If the phrase “building a personal brand” makes you throw up a little in your mouth when you hear it, I get it.
Maybe it reminds you of that high school friend everyone seems to have who has turned their personal social media profiles into platforms to pitch their multilevel marketing scheme.
People like these contribute to this typically poor association of a brand with an out-of-touch, cheesy, or simply irrelevant entity.
But if we redefine, or rather, clearly define a brand in a way that replaces those nebulous and often negative feelings associated with them (particularly a personal one), I think you will see that building a personal brand can actually be one of the most exciting and fulfilling pursuits.
But before we define what a brand is, I’ll try to give a short answer to how to build a personal brand from scratch.
The Short Answer
Although I’m in the early stages of building my personal brand, I have helped my wife build her personal brand since 2017 into a business that provides a full-time living for us and our family.
Through that experience and watching countless others build their brand, I recommend you have four things:
- A website: Websites maximize your ownership and the reach of your brand.
- An email list: Email lists are one of the only ways to connect with an online audience that isn’t wholly controlled by big tech.
- A social media profile: It doesn’t really matter which one, but it does matter that it’s only one at first. Too many people try to manage ten different social profiles at the start and manage all of them poorly. Instead, start with one, create amazing content for it, and try to convert your followers to email subscribers.
- A clear definition of what success means for you and a data-driven path to get there: Some people are looking to make money directly from their personal brand. For instance, they may hope to have an ad-monetized YouTube channel. Others want their online personal brand to bolster their brand in real life. For example, some real estate agents hope to broker the sale of more homes as a result of the content they put online. Regardless, I recommend you define what success means to you and have a plan to get there that’s backed up with real numbers.
I’ll do my best to provide some data in this post to help you back into success for your situation.
But first, let’s talk about what a brand is exactly.
Brent Beshore and David Perell on Brands
According to Brent Beshore:
A brand is the range of outcomes you can expect from any company or person… What you can count on, rely on, and plan around.Permanent Equity Podcast
Who is Brent Beshore?
He runs Permanent Equity, a private equity firm unique for its extremely long time horizons where they have 30-year funds and no intention of ever selling a business they own.
In other words, Brent studies businesses that last for the long haul.
Thanks to this expertise, he has developed distinct insight into what a brand is and what makes them durable.
I actually came across Brent’s insights in one of David Perell’s weekly newsletters.
David is a writer, podcaster, and someone with a great personal brand.
This is partly why I trust David to share interesting insights like these about branding in his newsletter.
David adds to Brent’s definition saying that a brand is “a set of expectations people have when they interact with you. [And] a good brand sets expectations and meets them. It attracts the right people and repels the wrong ones.”
Personally, I might adjust this last sentence from David to say that a good brand attracts people who resonate with the brand and repels those who don’t.
Regardless, I think these ideas are really helpful in clarifying this often undefined word.
And if you define a brand the way Brent and David do, then everyone has a personal brand.
So if everyone has a personal brand, what does building it mean, and should everyone build one?
What does “building” a personal brand even mean?
Running with Brent’s and David’s thoughts on a brand, “building” a personal brand must happen by default if everyone has one.
And I think this makes sense.
Every interaction with others builds on this range of expected outcomes others have for us.
That said, of course we can do more or less to contribute to those expected outcomes.
And this is where “building” a personal brand comes in.
Most people will do nothing outside their normal interactions to build a personal brand.
And that’s fine!
Explicitly constructing a personal brand isn’t for everyone.
So who is it for?
Who should build a personal brand?
Ultimately, I think building a personal brand is for anyone who can see themselves working on it for several months (and sometimes years) without any real positive feedback.
In other words, I believe those well suited to build a personal brand have intrinsic motivation to do so outside of validation from others.
It’s not that validation from others isn’t important, because I think it very much is.
It’s just that those who successfully build a personal brand seem to have a lot of patience in receiving this validation.
To me, working with no feedback is the hardest part of brand building, and likely the number one reason most people quit.
And directly monetizing a personal brand, which is probably the form of feedback people care about the most, seems to come later than most people anticipate and may never come at all.
In the past, I’ve had difficulty fully committing to building a personal brand because monetization seemed unclear (until some changes in the advertising landscape that I’ll mention below).
