‘Creative vision’ largely defined Women Innovate Mobile’s latest roundtable discussion at the SoHo-based Apple store recently. The event featured a diverse panel of entrepreneurs who have committed themselves — and their careers — to following the beat of their own respective drums. WIM managing director Kelly Hoey hosted NASCAR racer Julia Landauer, CollegePrepster blog creator Carly Heitlinger, former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Kate White, and brand consultant Holly Lynch in a discussion about each of their distinct byways into the startup community, and what they’ve learned about building effective personal brands.
While business tactics may vary when forming one’s own brand, the panel collectively stressed the importance of defining a personal set of “core values” that speak to the brand holder’s heartfelt interests. White, who’s currently refocusing on her career as a novelist, said that a marketplace oversaturated by startups makes it challenging for any promising brand to appear unique enough to gain traction. But jumpstarting a business with your own set of clear and unwavering standards can help you find a smaller but clearly definable and devoted audience who will fully understand your mission. White emphasized that the key to developing a good personal brand revolves around a willingness to create your own context, rules and value systems: the marketplace may give greater credence to the off-kilter blogger than the boardroom savant, betting on people who openly know and specifically express more about themselves and their own services to consumers than the person who attempts to pander to any loose demographic.
A persuasive brand should consistently express its values across all of its products as it continues to grow. “Why are you doing it and who are you doing it for?” asked White. Lynch, whose experiences supported this notion, referenced her work on Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign as a breakthrough for the Unilever giant in finding a new niche audience who expected the brand to uphold the natural looks championed in its advertisements. “A really strong brand forces a conversation,” said Lynch. When faced with opposition from television networks when debuting one of the biggest commercials of the campaign, her team stayed true to their creative intent and aired them through alternative methods, premiering the ad on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. The entire panel agreed that finding your audience will determine your detractors just the same, but that such feedback would only prove that you’ve made an impact on people.
For Landauer, generating impact meant developing a “relatable” brand in an “extreme sport” so that she could acquire the sponsorships necessary to compete with her well-established peers. Her pursuit has led her to study business at the college level while competing on the latest season of Survivor, all in service of building the cultural cachet for her eponymously-named startup. One of her greatest challenges in marketing her brand: she realized she had to embrace new ways of introducing herself to the public while demystifying the misconceptions about her profession, becoming a better communicator of her values along the way. While she initially introduced herself as the girl racer from New York City, she found that those general labels only marginalized her identity and intent as a public figure. “I can’t do something else,” Landauer said, readily taking on the diverse experiences to grow, “limit risk,” and to keep her adapting to the marketplace so that her dream of professional racing continues to thrive.
As social media further marries business tact with individual lifestyles, today’s brands are often about more than a genial slogan and logo: what makes a startup special might seem so abstract and spontaneous that success in modern business may appear to be a matter of dumb luck. Heitlinger said that one of her greatest worries while entering the business phase of College Prepster was that she wasn’t totally certain of how hard-won her nascent company was, fearing that her creative outlet-turned-startup was simply a “fluke.” But with her continued consulting efforts, as the site grew she reminded herself of what she had learned one step at a time, noting that “success is not the brand: success is what came behind it.” Ignoring those doubts has allowed her pave the way for the future of her brand, however she wants to shape it.
Heitlinger said that such “low” moments drove her to reevaluate her life and find the ideals she needed to continue building towards. The rest of the panel seemed to agree: for a group of entrepreneurs who got their starts all over the professional map, those moments of reinvention have provided all the change necessary to transform their shaky ideas into dedicated and customized businesses.