Discover more from The Ask Newsletter — by Ellen Donnelly
How the desire to maintain a personal brand may be harming your business.
A deep-dive into the darker sides of having an online presence as a business owner: distraction, burnout, cancel culture and the tricks that followers and algorithms play on you.
We take it as gospel that you need to build a personal brand as a founder/online business owner, but at what cost?
Today’s post explores the darker side of having a public persona and how creator culture is distracting us from our craft and may lead to more problems than opportunities.
The unrealistic expectations media platforms place upon creators and online entrepreneurs to post consistently is overwhelming. From burnout, a lack of real results, becoming irrelevant and false communities — there is a lot at stake in the world of the digital entrepreneur.
I couldn’t have written this piece without inspiration from the work of The Stack World CEO Sharmadean Reid for sharing her most personal business and life reflections in All The Stuff I Got Wrong in 2020 and creating a much needed discourse on the perils that female founders can have in public facing brands as a form of unpaid labour. I was also heavily influenced by the deep-dive into how the creator economy is forging ‘parasocial relationships’ between creators and their audiences in this hot take from Fadeke Adegbuyi, and Rebecca Jennings who has explored the burnout and emptiness facing influencers as they work hard for the algorithms, but to what end?
Do you have a business to promote, or are YOU your business?
My teaser of this post came last week when I apologised for how I’d been awol for a couple of weeks due to coming down with COVID. In this time I had effectively ghosted my audience since there was no newsletter, no Instagram … nothing.
But I didn’t feel bad.
Why? Because whilst I have a business that benefits from me sharing online publicly, sharing online publicly is not what my business does.
The same cannot be said for certain other business owners who have amassed followings into loyal fans and make revenue from these eyeballs in the forms of ads, sponsors, brand deals, own product lines, Patreon subscribers or paying community members.
Not many online business owners today have the luxury of going offline for two weeks at least not without an explanation.
So whilst I am not paid to share with my audience, at the same time, I wouldn’t have built the business I have throughout a global pandemic; turning over more than six figures in revenue and working with the clients I have if it wasn’t for the internet.
I am not here to dismiss building an online brand.
Rather, to draw the distinction between building a business which is centred on a product or service and building a business based around you as the brand itself. There are many rising starts who are essentially famous for being themselves (YouTubers and TikTok stars, Twitch gamers, reality TV stars, influencers) where their entire business model is built around themselves as the product.
Perhaps this is you. Or perhaps you have something else you have created, but as the solo founder/CEO/public persona of this business you feel some level of expectation to show up online on the regular and reveal things about yourself, or boost credibility of your profile in a bid to boost that of your business. And thus, your overall success.
I’m in the latter camp and it requires a constant evaluation of how well I manage to straddle the line between actually doing the work (coaching, writing, workshops, generating sales) aka my craft, and the promotion of it.
Customers are the lifeblood of any business and as all founders know, customers rarely find themselves knocking on your door without you standing on the corner with a sign post and free cookies.
We know that “build it and they will come” is, for the most part, a fallacy. Rather you have to build it, and then promote it not once, not twice but probably a thousand or more for as long as your business lives.
With social media so ubiquitous it is not surprising that as we promote our businesses, we in turn must promote ourselves. The lines between personal and public profile blur.
When I go out with friends should I post it on my coaching Instagram for The Ask so people know I have a life and am relatable, or should I stick to my personal account, or not post at all, in case I’m seen as unprofessional?
My slightly drunken toilet selfie last weekend yielded my audience zero benefit nor did it point to my products and services in any way.
Except to remind them of my existence.
Is that the point?
These questions I ask myself daily, and I know many founders feel the same.
Our existential questioning “should I post this” is compounded by the fact that social media platforms are like the tiger that came for tea (remember that children’s book?)— they are the beast that is never satiated.
You can keep feeding them more and more content and they will only reward you for your consistency.
