Startup Life/Opinion/

How to build a personal brand as a nobody in a startup ecosystem

I was an outsider in the Finnish tech ecosystem. Here's how I built my personal brand.

Credit: Kim Oguilve
Kim Oguilve

By Kim Oguilve

I know better than most people how it’s hard to start from scratch in a new country. When I came to Finland nine years ago from Costa Rica, I hardly knew anyone. Home was sun and beaches, Finland came with months of darkness. And I certainly didn’t know anything about tech or startups. 

That is until I got a lucky break at Maria 01, the Nordics’ leading startup campus. I found myself in an incredibly vibrant and dynamic startup ecosystem, and I fell in love. But as a non-Finn without a background in tech, I was a nobody. If I were to build a network and unlock opportunities for myself in Finland’s startup ecosystem, I needed to build a personal brand. That doesn’t mean just burnishing my CV with names, but actually being known for my values and the issues I think are important. 

As I discovered the ins and outs of my adopted country, I learnt to adapt and see my differences for the strengths that they were. These formed the basis for how I thought about my personal brand. And Maria 01 gave me an incredible environment where I could channel my energy, let my differences flourish and my personal brand develop. 

The work that I did on my brand opened me up to amazing connections and opportunities that would have never been available to me had I not put myself out there. 

Here are three recommendations to help you shape a solid personal brand inside a startup ecosystem, hoping that these can ignite your curiosity to try something different today, question your path and figure out what you want to be known for. 

1/ Get a job inside a startup organization 

If you’re lucky enough to live in a country with a thriving startup ecosystem like Finland, you’re off to a great start. I struck it lucky working for Maria 01 for four years. When you work for a startup community rather than one startup, you start to see yourself as a piece of the ecosystem at large — and how your actions impact the lives of others. Working for a startup community means that you become a ‘spokesperson’ for the community, which helps to establish yourself as the go-to person for ‘x, y, z’ inside the ecosystem. Being one of the community spokespeople at Maria 01 helped me connect individuals relevant to others while hyper-charging my network with plenty of inspiring people. 

Working for a startup community means that you become a ‘spokesperson’ for the community, which helps to establish yourself as the go-to person for ‘x, y, z’ inside the ecosystem.

Even if you don’t work for a particular startup organization, you can still participate in the ecosystem by attending events, networking with the people in it, learning about the different startups and their teams and getting a broader view of the world you live in. 

2/ Establish your vision and start connecting the dots

All successful brands have had a brand vision, and this shouldn’t be an exception in personal branding. What do you want to be known for? Who I am today and what I want to be known professionally came through connecting my childhood experiences, making it in a foreign country and realizing and caring about the challenges in our society that I can impact. Figure out what’s lacking in the environment closest to your heart, and get involved as much as you can. 

For example, early on, I didn’t see enough diversity in the Finnish startup ecosystem — such as companies founded by immigrants, women. People leading these ecosystems were mainly from the same groups of friends. That’s why I decided to take a stand on these matters, be vocal inside the community and make DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) values that define me as a professional. At Maria 01, I had the opportunity to contribute to projects such as the creation of our community values, marketing campaigns to drive awareness around DEI in the startup ecosystem and participating in events where I had the opportunity to speak about these challenges. 

3/ Don’t make it all about you

Great brands always champion their customers, and it’s no different in personal branding — you should make it into a routine to highlight companies and people that inspire you. Startup ecosystems are simply one the best sources of inspiration today; they’re filled with people that risk plenty for their visions. 

I’ve made it into my routine to highlight companies and people from the ecosystem that inspire me by sharing it on Twitter and LinkedIn. At Maria 01, we also always honoured the entrepreneurs from our community by talking about them, bringing them to the spotlight, and using all visible opportunities such as suggesting them for media features or as speakers for events in our community and beyond. 

The trail you leave behind

Five years on, I’m still ‘nobody’ — but that’s the point. Building a personal brand has nothing to do with popularity and everything to do with your values and how people perceive your brand outside of your bubble. Your brand is your unique combination of skills and experiences; it’s the trail you leave behind. 

Kim Oguilve is brand communications and content marketing manager at beauty technology company Revieve. She tweets at @KimOguilve. 

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