For this month’s edition of The C-Suite, we sat down with Dorie Clark, an adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out. Along with being described as an “expert at self-reinvention and helping others make changes in their lives,” Dorie (a former presidential campaign spokeswoman) is a consultant for the likes of Google and a consistent contributor to Harvard Business Review. Not only does she eloquently reveal to us the importance of a personal brand, but she also makes it clear that our public representations can do wonders for both the future of our organizations and our success.
Sidney Evans: In 2018, over 153,000 startups have been launched thus far. The harsh reality is that 90% of these new businesses fail. What are your top three tips for new, startup brands? And why do you think most startups fail?
Dorie Clark: Well, I’ll start by answering your second question first. I think the reasons most startups fail is all related to starting and running businesses. Most of the founders are not taught, so they typically have to learn on their own. The problem is that too many people either assume they know the answers already, so they are not seeking the knowledge that would be necessary. Even if they have a learning mindset they are taking too many financial risks upfront and, therefore, don’t have the ability to recover after initial setbacks.
Consequently, the biggest piece of advice that I would give for new startups is to actively seek to minimize your expenses while you’re in the initial stages of determining product market fit, so that you can live to fight another day. Assume that you’re not going to get the formula right out of the gate: you’re probably going to need to pivot and iterate. That requires the ability to be flexible and not spend all your reserves on your very first idea or iteration.
When we’re talking about marketing and branding specifically, one of the areas that is most significant for brands to become comfortable with – first of all, because it is inexpensive and, second, because it is actually much more effective than traditional, paid advertising – is content creation. This is an area that I stress a lot in my books and in the recognized expert course that I teach. One of the key ways that you can establish yourself as preeminent in your industry, whether we’re talking about an individual or a brand, is creating content that enables people to see what your approach is, how you think about things, and how you are different from the competition. This way, they will be able to see it with their own eyes, which enables you to attract a fan base of people who say, “Wow, I really resonate with this” and that is what creates your customer loyalty. This is what prompts them to be willing to pay premium to work with you rather than someone else.
SE: Executed correctly, a startup founder’s personal brand can be a huge asset to their company. You are a true testament to that! What are the four, biggest personal branding mistakes that startup founders make?
DC: Different people make different genres of mistakes, so not every individual is going to be making all of these. One common mistake is that founders are so focused on growing the business that they literally don’t spend any time thinking about their personal brand. It doesn’t even occur to them because they throw everything into the company and, meanwhile, they are letting their reputation in the marketplace be formed almost by accident. The reason behind this is that most of the time there is no strategy around it and they are also missing the opportunity to leverage something that may be quite valuable. An example for this is how Steve Jobs’ personal brand as an innovator was valuable to Apple. And there are millions of other less-prominent examples, but as the leader of the company, your brand can redound to the benefits of your company, so if you’re not leveraging that, you’re missing an opportunity.
Another mistake that startup founders make in regards to their personal brand is that, while most of them aren’t completely ignoring their personal brand, very few actually create connections. What I mean by that is that we all sometimes assume that people will extrapolate how our past connects to where we are now and where we are going, but that is not really true. Most people do not exert the psychological energy necessary to figure that out for you. You need to make it crystal clear about how your past experience ties in and adds value to this thing you’re doing now, and the future direction of your company. If you don’t make that very clear when you tell your story, then the information is just going to get lost. The bad part is that many people might end up confused, shrugging or just missing the point completely.
The third issue regarding personal branding has to do with people who misunderstand the nature of personal branding. Sometimes there is a caricature out there about what personal branding is that makes you assume, “Oh, personal branding basically means bragging about yourself, so I need to do more of that.” That’s most definitely not the case. Nobody likes to hear someone brag about themselves – it just serves to alienate people. Personal branding is really just about the way you strategically convey to other people who you really are and where you excel; bragging doesn’t have anything to do with that. Being on any part of the extreme is also not an option. One extreme is not talking about yourself at all and constantly hiding, while the other extreme is not being able to stop. Neither one is effective.
The forth common mistake founders miss out on regarding personal branding is that a critical part of your personal brand is actually your network. There is a tendency, especially if you are heavily involved in launching something new, to hunker down and maybe even communicate only with your team members or the people very close to you within your company. Of course, there is a place for that, for a short period of time (e.g., if you need to focus on something).
But the situation can’t really stay like that for too long, especially if you are going to be a public face in your area. One of the assets that you need to bring to the table is a wide-ranging network of people in order to spark new ideas, to help you tackle assumptions, to open up new opportunities and connections, to fund courses, and find customers. It is impossible for you to do that just by talking to the same people over and over again. Your network is critical from a personal branding perspective because, first of all, you’re judged by the company you lead and so you have a wide-ranging network of successful people that actually helps your brand, but also because if you are good at what you do, then having a network that is broad will be extremely helpful because people will be coming back, curious for more information.
