A lot has been said about personal branding. Books, blogs, presentations, trend reports– you name it, it’s been done. However, most of the people sharing their opinion and stories on this topic have witnessed examples from the sideline. I’d like to share some thoughts of my own, right from the trenches.
Why? Well, people seem to think I’m the perfect example of ‘personal branding’ because of how I ‘built’ a ‘brand’ out of Nalden (my nickname) within a few short years. As if there was a plan. Better believe me there wasn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m really proud of where I’m at today. Just don’t think there was a formula. It’s a mix of common sense, gut feeling, luck, and a good sense of style haha.
The thing is: people are people. They are not brands. In most cases, when people become brands, they stop being people. The term ‘personal branding’ is counterintuitive.
Brands have assets or slogans sharing the values of the brand. These can be trademarked because, unlike people, brands exist to sell something. The goal of selling isn’t a bad thing, but the word branding in the traditional sense doesn’t really apply to the person. You’re not selling something, you’re presenting yourself.
So, how can you remain authentic and real–read a person–once you have surrendered yourself to business goals? Is there, in this era of social media, really any value to turning yourself into a character or a product instead of just being… well, who you are?
I’m not talking about iconic people like Obama or Steve Jobs. I’m talking about people like you and me. Though Nalden become a household name over the years, representing a group of like-minded people, the goal never was to become a brand. Nalden isn’t a brand because it isn’t selling. Even when I started to make some money thanks to full-screen advertising on my blog, the goal always was, and always will be, to share. Sharing is caring. I am addicted in sharing my enthusiasm, whether it’s online or offline. By doing this year upon year I’ve built trust & enthusiasm, and people have started following me. I created (digital) relationships with both people & brands while being true to myself. No personal branding involved.
OK, not exactly. At one point I did register my name as a brand. This wasn’t a business driven decision. The real reason was for fun– an expensive joke,. Fun is the foundation of anything I do. Not branding.
You see, I value authenticity. I think the less layers between people, the better. Don’t pretend to be someone you would like people to think you are–that’s the golden rule. Be yourself. Those extra layers of ‘personal branding’ are bullshit anyway. They just raise more questions, which drives you further away from that one thing that makes you happy, motivated and excited– being yourself. Dare to share the real you and be conscious of who you share it with. It’s fine to experiment or play that mysterious role. If it’s you, it’s you. If it’s not, people will know. For Nalden, the brand was an afterthought. It came from doing.
What I’ve learned is this: if you really want to brand something just focus on your business, your blog, or your product. Branding comes with good work.
Now, if the product happens to be you as opposed to sharing a service, your name better be Michael Jordan or Kanye West, because otherwise you aren’t thinking clearly about this.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to become when I was starting out, but I sure knew what I didn’t want to be (an icon). Selling yourself as a brand is for the celebrities. To brand is to become an icon. But do you want to be an icon?
It’s good to try out different things though, widen your horizons. Once you have found that one thing you do best, hold on to it. Focus will get you there. You’ll spend extra hours working on it because it’s something you love doing. You’ll become really good at it too–an added bonus.
Like anyone trying to find his way in life, I’ve struggled with this too– trying to find a balance between representing my businesses, and more importantly, my values as a human being. It was hard work.
In the end I learned I want to put a smile on people’s faces. Not like the Joker in The Dark Knight, and not like Louis CK or Ricky Gervais, but more like a friend. I like being that dude that hooks you up with gear, supports your local startup, or helps out a talented photographer. Driven by innovation and the utter need to share–that’s Nalden, and that’s what’s worked. I wanted to make sharing files easier, and serving (digital) art to people without any hassle. These are things I managed to combine with work to great effect.
Consider this some straight up, unsolicited advice from your friendly neighborhood web walker–tips that help you forget personal branding and build a reputation by focusing on that one thing you like most.
