of publishing whole blog posts, start with one line on Twitter.

As a startup founder, you’re juggling a dozen priorities at any given moment, many of them more pressing, with more immediate ROI. Building your personal brand will be the first thing you sacrifice—unless you make it so easy, you can’t say no.

Add a second, more personal channel

At first glance, my Instagram profile looks like it could belong to a traveler and fitness junkie—because, well, it does. There are a few #startuplife posts thrown in the mix, but you’ll mostly find my stories about paddling through Ha Long Bay, working on my side plank, or visiting the aunties back in India.

This is deliberate. We humans are, after all, hardwired to seek out relationships—and our future investors, mentors, and users are no exception: Like everyone else, they want to connect with people, not companies. Why not meet them halfway?

In addition to your thought leadership platform, dedicate at least one more social channel to your personal passion, whether it’s hot yoga, tacos, or New Wave film criticism. See what happens. Odds are, you won’t attract everyone. You’ll just attract your kind of people, and that will be enough.

Publish elsewhere to expand your reach

Once you have traction on your professional and personal platforms, you have leverage to pitch other publications. With any luck, you’ll come by helpful contacts naturally—but if you can’t get an intro, you can still exponentially grow your reach with a little elbow grease:

  • Start small. Large publications often look to smaller, nimbler bloggers for a fresh stream of content. Aim for those feeder blogs first. Use your engagement on social media platforms to strengthen your pitch.
  • Trade up. With your ever-growing track record, pitch publications with wider and wider reach. (That’s how I ended up contributing to places likes Forbes, Inc., and The Huffington Post)

You don’t have to—and you can’t—do this all at once. But you do owe it to yourself to start, even if you can spare just five minutes per day: After all, you are more than the capital you raise. You are more than a headline, more than the investors on your Angellist profile. Your most loyal users, your proudest advisors are out there, and they are waiting to meet you.

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