Think About Branding and Culture Early On, Consultants Advise TiE New Jersey Audience

And don’t forget: “We are who Google says we are!”

In May, TiE New Jersey presented an online program on the “Importance of Personal Branding for Success of an Entrepreneurial Business.” A complete video of the event can be found here.

The speakers were Kim Jones, a former SVP and divisional CIO at Farmers Insurance (Woodland Hills, Calif.) who is now a coach and strategic adviser to women executives, and Anouk Pappers, a New York-based brand anthropologist and C-suite adviser. They interviewed each other, and were introduced by Blaire Fernandez, founder of Marengo (New Orleans), a company that connects leaders with executive coaches.

Consider Branding from the Beginning of Your Entrepreneurial Journey

One of the first points the speakers made was that, with startups, the personal branding of the founder/CEO and the company’s branding will overlap in surprising ways. But for the heads of more established companies, Jones said, there will be no significant overlap between the two.

As a startup founder, your personal brand is the representation of what you’re an expert in, the problem that you’re looking to solve, what you’re good at and what you want to be known for. To a large extent, this is going to extend into the mission of your company. Most founders build their companies on the kinds of problems that they’re looking to solve. So, the personal and company brands are quite interrelated, she noted.

However, as a company grows, especially if the CEO brings in outside investment and additional stakeholders, the personal and company brands will begin to diverge. So, for those who will be following this route, it’s important to consider the company’s branding from the beginning, Jones said.

“’I’m sure we can all name examples of companies that have not done that so well. As they attempt to grow beyond the startup phase, they end up spending a lot of time and energy and resources having to go back and change things up or transform things that aren’t working well for a more mature organization. And that can be very distracting, as well. And expensive.”

Your personal brand should drive the experiences of all who interact with your organization, she added. “Every touch point, every communication, every interaction that a customer has with your product or your service should reinforce the brand. … The bottom line in this is to absolutely be intentional about what you want your brand to stand for.”

Company Culture is Critical to Entrepreneurial Success

The company culture goes hand in hand with branding, Jones added. Culture is critical to the long-term sustainability and performance of an organization. “But, oftentimes, founders and CEOs of startup companies are not thinking enough about it in the early stages. And that is a mistake,” she continued.

If you don’t consider company culture early on, it can be a shock down the road when investors or companies you plan to sell to expect you to make changes before they can be comfortable proceeding with the transaction. Having a strong company culture is expected in a maturing organization.

Some startups “will overlook things such as bringing in a strong person, but also someone who has maybe a little bit of a toxic style, because that person is effective.” This is not a good idea, as “those things can set the tone for some long-term cultural challenges that really should be thought through as early as possible.”

We Are Who Google Says We Are

What entrepreneurs must realize, said Pappers, is “that we live in a reputation economy. We are our own reputation, and reputation is the most important asset that we have. And, of course, we all know Warren Buffett, who says we can afford to lose money, lots of money, but we cannot afford to lose one shred of a reputation. We only have one reputation, and the moment that we lose it, it’s very hard to take it back.”

Pappers then asked the group to tell her if they Google themselves, and if they Google others before doing business with them or hiring them. Only 20 percent of the TiE New Jersey online attendees had ever Googled themselves, but almost 90 percent had Googled others.

“So let’s make an agreement today that, as of today, everybody’s going to Google themselves every three months,” she suggested. Just go online, type in your name and see what shows up. You can decide to do nothing about it. That’s fine, but you have to be aware of what you look like online because people judge you based on what they see online. Remember, you are who Google says you are. And it’s not just because I’m telling you. It’s also because it has consequences.” Many people decide not to follow through on a business relationship because of what they see on Google, she explained.

Getting a Google-Worthy Reputation

Getting a Google-worthy reputation is as simple as creating content online, Pappers told the group. Also, letting your employees express themselves online is important. “We need to help them and give them a voice. Everybody needs to be able to communicate about what we’re trying to achieve. We don’t necessarily need to talk about exactly what we’re doing. But we need to talk about why we’re doing what we’re doing. We need to talk about our values. We need to share our company culture to the outside world, because people connect with people, and not with businesses.”

Pappers addressed common obstacles for people creating online content. “The first thing is that people very often say, ‘I’m not socialized to talk about myself. So, it’s very hard to put myself in the center of attention to talk about myself.’ And we see that especially with women, and with people from underrepresented groups. It also applies to people who come from certain cultures, such as people from India,” she said.

In that case, have someone interview you, as Pappers does for her clients. “So, instead of you having to talk about yourself, you can make sure that you’re being interviewed, so that other people can talk about you, which makes it much easier.”

She also urged CEOs not to think of online content as something that strokes their egos. Instead, “it’s about helping mark the world, helping the people on the other side of the room or on the other side of the screen to better understand what you stand for and the value that you bring.”  For those who just don’t like how they appear on camera, she advised practicing with an iPhone until they get comfortable with it. And if executives are not good writers, it’s easy to find talent that can help you write short blog articles by interviewing you, she said.

When Crafting an Online Presence, Focus on the Future

The most important mistake people make when it comes to their personal brand and their online presence is that they do not focus on the future, Pappers said. “If you think about your LinkedIn profile, your resume, your bio, probably the text on your website, everything is [often] about the past: what we’ve done, where we worked, where we studied. Well, we believe that we should shift gears and talk about the future. What is the problem that we’re going to be solving? What is the added value that we will bring? What is the vision that we have? Where is our industry headed? All these types of things are talking about the future, positioning yourself and your company towards solving those problems in the future.”

Devil’s Advocates in the Audience

Some of the audience members acted as devil’s advocates regarding two practices that occur in many companies, especially those with Indian founders. First, companies are often started by people who have common backgrounds or are school friends. Both Pappers and Jones suggested that these companies would be better off if they incorporated diversity into their founding groups in order to create a better company culture and avoid having to shoehorn changes in later.

Second, on the topic of company culture, Jones was adamant that a charismatic leader who is also a bully should never be tolerated, not even during the early stages of a company’s existence. Companies do better, she implied, if that behavior isn’t there. An audience member countered with this: “I might not like Elon Musk but I still buy his product. I might not like Jeff Bezos, but I still buy at Amazon,” suggesting that it might not matter, after all.

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