Content creators and influencers are often cast as self-obsessed individuals who make a lavish living flaunting their perfectly curated lives. But these perceptions are typically carried by people who don’t understand the substantial dollar value in a personal brand or the work that goes into monetizing it — factors that can help entrepreneurs set themselves apart from competitors.
There are certainly exceptions. We’ve seen former tech vlogger and Australian entrepreneur Dominic rebrand to Domm Holland and launch e-commerce startup Fast after his first venture Tow failed dramatically. The fall of Fast, the Amazon one-click knockoff, happened as swiftly as its rise to a $500 million valuation and rumors of million dollar contracts with EDM duo The Chainsmokers.
So-called “girlbosses” like Sophia Ambruso of Nasty Gal (and author of the book #Girlboss), Audrey Gelman of The Wing, and Leandra Medine of Man Repeller all saw severe backlash when their companies and operations did not align with the ethos of their personal brands and purported business missions. Each of these founders reportedly created toxic, discriminatory workplaces — all while hinging their brands on feminism and inclusivity.
Entrepreneurs have plenty to learn from influencers and CEOs with robust personal brands. By analyzing both the mistakes and successes of high-profile content creators, founders can better leverage pre-existing personal brands or build one in tandem with their startups.
After losing her mother at the age of 23, Marta Freedman, co-founder of skincare brand Dieux, started going on “pizza dates” with women she found inspirational, successful and influential to keep herself busy. “I met with artists, designers, editors, CEOs, actors, musicians and even brand owners,” Freedman told The Org.
During the casual meet-ups, Freedman would snap a polaroid of her subject eating pizza and post it to Instagram with a caption detailing the woman’s story. The account — dubbed “Hot Girls Eat Pizza” grew quickly and earned coverage from news outlets like NY Daily News, VICE and even a profile in Paper Mag. Soon enough, Freedman’s instagram account was landing her speaking gigs and other work opportunities.
“I was getting paid to throw events in New York, Los Angeles and Miami before I started using it for sponsored content creation… I was building my personal brand in tandem,” Freedman said. In addition to the community she was building for herself through Hot Girls Eating Pizza, she was leveraging Instagram in a way that was still new at the time — being vulnerable without filter.
“I have always been my authentic self online, and if I'm being honest, a large part of my following came from how much I shared my grief journey after losing my mom,” she added. “For me, I know that I built a real community of people who trust me.”
Similarly, Anja Health founder Kathryn Cross deeply understands the value of online communities and runs much of her TikTok as a resource for pregnant people. Her company has built the first “stem cell safe,” allowing pregnant parents to prepare for future medical treatments by conserving the most personal source of stem cells — from the umbilical cord and placenta.
The company has deeply personal origins: Cross lost her younger brother to cerebral palsy. Umbilical cord treatment was his last resort and he were unable to find a match. Cross’s family is mixed race, and stem cell donors are typically typically white and affluent — leaving people of color and mixed backgrounds with substantially fewer matches. Thus, Anja Health was born.
Unlike Freedman who built a following sharing a lot about her personal life, Cross’s social media efforts have centered on her business from the start. Cross said she is trying to share more of herself online currently, but she mainly runs her TikTok as a resource alongside Anja Health for her 131,000 followers. Cross has tried out multiple social outlets beyond TikTok simply to see what it was like to build a following on each. In an interview with TechCrunch, she discussed exploring Twitch and Discord. For one month early on in the pandemic, she streamed playing chess on Discord daily, and by the second week she said she was able to monetize the stream.
Building a community organically by connecting with followers was key for both Freedman and Cross. Cross said this authentic connection is what drives her to be a content creator: “I feel like I've succeeded if people respond well to the content and if it can add value to them,” she said. “When it comes to content that I create for my business, similarly, I think it translated well, where I've been able to really focus on who I'm adding value to.” (In her case, it’s soon-to-be parents.)
Freedman echoed Cross’s statement: “Answering DMs from followers is the same as answering DMs from customers,” Freedman said. “Before Dieux, when I was a content creator, I created merch and had a nail art brand, and sold a lot of it successfully, even to retailers.”
Cultivating an online community can lead to other positive outcomes Freedman met her now co-founder Charlotte Palermino through Hot Girls Eating Pizza, and it subsequently kept her connected to a large group of influential women who’d later support their skincare brand. Being immersed in your target customers’ communities can help you better understand their needs, wants and problems, and in Freedman’s case — having started in Instagram’s earlier years -– a host of other transferable skills.
“There was no textbook or guide, but I always had the courage to just go for it even if I didn't know what I was doing,” Freedman said. “From interviewing celebs on a Grammy Red Carpet on behalf of a brand, to negotiating contracts that paid my rent for a month or more at a time, I was always learning something new.”
This spirit really shows up in her day to day as a founder as well. “Starting a brand and being a founder is difficult no matter how you slice it, but I think that brands with influential founders do get a head start in these areas: funding, launch buzz, press and exposure,” Freedman said.
Cross added that having a personal brand can help first time founders demonstrate credibility. She said investors viewed her TikTok as a valuable direct to consumer distribution channel. And since the platform is a place where media outlets often turn to for all things trending, her TikTok can lead to catchy headlines about Anja Health.
Personal brands help you connect with customers, investors, journalists and potential hires — but it’s also an extremely efficient way to foster relationships. Cross explained: “It's really unique to exhibit sincerity in a way that's relatable to more than your friends, and so you should definitely take that and run with it.”
While there’s a delicate balance between the Dieux brand, maintaining her personal channels and leaving some time for herself offline, Freedman said the pros outweigh the cons. “Sometimes it can be hard to separate the brand from the person, not to mention the pressure to be ‘on’ all the time,” she said. “I don't like to be a front-facing part of Dieux, but it's interesting — sometimes I feel like I'm expected to be [front-facing] because I live some of my life online.”
Though specific social media platforms may come and go (R.I.P. Vine and the peak of Clubhouse), and algorithms can be unforgiving and unpredictable, content creation can still prove valuable to your startup’s growth.
“I would encourage influencers to pursue business, because I think it's the best way to monetize off of your platform,” Cross said.