A case study in personal branding—or Knowledge Bird, a 5-year retrospective

If someone had asked me in 2010,”where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?”, I wouldn’t have said “internationally recognised subject matter expert”. I expect I would’ve said something like, “a freelance copywriter with a successful and sustainable business that allowed me to take lots of time off”. Or something equally uninspiring.

But, this isn’t a story of what could have been, this is a story of what ended up becoming. It feels like it was an accidental success, but really, I did a bunch of things right without knowing what success looked like.

In 2010, I decided to take the leap from a safe career of IT support and network operations to freelance copywriting. Wildly different things, I know, but I’ve always had a creative bent and an ability to write well. Clicking things on screens had become boring, so I used my downtime at work to research. I read Problogger, Copyblogger, followed copywriters on Twitter, and I built on my writing skills with some university units in journalism and communication. My first copywriting client came through contacts.

While I continued to freelance on small amounts of copywriting work, I tried and failed at a few affiliate marketing ideas. My husband — bless him, we are complete opposites — is an entrepreneurial fellow who needs to be juggling multiple projects to be happy. Embedded in the startup scene as he is, his advice to me was, “you need a product”. What does a person with 13 years of IT support experience and some writing talent create for passive income?

Social media was gaining traction as a marketing tool in 2010 and I could see its potential for becoming an informal community of practice. After all, that’s what it had been for me when I was learning the principles of writing good copy. I looked back over my years of experience in IT and realised the one thing that made my job easier or harder was whether there was a good knowledge base available. I knew people would struggle with capturing and reusing knowledge, whether that knowledge exists in the bubble of an organisation or the filter-bubble of a social network. So, I sat at my desk over a weekend and wrote A Simple Guide to Creating a Knowledge Base. I hired an editor and a designer, and I positioned it as an eBook selling for $19.95 USD. It certainly wasn’t passive income, but it did tick over and get my money back over time. (It’s now free.) With hindsight, this was step one of my marketing strategy — content marketing. Back then, I had no strategy and content marketing, as a term, was still largely unheard of.

Step two began in 2011 — social media marketing. I launched the eBook on my copywriting website. I turned to LinkedIn groups as a place to market the eBook at a discount, and that’s where I found the Help Desk Association of Australia. A commenter (who went on to become my supporter and friend) told me about a white paper competition itSMF Australia was holding. I entered my eBook and promptly forgot about it.

Given the small success I was having with people here and there downloading the eBook, it seemed a good time to split off a new website to focus on blogging about knowledge sharing. These days, this often happens as step one. I brainstormed domain names with my husband and friends over Facebook and came up with Knowledge Bird. Knowledge Bird worked on a few levels —birds build nests by collecting threads and bits and pieces; and, it was catchy. It seemed an appropriate metaphor. When it comes to marketing and the web, the design of something is as important as the substance. I commissioned a local illustrator to draw the avatar of Knowledge Bird that would become my logo. Someone once told me I was focusing on the wrong stuff and that I should be doing x or y and forgetting about spending money on illustrations. I’m glad I didn’t listen, because now I’m told, “I love your branding!”,”Great business card!”, “Who did your drawing?”. Design matters, so put the effort — or money — into whatever marketing assets you put out there, including your website.

Step four: In August 2011, I travelled to Perth for the itSMF’s national conference to attend as a delegate and accept the award for the White Paper of the Year. I was shocked to win this award I’d forgotten I’d entered, but I was excited to find a welcoming group of people that appreciated my interest in knowledge management. I became a member of the itSMF and started turning up at seminars. I made a lot of contacts; some especially important ones that I will always be grateful for. I connected to the few influencers who were active on Twitter and I immersed myself in all the blogs, tweets, podcasts and online forums. I engaged online and in person and rapidly built up a small but dedicated following. I tuned my tweets to my new audience and retweeted ones that were relevant. I’d decided I wanted to be a subject matter expert and travel around telling people how knowledge management practices make work easier. I read books on thought leadership by Seth Godin and Matt Church.

2012 was my year of living dangerously. Public speaking was step five. Thanks to the encouragement of a friend and sometime life coach, I committed to turning the contents of my winning white paper into an itSMF seminar presentation. I read books on how to build and deliver great presentations. I submitted my presentation abstract to conferences around the world and delivered it to the itSMF in New Zealand, the ServiceNow user conference in New Orleans, the itSMF Australia’s national conference — this time, on the Gold Coast — and two or three itSMF state seminars. By the end of 2012 I had burnt the candle at both ends, but a solid year of profile-building online and in person had paid off. I’d got the attention of who would become my biggest and best client for the next two years — Zendesk.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve continued to learn more about this Service Management industry I advocate for, and now I’m shaping my next challenge. I’m not yet sure what that might be, so for now, I’m giving back. I’m volunteering as a board member for the Australian chapter of the itSMF and am the conference director for our 2016 conference in Brisbane. The itSMF welcomed me, encouraged me, and connected me with so many people smarter than I, and I want to see that happen for others.

Here are a few things I learned along the way:

Surround yourself with people that challenge you

This is a self-help cliché, but it’s true. If it weren’t for my husband modelling the product mindset, if it weren’t for the new network I’d discovered and the critical ‘vectors’ that believed in me, if it weren’t for my life-coach-friend, I would not have had the momentum to move from safety. Some of the most significant people to your growth as a human and contributor will light the way brightly for a short time before moving on. Some will stay a lifetime.

Find your particular talent and flog the shit out of it

If you need a salary, you need to be marketing yourself; whether it’s within your own organisation as an employee, or selling your services as a consultant and contractor. Are you a great writer, broadcaster, or speaker? Find out what you do best, get better at it, and do it all the time.

Find your tribe

Something I learned from reading Problogger and Copyblogger is to find your niche. When you find your niche market and engage with them, you find a group of people that become your loyal advocates, agents, and megaphones. My tribe became my friends and they teach and encourage me every day.

Say yes to everything and worry about it later

A friend of mine says, “that’s a problem for Future Thomas”. His name is Thomas, and he means that he accepts whatever work opportunities come his way, because inevitably they won’t all drop in his lap at the same time. If they do, he can figure it out then. So, I said yes to conference opportunities, writing work and contracts (except where it was ethically questionable) whenever they came along. At some point you’ll want to focus and start saying no to things, but you can worry about that later.

For someone who didn’t map out a “5-year business plan”, it’s been a wild ride and my career moves have been a surprising success. There were easy parts and hard parts, and I’m not done yet. If nothing else, writing this retrospective has shown that a path can materialise after you start with one small idea, one simple motivation. In my case, it was a desire to bring the benefits of knowledge sharing to others. What motivates you?