Data-driven VC #12: Personal branding 101 (+LinkedIn & Twitter hacks)
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The future of VC is augmented. It needs data-driven approaches as much as it needs human components. While the majority of this newsletter has been focused on the data-centered world, the last episode was centered around the human aspects of VC. More specifically, the need for great social skills, people judgment and a superior firm as well as a personal brand for modern investors. As more than 80 readers asked for a deep-dive piece on how to approach the topic “personal and firm branding”, I summarize my most important learnings, frameworks and social media hacks below. And yes, they apply for non-VCs too ;)
“A VC fund needs a strong inbound strategy and this explains the rise of bat signals from venture funds — blogs, podcasts, newsletters by funds and VC investors” by Sajith Pai in his “Narrative Capital” post here
Interrelation between firm brand and personal brand
A VC/firm brand and the personal brands of the investors/employees within a VC/firm are interrelated. Brand evolvement follows a cycle where initially the firm brand becomes the sum of the individual personal brands of the founders and early employees. Hereof, it oftentimes grows in parallel and on the back of the achievements of the individuals within a firm. Firm brands initially evolve and benefit from personal brands and achievements.
At some point, new members will join the team. For senior members, it follows the same logic as above. Their existing personal brand will add to the big picture of the firm brand. More junior/mid-level joiners, however, benefit from the existing firm brand and can leverage it to jump-start the buildup of their own personal brands. New personal brands evolve and benefit from existing firm brands.
Once their personal brands grow out of the shadow of the firm brand, the flow turns around again and the firm brand suddenly starts benefiting from the personal brands. The direction of flow/impact is oftentimes difficult to access and regularly changes, emphasizing the complexity and deeply interwoven relationships between the firm and personal brands.
Kyle Harrison of Contrary Capital summarized this dynamic nicely in an interview “How do VCs differentiate themselves” published recently by my friend CJ Gustafson:
Investment firms used to be monolithic brands. Ten years ago, as a founder you might not have really heard of the person, only the brand. And now we’re seeing both firms and people specialize in certain areas. (..) And so post 2020, I now think that being a renegade in venture is becoming more and more about the individual investor’s brand vs the mothership’s brand.
Firm brand is still powerful. But the partner brand is perhaps becoming more powerful. If a particular partner is really good, they could very well compete with another firm when it comes to getting into a deal. You might see the perfect person at a lesser known firm successfully competing with an unknown person at Sequoia and win the deal. That’s new.
Zooming out, I feel that this trend is actually true across many industries already. Firm brands still matter but relatively lose importance compared to individual personal brands. In line with this overarching trend, I will focus the remainder of this episode on proactive personal brand development. Why proactive? Well, a personal brand also passively evolves. Everyone has a personal brand but this article is really about the active build-up.
How to define your personal brand
First off, you need to get a better understanding of your professional ambitions and what your future brand could look like. In general, I prefer to start very broad, collect inspiration and explore potential avenues before then narrowing it down and making well-balanced decisions. I use a two-fold exploration framework to answer some basic questions (inside-out and outside-in) and get a well-rounded overview of where I am, where I want to go and what the road might look like. You can find the framework below with the most important questions and my personal answers to make it more tangible.
What’s your ultimate goal? It needs to be more than just “establishing a great personal brand”. More leads? Recruiting? A specific public perception? Relationships to better understand your customers?
My answer: 1) Be perceived as a strong partner to founders and an expert in enterprise software (specifically AI, dev and data) to improve inbound deal flow and win competitive deals, 2) establish relationships to fellow data-driven VCs to learn from and potentially collaborate with each other to eventually make VC as an industry more efficient, effective and inclusive
Who is your target audience? Peers? Customers? Researchers? Students? Founders? Domain experts? Journalists?
My answer: For 1) above it’s clearly founders and upstream investors and for 2) it’s fellow investors (independent of their stage) and researchers
How can you get in front of your audience? Traditional media? Books? Conferences? Podcasts? Social media?
