What bridge have you already crossed? My take on Personal Branding

personal brand

What? A post on branding?

I don't normally write about branding and personal brand. Mostly I only talk about it, and only with people who know me. I limit my discussion on branding because my thoughts and opinions are heavily shaped by my own personal experiences. Plus, people who know me can map my thoughts to what they know of me.

But tonight I had a great conversation with a friend where I shared with him my framework around personal branding. And it all revolves around a single question:

What bridge have you already crossed?

First, the metaphor

Here's how I used to share it with clients when I did more brand work.

Imagine you get to a riverbank. You desperately want to cross the river. So much so, that without thinking, you step into it and start walking across it. But soon you get in so deep you turn around.

You try a second time, this time swimming across. But very quickly you realize that the pace of the river is much faster than your skills can withstand. So you turn back.

But you can't help yourself. You want to cross that river. Better said, you need to cross the river. So you offer a boatman to get you across. But he takes your money and leaves you stranded.

Having tried three times, but unwilling to be beat, you start walking down the riverbank. And six miles later, by chance, you find the bridge to get you over the river.

Now, explaining the metaphor

I hear a lot of people talk about personal branding and they jump straight into your passion. They ask you to figure out your own passion. They ask you to create powerful statements that define you.

When I approach the concept, I start from a different place. I start from a place that says, “Look, you can't help but be you. Know what I mean? So let's go looking in your past.”

When I look into your past, you know what I'll find? A bridge. A bridge that took almost everything out of you to find and cross. But you couldn't help yourself. You just had to.

And that's the bridge that's key to understanding your brand. Because you'll never stop being you. And your brand should come not from a marketing wordsmith but from deep within you and your own experience.

My story, in that context

It's silly, but for this purpose I'll start from when I was a kid. When I was in elementary school, I bought packets of candy for one price and sold each piece for the price of the packet. For several weeks I lived higher than a kite – with the joy of being a businessman. I did car washes. I sold lemonade. I watched dogs and picked up mail. I typed papers for older kids.

Others did this. Others liked the extra cash. But it was the business aspects that grabbed me. In college I ran my own little businesses (pre-internet). And just out of college I did my full time job while also doing freelance graphic design work (desktop publishing was just starting).

And then I left the research lab and joined a startup. We sold it a year later and I started a second one. We sold that in two years and joined another. We helped break off the tech part to sell that, but I took off to start another. We had to close that one down, but I joined another to help turn it around.

Five startups in ten years. Notice the river and the bridge?

I later got married and we had our first. And with that, my wife asked for me to step out of startups. So I joined a company where I could create products and businesses inside the company – intrapreneurial work.

And guess what I couldn't help but do? I started coaching startups.

Your Personal Brand

I can't help myself. I'm going to create something from nothing. I'm going to build a team. And I'm going to release products. I'll do it one way or another. But I'll do it.

And you have your own river. And your own bridge. And like me, you've figured some things out. While others are still at the banks of the river, you've found the bridge and figured out how to cross it – maybe several times.

And that's where  you can be the truest you – where you can lead from your own experience without pretension. That's what makes articulating your brand value proposition easy – because you can't help but do what you do.

And now, out of all that experience, you can help others. Never forget that. The journey is more fun when you do it together. And since you know where the bridge is, others will look to you.