Building your personal brand: How I would do it 30 min a day

Personal branding is becoming more important for individuals in the Gig economy. It is important since it ensures “inbound” leads for freelancers, opportunities for individuals at larger companies and also makes it easy for entrepreneurs to raise money or hire people.

Let me outline what personal branding is:

To me personal branding is creating enough value for the set of people who you are trying to influence or persuade. Those “influencers” know about your work in a certain area, domain and would consider you to be the preeminent expert in that area. The “recall” for your name associated in that area, should hence, should be significant.

Let me also outline what personal branding is not:

I believe personal branding is not about blowing your own horn, bombarding people with messages and content that’s not unique or differentiated.

The best way to create a personal brand is to create compelling content. Or so I thought.

That’s not sufficient any more is what I have learned over the last 6 months.

The “community” or influencers who you are trying to influence are equally if not more important.

Personal Branding Map

Personal Branding Map

The 2X2 Matrix above shows the 4 types of personal brands according to me. If you have good content and build a great community you are perceived as a leader. That’s where you should aim to be.

Initially you wont have either, and so the question becomes where do you start?

The nuanced question is – where do I start if I have limited time – say 30 minutes a day?

My experience states you are better off building a community and not spending time initially creating content.

You can curate great content from others – in the form of an email newsletter, or frequent (2-3 posts and links on the topic) daily.

Spend time reading about the space you want to build your personal brand before you have an opinion or a point of view.

Learn about the different people, their points of view and the pros and cons before you start to write and speak about the topic. Engage with people on twitter, by asking questions, connecting with them and learning about their point of view first. Then spend time building relationships.

I wanted to also put my money where my advice goes. So, for the next 3 months I am mentoring 2 of my friends Marc and Nancy to build their personal brand using my suggestions and strategies. They are not known as experts in their space. They are trying to build their niche  – Nancy as an angel investor – her niche is to be determined and Marc in the SaaS space – his niche within SaaS is also TBD.

Over the next 3 months I will report once a couple of weeks on their progress, the tactics they are using and the methods they have followed.

The measure of their success will be determined by 3 specific goals they have set out for themselves.

  1. Both want to be invited to speak at a major event (which is yet to be determined) as an expert on the space they chose.
  2. They want to be interviewed by either a podcaster or a blogger on their thoughts on the space.
  3. They want to be associated with a unique piece of content (examples Dave McClure and AARRR or Sean Ellis and Growth Hacking.

They both have specific metrics on # of engagements (key influencers who know them, etc.), # of Twitter followers (which I think is a useless metric, but nonetheless) and email open rates, etc.

Double opt in Email Introduction

Double opt-in email introductions are painful, but more useful than blind intros

A typical week for me is about 15-20 introductions to entrepreneurs and VC’s. I love that part of the job, in fact. If I could do more, with less time, I would any day, but I am getting more judicious lately.

There are 3 primary reasons why I am slowing down my “warm” introductions.

First, even though I know both the parties well enough to make the introduction, turns out many things change in 3-5 months that I am not on top of. One of my friends at a VC firm, decided to focus on B2C later stage instead of B2B. After 2 introductions, which I made to entrepreneurs, I found that out and also found out that he was “forwarding” my emails to his colleague. What I thought was “helping” was actually creating more work (useless and unnecessary) for him.

Similarly, an angel investor wanted an introduction to an entrepreneur who was looking to raise money a few months ago. Turns out by the time I made the intro, the entrepreneur had changed roles to be  the product guy, got a new CEO and also had finished raising money. Again, creating more work for him was not my goal but I ended up doing just that.

Second, in many cases the entrepreneur or the investor is not a good fit at all. Take a case this week. A very smart investor is a hugely sought after lady in my network. Not a week goes by, when I am asked to make an intro to her. I was asked this week by a good friend and entrepreneur to make an introduction to her. I like the team, so I was willing to help. Turns out, the investor had already looked at the company and decided to not engage because she has a competitive deal in the space.