My answer: Overall a great mix of channels but more specifically for 1) mostly conferences, podcasts and social media (LinkedIn and Twitter) and for 2) content generation either via academic publications (SSRN), Medium, Substack or podcasts and for distribution again social media
Which type of content helps you achieve your goal and works well for the selected channels? Educational? Informational? Entertaining?
My answer: I want to actively contribute to the progress and thought leadership in my areas of interest (AI, dev, data + data-driven VC), so educational (creating my own content) and partially informational (sharing news and content of other people) content seems like a good fit. I think an entertaining style with memes etc. is less suitable for me.
How does your current position and/or previous experience help you to achieve your goal? Are you an expert? Do you know experts? Are your learnings relevant to others? Can you connect people? Do you have access to proprietary information?
My answer: For 1) I’ve worked, researched and invested in enterprise software (specifically a lot in AI, dev and data) and for 2) I’ve done my PhD on ML in VC and built up a dedicated Engineering team within Earlybird which makes me one of the few people in the intersection between Eng/Data and Investment worlds.
Which role models do you admire/are in the position (or related) you want to be in? What do they stand for in your eyes?
My answer: Andrew Chen (@a16z), Bill Gurley (@Benchmark), Christoph Janz (@Point9), Ed Sim (@Boldstart), Fred Wilson (@USV), Jamin Ball (@Altimeter), Tomasz Tunguz (previously @Redpoint), just to name a few VCs that stand for thought leadership in their respective areas
How do they get in front of their audience?
My answer: For all of the above it’s at least one content generation platform (such as Medium, Substack and/or their own website) and at least one strong distribution channel (such as Twitter, LinkedIn and/or email lists). Additionally, they are oftentimes active across traditional media, podcasts, Tiktok, Youtube, Instagram etc.
Which type of content do they produce across their different channels? Analyze the content itself (how narrow or broad), the content type, the use of different media types and the publishing cadence.
My answer: Breadth of content seems to be correlated with credibility. The more senior and renowned they are, the broader their content (like Fred Wilson or Bill Gurley speaking about everything distantly related to VC, startups, tech trends and the economy) and in turn the more junior they are, the more narrow their content should be. Although there are exceptions, my conclusion is to start more narrow and then potentially expand with more credibility. On content type, my “role models” above create mostly educational and informational content; little to no entertainment/memes etc. All of them share a high level of activity and regular publishing cadence on their preferred distribution platforms, i.e., 1-5 tweets per day and/or 1-3 LinkedIn posts per week.
What helped them to achieve their personal brand? Their professional position? Previous experience? Great network? Proprietary access to information?
My answer: Clearly their backgrounds, their unique professional positions and their ability to break down complex topics for a broader audience. Most of them aggregate knowledge and deduct clear “so what” conclusions that they are willing to share with broader audiences.
As a result of this exercise, you should get a good feeling about your own status quo (strengths, weaknesses etc.), your target brand and potential paths to get there. Don’t be afraid to learn from your role models but NEVER COPY THEM OR THEIR CONTENT!
How to create/curate suitable content and find your own style?
Once you’ve nailed your goal and defined your target brand, you should also know whether you should create your own unique content (mostly educational or entertaining) or whether you should curate other content (read a lot to be up-to-date and provide informational content, be creative and create entertainment via memes, comics, illustrations etc. or facilitate conversations via polls, podcasts, guest interviews etc.)
Below figure provides a great overview of content types that work well across modern channels. According to experts, you should pick one or maximum two different content styles that fit your purpose and external perceptions of your personality in real life. It’s important to adapt your style to the different platforms but overall stay consistent and true to yourself.
Before starting to create your own content, always think ahead and write down 20+ sub-topics/titles that you could talk/write about to make sure your niche is not too narrow. Moreover, research your focus area and see if it is more red or blue ocean. If blue ocean, this might be a signal that the space is not interesting enough or you run ahead of the curve. If red ocean, you might think twice if your additional content is actually needed or whether you can give it a new spin/perspective to differentiate yourself. As said before, rather nail your niche and start too narrow before going too broad too early.
