How I Learned to Stop Worrying + Love My Personal Brand

"I know the idea of a brand is something that I'm not supposed to care about...but I do think it's a part of my life, and I'm trying to just be in control of it, as opposed to ignoring it."    Anna Kendrick

This hilarious, “cool girl”, double/triple/quadruple threat articulates how many of us feel about personal branding. We're supposed to be too cool for that. We're supposed to be able to just magically gain lots of avid "fans" without caring a wit or trying too hard.  Clearly, personal branding is a loaded phrase for many. 

There are plenty who would threaten to vomit on you if you uttered this word in their presence. Ironically, many of these folks already have a large following on Twitter or their blog. A high percentage of them would disavow any knowledge of a "strategy." 

I don't believe them. 

Rarely can someone grow a following of 10,000 or more without thinking about to how present themselves. Perhaps they're like Anna Kendrick, uncomfortable admitting that they have a strategy for being well-liked or even well followed. I suspect many would like you to think they don't care whether they have 15,000, 34,000 or 10 followers. 

But here's the secret: they do care. 

Even the people who admit to wanting to have some sort of strategy to grow their audience say it apologetically as if they've made a faux paus. Why are so many of us ashamed to admit that we:

a. Have a personal brand 
b. Actually care about it?

Why We're at War With Personal Branding 
Social media  deserves a big heaping of the blame plate. In an age where selfie was named the word of year for 2013, we can all feel a bit insecure. Everyone looks so glamorous + put together. All these selfies, ebooks and humble brags disguised as tweets has allowed impostor syndrome to spread wider and faster than the virus in the Matt Damon-helmed film Contagion. It’s easy to think that you have nothing of value to offer and really, why would you want to add to the tweet storm of bullshit because somewhere deep down you know that all is not sparkly + wonderful all the time. 

For others, a personal brand feels inauthentic. It makes us feel like a phony. We think: having a strategy = being a fake.  You’re not supposed to care what people think right? Personal branding is so anathema for many in part because having a strategy seems to mean that you’re as fake as Barbie’s wildly distorted proportions.
Then there’s the “I can be anything I want crowd” and its the hatred of being put into yet another box. We're unique damn it! Not only do we want to be outside the box some of don't even recognize the box at all. Ahem, says the woman who thinks in circles, swirls + starts. 

Here’s the Reality
You have a personal brand, whether you realize it or not.

Ignoring personal branding because you think it’s fake is a sure way to ensure failure. Of course having a facade or acting our a role is no way to long-term sustainable success. Or happiness for that matter. Especially happiness. But having a well-articulated personal brand doesn’t mean you’re a sellout. It doesn’t mean you have to be a chameleon or anything other than you. 

Being yourself is like taking the speed train to success, happiness + everything else that feels like running naked through a field of flowers while clutching your favorite book.  I grew up with an engineer + mathematician so let's express this in a formula:

If you pretend to be (snarky, perfect, disinterested) it will be hard to maintain the facade when you (want to connect, fail or fall in love, sprinkle sappy emotions across the planet) which will lead to (loneliness, less business, sadness—maybe even despair). 

A Love/Hate Relationship With Branding 
When I was two-and-something years old my mother woke at 2 a.m. to find me in my sister’s crib. I had dumped out the entire contents of my dresser onto her bed. My mom found  me trying on outfits and asking my sister her opinion. Though my sister couldn’t quite talk yet I persisted in my fashion show, determined to figure how to best present myself. By the time I turned four, my wardrobe was decidedly blue and I had shunned pink + purple entirely as they were too girly for my tomboyish self. That Christmas I designed my own costume for a Christmas play my brothers, sister and I put on at home. I’d say thinking about how to best present myself started young for me. 

That's me with the dishcloth on my head.

That's me with the dishcloth on my head.

But. There was a time when I turned my back on personal branding after perusing a few profiles of popular personal branding haters (one called it a circus, another vowed they'd unfollow you if you ever uttered the words). 