Now, I had obligated her to find a way to “help” my entrepreneur friend in some way. That’s negative brownie points for me, even though I wanted to actually help them both.

Finally, there is a power dynamic in play with most situations. The “requester” of the introduction and the “recipient” are not sure in most cases who will actually benefit. Neither am I am very clear about who needs who more. In most cases, when entrepreneurs ask for an intro to an investor it is clear, but in many cases when I have a “hot” entrepreneur in my network, it is not unusual to have 3-4 investors seek my help for a warm introduction.

While making introductions is a critical part of the role that I play, it is becoming clear that the work that it generates for me is becoming onerous.

The best approach is to email the person who is the recipient of the introduction if they’d like the introduction, then wait for their response and then respond back to the requester of their response.

Double opt in Email Introduction

Double opt in Email Introduction

So one email introduction now becomes at least 3 if not more in some cases. Multiply that by 15 a week and I am spending close to an hour making introductions. There has to be a better way.

What do you suggest? I like the connecting and the introductions, but the work involved in doing this is getting to be too much.

Angel List Database of Investors

What percent of active angel investors are on #AngelList?

Every week, I get about 2-3 emails from entrepreneurs asking me to introduce them to angel investors who might be interested in a startup.

Besides this, I get about 3-5 introduction requests to specific investors.

Looking at my reports from Conspire, I end up helping more than 70% of the specific requests and only introduce 25% of the folks from the generic requests to “connect” to investors.

I’d love to help a lot more, but I unfortunately dont have the time. For the entrepreneurs who want connections, I end up saying – Can you please check on #angelList. Which is what I would do if I were in their position.

I usually get a note from the entrepreneur who say most of the investors on Angel List are “fake”. I think they are confusing getting “lead investors”, who are on Angel List versus, getting the entire round done, with investors who are not on Angel List.

Somehow, many of them come back telling me that there are a host of “other investors” who are actively investing, but are not on angel List.

That lead me to the topic of this blog post.

“What percent of active angel investors are on #AngelList?”

Angel List Database of Investors

Angel List Database of Investors

Most entrepreneurs believe that like the iceberg featured above there are a lot more actual investors than the # on any database. Or that there is opacity in the identification of angel investors.

I am not sure of the data, but I wanted to do some quick and dirty data checking.

Here are the assumptions I am making about the startup.

1. I assumed that I was looking to raise money in Bangalore, India or Mountain View, California.

2. I am starting a company in the SaaS (Software as a Service) space.

3. I am looking to raise $500K from angel investors

4. I have early product and some customers (none of them are paying, or a few are paying too little).

5. I dont have a large network of investors and I am not from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn or a “hot company” on my resume.

I then looked at Angel List with these assumptions and got about 35 “individual investors” in India and 512 investors in Silicon Valley. There are actually a lot more, but I weeded out the ones who have done only 1 investment over 2 years ago and those that are not SaaS specialists.

I also then looked at the recent 9 SaaS investments (last 2 years) in India, and 14 SaaS investments in SaaS in the Bay area. I got this list from Owler and Crunchbase and also looked at data from 5 accelerators – YC, 500, Alchemist, Angel Pad and StartX. I wanted to check who are the investors in these startups.

The data on some of the investors is available but most of the startups that recently got funded have 3-5 investors who are public and rest (similar number) who are “behind the scenes”.

The quick and dirty research suggests that close to 40%-50% of angel investors are not on Angel List.

The reason I was able to determine that only 20%-50% of the investors were publicly identifiable was by speaking to 7 of the Indian startups and 9 of the US ones.

The most common 3 reasons why not all investors were listed on the company’s Angel List page were:

1. The angel investor was not on Angel List.

2. The other angel investors did not want to be identified or preferred to keep a low profile.

3. The angel investors were part of the syndicate, which was led by one of the well identified investors already on Angel List.

I spoke to 5 of the “lead investors” and 3 of the “not on Angel List” as well.

There are 3 takeaways for entrepreneurs from my research.

