When I graduated from Amherst College in 2010, I had no internships or published clips to my name. Naturally, real life hit me like a truck. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt miserable and dejected because I couldn’t find a job. I couldn’t even find a decent internship.
Related: 5 Steps to Build Your Personal Brand
Then, several years and countless part-time jobs later, it was like everything suddenly clicked. After getting fired from my last part-time job, I tripled my salary and started my own writing agency in the same year.
I’ve often thought about how this was possible. How did I go from not being able to find an internship to starting my own successful six-figure business? In retrospect, a big piece of the puzzle was personal branding -- something which I didn’t do at all when I graduated. And it's exactly what I wish I had known about when I was 21.
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What is personal branding?
Most people have a good sense of what branding is, but not how it can apply to them. We associate “personal brands” with entrepreneurs like Gary Vaynerchuk, and assume branding is for companies and millionaires.
But that simply isn’t true. Personal branding doesn’t just apply to companies and founders; it can apply to anyone with a job who wants a raise or a promotion, too.
Simply put, a personal brand is a strategic online presence. Creating a personal brand at a young age, and building it gradually over time, is one of the wisest investments you can make. It will enhance your job prospects, improve your standing at your current company and make you an influencer in your industry, which can be priceless.
So, if I could go back in time, here’s what I would tell 21-year-old me:
1. Build a personal, modern website
Like most graduates in my class, I didn’t know how bad the recession would make the job market. Instead, I listened to my parents’ advice my whole life -- I got into good schools and graduated with decent grades. Simply put, I wasn’t prepared.
Going to a good school isn’t enough. You need to set yourself apart and convince recruiters to pay attention. And since so many recruiters are online these days, the best way to set yourself apart is with a personal, modern website. Having one is the first step in building your personal brand.
But it’s not enough to just have a website. No matter what anyone tells you, looks matter to clients and employers. It’s the same reason you should “dress to impress” for interviews. Consider the startling statistic that 55 percent of visitors will spend less than 15 seconds on your website.
For a case study, check out the amateurish WordPress site I made in 2012 and relied on for three years. Now check out my current business site. It was built on a budget and also runs on WordPress, but it’s way better looking. It’s also helped me land Fortune 500 clients.
If you have no idea how to build a website, don’t worry. It’s not rocket science. The first step is to figure out which website builder you like the most (e.g., WordPress, SquareSpace, Weebly, etc.). If you don’t know where to start, check out this comprehensive review of website builders.
2. Supercharge your LinkedIn profile.
Once you have a decent-looking website, you can’t rely on organic traffic for views. You won’t have any. Instead, you should share your website on LinkedIn.
If you’re looking for a job, there’s no better place to be seen by employers. Some 94 percent of recruiters are active on LinkedIn, but only 36 percent of candidates are too, meaning there’s a huge supply and demand gap you can take advantage of. All you have to do is create a profile, fill out your work history and link to your website, either in your Contact section or as one of your job listings.
Once you’ve done the preliminary legwork, you need to update your profile until it’s at “Superstar” status, in order to get the most views from the right kinds of people (e.g., employers and recruiters). Also:
Take advantage of the background image to show what you’ve achieved.
Have a professional photo, not something you shot with your iPhone.
Keyword-optimize your headline and don’t use words like “guru.”
Get to the point in your summary, as if you were at an interview.
List all your experiences and focus on achievements, not functions.
Explain what you did at school, not just what your degree was.
Ask for recommendations -- one or more for each job.
Connect with potential employers and industry peers.
Join relevant groups and follow relevant companies.
Finally, start sharing updates on what excites or surprises you in your industry. Once you’ve gotten some engagement and feel more confident, start blogging on LinkedIn. This is the second step of your personal branding journey.
3. Work or intern for a startup if you can.
Now that you’re a LinkedIn superstar, you can start applying for jobs. But don’t bother submitting your resume and cover letter to job postings. Instead, follow the advice of Human Workplace CEO Liz Ryan: Do some sleuthing, find out who the recruiter and hiring manager are at the company you want, then message those people directly on LinkedIn to increase your chances of a response.
Here’s more advice: Don’t go for entry-level jobs at major companies where you’ll become a cog in a corporate machine. Work for a startup instead. You’ll get paid less, but you’ll also be thrust into roles far above your pay grade.
When I became the first hire at Prose Media, the CEO had me doing sales calls and managing multiple accounts -- stuff I had no business doing. But because he trusted me, I gained confidence. And because I was confident, I learned fast.
Achievements are part of your personal brand, too. It’s one thing to say you worked with Fortune 500s as an entry-level hire. It’s another thing to say you helped a business grow by 500 percent.
Also, since most startups will underpay you, many won’t expect you to sign a non-compete agreement. So, work for another startup at the same time. Freelance on the side. You’ll learn way more and become far more attractive to employers.
I freelanced as much as possible while working at Prose Media, and I didn’t stay at any job longer than a year. By the end of four years, my resume was about five times longer and more interesting than those of most of my friends. That lengthy resume was a big reason why I had enough confidence to start my own business; I knew clients would take me seriously.
Final pro tip: Try to blog as much as possible for the companies you work for. This is practically impossible at a bigger company, but at a startup all you have to do is find out who the editor is and make it happen. You’ll have more published clips from reputable sites that you can share on LinkedIn.
4. Build a brand that stays with you.
Remember, you’re building up your personal brand because the future is uncertain. Job-hopping is the new normal for millennials because the recession changed everything. You’ll probably change jobs at least four times by the age of 30 -- twice as much as your parents did
It’s not enough to build up your reputation slowly and internally at one company, hoping you'll attain a promotion or pay raise. What happens when you lose your job or leave the company? It will be like everything you worked so hard to accomplish never happened. No one but you will know about it at your new company.
Related: How To Think Like a Brand