And I couldn’t justify spending the time I knew building a personal brand would require without having some way to monetize the brand.
Why would I want to build a personal brand?
So if brand building requires months (and sometimes years) of work without any feedback, why would someone want to do it?
The fact of the matter is, you may not want to, and I’m not here to sell you on it.
But these are some of the reasons I’m interested in building a personal brand.
When I moved from Dallas to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, I met countless cool, interesting, fun people there.
I remember thinking there wasn’t enough time in the day to spend with all the people I knew I could be friends with (and this is coming from an introvert)!
Something similar seems to happen when you build a strong brand online.
As mentioned above, your brand attracts those who resonate with you.
Another way to put this is that building a personal brand can bring you opportunities to meet plenty of interesting people that just might become your friends.
Here’s how David Perell describes these opportunities:
If you publish content (blogs, podcasts, videos, etc.) regularly, people will discover you and initiate unexpected opportunities. They’ll open doors you didn’t even know existed.How to Maximize Serendipity
These opportunities and the relationships they can bring are the number one reason I want to build a personal brand online!
Some people experience remarkable financial success building their personal brand.
- A conservative estimate of Twitter influencer Sahil Bloom‘s annual email list ad revenue is $285,000.
- A conservative estimate of author James Clear‘s annual email list ad revenue is ~$1 million USD (estimate below).
- YouTuber and blogger Dan Koe is on track to make $2.5 million this year.
And although I don’t think it should be the sole motivator for building a personal brand, I think it’s perfectly fine for financial success to be a part of your motivation.
When considering income potential, I can’t think of many better options than building a personal brand since there is no limit to how much you can make with it.
Plus, the inherently individual nature of building a personal brand makes it difficult for others to compete with you from a business perspective.
That said, while there’s no maximum on what you can earn, there is also no minimum.
Here’s a tweet from Dan Koe showing the growth of his income year-by-year to put this path in perspective:
In his first year, he only made $10,000 in revenue (and that’s not even accounting for any expenses he may have had)!
In short, if financial success is your only motivation, you will likely lack the endurance to make your brand financially successful.
Even more important than the potential for financial success is the potential for personal fulfillment that can come from building a personal brand.
Building a personal brand allows you to more fully develop your thinking and, ultimately, who you are.
It’s one of those career paths that really makes people come alive for those who feel called to it.
Plus, many people seem to have latent creative output that they would love to put into the world but don’t know how or don’t know if there would be any benefit in doing so.
When you put something out into the world in the context of your brand and get positive feedback, few feelings are as wonderful.
How to Build a Personal Brand from Scratch
Part of the reason I titled this article “How to Build a Personal Brand from Scratch” is because I saw that people are putting this phrase in search engines, and I think the contents of this article could help them.
However, as I’ve attempted to explain above, you probably aren’t actually starting from scratch with your personal brand since you likely already have relationships and people who expect things from you.
This is important because you can leverage your current relationships and the brand you’ve already built in real life to jump-start your personal brand online.
The simplest way I know of is to ask your friends, family, co-workers, and anyone else who might be interested to join your email list.
I think nearly every creator should have an email list.
Of course, there are many other ways to connect with an audience online, and email is just one of them.
But email is one of the only ways to connect with an audience that isn’t wholly controlled by big tech with a mysterious algorithm.
Also, thanks to sponsor networks, you can now passively monetize an email list instead of selling your own stuff.
This is really important because it lowers the barrier to making your brand financially successful.
And most people simply won’t persevere in building a brand if they don’t see or have any clear prospect of financial success with it.
Instead of building an audience and then having to cultivate an additional skill set of developing a product or service to sell that audience, you can join a sponsor network that places advertisements in your emails and pays you for that right.
What is a sponsor network?
It’s a group of businesses that work with an email service provider (ESP) to place their advertisements inside the ESP’s email lists.
And it’s a way for email list owners to monetize their list passively!
But ESPs didn’t always have sponsor networks.
In fact, this is a relatively new development!
How Monetizing an Email List Worked Before 2022
Before email service providers offered sponsor networks to email clients as a way to passively monetize their list, email list owners had to source advertisers themselves if they wanted to earn ad revenue.
Apart from the struggle of getting a steady stream of advertisers to put ads in your email, each advertising deal had the potential to be a separate negotiation.
