How Striving For The Perfect ‘Personal Brand’ Could Hurt Your Business Dreams

When should we poo-poo "brand you?"

When should we poo-poo "brand you?"

Startups are saving the world, entrepreneurs are hustling, Twitter matters, and "The Personal Brand" is everything. Or are we missing something?

A little over a year ago, I was fully indoctrinated by the cult of expertise. As a new entrepreneur, I believed in Twitter bios, blue checkmarks, and “influencer” posts. I worshipped at the altar of The Personal Brand.

The modern era is rife with digital gurus. You can’t swing your Macbook without hitting one. He’s the health tech authority, she’s the social media expert, he’s the growth-hacking ninja. Without a clear Personal Brand, you can’t be an influencer. And being an influencer is critical to your success...or so I thought.

Looking around, fervent belief in The Personal Brand was the only logical conclusion to draw. I watched two separate friends build veritable empires based on repeated strategic messaging proclaiming their expertise. One friend told me, “If not velocity, the illusion of it.”

The ripple effect of her persistent pursuit of this illusion led to TV spots, keynote speaking gigs, book deals and rave media write-ups. At some point, the illusion became real. Cold, hard opportunity followed, as did the cash to match it.

When I was head of marketing at General Assembly in London, I struggled every day with murky branding. Corporate HQ wanted us to present ourselves as “a 21st century platform for education, ideas, and skills that will enable you to pursue the work you love.” Brows would furrow when I trotted out this party line.

I got better results replacing the grandiose language with, “We’re a school for tech skills.” For my fellow ADD-addled millennials, I found a 21st century sound bite that anyone could wrap their heads around.

Later in my career, as a marketing manager at Google, I watched self-proclaimed influencers sail ahead. The Twitter followers, the awards, the inclusion in a “Top 10” or an “Under 30”—these external signals mattered. Entrepreneurs with a clear personal brand were often forgiven for the sin of a shaky business model, and were granted funding or acceptance into YCombinator, the seed funding organization for early-stage startups.

By reverse-engineering their importance, entrepreneurs seemed to unlock success. I began to think that it really didn’t matter whether the emperor was wearing any clothes, if one’s powers of persuasion were strong enough.

Evidence supports the importance of The Personal Brand. 65 percent of all internet users trust online search as the most important source of information about people and companies. Google “personal brand” and the listicles abound, telling you how and why you need to start building yours today.

Well-respected gurus like Marie Forleo and Gary Vaynerchuk dole out personal branding wisdom, gaining ever more clicks, shares and advertising revenue in what amounts to a reputational sort of pyramid scheme. These gurus ride the meta wave of being a wealthy and sought-after persona, based on their mastery of the art of Being A Persona.

Personal branding gurus are this generation’s online Kardashian; “famous for being famous." A hat tip here to the originator of this model, the ubiquitous Tim Ferriss, who has been on this trip for a while now.

About a year ago, it was the right time to start my own communications firm, E-Squared Agency. I had built a solid list of professional contacts, and knew enough about marketing to take the leap. And leap I did, into a personal branding fury. I shouted “I’m successful” into the digital void any way that I could.

I aww-shucks'ed and humble-bragged about professional accomplishments on Twitter. I purchased bots to gain followers for my company. I pitched for bylines, and created a cringe-worthy newsletter to “build my list.” I frantically applied to speak at conferences—anyone who would have me.

I would have spoken perched atop a garbage can, if it had a hashtag. I attended networking events and agonized over my logo. I sought entry to some invisible digital in-crowd. None of those efforts led to a single client.

Out of frustration, I gave up on The Perfect Personal Brand, and hunkered down to focus on client work. Slowly, progress came in baby steps. A one-off project turned into a retainer. I made my first hire. I figured out how to work with contractors. I met quarterly metrics and hit a six-figure revenue target.

One month, I even surpassed my former corporate salary. A couple paid speaking gigs materialized. Most of these milestones happened quietly, offline, validated only by me or my bank account. All the while, my Twitter sat idle, and I no longer had time to network.

The illusion of velocity works for some people, and that’s great for them. There’s another strategy that also works. Actual velocity. I’m not saying that The Personal Brand isn’t important. I’m just saying that it doesn’t need to be the first and only step on your entrepreneur journey.

You may find that good things come to those who leave the bells and whistles at home and just exceed client expectations, the old school way. Follower count be darned. We live in a new professional age, yet certain time-honored truths remain. One of them is that plain old hard work pays off.

I won’t be nominated EY Entrepreneur of the Year anytime soon, nor am I likely to be honored at a banquet or a gala. I’m over 30, so forget about you-know-what. I haven’t gotten the chance to overhaul my website or redesign my logo yet.

I've been too busy learning, screwing up, and developing long-term client relationships, and they're starting to bear fruit. For now, I’m okay with My Imperfect Online Self and the messy, meandering path that might just be progress.

Liz Elfman is the founder and CEO of E-Squared, a boutique communications agency based in the US and UK.

Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch