We all know the name Oprah.
Just hearing her name sparks an instant stream of associations: Her talk show. Magazine. Acting appearances. Stedman. Potential presidential bid. Book club. “And you get a car!”
Why do we know so much about Oprah?
Well, she has built the ultimate personality brand.
Over the years, she has savvily leveraged her following of adoring fans into new ventures, from Oprah’s Book Club to O Magazine (she’s on the cover of every issue), and even her own television channel.
$3.1 billion later, Oprah has cemented her spot as a beloved household name.
Nowadays, no matter what Oprah spits out via Harpo Productions (that’s Oprah spelled backward, for those taking notes), her followers clamor to gobble it up. That’s the power of a personality brand — make people fall in love with you, and everything you touch turns to money.
Who wouldn’t want that kind of celebrity?
But despite personality branding’s allure, it has a dark side, too.
Oprah the person directly affects Oprah the brand. (Consult your local supermarket tabloid section if you don’t believe me.) At this point, the two are irrevocably intertwined, and closely watched.
Now, most of us reading this article will never reach Oprah status (bubble, meet the pin of reality). But the risks of building a business around your identity apply to all personality entrepreneurs, whether Harpo or startup-sized.
If you are your business, the line between you the person, and You, Inc. gets quickly muddied. So how do you hold onto your humanity as a “personality entrepreneur”?
If you’ve developed your business around your identity, you probably already follow the lead of personality-branded superstars à la Marie Forleo, Pat Flynn, Tim Ferriss, and similar ilk.
You like them. You trust them. You may even feel like you know them.
That’s the whole idea. Building “personal” relationships with would-be clients is the cornerstone of personality-branded businesses. The bonds formed over email courses, pop-up Facebook Live webinars, and downloadable ebooks set the stage for a sales pitch down the road.
While that long game seems like a flip from the upfront hard sell of yesteryear (think door-to-door vacuum salespeople), this “new” strategy is just a permutation of old tactics, delivered in modern technology trappings. (I mean, what do you think free samples are, but delicious marketing tools designed to make you like and trust a business more? Remember that on your next trip to the farmers market to visit your vendor “friends.”)
But instead of selling a set of knives, or Tupperware, or an encyclopedia set (paper Wikipedia), the personality entrepreneurs’ true item for sale is affiliation. Sure, technically you’re selling products and services, but the undercurrent of reality hums below the surface: People are buying a piece of you.
Build up enough trust with your followers, readers, and groupies through your voice, and your website’s shop section will become a “spend time with me (for a price)” area. People want to feel like they’re talking to you. But since you are a faraway, largely unreachable being, everything from your website, on social media, in your books, and related to your products and services carrying the “You” brand becomes a vehicle for making that intimate connection.
Call it parasocial, call it more capitalism evils, call it what you will. But the best of personality entrepreneurs can steer large swaths of their followers in any direction they please. Being such an influence on your “tribe” — modern-day lingo for your brand’s many
lemmings followers — is powerful.
Endorse a book, and watch the uptick of money flow into your affiliate account. Blog about travel hacking, and get inundated with pre-order requests for your ebook about it. Cross-promote with a colleague, and get a following boost from their tribe’s associative trust in you.
Such influence might make you feel like the solo passenger on the gravy train, but money’s not all you should have in mind.
It’s fun to have a lot of eyes on you — until it isn’t.
Until a disgruntled customer smears your name in a scathing open letter. Until you read pure vitriolic comments under your YouTube videos. Until your personal dirty laundry gets aired and goes viral. Until you get sick or otherwise out of commission and your profits screech to a halt. Until you rebrand and your tribe revolts. Until you don’t want to run your business anymore.
Then you’ve got a — potentially costly — problem.
When you mold your business around yourself, you run the risk of people seeing you as the business. That means when your business has a problem, you have a problem.
As a personality entrepreneur, you may not be able to completely untangle yourself from your business, but there are ways to navigate the balance and set boundaries without losing yourself in the process.
Ironically, the first big way to maintain your humanity in your personality business is to deliberately put more of yourself into it — as early on as you can. Personality entrepreneurs especially must bake their personal values into the business’ vision from the outset, or risk not standing for anything at all.
While fledgling founders run on big dreams, ideas, and passion, somewhere along the way they’re sucked into the weeds of Google Analytics, click-through rates, boosted Facebook posts, and Twitter followers. The daily rat race to get ahead easily eclipses the big picture — especially if that picture was never clear in the first place.
As your business gets started, prioritize the development of your company mission, before allowing the riptide of the entrepreneurial journey to pull you away.
Ask yourself: What is important to me in how I live my life, and how can I ensure my business practices are in accordance with those same values? Those answers will be the building blocks of your business’ mission, complicated as they may be to suss out.
Firm up your answers quicker by writing your own obituary.
You read that correctly. It’s disconcerting to ponder one’s own mortality, but there’s nothing quite like channeling the end of life that gets people thinking about what really matters to them.
So put pen to paper and answer these questions as your post-mortem self:
Consider the effects that you want to have had on people and the world. Maya Angelou breaks this down pretty simply: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
What impact will knowing or working with you have on the world?
Look behind that impact and you’ll find your values.
If you want to help others, you might believe that we have a human responsibility to support one another. If you want to educate, perhaps you believe that information is the key to opportunity and a better life. If you seek to empower, maybe you recognize the world’s social injustices, and wish to work toward eliminating them.
It might take some time, some journaling, some conversations, and some reflections to get there, but the conclusions are yours to draw.
They might turn out messy and nuanced and tough to refine at first. But by examining more closely the work you want to do, the change you seek to make, and the life you want to live, you will see the larger forces at work. You will see what you honestly believe in.
Once you determine and acknowledge the importance of your values in the very foundation of your business, you can then more intentionally weave them into the content you create, the services you provide, and the overall work that you do.
Set the course for a more unified relationship between you and your brand by building a business philosophy and mission that you can be proud of.
A business’ big-picture focus guides its daily large and small decisions.
With the ever-changing landscape of online entrepreneurship techniques and tactics for business growth alongside the daily bumps in the road, it can be exhausting to keep up with your internal operations, let alone with the Joneses.
Though new trends and industry shifts change (and your products and services along with them), by and large your values and core mission should not.
So what happens when others in your space are pivoting in a direction you don’t agree with or jumping on a trend you’re not ready to embrace?
Do you follow along, at the risk of losing industry authority or potential customers if you don’t?
There’s a difference between digging in your heels against the way the world is moving and opting out of business tactics or norms that make you queasy. In these dilemmas, revisit your values and consider whether or not a particular choice aligns with your philosophy and mission.
You might debate whether to allow sponsored posts on your site. Or to use affiliate links. To send cold promotional emails to people in your LinkedIn network. To add a paywall to previously free content. To offer friends and family discounts. To allow purchases after the special offer window has closed. To ask a connection of yours to make an introduction. To promote your business via your personal Facebook page. To launch yet another social media channel.
When you make business decisions, that’s when the “human” side of you needs to come out the most. As a personality entrepreneur, upholding the integrity of your brand is crucial to maintaining your following. Start contradicting what you claim as your own values, and you’ve got a surefire way to derail your business.
Play the entrepreneurial freedom card by sticking to your values, even if that means making an unpopular decision. Use your entrepreneurial liberty to accept, reject, or tweak your business practices to align your operations with what you believe in. There are other ways to reach your goals that don’t require sacrificing your beliefs about how things should be done.
You can pick and choose the strategies that you resonate with, and ditch the rest.
Conversely, make sure that you don’t use your values as a cop-out for trying new things. Consistently ask yourself:
Does this change go against my values, or is it pushing me out of my comfort zone?
Sometimes a strategy that turns you off at first might be something you’re simply afraid to do, because you don’t want to come across as spammy, self-congratulatory, pompous, or some other negative.
But fear of failing or looking foolish shouldn’t deter you from trying different things in your business. Give yourself permission to take risks when tackling decisions, challenges, and changes in your business, but opt to do it your way.
Many entrepreneurs consider their businesses as their babies, and understandably so. Spend weeks, months, years growing something into a healthy, thriving being (and maybe getting gray hair and wrinkles along the way), and you’d probably think of it as a child, too.
Sometimes, pulling crazy amounts of hours and sacrificing social and family time in the name of your “baby” can be a necessary evil.
But all too often, this once-in-a-while obligation morphs into addictive workaholism, unleashing harmful effects on the entrepreneurs putting their business ahead of their health and general wellness. The pressure derives from internal dialogues, societal pressure, or even your own peers, who reinforce the debilitating “norms” of the work-obsessed life.
When you’ve attached all of your self-esteem, hopes, dreams, and aspirations to your business (as some helicopter parents do with their children), so much so that when something goes wrong, you fall into a pit of hysterical despair, curled up in the fetal position, nursing a bottle of Jim Beam with Iron & Wine crooning in the backdrop?
It’s time to make a change. Start with the facts:
No matter how many hours you pour into it, nights of sleep you lose over it, money you invest in it, and time you spend thinking about it, you are not your business.
You ≠ You, Inc.
Say it once, say it again. Write it down a thousand times in your journal. Put it on your mirror. Repeat.
Drawing a line in the sand where your work stops and you begin is good practice for everyone, but for personality entrepreneurs especially.
If you don’t establish some separation between the two, you’ll end up with what the folks in the mental health world call a “dependent relationship.” That is, you’ll feel happy, healthy, and strong only when your business is doing well. And when it crashes and burns … so will you.
Just like businesses have vital operations that make them run from day to day, so too do humans. Reject the workaholic-worshipping #hustle culture — make room for those necessities in your life before you schedule in all of your work.
A few ways to set these boundaries include:
There are a wealth of ways to strike work-life balance, and entrepreneurs are among the most consistent offenders in letting the former take over the latter. Ultimately, train yourself to care more about yourself than your business, because if you don’t, sustained, high-pressure stress will cause burnout sooner or later.
Stay true to yourself and your mission by taking care of yourself; good business decisions will follow.
The business world, like life, is unpredictable — in a moment, ready to transport you to the highest highs and the lowest lows. It’s challenging, it’s maddening, it’s frustrating. Even more so if your identity is the core of your brand and your business.
As the wise philosopher, Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, has warned us: “with great power comes great responsibility.” As a personality entrepreneur, you have a responsibility to your audience, but also to yourself.
With your clear mission at the outset to guide your entrepreneurial decisions, and a healthy dose of self-care, you can drive your business forward with gusto. Your brand may be built around who you are, but if you set clear values and boundaries, you don’t always have to be “on brand” — you can just be you.
Because behind the logos, and the email courses, and the webinars, we are all just people. Even Oprah.
At the end of the day, personality-based or not, your business is just a business.
Outside of it is your life — and that doesn’t need a brand.
Gina Edwards is an unapologetically snarky blogger with a love of parentheses (but who isn't?) and beer with funny names. She's currently be-bopping around Santiago, Chile on her bike, teaching her native language to fancy people. Her skills include making hilarious puns, no-bake cookies, and mountains out of molehills.