It’s balancing that need to ‘show up and visible’ with the fear that you are being visible, but not a lot else.
One of my biggest fears is being considered that person who you see everywhere, but are never really sure what that person actually does.
Or worse, being really good at promoting my services, so good in fact, that I spent little to no energy building my craft and improving my ability to deliver.
I sometimes marvel at the simplicity of the therapists (not dissimilar to coaches) whose work requires them to sit in a quiet room all day with a couch ready for their patients to perch upon. A proud display of their qualifications on shelving behind them. A queue of clients forming for them outside, and a waitlist of clients behind them.
Before social media this was considered the norm for service providers or coaches. And now? Therapists on TikTok or Instagram are par for the course. But you CAN have a business without social media. It’s a matter of choice.
I know from my IG community that the official Instagram announcement (the one declaring they are no longer a photo sharing app but rather a video-first platform designed to entertain the audience) has created angst about the role the social media platform can realistically play in their social media strategy without turning their entire focus to video production.
Having any kind of presence online as a brand necessitates that you play the game of the hand that feeds you — but must we point and dance to music and captions to make sales?
I have been guilty of doing this btw — no shade to anyone out there doing it too.
But let’s remember that talking about the thing and doing the thing are not the same thing.
The rise of influencer/creator culture has fed into the idea that to have a business equates to the idea of having a public brand. But having a public brand has consequences, some of which I’ll explore more in this post.
It’s a longer one than usual… there is a lot I had to say it turns out!
Psst! If you’re not signed up I share resources for founders creating authentic businesses every other Wednesday.
Growing an audience does not equate to growing your bottom line.
Social media’s strength lies in discovering viable new audiences for your business in one place, using key search words, harnessing communities, creating content and making connections.
What makes social media platforms so special is that they are like a small town we ‘visit’ and find what we are looking for all in one place.
Having a presence on these platforms may increase our brand reach and therefore the halo effect of having likes and followers may then help people equate you to having a better service or business and buy from you.
But it may not.
This article went viral for showing how a Miami based influencer with 2.6m followers and the coveted blue tick was not able to sell just 36 t-shirts to her audience. Bigger following does not equal bigger sales, clearly.
Chasing more followers or likes is not a business tactic. One of the best pieces of advice I got in the last 18 months building The Ask is that if you can’t convert sales from your existing audience, having a bigger audience will not solve this problem.
This piece by Simon Owen’s found that many creators (whose business model even relies on clicks and eyeballs to generate ad revenue) can miss out on money even their work goes viral into the 75m views!
On discovery calls with new clients who want to work with me 1-1 (book here if thats you!) I am often amazed to meet people who have a thriving online presence for their brands, but tell me that they are making next to no revenue.
At first this would shock me, but I myself have been through periods of posting consistently online day in day out for my business and got no leads as a result.
Whilst this is partly down to having the right strategy and knowing what kind of content converts, it is also a case of prioritisation and figuring out what would move the needle the most for your business? Is your audience more likely to buy from you because they got a glimpse into your lifestyle on camera, or do they not care providing you can get the job done, and would a 12 page PDF tell them everything they need to know about your service instead?
Frustratingly for most business owners they won’t know what works until they try it. And so once you’ve started down the road of building an audience, it can be hard to stop. The likes, comments, shares can feel like validation of your efforts even if you aren’t making sales, and lets face it, become addictions in their own right.
Tech platforms know what they are doing and how to keep those dopamine hits coming so you’ll return time and time again. We see advice to ‘just keep going’ — but at what cost?
Unless it’s making you money, it’s costing you money?
We need more role models of those running thriving businesses without large personal brands to understand this better. The trouble is we can’t see them. They are too busy working with their head down building their businesses.
The burnout content creators experience
Burnout is a natural consequence to creating more content than we need to for our businesses.
We are overworking in the name of being consistent or in the hope that the additional efforts to increase exposure will pay off long term.
But we have to look carefully at the balance of time and energy expended and the payout they bring.
