Branding for Entrepreneurs: When and How Should You Start?

branding for entrepreneursAs an entrepreneur, you have to prioritize your time and money because you have precious little of both. Many entrepreneurs place developing their product and getting funded as their top priorities. They don’t realize that branding will help them reach these goals faster. Entrepreneurs who don’t actively brand themselves and their companies face lower company valuations and delays in market adoption. I won’t name names, but look at the huge disparity between valuations of companies that essentially do the same thing. The difference is brand perceptions. One company is hot, and the other is not.

You need to create your story and build your reputation—key elements in branding—before you approach investors, even before seed funding. Funders are investing in you, first, and the product, second.

Last week, I was a speaker, along with start-up brander Mari-Mineta Clapp, on corporate and personal branding at the Red Herring Conference in Monterey. We spoke to a standing-room-only audience. Entrepreneurs are hungry to know when and how they should brand themselves.

Branding is a requirement

Branding for entrepreneurs has gone from a “nice to have” to a “got to do.” Entrepreneurs are competing for funding, talent, partnerships and the opportunity to tell their story in a noisy and crowded market. If you don’t take an active role in branding yourself, your competitors will brand you. If detractors have created misconceptions about you and your company, your starting point for branding may be repairing a negative image.

But, don’t just jump into social media to brand yourself if you don’t have a strategy. Pumping up the volume on a diffused message will only create more confusion about your brand and slow adoption.

Start with a goal of leadership in a certain niche, then build your strategy and tactics around that goal.

If your first instinct is to advertise your company and yourself—stop. Well before you even consider advertising, you need to work the ecosystem—that is, educate and develop relationships with the influencers so they want to endorse you and your vision. Powerful branding is about engagement in a way that positions you and provides value to your ecosystem—and ultimately, the world.

What is social media’s role?

Social media is a great way to reach out to influencers and build a reputation and a following around your vision. Before you do anything else, however, make sure you have a compelling LinkedIn profile and photo. You’ll be talking to a lot of people who may not have met you, and you can be sure they will search you online. Your LinkedIn profile may be the first impression that they have of you. Make it a good one.

A founder and CTO who had a personal blog, multiple websites and different social media handles asked me why he was not better recognized in his domain. His problem was not that search engines couldn’t find him; his problem was that he had conflicting messages. You didn’t know who he was or why you should care. He needed to consolidate his online image around his name and his unique value. He neglected his job of curating his content and image. Don’t leave it up for others to figure out your positioning and value. You need to serve it up in a clear and consistent way.

When should you invest in the corporate brand versus the personal brand?

As an entrepreneur, you have to promote yourself first. Investors want to know who you are and whether you are worthy of their trust. They will look at your level of passion and perseverance, your domain knowledge and skills, your intelligence (both IQ and emotional intelligence), your leadership style, your adaptability, your personality, your ability to attract and manage talent, and, of course, your ideas. When they do their due diligence, will the right people corroborate what you say about yourself and your company? You can guide the outcome through smart personal branding and ecosystem engagement.

Even when your corporate brand takes root, continue investing in your personal brand. Brand around something you can be known for throughout your career. For instance, your ideas on technology, business models, future trends, leadership, or giving back. You may be associated with a number of companies in your lifetime. Your personal brand needs to transcend your image as the founder of one company.

So when should you start the branding process? Now. If you need help, I know a book and a corporate and personal branding firm that can help. :)

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