1. To get an angel round done, you need a lead angel investor who is very likely on Angel List and is pretty active (you need a lead for other rounds as well, BTW, so no surprises here).

2. If an “angel investor” is not on Angel List, it is highly unlikely they will lead the round or help you close the round.

3. Most of the “other investors”, not on Angel List purely work on recommendations from their trusted “Angel investors” NOT from other entrepreneurs. This is different from professional investors (such as Micro VC’s or VC’s) who get most of their recommendations from other entrepreneurs.

So, my recommendation is start on Angel List, get your lead investor and then use other sources (LinkedIn is the better source than Angel List for this) to find investors who are connected to your lead on that platform, but are not on Angel List. Also use recommendations from your lead investor to help you get to other investors who invest with your lead.

Problem Development Approaches

Problem Development – 3 approaches to find good problems to solve

Yesterday when I wrote about problem development, I assumed that there would be a lot of information written about it. Turns out I was wrong. A simple Google search on “problem development” returns my blog post that I wrote yesterday in the top 10 results. I also got 2 emails from entrepreneurs yesterday asking me to share some more resources on problem development. I did not have as many, so I thought I’d write a few posts on what I have learned on problem development.

Most entrepreneurs are told to “scratch their own itch”, or solve a problem that they have themselves. It is good advice, but only one of many methods to find problems.

Most B2B companies tend not to either use their product or have the problems for the type and kind of users they are trying to solve problems for.

There are 3 ways I have seen people find problems to solve.

Problem Development Approaches

Problem Development Approaches

1. Follow the money: The founders of Ariba, where I worked, were not OSM (Operations Spend Management) experts by any means. They did not “have the problem” of non-production, non-manufacturing spend. The way the 2 founders came up with the problem was to look at spending patterns of large companies using classical analysis of expense statements. They spent time looking at where companies were spending money, where they are making money and finally figured out that non-plan, non production spend on “pens and paper clips” was a fairly large part of most businesses.

2. Domain expertise: In starting Infosys, the founders were not having the problems of Y2K, but they knew enough customers, who had the problem. The main reason was that they spent enough time building, supporting and managing COBOL based systems for large companies. They did not have the problem of managing the systems themselves, but their customers did.

3. Scratch your own itch: If you have neither deep domain expertise or ability to analyze the market in a financial manner, you can solve problems you have. What I have seen from my own experience is that while, we hear about the successes (Facebook, Microsoft, etc.), most of the not-so-successful founder-led-problems are no so frequently mentioned. Many suffer from “Clustering Illusion” bias, or the tendency to erroneously consider the inevitable “streaks” or “clusters” arising in small samples from random distributions to be statistically significant.

If you are considering a startup blog, focus on “more” insights, not a “better” narrative

Over the last 4 months as many of you have noticed I have been writing a blog post daily. That’s resulted in 120+ blog posts and a few insights on what I learned by blogging daily.

There are many things I have learned about the writing process and very little about building a strong readership base. The number one thing that’s changed over the last few years is that most people seem to care about the number of unique new things (insights) they have access to and reducing the amount of time spent gaining those insights.

I guess that’s not “new” news or insightful, but it is the explanation for the success of tweetstorms.

Made popular by Marc Andreessen, who had a blog a few years ago and quite possibly figured out this inadvertently or by design.

Here is what I mean by concentrate on more but smaller pieces of insights vs. One big insight but with a great narrative.

Thanks to the mobile phone (largely screen size) and twitter, there is so little time for people to read long form articles that the number of long form pieces being read (and also the number of books) is reducing dramatically.

At the same time, people prefer to read 10 individual, standalone sentences that are 140 characters or less than read one big paragraph with 10 lines or 1400 characters.

Giving a lot of context, adding many superfluous words is what a lot of writers do. The readers, though seem to have no more time or patience for it.

The implications for those wanting to make money writing a book (non fiction) or a blog are pretty big.

Here are some examples of things that work.