Remember if you are not your business, you do not have to keep up with the daily posting or ‘putting yourself out there’ if you don’t want to.
Creators and influencers on the other hand have built a business around their lives and with it brings the expectations of being online almost 24/7. A quick google search on ‘creator burnout’ yielded a lot of results.
Rebecca Jennings' for Vox on how despite their millions of followers, influencers are left to navigate fame alone, and being popular enough to create giant followings does not always earn the kind of income required to maintain it.
Creators and influencers have typically turned themselves into the product being sold. When they generate large followings as a result is this truly commendable.
Its hard to stand out online and anyone with a big audience is clearly doing something right.
But sharing has a shelf life
At some point, sharing for sharing’s sake is not enough. Whatever business model you have, ultimately you have to create value in the world, serve people, make a difference.
Do something and then promote it. Or better yet… let your work speak for itself.
This fear of becoming irrelevant and losing influence amongst fans is a real one felt by influencers daily, even for those who’ve reached the ‘top’ aka Tik Tok house. As Jennings reports one of the influencers told her ‘The scary thing is you never know how long this is going to last, and I think that’s what eats a lot of us at night. It’s like, What’s next? How long can we entertain everyone for? How long before no one cares, and what if your life was worth nothing?’.
She said influencers will commonly speak with cynicism about the fact their livelihoods depend on a platform that could disappear overnight. Source.
As someone who has spent a lot of time looking at career journeys and analysing successful people as an executive recruiter, I have some concern about young people entering the workforce with dreams of achieving fame through these platforms.
Concern about what happens next for them; what skills, access or learnings can they hold onto and build a career around?
The ‘15 seconds of fame’ trope may not be far from the truth.
So as business owners let us continually strive to offer something tangible, to deliver excellence, and let others talk about our work as much as we do so ourselves, or at least, make your job your job. Not talking about it.
Female founders face extra scrutiny
As women, the expectation for us to uphold a strong personal brand is magnified. It is widely felt that women are held to higher standards across all aspects of their lives, and it seems our digital homes are no different.
Traditionally feminine virtues of kindness, empathy, nurture and giving are perceived to be at odds with traits better known to create success in entrepreneurial environments: competitiveness, risk-taking and shrewd decision-making.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, but female founders are somehow expected to (whilst also raising the hen).
At least that’s the opinion of a slew of founders and journalists taking the mic to defend female founders whose public personas have taken a hit on their business-building journeys.
Sharmadean Reid, Anna Fielding writing for ELLE and Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe have all pointed out the injustice of women being expected to have flawless reputations alongside running successful companies all the while being perfectly groomed and manicured to boot in the process.
2019 saw a number of female founders fall from grace in tech companies and face pressure to step down from their roles — see example in this quote from a Tech Crunch article below.
Aggressive. Blunt. Furious. These are words that have been used to criticize the behavior of female CEOs of prominent companies like Thinx, Cleo, Rent the Runway and ThirdLove, to name a few. Away is the latest female-led company to come under fire, in an article in The Verge on Thursday.
Source— Sara Mauskopf
There is a marketing term called ‘brand-as-person’ where brands are ascribed a character in the same way as humans. So when female founded brands make mistakes as businesses — it’s common for the blame to be passed onto the founder and become a slight against their entire personality.
Cleopatra Veloutsou, Glasgow University brand professor says “For firms based around one entrepreneur, the company will take on their personality: they will make decisions as though they were the brand, so the brand then becomes consistent with the characteristics that person has”. Source.
Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe describes the ‘microscopic scrutiny’ she’s felt as a female founder in the spotlight and said that taking female CEOs down publicly is a trend that has to end.
Sharmadean wrote about the constant “fear of being cancelled” or being seen as “overexposed”. She also feels ‘Cancel Culture’ only affects those with public personas.