Content creation platforms
Content creation (where your content lives) and distribution (how it gets to your audience) were historically rather separated but moved closer together in recent years. Some content creation options include:
Own website: Comparably high entry barriers as basic coding skills are/were required (on your own or via agency), high maintenance (take care of hosting, load balancing/traffic etc.) but in turn also high freedom.
Out-of-the-box websites: In the meantime, the need for coding got obsolete with generic no-code/low-code website builders like WordPress, Wix or Jimdo. Still, they lack a lot of functionality. Hereof, we saw a sub-category of one-stop-shop (oftentimes creator-focused) solutions like Ghost.org, Squarespace, Webflow and Carrd evolve.
Content creation platforms: To further reduce the entry barriers, content platforms like Medium or Substack evolved. I personally wrote on Medium for about 5 years before I turned to Substack earlier this year. The reason for my transition was not the content creation itself but rather the community approach and baked-in distribution of Substack.
Once content got created and lives on a website/platform, it needs to find its way to your audience. Some distribution options include:
Email/newsletter services: Oftentimes used in combination with websites. Well-established services include Mailchimp or Sender.
Hybrid solutions: Above-mentioned creator-focused websites (such as Ghost.org, Squarespace, Webflow or Carrd) but also modern content creation platforms (such as Medium or Substack) have their distribution oftentimes baked in. For me personally, that was the main reason to move from Medium to Substack. While hundreds of thousands of people read my Medium blog posts over the years, I only got a few hundred followers, showcasing their lack of distribution capabilities.. at least for me. Substack on the other side focuses a lot on community and innovative distribution features. For example, they launched a recommendation feature that has unlocked significant growth for creators on the platform. Although not as relevant to me, platforms like Youtube or Spotify follow a similar hybrid approach of content creation coupled with strong distribution, just for video and audio instead of written content.
Social media platforms: Providers like LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and others are - as the name suggests - first and foremost social networks. They connect people and allow them to distribute content through the resulting network. Until recently, actually, the best way to distribute content if measured in terms of reach, engagement and conversions. Recently, TikTok has flipped the social graph upside down and created a content graph instead, changing the dynamics of the game and allowing users to achieve even greater reach. Certainly different platforms for different audiences. Overall, you should try to find a platform that fits your personality, purpose and audience. And obviously, the earlier you join, the faster your audience can grow.
In line with the creator economy, the stack has changed a lot recently but I feel that the best way to go as a VC is simply a combination of 1) your own website together with an email distribution service or a purpose-built content creation platform that includes baked-in distribution like Substack and 2) additional distribution via social media platforms.
The rule of thumb is to spend approximately as much time with content distribution as you spend with content creation.
Keep in mind that the importance of independence and redundancy correlates with your audience size, i.e. try to be active across platforms to not depend on specific algorithms and potential black-out scenarios (imagine a potential TikTok ban following US-China tensions) too much. Looking at the “VC role models” above, you can see how they reduced dependencies and have grown huge audiences across multiple platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter, some of them even across Instagram, TikTok, Youtube and others.
How to nail social media distribution?
There are tons of social media best practices but I’d like to share the five most effective #hacks that worked for me across LinkedIn and Twitter.
2-4 posts per week, consistency over months and years is key
Post 8-9am or around noon in the geography of your target audience; Tue and Thurs work best
Link few people in your post, max 10 though; the faster they react (like, comment), the more reach you’ll get
Interactions with (your own) comments are a strong multiplier for your reach; potentially link some relevant content in the comments below your post to trigger further engagement
Use graphics or even better photos; faces increase interactions significantly
1-5 tweets per day, consistency over months and years is key
The more polarizing and controversial interactions, the more reach (which is why I really struggle with Twitter..)
Threads with a good cliffhanger work well; don't reveal everything at the beginning and give readers a reason to click “See thread” for more
Include calls to action like “like and follow for more”
Include the right #hashtags
That’s it for today. I hope this post helps you to rethink the importance of your personal brand and gives you more clarity on how to approach this topic. And never forget: It’s easy to criticize others from the sidelines and it takes actual commitment to play the game on the field.
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This is the most specific and helpful write up I’ve read on building a personal brand to accelerate your opportunities in and around the firm. Great stuff