I admit it. 
I wanted to be liked. 
I wanted to be cool. 
I shrank away from myself. 

It took me several weeks (ok, months) to pull myself out of the narrow space I crawled into and come out of the personal branding closet. I remembered that I have never been cool--and probably never will be. And what was as important in life as being myself? Not much. As I left my branding closet, I began to look around and saw that these haters were actually employing the very strategies that make branding effective: 

  • Have an articulated, genuine voice

  • Be passionate about a topic

  • Tap into the zeitgeist of an audience

  • Be real

In fact, one of the biggest seeming detractors, author Chuck Wendig actually articulated  in a blog post, Don’t Get Burned By Branding, the biggest tenet of true personal branding. "Own your voice. Live up to your name." I found many "branders" who doth protest too much. In a sense, their criticisms were right: adopting a fake persona is never the way to lasting success. But that doesn't mean you have to eschew all strategy.

Listen, artifice is never a good thing.
Sooner or later you’ll slip up and go back to being who you really are. The jig will be up. You’ll have to go back to being the nerdy developer who snickers at Star Wars jokes, the sensitive soul whose feelings get hurt or geeky person who loves to read rather than go out on a Saturday night (ahem, me). Or, you’ll have to find a new persona and start the whole shindig all over again.

How tiring is that? 

Yes, there are far too many people trying to game the system with their 6 Ways to…posts that are fluffier than cotton candy and fake personas but let's not throw the marketing baby out with the stinky bath water, shall we? 

Having a strategy for reaching an intended audience doesn’t have to mean that you’re fake or have to put on some funny persona you think people will like better. Your real self is all you have to be. When done right [read: effective] branding isn't about creating artifice--it's about revealing yourself. 

In 5 years everyone will have a personal brand they can articulate and in 10 years people will wonder that we even trifled over the term. Personal branding isn’t just about how you project yourself IRL anymore as we project ourselves into far more virtual spaces than ever. You can get ahead of it or you can allow others (even a machine) to take over your identity. You can pretend it doesn’t matter or you can get over your bad self and get ahead of the curve like Anna Kendrick and give your brand (and yourself) a little love. 

Five Ways To Use Your Profile Photo Effectively

Remember getting your class photo taken? I always tried to feign sick on school picture day.  Anxiety + dread punctuated the day, hoping I selected the right outfit. I hoped my eyes were open but not too big and my grin happy rather than goofy the moment the photographer clicked the shutter. It was so fraught with fear for my sister that in her Kindergarten photo I’m actually holding her hand just outside the picture while her cheeks are visibly streaked with tears.

Selecting the right photo is one of the hardest parts of the personal branding process. When asked to provide a photo for their website or a social media channel, most people run away from the task as if they were being chased by a swarm of bees. Photos seem to bring out the insecurity in most of us which means we’re not always a credible source when it comes to figuring out how to put our best face forward.

Relying on your own instincts when it comes to presenting yourself online is generally best but sometimes getting an outside opinion  can shift an undecided mind. If you want outside advice, here are two routes: 1) ask your friends and colleagues (but be careful who you ask) or 2) use Photo Feeler, a site which helps you test your photos. The site is relatively simple: register, upload your photos and get feedback. Voters on the site give feedback based on three key attributes: competency, likability + influence. I tested a photo I use on Twitter and one used on LinkedIn. Here are the results for my photos:

Photo A

Photo A

Photo B

Photo B

How to Use Your Profile Photo Effectively

While the Photo Feeler results may seem relatively clear, I opted not to change my profile pics after this little test. Here’s why + five things to consider when selecting a profile photo.

1. Context Matters

The voters on Photo Feeler are random which means they may come from an industry like banking or law where the dress is more formal rather than one which skews more informal. In order to truly judge whether a photo works, you need to see it placed in its native environment. For example, this is how Photo A looks on my site. Voters–especially those from my industry–may have responded in a different way to the photo as seen in this context. When getting feedback be sure they’re not comparing an apple with a watermelon. They’re both red but very different fruits.


