I’ve been working with and around entrepreneurs for most of my career. From consulting and B2B service firms to full-scale manufacturing operations involving heavy equipment and several shifts of employees… I’ve seen them all. Therefore, I’m aware that the challenges facing businesses vary depending on their industry, structure, goals and competition.
But there is one challenge that you’ll face no matter what type of business you intend to start:
You need to sell.
And that is where your brand comes in.
Ugh... Branding? Really?
Many aspiring business owners, side hustlers, bloggers, creatives and individual professionals I talk to have ideas about branding... and not all those ideas are positive.
For some, the word “branding” conjures up images of sleazy internet sales gurus and very annoying people on social media. For others, the word is synonymous with inauthenticity. Still others consider the whole exercise of building a brand to be a complete and utter waste of time.
But here's the thing: the internet doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Whether we like it or not, selling in most industries already relies on the internet... which means the way your business presents itself online directly effects how many dollar bills end up in your pocket.
And dollar bills in my pocket are something I can get behind, even if branding isn’t my favorite business activity.
But first, what does branding even mean in a business context?
Why Building an Online Brand for Your Business is Essential
As is true of many creatives and entrepreneurs I know, I come up with business ideas virtually all the time. I think about what I would call my hypothetical product or service, how I would price it, how I would describe it, what I would call the company selling it, and even how I would design the website that sells it. Then my little thought experiment runs into a snag...
Because I launch this website I’ve made up, and no one buys anything.
Because no one knows I exist.
Before the age of the internet, that is how many businesses had to launch. They conducted whatever market research they could, set up shop, and hoped for the best. Now at this point you may be thinking “that’s what advertising is for”, and I wouldn’t disagree with you. But if you are bootstrapping your startup, then you want to avoid spending money before you start making money as much as you possibly can.
Which leads us to the other tried and true method for driving customers to your product or service: word of mouth. It’s great if people can buy your product or service, love it, and tell their friends and family. It’s also great if you can partner with businesses that sell something adjacent to your product or service (this generally happens after you start to build some awareness about your business and can offer a mutually beneficial relationship to a potential business partner).
But you still need a way to bring those very first customers in the door.
And one way to bring in those customers is through your established online brand.
Why You Should Consider Launching Your Brand Before Launching Your Product or Service
You can think of building an online brand or platform as building an audience for your product or service... before you ever even launch it. In fact, you don’t even have to know what exactly you will ultimately sell. You just need to know the industry you’re interested in and/or the type of product or service you are interested in selling so you can create content that would be relevant to your potential future customers.
Building an online brand or platform is all about creating valuable content for your target audience. If you can offer free value to your potential customers in some format, you can start attracting them to your website and social media platforms (where you will ultimately sell a product or service).
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that driving traffic is easy or immediate. It takes time to create valuable content, interact with followers and fans, network with potential partners, suppliers and other brands you admire online, and ultimately build a brand from the ground up.
But the reality is that you will likely need to build an online brand either way. You can either wait until the day you launch your product and service to also launch your brand (including your website, blog, podcast, video channel and/or social media channels), or you can spread those launches out a bit.
Personally, I’m a big fan of launching your brand before launching your product or service for several reasons:
1) It allows you to focus on selling when it is time to sell
As anyone who has ever launched a blog or social media accounts on multiple platforms can attest, getting an online presence off the ground is time consuming. If you can put in the time and effort to get your online brand or platform built first, you’ll be able to devote more of your time, energy, and focus to selling when you are ready to launch your product or service.
2) It makes selling feel much less sleazy
Sales is one area that many entrepreneurs I talk to struggle with, because they inherently find asking people for something (like their money) uncomfortable. One way around this is to give valuable content away for free. If you establish a fan base that benefits from the content you are creating in some way, it feels much more authentic to also offer them a product or service that they can buy.
3) It allows you to get ideas from your target audience and test your ideas
Having an online community early on (even before you’ve finalized the product or service you want to sell) gives you a lot of flexibility. Through interaction with your target audience and research for your content, you can determine what your target audience needs and wants. You can also ask your target audience to weigh in on some of your product and service ideas or consider a beta/test launch to your online community to get feedback on what you are selling before officially launching your product or service.
4) It’s a great way to figure out if this is something you really want to do
Not to scare anyone away from launching a brand or a business... but launching either is difficult. It takes time, patience, and hard work. If you can successfully navigate those obstacles to launch your online brand (including your website and social media platforms), it can help you determine whether or not this specific entrepreneurial venture is a good fit for you.
Do All Types of Businesses Need an Online Brand?
While the type of branding discussed so far in this post applies most directly to online businesses, building an online brand is still going to be a component of many if not most startups in today’s world. Even if you don’t sell a product or service online, you’ll likely still want people to be able to discover information about your business (or restaurant, or coffee shop, or boutique, or electrical contracting firm) online. If you are an individual professional offering any type of service (a photographer, a consultant, a bookkeeper, a lawyer, etc.) you’ll want people to be able to find out more about the services you offer. If you are in heavy manufacturing or construction, you may build an online presence just so that potential job candidates can find out more about your work culture or to network with industry groups.
What about small businesses that prefer a local approach? I’m a big fan of supporting local businesses, and I don’t think that selling nationally or internationally is a good fit for every entrepreneur. But having a bias toward local goods and services isn’t a reason not to build an online brand. An online brand or platform is a powerful way to connect with other local business owners and service providers, find out about local events, and connect with your local audience.
The best advice I can give about building an online brand for your business is to get creative with it. Build the components of an online presence that will work for your business and your industry, but don’t be afraid to try offering different types of content than your competition. Any value that you can offer your target audience will help them find you, so adding a blog or another type of ongoing, relevant content to your online presence is worth considering.
After all, your online brand is one of the best ways to set yourself apart.
Keep the Bigger Picture in Mind
Whether they intend to launch their brand (website, social media, etc.) ahead of their product or service or launch everything at the same time, a lot of people express concerns to me about building a brand. Sometimes, they are concerned about the fact that they don’t know anything about social media. Or web design. Or SEO.
But that’s ok.
If entrepreneurship isn’t about getting out there, getting your hands dirty, and figuring things out... then I don’t know what is.
If you intend to launch a bootstrapped startup as a sole proprietor (or even as a partnership), a lot of business tasks will fall on you. And you have probably already realized this, but I’ll state it for the record just in case: you aren’t going to be good at everything you need to do as an entrepreneur. Some things won’t come as naturally as others and building a brand may be one of those things.
But you should try it anyway.
Because ultimately, building a brand is about telling your story. And no one can tell the story of why you are interested in starting your business better than you can. If you realize that you absolutely hate managing your brand online, you can hire someone to do it for you when your business starts making money. You may also realize that you love interacting with fans and followers online, and that’s great too.
As with many things in life (and definitely in the realm of entrepreneurship): you really aren’t going to know until you try.
Remember that you’re not doing this to become an expert on social media, SEO, branding or web design.
You’re doing this to offer value to your target audience and connect with them.
So that the next time you are ready to launch a product or service, people know you exist.
That’s the bigger picture.