I have an intern this summer who is trying to establish her online brand, which is fun and exciting for me, and (hopefully) eye opening for her.

I’m walking her through a process that I don’t really use anymore since I stopped working with brand-new-to-business entrepreneurs. This week, I simply introduced her to the online lifestyle business world.

She studied Marie Forleo and Pat Flynn and Gabby Bernstein and other big brand names you know, as well as some smaller, “this could actually be me” types that aren’t on Oprah yet.

She arrived at our meeting this morning excited…and confused.

“Danielle Laporte is selling tattoos and…malas?…and her blog just had this random long poem…and people love it! I can’t believe people are making money doing this!”

I think we can all remember when we were first introduced to this industry. You probably had the same reaction–I know I did.

And then the questions came tumbling out:

  • But why are people paying her?
  • How is she making money?
  • How did she get known in the first place?
  • How did she get the skills to do this?
  • How are any of these people making money?
  • What happened between Marie Forleo being a relationship coach and creating B School?
  • Isn’t Derek Halpern a little smug-looking for a personal brand?
  • Isn’t this all a little…shady?

I laughed. Because I’ve been there. Perhaps I’m still there.

Isn’t this all a little shady?

Many people in the online business space got into it to be the next Marie Forleo or Steve Jobs or [other big name entrepreneur].

As the titans of online business grow larger, we do lose pieces of their background, of what brought them to where they are now, because now they’re too busy being really big deals and juggling multiple income streams to talk about their journey to entrepreneurship.

Does anyone care how Oprah got started anymore? Not regularly enough for it to be featured on her About page.

My intern thanked me for having her review the lower 6-figure earners as well. The approachable ones. People you maybe only heard about in the last year. The ones whose stories you could still see on their about pages. Her insight was spot on: “I identify with these people more because they’re just doing a few things really well. Their websites are less confusing, and I know what they’re doing right away.”

When you’re first starting out, you may want to emulate your favorite big name entrepreneur immediately. But if you try to make yourself look big without the expertise to back you up, you’re going to come off “a little shady.”

I walked my intern through some of the big names’ backstories, and she began to understand. I gave her the same Oprah example I gave you, and that made her happy. Now things seemed less shady. These big names (typically) do have backstories, and you can find them deep in the archives of their blogs or websites.

When you don’t know these backstories, however, red flags go up. Are they scamming me? Who are they to teach me something?

When you skip these critical positioning and expertise-establishing pieces, you make new prospective clients feel on edge.

When you’re Oprah, or Marie Forleo, or Steve Jobs, feel free to skip the background, the experience, the places you’ve been featured.

But until then, you have to build that trust.

By all means, look to your favorite big-name entrepreneurs as role models and something to aspire to. But remember that you’re not there yet, and neither is your business.

You can avoid becoming a shady carbon copy of someone else’s personal brand by infusing your story into your marketing and messaging. Talk about how you got into your industry. Show, don’t tell, the value you bring your clients with videos or case studies or testimonials.

Get those guest posts out there, not so much for list building anymore, but for authority. Go on others’ podcasts and give your point of view. Establish your brand.

Model your website off your big name du jour as you get a feel for what your audience responds to. Scope out the competition that’s also modeling their work after your favorite person to see where you fit in the market (yes, I’m very pro looking at your competition when you’re starting out or losing traction).

But evolve, and stop smiling and laughing in your pictures if your personality is more serious. Don’t fly to Paris for a photoshoot when you have no money. And if you hire mentors who tell you that you’re boring, listen to them, but don’t change who you are to fit the default “what’s selling now” mold. Because that’s shady.

Ultimately, your favorite brand or entrepreneur also started out with little more than a story, a message, and an idea.

Get really clear on your positioning, your packaging, and your marketing, and you’ll be on your way to a sustainable business that’s not just a carbon copy of [big name entrepreneur].


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