Last fall, I was invited to an exclusive event at the Hollywood Hills home of Never Eat Alone author Keith Ferrazzi. The top leaders from across the world in the startup and technology realm were invited to join.
The purpose of this event was to help us connect with a few people who could potentially help us with our careers, and our personal lives as well.
At dinner, we were told to introduce ourselves by sharing both professional and personal updates, and to be honest. Rather than the usual, “I am doing amazing–things are going great,” Ferrazzi encouraged us to share what we were struggling with.
Across the table was a man whose story really struck a nerve.
Because after almost being homeless, he now has a top tiered network of some of the most successful people in the business world. Writing about his failures over the course of the last two and a half years, he built a social media following of well over 100,000 followers and has had his content read over 10 million times.
His name is Leonard Kim, and he is now the managing partner of InfluenceTree. At InfluenceTree, Leonard and his team teach entrepreneurs how to build their personal brands, get featured in publications, and growth-hack social media.
When you meet someone like Kim, you need to be prepared to ask the right questions. Kim discussed some of the most important things entrepreneurs need to establish and build their personal brands, and why it is so crucial.
How do entrepreneurs get started on building out their personal brand?
Kim: We acquire knowledge much faster than we acquire wisdom. Reading books and attending lectures will give you the knowledge you need in life, but without application, that knowledge does nothing for you. The first thing you need is real experience. Without experience, no one will care what you have to say. You need to go out there and live life, learn what you can, then become good at something. Once you have that real world experience, you can turn it into something tangible.
Let’s assume that they have the real world experience; how do they get their message out there?
Kim: The way I see it, there are two ways to go about leveraging your experience. You have to decide whether or not you want to be an example for others to live by, or a bad example to teach others what to avoid in life.
For me, when I first started building up my personal brand and started communicating my message, I decided to be that bad example and teach people what not to do. I found a niche in sharing my failure and built my brand around that. Once I had an audience, I pivoted and changed my niche to the art of building the personal brand. You need to find a niche that is underutilized and stick out with that.
You have had great success with your writing; where should entrepreneurs start?
Kim: You should start out on a platform called Quora. The reason I used it is because they already had a pre-built audience of millions of users, and you simply answer existing questions, which is easier than coming up with standalone content. By the end of my first year, I went from zero to 2 million views on my content. I started with three followers that grew to 3,400 on the platform, and was eventually named a Top Writer. Unlike most publications where content lives for a week then dies off, content on Quora continues to be circulated to this day.
With so much content online, how can entrepreneurs stand out?
Kim: The key is in building connections. I have found that when you are sharing your message, whether it be in writing, voice, art, or through a video, you need to hone in and be 100% honest. Do what scares you. Be as transparent as you can be.
Share your weakest moments that others are too ashamed to talk about. By being a transparent voice with reason, people will begin to resonate with your content. I was trembling the first time I did this. I thought people would look at me as a total failure, since prior to writing, I never really achieved much in life. But the exact opposite happened. Some people commented about how bold and brave I was. Others reached out directly to me and told me their stories. A few even decided to go as far as saying that I was an inspiration.
We all experience weak points in our lives, but have limited resources on who we can talk to about it. By being transparent, you are making a direct connection with each of your readers who have gone through the same, if not similar experiences in life.
How do entrepreneurs take those connections to a deeper level?
Kim: Forget about yourself. Instead, ask what you can do to help your audience and followers. By offering up your assistance without any ulterior motives, you will be able to build trust with people you never knew were possible. This is how I was able to go from a nobody to connecting with some of the top executives in the business world.
How do entrepreneurs increase their social media following?
Kim: Always do your best. Create content worth sharing. When you share content that resonates with people, they will become addicted to your content. They will want to read more.
When you create direct bonds with the small portion of your audience that reaches out, they will begin to share and promote your message. But gaining followers is a two-way street. If you see someone else who is creating compelling content, follow them, then let them know through a comment, an email, or a tweet.
As your message expands, your social media following will continue to build. By doing this, within 1.5 years into my writing, I had amassed 20,000 followers on Quora. Now, I have more than 100,000 collective social media followers from Quora, Twitter, Medium, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook.
Getting into publications seems to help build credibility for entrepreneurs. Are there any tips to getting your content into publications?
Kim: It is essential to know where to publish. For me, my content that was featured in Huffington Post, Inc., Forbes, etc. was first picked up on Quora. Others have used Medium to achieve this.
You need to write in the style of the publication you want to be in. For example, if you wanted your content to be seen in Inc., where I have a column, you need to start writing your content in a format that fits the Inc. audience. What works in Inc. is usually lists of 10. Their articles tend to be under 800 words. The content is usually around actionable advice that a reader can implement immediately. When I wrote my content in the format that matched the style of the publications I was aiming for, it started to get picked up by them.
Why do you think it is so important for entrepreneurs to build a personal brand?
Kim: Ninety-five percent of businesses fail within the first five years. That means that 95% of the work that entrepreneurs do will vanish when the startup goes under. On the contrary, your personal brand lasts forever and does not have to fail alongside your business. I worked at three startups that have failed. All that effort I put into building out these startups vanished, so I had to continually start over. Not anymore though. I believe all entrepreneurs should focus on building their personal brand first, and then their business second. Why? Because your personal brand lasts a lifetime, and you significantly increase the odds of launching a successful startup when you have a reputation and followers behind you. It is never too late to start.