Startup Life/Opinion/

How to build your founder brand without sounding like bragging

Personal brand building can be key for founders. But how to do it authentically — without sounding like you're blowing your own horn?

James Routledge
James Routledge

By James Routledge

The phrase “personal brand” makes me want to vomit a little. It brings to mind annoying Facebook ads for “once in a lifetime” digital marketing workshops run by “gurus” preaching the secret to 10k followers. 

The irony is that building my personal brand has been a key hiring, fundraising and business development tool for me. LinkedIn posts, newsletters, podcasts, and even writing a book — these were all assets that opened doors for me. 

So many founders think that they can outsource their story to a PR agency — or that sharing a LinkedIn post when they’ve raised investment will be enough brand-building. Telling authentic stories about your company and your journey on social media is a superpower still relatively under-utilised by entrepreneurs. 

Our first 10 customers for Sanctus came through my writing. Journalists reached out to me on the back of my social media presence, which translated into national coverage. My blog posts about the early days of the company’s journey and culture helped convert candidates to early employees and sparked interest with angel investors. 

“People trust people more than they do brands, building trust with your audience as a founder is a great first step to building trust between your audience and your business”

“Building in public” has been a trend amongst founders for a few years now. Joel Gascoigne, founder of Buffer, was one of the early pioneers of the movement. There’s now a whole Twitterverse of founders who share their founding journeys honestly and transparently. In the UK, Harry Stebbings of 20VC is a great example of this.

Investors, employees and customers value transparency and authenticity. People want to know that the business they’re working for, buying from or investing in aligns with their values, and founders are key communicators and symbols of those values. People trust people more than they do brands, building trust with your audience as a founder is a great first step to building trust between your audience and your business. 

Share both the good and the bad

The hard part is that to be authentic, you have to be willing to share the ups and the downs. Building a business is tough but only sharing the big wins is bad taste these days: people want to see your humanity and know you’re like them. Only sharing posts when you’re hiring or you’ve completed a fundraise is just adding to people’s never-ending social media highlight reel.

That means telling a story about a mistake you made, or being brave and sharing when you might be feeling stressed. It also means sharing some of who you are outside of your founder-self too. Love paddleboarding? Love sewing? Mother of three and building an awesome business? Share a bit more about who you are, and you’ll be surprised how you’re able to connect with people on more than one level. 

Finally, personal branding can be good simply from a mental health perspective, no matter how many followers or shares you have. Being a founder is lonely and it’s rare to feel recognised or appreciated for your work. Sharing your story on social media can help you feel understood, can be a cathartic outlet and help you collect your thoughts. You might even find some founder friends too. I have.

James Routledge is the founder of Sanctus and author of Mental Health at Work

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