Some email list owners managed to have a very streamlined process for businesses to advertise to their list which reduced this friction significantly, but plenty didn’t.
And ultimately, bigger publications like The Hustle hired sales teams and admin staff to execute this process effectively.
This headache to source advertisers for an email list seemed difficult and outside of my core expertise, so I avoided building email lists for many years with the niche websites I’ve owned even though countless online marketers talk about how “the money is in the list.”
In fact, the general sentiment of nearly everyone familiar with selling anything online is that an email list is how you sell products and services on the web.
No wonder advertisers want to put their ads in emails!
How Monetizing an Email List Can Work Since 2022
Email service providers (ESPs) have finally realized that many email clients would love to outsource the often laborious process of sourcing and managing email advertisers and have taken it over themselves.
The two ESPs I know of who are doing this are ConvertKit, which launched its sponsor network in June of 2022, and Beehiiv.
(To my knowledge, ConvertKit was the first ESP to launch a sponsor network.)
And I imagine that more ESPs will follow suit, hopefully competing with each other on the best terms they can offer creators.
Plus, with ConvertKit and Beehiiv leading the way by taking a cut of the advertising earnings, it reduces risk for creators who are often cost-sensitive small teams or one-man shows.
In short, the ESP only makes money from email sponsorship if the creator does.
I think that passive monetization is really important for those building personal brands, at least at the start.
This process can be challenging and overwhelming, and the ability to earn passively from so much active work is incredibly helpful.
Plus, email monetization is pretty straightforward (though not easy).
In other words, it’s not hard to back into revenue with a few key email metrics.
For instance, if we look at a popular online writer like James Clear who uses ConvertKit’s sponsor network, we can take his public email stats and Convert Kit’s earnings estimation to calculate a weekly ad income of:
1,850,000 X .425 X .025 = $19,656.25
(That’s: email list size X open rate X the most conservative advertising rate listed on ConverKit’s website)
If he sends 50 emails a year, that’s nearly $1,000,000 in ad earnings from his email list.
Of course, James Clear probably has one of the world’s largest personal brand email lists.
So, reaching his email list size is unlikely for most.
But the transparency of his numbers gives us a way to back into email list earnings.
And Clear is just one example of someone with transparent stats.
There are countless other examples of people sharing email list sizes, ad revenue, and more to make reverse engineering success in this context easier to calculate.
How to Build an Email List
I’ve set up email opt-ins on my niche sites and passively gathered between a few hundred to a few thousand subscribers depending on the site.
But I’ve never done much of anything with these lists.
That said, it’s never been my focus since I haven’t known how to monetize them passively until now.
Plus, how I have typically monetized my sites with display advertising is somewhat at odds with email opt-ins since ads can distract a user from opting in.
Regardless, I’m excited to focus on building my email list through this website!
Using Social Media to Go from Zero Email Subscribers to Thousands Plus
Love it or hate it, social media can be a powerful tool to go from zero email subscribers to thousands plus.
In fact, nearly every example I know of someone turning a personal brand into a real business with a large email list starts on Twitter.
It’s probably because Twitter is still a place for sharing the written word/ideas which naturally aligns more closely with ideas shared via email.
One of the fastest organic growth examples of someone going from zero to thousands of followers (and more importantly, thousands of email subscribers) that I know of is “The AI Solopreneur” who went from 0 to 1400 email subscribers in a week!:
Granted, he is capitalizing on two very buzzy concepts: AI and solopreneurship.
However, I’m sure we can take the principles of his success and apply them to personal brands in other contexts.
At first glance, I’d say what has contributed to his success on Twitter (and ultimately adding subscribers to his email list) besides capitalizing on buzzy concepts is:
- A high-quality banner image, profile picture, and about
- A pinned thread featuring helpful information with easy-to-read spacing and video in each tweet.
- An email call-to-action at the end of each thread.
Otherwise, I’d say he follows what I believe is the social media success formula:
Quality X Frequency X Duration
Breaking this down, quality simply means you are producing great stuff.
On Twitter, this means you are writing multimedia-rich, helpful content in an easy-to-read format.
Frequency means you produce content regularly, ideally every day and sometimes more than every day.
And finally, duration is probably the most important part of the social media success formula because it’s the part the fewest people seem to be able to do.