- Actions speak louder than words. One person who kept telling me this was a fellow Dutchie called Koen Bok. A regular, straight-up type of guy with that typical Dutch sense of saying things. He practiced what he preached with his former company Sofa. He was obsessed by building great software and with the help of his team, he did. After winning many awards (amongst them a prestigious Apple Design Award) Sofa was acquired by Facebook. Koen and his team moved to Silicon Valley to work directly with Mark Zuckerberg and make the worlds biggest social network a bit more sexy. This doesn’t mean you should stop blogging or making videos talking about your work. Promotion is great. It just means that the ratio of doing vs. talking should clearly favor the former over the latter.
- Be relevant, not just popular. The other day I had a conversation about my Klout score. But really, in the end, who gives a shit. What was Steve Jobs’ Klout score again? Instead of worrying about influence, try to solve a problem. Go cure aids. Build amazing products or help others with creating them. Fight against racism. Start a project on Kickstarter. Do crowd-funding and support local communities. I guarantee that the closer you get to doing something relevant, the further away your mind will be from the latest popularity metric. I have gained much more ‘street cred’ since I started working on WeTransfer and Kuvva. Not to forget the blog it all started with.
- Reputation is more important than image. It’s easy to create an online persona that claims success. Anyone can do this. All those titles on LinkedIn–who cares? Image is nothing more than marketing. Here’s something to bear in mind: The people who are actually in a position to help you in life understand that image is nothing. You won’t fool them with a superficial image. They don’t care about it, and they know how to see right through it. Build a reputation for yourself. Let others do the talking. It’s okay to be ‘optimistic’ every now & then. Embrace your reality-distortion-field and make it happen.
- Make sure you look good. It’s not about how much money you spend. Not one bit. Just make sure the clothes represents who you are. People expect you to look as good (or better) as you represent yourself online. This doesn’t mean you should wear a suit. I still wear sneakers to any type of meeting or keynote I give. I like comfort and technology driven fashion like Arc’teryx Veilance or Acronym. With all the fashion blogs and services like Nuji on the internet, it’s easy to get your head around on what stuff you like.
- Kill your darlings. Every person is 80% a product of their own environment. This means you are best served being surrounded with talented people. Especially those who have a positive influence on the way you grow as a person. This will have huge impact on you and your business. It’s exactly the same with brands. No decent brand wants their logo on the same page as Skoda, right? Moving from Wilnis to Amsterdam was one of the best things I have done when I was getting started. I was fortunate enough to meet inspiring and creative people along the way, many of which played a massive role in who I am and what I do today.
- Just be yourself. If I have learned anything during these years of sharing (with the blog etc.) is the fact that it’s fun to be yourself. Every person makes mistakes. I fucked up many times–including on live-television. Hahaha! Those experiences made me look like a fool, but having those experience helped me learn that little flaws are part of who we all are. Don’t be cocky, but be confident. It’s good to be insecure every now and then, as long as you keep going. Be nice. If you’re a kind, pleasant, interesting person, just be that and everything will be okay. Even if you’re an asshole, learn to be a funny asshole. People respect you for who you are.
In the end, if you really want people to know your name and take notice, go build something. Make something good happen. Create. Invent. Help. Solve. Improve. Apply yourself to any of those endeavors and in time, you will earn some measure of respect. Even, perhaps, notoriety or fame. Become a writer like Bret Easton Ellis, be as influential as Jay-Z, or build businesses as successful as Richard Branson. Then, apply these inspirational stories to the concept of a “digital serial business CEO” or “social media expert”.
Something I learned along the way is to be imaginative, and become more entrepreneurial. Need inspiration? Watch PressPausePlay.
This entrepreneurial attitude is rooted in the philosophy of our company Present Plus, a place where we build beautiful products like WeTransfer and Kuvva alongside a team of people. These folks inspire me on a daily basis. Sometimes, we are invited to advise brands based on our spirit and experiences. I learned it’s not about Nalden. It never was. It’s about creating, inventing, solving, helping and improving.