Why Startup CEOs Need To Build A Profile — And Why It’s Hard to Do

Kenny Alegbe
Jan 15 · 8 min read
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Photo by Daniel Sandvik on Unsplash

“You need to think about building a profile”, the publicist said to me over dinner. It was not the first time I’d heard this in my founder journey.

A year into running my startup I had, perhaps subconsciously, pushed back against the need to chart my journey, amplify my personal experience or join my peers in the logical hustle for press. Not because it wouldn’t have been a good idea, certainly not because I was above it, but because of the way in which I had run my company up until that point. Quietly.

We had gone from a modest investment to an annual recurring revenue of multi-millions with little press and not really any marketing. I don’t mean a small or ineffectual marketing team. I mean no marketing team at all. Our growth was distinctly un rock-starry, based on a product that just made sense to people, and a clear plan to execute. When we did get picked up in the press, by a property industry publication or investment journal, I would, admittedly, experience a quick adrenaline spike of pleasure and curiosity about the impact this may have, then get back to the job at hand and add it to a long to-do list. Would I remember to share it? I mean, on which platform and with whom? I may have sent it to a friend. I wasn’t really on social. I went on enjoying my tiny digital footprint and building a business that made sense.

So what changed?

I continued to get advice about profile building and why it was important. I started to read around the topic [see book suggestions further on]. However, it was only when I decided to really take the business to the next level — dramatically so — that it started to seem vital to have a voice (and profile). We were about to push out a proposition that was going to resonate, on an emotional level, with our customers, which meant some vulnerability in how we started to communicate it, and how I led. Our new mission was to save people time in the home to free them up for the things that really matter in life. Friends, family, pleasures outside of work, the real things. Before HomeHero, I started a business, it worked, we executed. However, when we really started leaning into it we could see that the opportunity was much bigger and closer to people’s hearts. I went from being the founder of a business that removed the pain of customer issues to one that also opened up the scope to bringing more pleasure into their lives. And despite being a very private person, it no longer seemed to make sense to not have a voice around what we were doing, albeit being more vulnerable than I’d been comfortable with.

So I started to think about a building profile for the first time in my business life. The size of the challenge I was taking on made it start to seem reckless to ignore the world we live in, and the need for people to know, dissect and understand all the parts that make up the business they use, invest in or advocate for. It was no longer a question of personal preference, but more one of responsibility in leadership.

It also meant submitting to a vulnerability that was new to me in my founder journey. Putting thoughts and words and core positions out there for criticism, derision or challenge. You don’t really think about the fact your thoughts could resonate with people, before you start doing it; it’s just fear of exposure. Brené Brown speaks so well on the topic of this vulnerability in her Ted Talk. She says “In order for a connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen”. In order to connect your team and the world to your vision, you have to be willing to show up and be seen, even in the face of uncertain outcomes and reactions.

There is, however, one issue that causes me to pause nervously before responding to a journalist’s tweet, email or a call for comment. The issue of boundaries. When you start to build a business profile there’s an idea that you need to cleverly craft your brand, be careful and be purposeful with what you show and what you don’t. That makes a lot of sense. One of the issues you struggle with as a founder is a lack of boundaries, between yourself and your business, your personal life, and your ever-expanding work life. Add to this a new desire to put yourself out there and you start to have to consider questions around who you want to be perceived as versus who you are. In a world where authenticity really is one of the most powerful brand tools out there, with Instagrammers removing filters and business people being encouraged to share their failures and mistakes on forums like Medium, the overarching attitude is that if you’re going to put yourself out there, you better be damn sure it’s really you. Which begs the question: Who am I as founder and what do I stand for? One more problem to tackle on a long list of daily to-dos that seemed overly philosophical and yet, at this stage of the business, critically important.

“Authenticity and knowing who you are is fundamental to being an effective and long-standing leader.”

So, I sat down and with the help of a colleague started figuring out who I was, and how I planned to communicate that.

If helpful to you in your professional journey, here’s how I started to make sense of a public profile:

1. Start with a team 360

It’s one thing knowing what you stand for and how you think you come across. It’s quite another to be truly self-aware about how others perceive you. Which is, arguably, the main bit of your personal profile. A colleague sent out an anonymous survey (without my knowledge) to the wider team to ask for insight or words they’d use to describe me, my leadership style, my strengths, and flaws. We then pulled out the recurring themes and used them as a mirror to reflect how I was seen as a leader, to form the core of how I would communicate this publically.

2. Pick Your Three Words

From this survey, I picked three words from the recurring ones that aligned themselves most with how I felt about myself and my leadership style. I then expanded on these by making a list of how these words could work or be shared in further reaching scenarios. For example, if one word used was “charming”, how best would I use that skill in the real world to connect. One example would be speaking in public more. If one word was “thoughtful”, then the logical next step would be getting those thoughts down on the page. And so on…

3. Decide on Your Primary and Secondary Drivers

It’s all very well shaping your profile based on how you come across but the profound bit comes in when you align it with what you believe in and — vitally — what topics would sustain you for a career. Here’s a good question to get you thinking about it: If you could only talk about one topic for the rest of your life, what would that be? It can’t be your business — nothing is certain with those — it has to be a topic that resonates more broadly. I had a few but was encouraged by my communications lead to pick three, order them and write them out. These were mine:

  1. Demystifying entrepreneurship, so everyone can have a seat at the table
  2. Diversity in the startup world, and providing mentoring voices to look to
  3. Decent and human leadership, from safeguarding the culture of your startup to prioritising the people at the heart of a tech business

Those were my tactics and we’ll see where the journey takes me.

For more resources, I also recommend these five books to get some background and start on yours:

  1. Me 2.0 by Dan Schawbel (relevant for all professionals and founders): This book shows both established professionals and job seekers how to leverage their online profile for career success. This is a great starter kit for someone who needs handholding and a comprehensive checklist on tools and strategies.
  2. The Brand Called You: Make Your Business Stand Out in A Crowded Market by Peter Montoya. This is tailored to entrepreneurs who are open to thinking creatively and putting themselves out there in the interests of company profiling. Montoya very much believes in people as product and this book lays out how to use personal branding to level the playing field in life, including coming up with your own slogan and total market saturation.
  3. Be Your Own Brand: A Breakthrough Formula for Standing Out from the Crowd by David McNally and Karl D. Speak. What I like about this book is that it starts off by debunking the idea that creating a brand is about constructing a false image. It’s about discovering who you really are and aspire to be, and finding the tools and best way to communicate this to the outside world. It also includes case studies to illustrate why it matters.
  4. Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time by Keith Ferrazzi. This approach to personal branding is about the relationships you form and the face you present to the people you want to do business with, from how to express vulnerability to forge better business relationships, to tips like remembering birthdays to get ahead. How you relate to people is how you’re perceived as a leader so take the time to think about your interactions — and if there are enough of them.
  5. Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley. Being able to craft stories for Medium, LinkedIn, other people’s blogs or even just coming up with content for comment puts you ahead of founders who aren’t writing their stories themselves. This book covers everything from journalism training and best practice to examples of content that performs well and how to craft a true story that resonates.

It takes courage to put yourself out there for all to see and for all to criticise. But the truth is by not doing so, you do yourself, your team and the company you’re building a disservice in this new public paradigm. All founders should write and put themselves out there. It’s ok to be notorious, infamous, synonymous (even for bad reasons), but in 2020 it’s unforgivable to be anonymous.

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