1. Lists – take any article you are planning to write and make it a list with some visuals. That works.

2. Instead of long paragraphs, with 5-7 sentences and over 70-100 words, focus on writing 1 sentence.

3. Video or Podcast: Focus on getting your content in an audio or video format with a 5 min solution instead of writing. The time to read an entire 750 word blog post might be 5-6 minutes and it may be the same amount of time to read 20 tweets, but readers seem to prefer the latter.

The other thing that works is attention grabbing content shock.

Which type of pivot is the hardest for entrepreneurs?

If you have been working on your startup for any reasonable amount of time, you will learn quickly that the market and customer assumptions you make are quite different from reality in most cases. In some situations they might be relatively benign and still others they might take a complete change of focus and direction.

At the #napkinStage of the company, pivots are a lot easier to execute than at the later stages. Since the immediate impact is largely the time and effort spent on the idea, it tends to be easier to acknowledge, explain or work on.

In watching 14 entrepreneurs over the last 6 months, I have seen 5 companies pivot.

Types of Pivots

Types of Pivots

The hardest is the Market pivot – focusing on a completely different market than the one they focused on before – going from IoT startup to a data SaaS company. This type of pivot will take 18 or more months to execute. Learning about a new market is hard. Building relationships and understanding nuances of the landscape is even harder. It might seem easy since when you research on the Internet, but many markets are fairly opaque, till you spend more time learning about them.

The second hardest is the Customer type pivot – a company went from selling to consumers to selling to SMB with the same product. Changing the customer type or target customer is equally difficult. The hardest part is knowing and understanding the influence and decision making landscape if you are in B2B or to find the immediate value for the consumer if you are B2C.

The third hardest is the Customer problem pivot – one of the startups, realized, after talking to their target users that the problem more pressing was a different one and hence changed their product. If you already know your customer, but find out that the “latent” problem you perceived was different from the top 3 problems for your customer, then it is relatively less difficult to change course and pivot to the new problem. While communication with the internal team is still a challenge, these pivots tend to be able to execute faster.

The less harder pivot is the Business model pivot – a company went from charging on a SaaS monthly subscription model to a commission model on sales. By no means am I suggesting that a Business model pivot is easy. Having seen 2 companies of 14, just in the last 6 months, I think of all the other pivots, these are easier to execute and will likely take less time.

The first part of your problem is spotting the trend lines that help you understand when to pivot. The second (and likely more hard) part of your pivot is communicating – to your employees and founders, your customers, to potential and existing investors and to others who were involved – mentors, advisers, etc.

How 3 peace-time founders are laying the foundation to transition to a war-time role

I have been at 3 board meetings this week. It is very apparent to me that we are in an environment where money is easily available to both the best and not so good performers. There are exceptional cases when the awful performer is also getting funded, but I want to avoid judging performance at the earliest stages.

Ben Horowitz popularized the term Peacetime CEO and Wartime CEO’s. We are at a really good peacetime – so the tactics for hiring, fund raising and customer acquisition are different than those when the market will turn – and it will. I cant predict when that will happen, and wont even know when it will start to turn.

I wanted to highlight the change in compensation strategy that’s being used by 3 companies who are preparing for when money gets more constrained, hiring is easier and customers are more cautious about their spending.

Most of the companies I know are moving from 60/20/20 split of base salary, performance bonus (based on individual goals) and stock options to

50/40/10 for marginal performers and

for the superstars, the compensation is 70/10/20.

The superstars have a total compensation that’s greater than the marginal performers.

PeaceTime CEO and WarTime CEO

PeaceTime CEO and WarTime CEO

What is being optimized is the bonus – for the marginal performers a lot more is being paid out on bonus – variable pay based on performance.

The logic behind the thinking is that the key players should not be poached – hence they are given a higher base than they would get outside, and are to be kept for the longer term – hence the incentive on the stock, whereas the marginal performers do not care about options that much.

Who are the marginal employees? Most of them are putting the “6 months, course at a coding academy” folks in the marginal employee pool. Not sure that’s correct, but that’s the approach being taken right now.