By duration, I mean that you produce high-quality content frequently for a long time.
My wife Jasmine started her Instagram profile and published a post every single day for three years without missing a day, always striving to improve the quality of her content.
During this time, she was able to leave her day job since her influencer brand enabled her to start making a full-time living from Instagram collaborations.
I don’t know anyone who has been able to make a living from their personal brand without it taking at least several months, and it almost always takes multiple years.
But, if you can create high-quality content consistently for a long time (think years), it seems you can really stack the odds of financial success for a personal brand in your favor.
Specifically, I think you can use social media, particularly Twitter, to build an e-mail list that is independent of social media algorithms and monetized passively thanks to ESP sponsor networks.
The Next Piece of the Brand Building Puzzle: A Website
Twitter is a great tool for building a personal brand.
And plenty of people use it to gather email addresses without even having a website.
But as I mentioned above, I think that having a website is a critical piece of anyone’s personal brand.
That’s why I plan to publish all my articles here on this website.
SEO or search engine optimization, is still extremely powerful in the context of personal brands.
Even if you don’t “optimize” your content for search engines, your website can still show up in search engine results bringing you countless people to potentially resonate with your brand.
Just look at David Perell’s website on an SEO research tool like Ahrefs, and you’ll see his site receives an estimated ~2500 daily visitors from search!
Even though David explicitly “doesn’t do SEO” his strong personal brand, high-quality content, and unique perspective have earned him links from authoritative sources leading to his site ranking for countless search terms.
In fact, David is “doing SEO” the way Google itself tells people to do SEO, by building a strong brand.
Plus, if you use a tool like Ahrefs to look at the actual phrases he ranks for, many of them are concepts he himself coined!
In other words, he has created search demand for his content and likewise has a search monopoly on those terms.
But if he didn’t have a blog and only had an email list, he would miss out on all this traffic that ultimately converts into more subscribers, revenue, friends, etc.
In short, having a public website maximizes the opportunity for your work to resonate with the highest number of people as opposed to content in an email that is read once (if at all) and then hidden away in people’s inboxes.
So while I may not do SEO the way I have done previously for my niche websites by researching keyphrases and writing about them, I still plan on having SEO be part of my brand strategy in this indirect way.
And if you’re trying to start your personal brand “from scratch” I recommend you have a publicly facing website too.
All of the most valuable brands have websites because a website is one of the few things a brand can fully own.
(Can you imagine if Apple or Coca-Cola didn’t have their own websites?)
Unlike social platforms that can shadow-ban you, change their algorithm to limit your reach, or die, a website typically goes down only if you decide to make that happen.
Plus, you have total ownership and, therefore, freedom over your website.
It really should be the nexus of your brand.
Setting Up a Website
Ultimately, I recommend using whatever website-building platform appeals to you set up a website.
Anything you can do to overcome the friction of getting started is key here.
In other words, don’t let the “perfect” setup get in the way of a good setup.
You can always get started with something less than ideal and course correct later.
But my personal recommendation is to use WordPress as your content management system.
It’s free, powers over 43% of all sites on the internet, and is the CMS I’ve used for countless websites.
Next, you need web hosting.
Web hosting keeps your website connected to the internet and available for anyone to access at any time.
You can use a free web host like this one and upgrade if and when you need more features.
Finally, you need a domain name.
For a personal brand, I recommend using your own name or some close variation to it.
This is the only step of starting a website where I absolutely recommend you spend money.
Domains can be inexpensive at around $15 a year.
Your web host customer support chat should be able to answer questions you have about connecting your domain name to your web host to get your website live.
The ESP I Currently Recommend
Digital marketing is constantly evolving, and my recommendations for specific tools and services will inevitably change.
That said, I’ll do my best to keep my content updated with my latest recommendations.
And my latest recommendation for an ESP is Beehiiv.
As I mentioned above, the only two ESPs I know of that have sponsor networks are ConvertKit and Beehiiv.
Because Beehiiv allows sponsorship with only 1,000 subscribers as opposed to ConvertKit’s 10,000, that’s my recommendation.
Also, Beehiiv is free to use for up to 2500 subscribers.
Thus, you can potentially offset some of the cost with your sponsor network earnings.
(Although Beehiiv can be used to also host your website, I don’t recommend this since WordPress is such a great, free alternative.)