“A woman could be cancelled for being an inexperienced CEO, whereas a man in the public arena, literally has to commit a crime, before they’re cancelled. And even then, they walk away with a lot.” — Sharmadean Reid
In light of this fear she tried to do what she felt could save her from either risk: withdrawing from Instagram completely for three full months.
It didn’t save her.
“As a founder, people want to see you. They want you to live and breathe your business and to be present in it at all times. I think it was a mistake to expect myself, as a female founder of a consumer-based business, to stay private and separate myself from the business.” — Sharmadean Reid
She feels that the role of the brand ambassador for female business owners can in fact put their careers and businesses at risk. By putting themselves out there and exposing their lives and hoping for more followers as as result, female founders are putting pressure on their lifestyles to produce greater business profits as a result.
In her mind this then begs the question of whether followers like her for taste/aesthetic or her business building abilities?
All of the time spent preening the perfect selfie, showing the BTS glimpse into your world, breakfast choices and latest personal development read could be spent working on your business. On becoming a better CEO.
Sharmadean calls for a new definition of an inspirational woman. For younger generations of new founders to understand that social media is not a pre-requisite to building a business. That there is a slippery slope to you as the brand becoming the product itself that is being sold. This — is the ultimate free (Unpaid Labour) for the platforms. Source.
Your audience are not your friends
In fact the more that you share, the more that peoples expectations of you increase.
Cancel culture should be a sign that fans can quickly turn into foes when a misstep is made by the creator/influencer.
Real friends forgive mistakes but followers are more fickle and may not be so generous.
Fadeke Adegbuyi writes a column on internet culture for Every.to.
Her recent post on ‘The Blurred Lines of Parasocial Relationships: The disappearing divide between “followers” and “friends” went viral.
It’s clear why. She explores the history of audiences adoring those on screen in the early naughties in reality TV shows and posits that “Falling in love with contestants primed us for falling in love with creators.”
Today, with a smartphone and internet connection, anyone can achieve overnight fame on the internet.
For those who make it, online creators and influencers have made sharing intimate details about their lives part of the job description itself. They share with complete openness and divulge more online than the average person might to their own friends.
She explores the term “para-social relationship,” defined as a “seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer” which was coined in the 50s following the rise of celebrities on TV film and radio, becoming increasingly the case with online creators who live their lives on screen.
But this dependability of showing up each day for the audiences and the platforms means burnout for the creators who “need to step back from punishing upload schedules and take a break from living life online.” Fans see creators as offering regularly scheduled programming much like the shows they will tune into on TV, forgetting that television shows have deep pockets for production budgets and “online creators are a one-person show: they’re the talent, finance department, film crew, production staff, editor, and marketing team.” Source.
Within the creator world itself reporter Rebecca Jennings noted how some of these relationships are more one-sided than it might appear. She alludes to how vapid and transient it can be having residency at TikTok house and what creators need is community; “not the kind of faux community promised by toxic content houses or publicity-designed friendships” but to find real meaning, community and longevity in their work.
Do it however you goddam want.
So remember, there are some influencers, social media platforms, coaches and *cough* Gary V *cough* types who will absolutely tell you that building a big personal brand unlocks the key to business success. That you need to be everywhere all of the time.
This may true for many businesses, perhaps even my own, but not for all.
As a coach for founders, I advocate building what will bring you the most joy. You get to choose how your day looks and what you work on; hopefully building something aligned to your strengths, passions and what gives you energy.
If the thought of being in the spotlight in front of a big audience fills you with joy - by all means go and do it. But if it fills you with dread, then that’s ok too.
There are other ways to promote your business than being internet famous.
Liked this post? Read more of my take about what business you should build here:
How to decide what to work on so you can actually enjoy your business
As always thank you for reading, your attention is a precious resource I hope to only offer value for in return. If you resonated with the post you can read more about my coaching here or book a free no-obligation call if you’re ready to take action on building your dream business.
Until next time ✌️
Ellen Donnelly, Founder + Chief Coach, The Ask.