April 6, 2019

Ask IH: How does one build up a personal brand (aka fame, influence, media capital) from square one?

Paul Danyliuk @PaulD

Launching products is, without a doubt, much easier when you’re famous. Elon Musk or Pieter Levels, all they have to do to promote their latest creation is write a single tweet. Fame begets more fame, and no need to spend a dime on ads too.

Most of us are not there yet. I’m fairly sure we make more meaningful products than flamethrowers. But we rarely make headlines and often have to fight our way through.

From obscurity to becoming an influencer, what are the steps to follow?


  1. 12

    "Build an audience first" is very common advice, but I've changed my mind on it. If you have an audience, that's great! But if you don't have an audience, I don't think you should let that stand in the way of you launching your products. In fact, I believe the opposite:

    Building an audience is the side effect of doing cool things and launching successful products. In other words, the best way to build an audience is to first build a successful product.

    For example, I had almost no "audience" whatsoever before building Indie Hackers. AJ wouldn't have an audience if he hadn't built Carrd, HTML5 Up, Pixelarity, etc. Pieter Levels wouldn't have his audience if he hadn't constantly shipped successful products. Etc.

    There are some additional details worth mentioning:

    • If you can, build a product that appeals to an existing audience that someone else has built. For example, IH appealed to a group of people who were already congregating on Hacker News.
    • Building a successful product isn't enough. You have to "capture" your audience via a mailing list, Twitter, community forum, etc. — something they can subscribe to or repeatedly visit.
    • If you build a successful business, launching future products will become easier because you can launch them to your existing customers. For example, with IH, I can put any new feature I build in the IH newsletter. I don't need a popular Twitter account like Pieter Levels'. Jason Cohen said something similar about WP Engine: now that they've got almost 1M customers, launching new products is easy. They don't need external distribution channels to get that initial traction.
    • Even if your business is successful and you have a huge customer list, it doesn't mean you're building a personal brand or audience. JT Marino bootstrapped his business to hundreds of millions in revenue, and even came onto the IH podcast, but he has fewer than 1000 followers on his Twitter account.
    • Your personal audience is generally more mobile than your business' audience / customer list. You can launch your business' products to your customer list, sure. But if you quit your business and build something new as an individual, then that customer list becomes useless (unless the new thing you're building is similar to the old thing.) Whereas Pieter Levels can build almost totally random things, and his audience is still his audience, because they're personal followers of his and aren't all attached to one business. Well, kind of. He still has to stick to his wheelhouse of makers/nomads, or at least things they'd be interested in.
    • The opposite is often true as well. Mike Taber built an audience for himself by blogging for years, but when he built a product, that audience was virtually useless, because the product was outside the scope of what he typically blogs about and what his personal audience cared about.
    • Finally, it's easier to build an audience if they're people who talk to each other. IHers, for example, talk to each other. So do digital nomads. These are quite literally communities of people, which make them perfect for building an audience. But if I built, say, a productivity tool, then building an audience around that would be harder. Not impossible, but harder.

    Hope this helps!

    1. 2

      Just wanna say I really enjoyed the read. Thanks for the insights.

    2. 1

      Thanks for the reply. Guess this part

      if I built, say, a productivity tool, then building an audience around that would be harder

      was directed specifically at me :)

      build a product that appeals to an existing audience that someone else has built

      Solid advice for those who don’t yet have a product. I do though, and I cannot abandon it just like that in search of a new audience. But you gave me an idea. My app alone is not enough to build a community around. However, creating a community around productivity mind hacks in general is something I could do. This seems to be a recurring theme for the products I make, so why not.

  2. 2

    Do things. Tell people.

    Serious. The reason Levels has an audience is he creates and shares stuff all the time.

    Start as square one. Do something that is valuable, interesting or useful. Tell a few people about it. Preferably in a scalable way like writing. Share that with a few people who might find it useful, or interesting or valuable. Keep doing that.

    You will be surprised how far that gets you.

  3. 2

    Answer in one word: Create.

    Create something. Anything. Show it to people. You now have to capture them in a sustainable way. Email, Twitter, sure those work. Google spreadsheet works too. Google Contacts works as well.

    I would actually disagree that launching products is easier when you're famous. Totally understandable if many disagree with me. Once you establish something, anything. and change it. You'll lose some people.

    Anecdote: I created a 100k strong Twitter following and it was hard to pivot to a different type of content. An Instagram account with 50k went to almost ZERO engagement because I changed the content. I didn't change. Just what I created.

    Some creators love to let the thing they create speak more than they do. Some love speaking their mind and want to promote a certain type of living or a certain mission in life. Make your platform what suits you.

  4. 3

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