What should you send in your email?
So what should you send in your emails?
Let’s look at those with successful email newsletters to find out.
Most of those with successful email newsletters that I know of send very specific content that leads to high open rates since people know almost exactly what they will be receiving.
- Ryan Holiday has his reading list newsletter.
- Tim Ferriss has his 5 Bullet Friday newsletter
- James Clear has his 3-2-1 newsletter
- David Perell has:
- Monday Musings
- Friday Finds
- And Write of Passage Weekly
Scott H Young is a notable exception I’ve found who seems to share a more generic weekly newsletter.
But even with his less specific newsletter, he does set expectations for his readers with its frequency and notes its benefits like exclusive content and access to (not one but) five free e-books!
So how do you do the same?
I recommend publishing a newsletter once a week that encompasses the content you’ve shared on your website along with some commentary.
Tying It All Together with an Example
I’ve covered a lot here, and now I want to distill building a personal brand from scratch into practical steps.
First, I think it’s helpful to consider what type of content you are best suited to create.
If you’re attractive, have video editing skills, or are otherwise suited for creating video, there are many social platforms naturally conducive to sharing video (like YouTube).
If you are an external processor, feel like you could talk about certain subjects for hours, or are otherwise suited for audio, a podcast could be a great social medium for you to use.
If you love photography like my wife does, Instagram could be the platform for you. (It’s where my wife started building her brand.)
Or, if you’re like me and prefer writing, Twitter is a natural choice.
Regardless of your choice, I recommend having a website as the central piece of your brand.
So if you publish videos to YouTube, I think you should publish the script of your video to your blog (and embed your video too).
Or if you do a podcast, publish your podcast script as a blog post too (and embed the podcast episode too).
Or, if you are a photographer, publish a blog post with your photos (like my wife does).
Once you know what content you will create, try to back into the number of pieces of content you will need to create for success.
For instance, if you go the YouTube route, know that you will likely need to publish hundreds of videos before seeing any sort of success according to TubeBuddy data.
In fact, you will likely need to publish ~152 videos to YouTube before you even qualify for channel monetization under the YouTube Partner Program.
Or if you publish a podcast, know that 74% of higher-income podcasters have published over 100 episodes!
This is also the case for Instagram, a blog, or really any other platform where you can publish content.
It almost always takes hundreds and sometimes thousands (yes hundreds or thousands) of pieces of content to get real traction.
Then, I recommend having an idea of how many posts you can create on a particular schedule.
For instance, with my website, I hope to publish one blog post a week or about 45 per year.
(I know there will be some weeks I just can’t get something posted, or I’ll be sick, on vacation, etc which is why my goal isn’t to publish a blog post for every week of the year. I recommend you also have some flexibility in your plan too.)
The realization that building a personal brand from scratch will almost certainly take years of grinding every day can give you a long-term view which I think is key to stacking the odds of success in your favor.
Most people have a get-rich-quick perspective regarding online businesses which is almost certainly part of the reason why many people fail.
But if you take a long-term perspective, this can relieve much of the feeling that you need to receive feedback, traction, and income as soon as possible.
Like fitness training, you will be sorely disappointed if you think you will have results after your first week of going to the gym.
But if you take a long-term view and go to the gym day in and day out, you can achieve impressive results over the years.
Why I’m Optimistic about Building a Personal Brand in a ChatGPT and LLM World
The advent of ChatGPT, other Large Language Models (LLMs), and AI tools has made me ask myself what I can do that a machine can’t do.
And what I keep coming back to is that only I can share my true thoughts online.
At best, AI can speculate on what I would write about a topic based on my previous writings.
But even this isn’t currently possible since I haven’t written publicly online before this blog.
Furthermore, I often don’t know what I think about a subject until I write about it.
In other words, the writing process clarifies my thinking about a topic, and that has intrinsic value to me.
Also, with AI chat integration into search engines, there is some question about how that will affect SEO which is the distribution channel that provides the majority of my income currently.
And although I personally believe there will always be demand for high-quality recommendations from real people in search results, I see the merit in diversifying away from search engines and their algorithms.
Plus, since email is one of the most free, open, and non-algorithmically driven ways to connect with an audience that can now be monetized passively, I’m excited about its future.