For over a decade, I built online businesses. My focus was primarily marketing. Create content, promote it, and optimize website conversions.
Over time, I built a reputation in the industry by blogging, networking, and speaking at industry conferences like Pubcon. In fact, I attended Pubcon’s signature event in Las Vegas ten years in a row. Not a bad way to rack up Vegas trips in your twenties.
Last year, I suddenly changed course. I sold my businesses, and found myself in a brand new world where I knew no one (and no one knew me).
Perhaps even more daunting, my decade-long run building companies online meant very little to the annals of this new world. It was a world of blue blooded financial minds, with the requisite MBAs from top universities upholding their resumes.
I was now a private equity “newbie”.
How I finagled my way into the world of private equity is another story, but the point is, I had to start over with my personal brand. Private equity has a completely different lingo and set of values that online marketing. The two couldn’t be different. Private equity traditionally takes stock of where you went to school, and what firm you worked at “earning your stripes”. You work closely with lawyers, bankers, CPAs and most importantly, your investors. You wear suits and build complex financial models.
Of course, the combination of owning my own online companies and living in San Diego had previously held me to a much different maxim. Most of my contemporaries didn’t finish college. They talked to their CPA once a year. If they had to wear pants, they wore jeans. Even the times where I’ve spoken at conferences, I’ve questioned if I should wear real shoes.
Sartorial discrepancies aside, what truly mattered was I needed to re-establish myself. I understand the value of a personal “brand”, or more rightly, the need to have a good reputation with scores of people who are in your industry. When you have that, opportunities flow to you. Favors can be called in. You have like-minded friends. It’s all good.
So in 2014, I started at the beginning. First off, what was my story? Yes, it was non-traditional for the industry. Could that be an advantage? I had little choice in thinking yes, it could. Thus, my story became one of the (relatively) young, former entrepreneur who had cashed out and saw private equity as the next frontier. Through a friendly relationship, I was aligned with an established firm out of Canada. My acquisitions would be under their flag, so their track record became part of my own. Sure, it was unconventional, but it was also unique.
Early on, my partner and I made a list of 150 investment bankers, lawyers, and other dealmakers in Southern California. We emailed all of them, briefly telling our entrepreneur-come-finance mogul story, and asked for a short introductory phone call. Those phone calls gave us a lay of the land in the PE world in our area. They also led to follow up coffees, and other introductions. Within a month, I was attending new events and networking groups focused on private equity.
I realized that this world wasn’t one that read many blogs. I could rank #1 in Google for “private equity blog” and it probably wouldn’t do much for my personal brand, or reputation. The conversations we had on the phone, and the in-person networking were the slow path to building the right connections and being known. So that’s where we continued to focus.
Within 9 months, after completing two successful acquisitions, I felt more comfortable in my new world. Lawyers and investors started to populate my invite list for the quarterly event we put on in San Diego. (Instead of abandoning our SoCA.ly events because they were built around online entrepreneurs, I just started mixing in the private equity people.) I wrote a piece for Forbes detailing some of the lessons-learned after making the leap into a new industry. All in all, good momentum.
By last fall, I felt ready to pitch to speak at an industry conference. It’s always difficult when you have no previous speaking gigs to point to on your resume. Still, I had spoken plenty of times at internet events, and I still often guest lectured at local universities. And why not welcome a fresh face? Beggars can’t be choosers, and I know that event organizers often have to scramble to fill weaker time slots and panels. Safe to say, I landed a panel at PE Hub. Shoes and tie were expected, but I didn’t mind. The personal branding transformation was now complete.
It took me a solid year, and plenty of one-off cocktail hours and random coffees to feel good about the people I now knew, and who now knew me. At times, it felt like a press junket for a upcoming movie release. Telling the same story, giving the same pitch. But it should pay off for many years to come.
I often say it’s important to have momentum. For your personal brand, that momentum comes in the form of the exact things that made up my transformation. Phone calls. Connections. Coffees. Published articles. Speaking gigs. Consistency. Time.
You can be a newbie to your industry, or even a long-tenured veteran who simply hasn’t taken the time to brand yourself, and those things are the blueprint from which to build.