Developing a personal brand is overrated

November 5, 2014, 7:45 PM UTC
Group of coworkers discussing project in office
Photograph by Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

This post is in partnership with Entrepreneur. The article below was originally published at


In his recent book, Growth Hacker Marketing, Ryan Holiday explored how traditional big-budget marketing is being replaced by more effective small teams (and sometimes individuals) who are using trackable and scalable tools to grow companies.

And usually it’s done without spending a dime. They’re called growth hackers, and they’ve helped companies like Facebook, Dropbox and AppSumo go from “0 to 100” real quick.

Andrew Chen, who adopted the term in 2010, described growth hackers as “a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of ‘How do I get customers for my product?’ and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph.”

Essentially growth hackers use tools in creative thinking, marketing and analysis to help startups gain traction, users and exposure at very low or no cost. Think of guerrilla marketing with today’s technological tools.

Holiday recounts the early days of Evernote, when the young company decided to bypass traditional marketing and advertising and instead focused all its attention and resources on building a product that people would come to love.

As Evernote CEO Phil Libin said via Ryan’s book,“People [who are] thinking about things other than making the best product never make the best product.”

If the product is good, then its marketing and advertising will be easy to accomplish and probably at a relative lower cost (or no cost). Of course, if it’s a horrible product, millions spent at the Super Bowl or World Cup won’t help sway users. That marketing push will just prolong the inevitable.

When I first moved to Silicon Valley, I consistently received advice to work on my personal brand — that is, to market and advertise myself in a certain way. At first it seemed odd since I had just started working at Waze and hadn’t actually done anything.

But the blogs, the meetups, the serial entrepreneurs all reiterated how important a personal brand was. What they should have told me — and what I’m now sharing — is the importance keeping my head down as a new employee and putting in work.

As I now look back, focusing on a personal brand was the worst piece of advice I ever got. In effect, I began thinking about things other than making the best product or doing my best work.

I thought that by curating and growing my image in a certain way I would gain more exposure and grow my reputation at a faster rate.

But the problem was that I wasn’t actually delivering value. My focus was overwhelmingly on me, me and me. I would double- and triple-check every social media post. I would go out of my way to paint company achievements in ways that would make me look better, even if I had little or nothing to do with said accomplishment.

I may have been naive and misguided, as I thought I was supposed to build my image. But my efforts in promoting myself and my personal brand were selfish, counterproductive and took away from the real work I should have been doing.

Luckily, this did not get out of hand or cost me relationships, opportunities or my job because, of course, if I wanted to succeed at Waze, I had to shape up real quick.

Those who are just starting out, don’t worry or bother with a personal brand. That will come as a by-product of doing great work and being a good person. This sounds easy in theory. But it’s very hard in practice.

There is nothing wrong about an individual’s selling or showcasing her work. After all, if someone doesn’t promote herself, who will? But the key is to do good work first then build a brand — not the other way around. Yet so many entrepreneurs spend all their time building an image that the track record doesn’t support. It’s like a car with a great paint job but no engine. It doesn’t go.

As more and more millennials enter the startup scene, the pressure will be on them to build a story and an image. Trust me, I felt that pressure. But don’t focus on anything that’s not about doing the best work.

Don’t worry about being credited or remembered. As former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams famously said, Play for the name on the front of the shirt, and they’ll remember the name on the back.”

Whether hired to serve as an intern or a sales manager, focus on the work or project and give 100 percent. By doing that, word will get around and a personal brand will grow. Yes, it takes time but as Epictetus said, “It is true, however, that no bull reaches maturity in an instant, nor do men become heroes over night.”

A personal brand isn’t the sum of tweets that people so mindfully post. It isn’t the pictures that someone chooses to share. That’s just a small part of a reputation. The most important — and the hardest — part is the collection of actions, decisions and work that a person does day in and day out over a long period of time.

A personal brand is worthless if it’s not backed up. But good work? That’s trackable and scalable.