by Joel Hansen
Head of Marketing & Partnerships, LOI Venture
September 21, 2021
The inside scoop on the future of personal branding and community building
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This month I have the honor of interviewing the Founder of Polywork, Peter Johnston.
Peter used to be a designer at Google, and now he’s created a new platform for professionals to build a personal brand beyond the job titles, highlighting everything from work, talks, podcasts, blog posts, side projects, NFTs, milestones & more. This platform recently raised a $13m Series A round (A16z). 🤯
What’s a better place to learn about personal branding than a founder committed to changing personal branding as we know it?
JH: What's the best personal branding advice you've ever heard?
PJ: Be thoughtful about how your message might be perceived.
I think when people are trying to build a personal brand, they typically start out only thinking within their sphere of influence. We’re biased to crafting messages in a certain way based on who we surround ourselves with, but with the power of social media to amplify a message to an audience you never imagined you'd reach (especially audiences you aren’t familiar with), there has to be more intention put into the words we say. 💬
Whereas a younger version of myself might have just blurted out whatever came to my mind—I wear my opinions on my sleeve a lot online—I’ve really learned to slow down and take my time to consider how the words I say might resonate differently to people of different backgrounds, geographies, experiences and privileges than mine.
The great thing about just slowing down and being intentional is that it not only obviously helps you avoid saying harmful, insensitive things, but it also expands the ceiling for the size of the audience you can build.
There’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions, but it’s about balancing that authenticity of saying what you want to say with having empathy for the person on the other end.
JH: How do you approach audience and community building?
PJ: I think there’s two important things you have consider before you ever start any kind of community building, and these have been some helpful guide rails for us as we’ve build Polywork:
1️⃣First, you have to figure out who’s going to be in the community—and who you’re building it for. Again, you have to step outside your own sphere of influence and familiarity, being especially strategic and intentional about early invites. Diversity isn’t going to just happen by default; you have to put in the work to prevent homogeneity.
2️⃣Second, you have to commit to being very authentic and honest. In order to do that, I think your immediate mindset has to be that no one in a community is ever completely right. It’s never binary, it’s always grey. For any opinion shared, there is always someone that will have a different perspective or will disagree, and that’s okay—so long as no one is being harmful, rude or causing abuse, of course.
JH: What are your top resource (book/podcast/course) recommendations for learning about marketing?
PJ: This might be a little odd, but I think one of the most underrated resources are science fiction books.📚
At a macro level, with all the crazy stuff going on in the world right now, people are naturally, subconsciously inclined to think about and aspire to a future that doesn’t look like today.
Sci-fi books actually give us a really futuristic take on storytelling, which is resonating more and more especially as you see people leaning into the idea of the metaverse. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this type of futuristic storytelling is going to seep more into marketing, PR, storytelling and so on.
JH: What do you think people often forget when trying to build a personal brand?
PJ: I think people forget to acknowledge that it’s all a journey, a work in progress. A lot of people think that to build a good personal brand, you have to be polished and perfect out of the gate, and what we’re seeing is that no, people actually like seeing the quirky, imperfect side.
With Polywork, we’ve seen how people have really embraced the timeline structure of our product, because it allows them to share their personal career journey in perspective, instead of just making their brand about what job titles they’ve had.
Relatedly, people forget that your brand isn’t just your output—it can also be the meta-commentary you share on what new things you’re learning, how you approach your work, even how you’ve failed. These messages resonate with people because it’s so much more appealing to follow people that are honest and candid.
I mean, I spent 7 years building a company that failed! But I’ve learned to embrace that as part of my identity (even going so far as to put the “Failure” badge on my Polywork profile).
I think the economic implications of building a successful personal brand have unfortunately skewed the idea of “relatability” towards being an aesthetic someone puts on, as opposed to a natural result of being your messy human self. We need to get back to embracing personality!
JH: What’s your favourite under $100 investment you’ve made in marketing this year?
PJ: Doing personal one-on-one onboarding sessions with early users, by far.
Other than time, there’s no cost to it—but the dividends it pays down the road (especially when you launch new features you want to generate community buzz around) if you’ve already built these relationships and provided white-glove experiences early on? It’s huge.
[JH: Special thanks to Peter and the whole Polywork team for piping in today.]
💡RIFF OF THE DAY
Polywork is focused on building a new kind of professional network where people can build an online identity (brand!) beyond just a job title or work experience. Use this link to skip the waitlist and check it out. 🚀
Thanks for reading! I try hard to make it a newsletter you look forward to each week, so if you have any suggestions about content you’d like to see or ideas that sparked, let me know.