SE: According to CEO.com, 61% of Fortune 500 CEOs have no presence on social media at all. Hootsuite CEO and LinkedIn influencer, Ryan Holmes, recently wrote about why it is important for CEOs to have a personal brand on social media. Do you agree? Also, what are the most important things to consider when building a personal brand on social media?
DC: Yes, I think it is very important for CEOs to have a personal brand on social media because essentially it is an additional opportunity for them to have a bully pulpit to spread the company’s message. Why would you not do that? Why would you not take that opportunity? It’s shocking to me that, in 2018, people are not taking advantage of this resource. In this era, it is dangerous for them not to have a strong, public-facing, personal brand because we all know that a CEO’s tenure is not like that of a Supreme Court Justice. These jobs don’t last a lifetime! If it’s not a fit, or if there’s a turn somehow, they may be deposed; if they would like to have another job, then it is an extremely valuable personal asset for them to have a base of followers and to be well-known and well-regarded publicly.
SE: According to your recent HBR article, 44 million people report having some kind of side hustle and 55 million people are now freelancers or contractors. And, in your latest book (Entrepreneurial You), you speak about the benefits of diversification and mitigating risk. What are the most effective ways to do that? Also, how do you thread the needle and “not” lose your day job?
DC: The act of diversification itself is the act of mediating risk. We all literally know one thing when it comes to investment, it has been broken through into people’s consciousness that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. This is the reason why people have index funds or mutual funds or other similar things, rather than putting all of their money into one sock.
And yet, at the other end of the spectrum (where we are earning the money), having one job essentially is putting all your eggs into one basket! I know from personal experience, having been laid off from my very first job, that that can change literally at a moment’s notice (without any warning) and it is extremely alarming. When I lost my job, they gave me four days of severance pay because I’d already worked Monday. Honestly, they weren’t even obliged to do that. Companies think that employees get severance this way, but in most cases, they are not required to and so if they can afford to be a cheap pastor, they often will.
Having a side income stream is a really good way of protecting yourself against the downside, while simultaneously teaching yourself new skills and, of course, creating an opportunity to earn more money in your spare time. It’s a win across multiple levels. In Entrepreneurial You, I profiled this guy, Pat Flynn, who is now a well-known blogger and podcaster and he really lucked out and exemplified this situation. He used to work at an architecture firm and ended up being laid off during the 2008 recession, but it turned out that the months before he was laid off unexpectedly, he had launched an eBook and sold it off of his blog. He had been blogging for a while and this was the first product that he had ever launched. It became very successful in short order because he already sorted out and built up a following with his blog. He eventually ended up earning more money from selling the eBook that first month then he actually earned from his day job at the architecture firm. So, when things were tough, this situation that could have turned out terrible and extremely disruptive in the midst of a recession (trying to get a job while his industry was reeling) actually turned out to be a huge opportunity. He said, “Wow, well if this side gig seems to be catching on, then we’ll pursue that a little bit more.” And that is what he ended up doing.
I think the act of diversification itself is very powerful. In terms of how to make sure that you do it in a way that doesn’t jeopardize your day job, I think that the most important thing is to be very scrupulous about observing your company’s policies and that you really are doing it on your own time, rather than the company’s. Another thing that should be taken into consideration is to make sure that what you are doing is not stepping on the toes of your company, so that they would not pursue you, that you are trying to take a client or somehow using your position with them in an unfair way. It’s usually much safer if you could pursue something completely different than what you do during your day job or working for a very different audience, so that you avoid any questions that might relate to propriety.
SE: Trademark question: What’s next? For you, your brand, and the industry?
DC: On a personal level, I have set two goals over the next ten years. Broadly speaking, I want to continue working to establish myself as hopefully one of the leading business figures in the world. The second goal that I have for myself, because I like to have interesting creative side pursuits as well, is to pursue a two-year fellowship programme that I’ve just gotten accepted into, which is run by BMI (a music publishing company) to learn to write musical theatre. I want to get more into the musical theatre world as I already produced a jazz album that won two Grammy Awards. I’m going for the EGOT!
Regarding the industry, I think that the biggest challenge we are facing – and will continue to face – is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to find channels through which to reach people because of the fragmentation of readership and media sources. There is this kind of paradoxical element that we have to navigate which is that, on the one hand, any channel that has already achieved mass scale becomes increasingly important because it is so hard to reach it in other ways. Despite the sort of breakup of the old gatekeepers and introduction of new gatekeepers (it’s starting to be a mix of old and new – we can call it the New York Times or TED), there is this disproportionate weight in being able to break new people or new ideas. Borrowing access to that, there is a real challenge for people and brands to figure out what the combination is of all the fragmented pieces that they can put together in order to somehow achieve enough scale to penetrate the market consciousness. That is the problem we all need to solve.