CEOs & founders, get better at building your personal brand (with lessons from Patagonia and Basecamp)

I recently came across this quote by @jeffseibert: "As the founder/CEO, you have one job: Look at where you're spending your time, then fire yourself from that position".

A hundred times yes.

Juggling a hundred plates and having a view of every department that's as detailed as an Old Master's isn't helpful.

Stepping back and equipping your team with what they need to succeed is. You can free yourself up to focus on your company's direction forward, big picture goals, culture, and partnerships – and reap the benefits of building your own brand.

You're the figurehead of your business.

People listen to you: your customers, your employees, your fans, and your potential customers. 

When you cultivate your personal brand, you access new levels of achievement for you and your company.

With the content you put out, you can show a genuine, personable side to your brand. If people like you, actually believe what you're saying, and share your values, your brand becomes more credible, memorable, and trustworthy.

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Your own values are intrinsically linked to your company's values.

When I think about this, I think about hippie, climber, surfer, and businessman Yvon Chouinard.

Yvon went on his first climb in 1953 aged fourteen. Soon after, he started hopping freight trains to the west end of the San Fernando Valley, to the sandstone cliffs of Stoney Point, where he and his friends learned to climb up and rappel down the rock.

He started Chouinard Equipment, later Black Diamond, to manufacture and distribute the gear he wanted to exist. The company redesigned and improved almost every climbing tool, to make them stronger, lighter, simpler, and more functional

They also started manufacturing clothes for climbers. They called the company Patagonia.

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Patagonia is one of the most value-driven brands out there, and it has an iron-clad reputation as the sustainable clothing brand of choice if you care about the planet. But Yvon has cemented that legacy by going beyond what people think of Patagonia – and creating additional content that takes his values and missions much further.

He published Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman to share his story of growing one of the most respected and environmentally responsible companies on earth. His focus on flexibility, generosity and full support of employees has made Patagonia into an unlikely business behemoth – but an incredibly memorable, likeable one.

When exponential growth was killing the company, they followed their values. They slowed down, got rid of money-focused managers, and thought about the next 100 years instead of current YoY growth.

By sticking to the values they promote, and continuing to do so, they showed they were the real deal.

Patagonia now has its own Business Library, which also includes The Responsible Company and Tools for Grassroots Activists. Each book has their brand values running through every part of it, and each one makes Patagonia – and Yvon – more credible and memorable to their readers.

Another template to follow is from the founders of Basecamp.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) have built a vast media platform around their company and a more memorable, value-driven brand, too.

Is Basecamp the best product? Not necessarily. Do they have the best mission and values in their market? Hell yes.

They write regularly on their Medium publication, Signal v. Noise, which they describe as "Strong opinions and shared thoughts on design, business, and tech. By the makers (and friends) of Basecamp. Since 1999".

Their personal brands are both built on those strong opinions, and also drive the success of their books: REMOTE: Office Not Required and, recently published in 2018, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work. They want to build a "calm" company and throw the notions of hustle and whatever it takes under the nearest truck.

When I think of different ways of working, I think of Jason Fried, DHH, and Basecamp. That's because of their personal brands and the content they put out.

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What are your values? And what are your company's values?

If you're not clear on those and how they intersect, get clear.

Your values underpin everything. They determine the themes you'll create content around and be known for.

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Set aside time every day to think big and write down ideas

I initially wrote that you should set aside an hour a week to work on your personal brand. But I'm not convinced you'll do that. It's too easy to swipe away calendar notifications as soon as they come up, or ignore blocked time completely when a last-minute meeting comes up.

So instead, I'm asking you to set aside time every day to sit with your pen and notebook. Every single day. First thing in the morning might work best for you, before you open up your emails or let anyone near your desk.

Make it your think big time. Use it to open up space for ideas to flow in.

Diagram where you are right now and where you want to be. Write down what ideas are in your head, even if just for a few minutes. Make it a habit with my XYZ method.

  • What are you learning at this stage of your company?
  • What values are really important to your company right now?
  • What do you believe as a founder and leader?
  • What do you believe that's different from most people or bucks trends?
  • What are you noticing in your industry that you want to tell people about?
  • What's inside your head that's worth sharing with others?

Think of it as the CEO equivalent of Tim Ferriss's morning pages (inspired by The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron).

Make it your priority.

Share what you know. It makes your career infinitely more impactful. And your competitors are too lazy to copy you.

As the boss, you're in an incredible position: it's never been easier to get your brand out into the world. With content marketing, you can:

  1. position yourself as an expert
  2. make yourself (and your company) more credible
  3. help more people to become aware of your company
  4. generate more leads with the above

So don't keep putting it off to fight fires and throw yourself under day-to-day minutiae. Slow down and think. Then create.

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Personal brand-building ideas to get you started

  • use Medium to write thought leadership articles about your business, how you're doing things, the lessons you're learning, and where you see the industry heading
  • create a Medium publication that's curated by your brand, with you as a regular contributor
  • start a simple, concise personal website to be the heart of your online brand – one of my favourites is longevity investor Laura Deming's website
  • publish opinion pieces on LinkedIn
  • write occasionally for your company's blog (your brand's loyal followers should be used to seeing your face and reading your words in blog posts, newsletters, podcasts, and webinars)
  • let your network know that you're open to speaking opportunities, reach out to contacts at the big events in your industry
  • share the articles that are inspiring you (and that you're hopefully writing) on Twitter
  • get inspired by Erik Torenberg and write epic Twitter threads with your opinions around a theme
  • be a frequent guest on podcasts (it's not too late for you or your company to start one, either)
  • the ultimate brand-builder, which is easier than you think: write a book to share what you've learned from your years in the industry (read Authorpreneur: Build the Brand, Business, and Lifestyle You Deserve by Jesse Tevelow for advice here).

All of these things will be more powerful once you've clarified your message, values, and core beliefs. Build your brand around themes that your followers will start to associate with you: like sustainability for Yvon Chouinard, or better ways of working for DHH.


Get in touch if you're interested in working with me on your brand and content.