Personal branding for startup founders

It’s not ego-stroking, it’s the best way to establish your authority

When I had my startup, personal branding felt like a waste of time. The way you built a “brand” was by doing the work, building value, and accomplishing big goals. Create something amazing and your work will speak for itself.

The people that were doing “brand building” seemed like frauds. They were all image and no depth, hitting the speaking circuit or spending countless hours on social media, all focused on talking about themselves. How did that help anyone?

I was focused on what really mattered, building product and selling. While we shipped features and secured customers, getting any broad awareness was a struggle. When we talked to PR firms though, the minimum spend was $10K per month, totally out of reach for a bootstrapped startup!

Same story occurred on our fund raising efforts. Outside of the clumsy website I built, none of us on the team had any significant online presence. Investors we reached out to would do a quick background check, find nothing compelling, and then move onto the next startup to evaluate.

We built in obscurity, and then sold the business without a single person outside of our close network even noticing. Years after, people would still ask me if I was doing that startup. Lol, at least they knew I had a startup!

One of the hard lessons I took away from my startup journey was building in obscurity is dumb. Even when you do build something and it gains traction, no one notices. It just gets drowned out by the constant drone of news and social media, making it that much harder to get customers and investors.

Building your personal brand gets you to your goals faster

That was when I embarked on building out my personal brand. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I looked at what folks like Fred Wilson and Gary Vee were doing and adapted it for my own purposes.

The angle for my online persona was of the founder that had been there and done that, sharing what I knew so others could avoid the same mistakes. I attended lots of events to meet founders. I dived deep into social media, posted regularly on Twitter, and wrote every day on my blog Strong Opinions.

And it worked! I built a following on my blog. I got featured in the press and asked to be a regular guest contributor. I was invited to speak at events. And founders started reaching out to me to invest, so I built a strong deal flow pipeline, just by being a lot more public about what I know.

How much did I spend to do this? Zero dollars. I created all my own content and managed my social media schedule. I did not have to sponsor anything or hire an agency. People followed me because I had useful experiences to share and did so with empathy, humility, and authenticity.

That is the power of building your personal brand. It is not an exercise to talk all about yourself and how great you are. Rather it is an opportunity to allow your experiences and expertise shine. When you get this right, you enable your brand to lead with authority and build your credibility.

Of course, I did all of this after my startup, not during. Most founders I speak with about personal brand building agree that it would be valuable, but they just do not have the time. I agree, it is tough to think about creating viral LinkedIn posts when you have to ship features, close deals, onboard customers, hire staff, manage ops, and fund raise.

A few weeks ago, I ran a trial of a workshop for startups founders on building a personal brand. The total course is about five hours in length, covering the basics of storytelling, leveling up your social channels, and creating a low-lift content engine. Realizing not everyone has time to do a full-on workshop, I thought what could I share here to help you get started on your own?

To help you along the personal brand journey, here are 6 specific things you can do right now to help build up your public persona without a lot of heavy lifting or time commitment:

  1. Define your why and your goals. This seems basic, but this is where most personal branding efforts go wrong. Understanding the bigger vision you are pursuing and your goals for establishing your personal brand can help you focus on impactful efforts and avoid wasting time on generic and undifferentiated personal branding efforts. Anything that does not align to vision and goals you can safely remove from your to-do list.

  2. Write down your professional story. We all have a story, the narrative that starts somewhere in the past that leads you to where you are now and why you launched your startup. We usually keep this in our heads through or sanitize it for public audiences. Spend 30 minutes during some downtime, block out all distractions, and write down the story of you. Why write it down? When you can see it on paper, you get a better sense of the strong and weak parts of the story so you can begin to edit and refine. A good story is not a resume of everything, it’s the highlight reel of the path to your startup and should not be longer than half a page. Also get a few friends to read and provide feedback, since we tend to be our own worst editors.

  3. Hone your “about you” words. If you asked ten people that know you what words they would use to describe you, what would they be? While they will not be the same, there will be some overlapping words. Those are the words that define you in the eyes of others and a good reflection of who you are and what you care about. Now go back to your story and see if those words appear. If not, fit them into your story to make it a more powerful statement about you.

  4. Build your personal elevator pitch. We are often told to build our startup elevator pitch, but your own elevator pitch is equally important! Now that you have your story and have refined it with words that reflect you, put that into a 30 second script that helps to quickly convey your journey that connects the dots to your startup and values. Do not worry about it being under 30 seconds, the point is to craft something that is concise but compelling for others that engage with you to quickly understand what is unique about you.

  5. Add your story to your social channels. When your story is about as concise and punchy as you can get it, then share this on your preferred social network. This is usually LinkedIn for most founders, but it could be X/Twitter, Instagram or any other medium that allows you to connect with your audience. People want to know the real you, so putting out that story becomes the beginning of conversations that lead to deeper relationships.

  6. Allow AI to be your content companion. Creating good content is a major time commitment, one that most founders cannot commit to. Instead, capture videos of your thoughts and ideas. Do not edit yourself, go freeform. Then you can use any number of Generative AI tools to snag the highlights, to clean it up, add captions, and then deploy to your preferred social channel. If video is not your jam, you can also use the same trick with writing and use a chatbot service to summarize your writing into social media posts.

Hopefully this gives you a few ideas to get started on your personal branding journey. Remember, this is to make sure you build awareness of the work you are doing to create online authority. Done well, you can get more mileage through your personal brand than you could ever achieve from a PR agency or lots of paid media spend.

What has been your experience using social media to build your brand? Do you think it’s a waste of time or an opportunity to advance the progress of your startup?

One of the more impactful quick improvements you can make to create a favorable first impression with your online presence is cleaning up your LinkedIn profile.

Below is one of the slides from the workshop we mentioned on some practical things you can fix today that can radically level up your LinkedIn game.

Good practices on leveling up your LinkedIn profile

If you have made some of these changes, please share with us what you changed and the results you saw!

Given that the Lunar New Year is about to begin across Asian countries, we are publishing this newsletter a day earlier before things shutdown for our friends in Asia and across the globe that are celebrating the new year this week.

Last week in Vietnam for Mark, so festive this time of year!

Mark is wrapping up his last week in Vietnam before heading off to Dubai next week. If you are around, give us a shout! Basil and Mark will be together and recording videos with founders, so you are welcome to join us.