photo by Romain Laurent

Keep It Real. 

A lot has been said about personal branding. Books, blogs, presentations, trend reports — you name it, it’s been done. Most of the people sharing their opinions and stories on this topic have observed examples from the sidelines. I’d like to share some thoughts of my own, from the trenches.

Why? Well, people seem to think I’m the perfect example of ‘personal branding’ because of how I ‘built’ a ‘brand’ out of Nalden (my nickname) within a few short years. As if there was a plan. Believe me, there wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really proud of where I am today. Just don’t assume there was a formula; there was a mix of common sense, intuition, luck, and, if I do say so myself, good taste.

The term ‘personal branding’ is counterintuitive. People are people, not brands. In most cases, when people become brands, they stop being people.

Brands generate products or slogans that represent a set of carefully determined values. These can be trademarked because brands exist to sell something. Alternatively, as a person, you’re not selling something, you’re presenting yourself.

So, how can you remain authentic and “real” — read, a person — once you have become part of whatever set of values you’re promoting to achieve your business goals? Is there, in this era of social media, really any worth in turning yourself into a character or product instead of just being who you are?

I’m not talking about iconic people like Obama or Steve Jobs. I’m talking about people like you and me. Though Nalden has become a household name over the years, representing a group of like-minded thinkers, the goal never was to become a brand. Nalden isn’t a brand because it isn’t selling anything. Even when I started to make some money thanks to full-screen advertising on my blog, the goal always was, and always will be, to share. By adhering to this vision, I’ve built trust and enthusiasm, and people have started following me. I created (digital) relationships with both individuals and brands while staying true to myself.

No personal branding involved.

Okay, not exactly. At one point I did register my name as a brand. This wasn’t a business driven decision. I did it for fun, as an expensive joke. Fun is the foundation of anything I do. Not branding.

If you really want to brand something just focus on your business, your blog, or your product. It comes with good work.

Like anyone trying to find his way in life, I’ve struggled with this too — trying to find a balance between representing my businesses, and more importantly, my values as a human being. It’s a challenge.

In the end I learned I want to put a smile on people’s faces. Not like the Joker in The Dark Knight, and not like Louis CK or Ricky Gervais, but more like a friend. I like being that dude that hooks you up with gear, supports your local startup, or helps out a talented photographer. I wanted to make sharing files easier, and serve (digital) art to people without any hassle. These are things I managed to combine with work to great effect.

Consider this, then, some straight up, unsolicited advice from your friendly neighborhood web walker — tips that help you forget personal branding and build a reputation by focusing on that one thing you like to do most.

  1. Actions speak louder than words. One person who kept telling me this was a fellow Dutchie called Koen Bok. A regular, straight-up kind of guy. He practiced what he preached at his former company Sofa. He was dedicated to building great software and with the help of his team, he did. After winning many accolades (amongst them a prestigious Apple Design Award) Sofa was acquired by Facebook. Koen and his team moved to Silicon Valley to work directly with Mark Zuckerberg and make the world’s biggest social network a bit sexier. It’s not to say you should stop blogging, making videos, or talking about your work; promotion is great. The point is that the ratio of doing vs. talking should clearly favor the former over the latter.
  2. Be relevant, not just popular. The other day I had a conversation about my Klout score. But really, in the end, who gives a shit? What was Steve Jobs’s Klout score again? Instead of worrying about influence, try to solve a problem — raise social consciousness; build products that improve quality of life or help others do the same; use crowd-funding to support local communities. I guarantee that the closer you get to doing something relevant, the further away your mind will be from the latest popularity metric.
  3. Reputation is more important than image. It’s easy to create an online persona that claims success. Anyone can do this. All those titles on LinkedIn–who cares? The people who are actually in a position to help you in life understand that image is nothing more than marketing. They see right through it. Instead, build a reputation for yourself. Let others do the talking.
  4. Make sure you look good. People expect you to look as good (or better) as you represent yourself online. This doesn’t mean you should wear a suit. I still wear sneakers to any type of meeting or keynote I give. I like comfort and technology driven fashion like Arc’teryx Veilance or Acronym. With all the fashion blogs and services like Nuji on the internet, it’s easy to figure out what you like.
  5. Kill your darlings. Every person is 80% a product of their own environment. This means you are best served being surrounded by talented people. Especially those who have a positive influence on the way you grow as a person. This will have huge impact on you and your business. It’s exactly the same with brands. No decent brand wants its logo on the same page as Skoda, right?
  6. Just be yourself. If I have learned anything during these years of sharing (with the blog, etc.) it’s that being yourself pays off. It’s certainly more fun than being something you’re not. Everyone makes mistakes. I fucked up many times — including on live television. Those experiences made me look like a fool, but having them helped me learn that little flaws are part of who we all are. Don’t be cocky; be confident. It’s good to be insecure every now and then, as long as you keep going. If you’re a kind, pleasant, interesting person, the rest will follow. Even if you’re an asshole, learn to be a funny asshole. People respect you for knowing who you are and owning it.

In the end, if you really want people to know your name and take notice, go build something. Make something good happen. Create. Invent. Help. Solve. Improve. Apply yourself to any of those endeavors and in time, you will earn some measure of respect. You may even, perhaps, achieve notoriety or fame — become a writer like Bret Easton Ellis, have the influence of Jay-Z, or build businesses as successful as Richard Branson’s.

Above all, be imaginative, strive to become more entrepreneurial and collaborate. This philosophy guides our company Present Plus, a place where a team of people builds beautiful products like WeTransfer and Kuvva. My co-workers inspire me on a daily basis. Sometimes, based on our spirit and experience, we are invited to advise other brands. I learned it’s not about Nalden. It never was. It’s about creating, inventing, solving, helping and improving.