2. Match your photo to your overall brand. While critical, your profile picture is just one factor in your online brand. The right picture when paired with the wrong bio will be ignored, mocked or even actively reviled. Match the tone + voice of your personal brand along with a well-thought out description to a photo that fits the mood. Having internal consistency is far more critical than a photo which contradicts the rest of your message. Brand first, photo second.

3. Know the medium. Formal dress is expected on LinkedIn but can be off-putting on Facebook, particularly for a more consumer facing brand. Twitter has a wide variance though it tends to run more casual but there are differences by audience. While this may seem like trying to rub your stomach while hopping on one foot, it shouldn’t be too hard if you have a well-articulated brand + marketing plan.

4. Understand your audience. Observe the customs + mainstays of your audience, understand what makes them swoon and what makes them cringe. And if you decide to go against the grain, you’ll do it intentionally. As for me, since I mostly work with software developers + entrepreneurs—a decidedly casual crowd–I use Photo A on my main outlets: Twitter + my website. Using photo B, especially in places my audience frequents online, would brand me as stiff, corporate and an outsider.

5. Be true to you. While a business suit may be expected, it may not be the right choice for you. Pick a photo that makes you happy every time you look at it. Use outside advice like that of Photo Feeler sparingly. Change your photo only when (and if) you receive many negative comments from your target audience.

A nurse recently revealed the top 5 regrets of people on their deathbed.  In the end, it turns out that you’ll regret not being true to yourself more than anything else. Being you is not only way to guarantee more prosperity when branding yourself, it will also bring more happiness–and that’s something you’ll never regret.

This post originally appeared in my monthly column on She Owns It

Why Not To Fit In

I've always had trouble walking. Born severely pigeon toed, a brace between my feet pushing them out was my nightly routine. In grade school I had trouble standing flat footed so I literally walked on my toes. Predictably, kids at school made fun if me. They imitated my prance as they called it and teased me for wiggling my butt when I walked. Each morning when I woke  to searing pain that meant I had trouble standing. Noticing the discomfort, my parents took me to a doctor who said my Achilles' tendons were too short for my legs. There were two options: costly surgery on both legs or play sports—an attempt to stretch and lengthen my achilles tendons. My parents chose the cheaper route: sports. 

I spent a year in a sweaty gym in gymnastics class even though I could barely do a cartwheel. When the coach suggested I try a sport where I could excel, my parents picked softball where my twin best friends and I  joined a team.. The Blue Bombers. Predictably, I was the player no one wanted on their team. I was that girl. Forced to play every player regularly, my job was relief catcher. I was played only when a win was assured and then only for one inning. Flying softballs regularly bounced beyond my grasp or pounded against the chest protector I wore. The experience might have been called les miserables.

My parents were only trying to solve a medical issue. Still, I got stuck in a place I clearly didn’t belong. A nerdy klutz with a bunch of jocks. I felt like a fraud. I knew everyone else could see it.  I only lasted one season before I begged my parents to stop the humiliation, let me retire and go back to what I really loved: writing short stories and copious hours with a book firmly planted near the end of nose. 

This sordid tale of my athletic failures came flying back recently when one of twin friends posted a picture from my season on the Blue Bombers. 

The Blue Bombers

The Blue Bombers

That's me in the front row. 

The one wearing a long dangly necklace. 

The only one wearing jewelry. 

I was standing out. 

But not in the right crowd. 

I grew up in an era that celebrated conformity over standing out. Today we’re much more accepting of difference, celebrating different paths to happiness. And yet. It’s remarkably easy how we can slip that mask on. It just seems easier. It suits one of your goals.  I’m gonna guess the money one. 

I’m betting that most school sports teams have at least one geek—maybe that was you—feeling forced to fit into something you had zero skills for which you hated. Maybe today you’re still fighting against your nature or trying to fit in. Perhaps you write crazy unconventional blog posts--that you never publish. Or you have a wacky idea that you're afraid will never make money. Better to get that steady paycheck than take a risk that might lead to a colossal failure right? 

Perhaps you consider yourself a creative thinker. Things are going well for a while but then you realize you need to make some cash. So you notice what the other "creative thinkers" do. You begin to mimic them. You figure out the formula. Conformity sets in. Now you're just like every other supposed creative thinker rather than yourself.

From the wise words of a teenage movie…
“Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out?"

Then go congregate with your real people. Once I let got of the false crowd it was easy to slip into a place that felt like wrapping up in a cozy blanket. 

Standing out for being the square peg in the wrong hole. 

No need to conceal, mask or shape shift. 

Stand out while being in the real you.

Why You Should Rethink Your Startup Uniform

Uniforms are just for school kids right? Nope. I just passed a crowd of 15 people -- every single one wore a blue or light colored button down, dark suit pants and a black soft briefcase slung over their shoulder. The two women in the crowd had the same outfit -- just substitute pants for skirts.

There it was, the corporate uniform.

My corporate days a dim career memory and firmly ensconced in the technology and startup worlds, I'm grateful I spend little time trying to be "appropriate" these days. Though I have more freedom I wouldn't say my current career world is immune to the notion of an industry uniform. The startup industry has its own: jeans, a pair of converse and of course, a free logoed t-shirt or hoodie. Um, uniform kettle, you're black.

It's more casual, there's less pressure to wear "appropriate" attire but still, we can't claim superiority as much as we might like. We need to wipe that smug smile off our faces and accept that going along with the crowd is sometimes easier than doing the hard work to figure exactly who we are and how we wish to represent ourselves.

I have my own uniform battle. The irony of my uniform noticing moment is that I was on my way to the Denver City Council meeting when Denver Startup Week, where I'm the marketing co-chair, was going to be honored with a proclamation. We were all instructed to wear our startup t-shirts to make a strong showing. In my case it was a Denver Startup Week t-shirt. Of course I wanted to pimp out the event I'd been working on for 6 months so naturally I was going to wear our t-shirt. But still, I wanted to feel like me. So I wore funky Tom's wedge shoes, boyfriend jeans and blazer with a punk vibe over my t-shirt. Yes I was still pimping out my event -- I am the person in charge of marketing after all -- but I made it mine.

Maybe you're thinking Suzan, I get dressed by doing the sniff test every morning. Or perhaps, I'm so busy coding or building out my idea that my clothes are my 10th priority. Or, why does this even matter?

It matters because every moment you're in public you're transmitting an image. Perhaps you don't want to think about that. It's too much pressure. People shouldn't judge a book by its startup t-shirt or ratty jeans. I get it.

But still.

They do.

Do you want to wear a uniform? Or do you want to carve out an uncommon physical presence that gets you recognized?

I'm not completely heartless. I know it's easy to fall into the uniform trap. Sometimes the subtext is "I need to fit in so it calms my imposter syndrome." Other times it's a lack of realization that others actually notice. 

I'm not telling you to become metrosexual (is that a thing anymore?) or, spend an hour getting ready. I'm also not saying you need to retire all your startup t-shirts. I'm simply saying be in charge of your image -- and your career. Don't wear something just because you think you should. Figure out what your signature is -- understand the DNA of your personal brand. Oh yes, I did just use personal brand -- and on purpose -- because it really is just an extension of you as a person.

Understanding what drives you, your values and how it looks visually might affect your success more than you think. This isn't just all hyperbole. Here's a quick anecdote with hard facts and lots of dollar signs. I once worked with a pair of developers turned entrepreneurs who went from making 1 sale on very high-end products (read: expensive) to more than 100 in less than a year after understanding their personal brand and then bringing out the best of it.

So whaddaya say?

Time to give up the sniff test and the cattle call in favor of a more effective method that brings you the things Brick2-1you want? 

p.s. This also goes for your website, business cards and anything else that transmits your "brand" or serves as your public face.