Back in 1997, marketing guru Tom Peters wrote in Fast Company, "We are CEOs of our own companies: Me, Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You." At the time, this struck me as liberating. In 2016, it doesn't.
In our age of omnipresent social media, many entrepreneurs are too busy trying to build their personal brands to focus enough time and attention on building their businesses. Many, to be fair, believe that those two projects go hand in hand. But if they once did, it's getting all the time so see how they do.
Largely because the idea has gained so much traction since Peters wrote about it, personal branding has devolved into a barrage of self-promotion—something that's less about strategy than about building networks of thousands of superficial connections.
The original goal was laudable when it was fundamentally entrepreneurial: to develop meaningful relationships with customers and gather insights about the value of your products or services. As Peters saw it, becoming an industry expert or influencer would help entrepreneurs fulfill that objective.
These days, anyway, that's a lot messier in practice. It's become de rigueur for entrepreneurs to blog, tweet, write a book, sell themselves to death, and yell as loudly and as frequently as possible—otherwise, they fear, they simply won’t matter. Of course, being the CEO of You sounds pretty empowering, but we've reached a saturation point of supposed thought leaders all hoping to become ambassadors of their individual brands.
There's a better way. Instead, entrepreneurs should take a cue from the sorts of people who have long excelled at pouring their energy into creating something meaningful, rather than building personal brands: artists.
It's ironic that at the same time entrepreneurs are being told to think more creatively, artists are getting admonished for not being entrepreneurial enough. Both groups still need to promote their own work, and they can all learn a thing or two from one another.
I launched three startups after a successful career as an artist in New York City, which has led me to believe that artistry and entrepreneurship are closely linked. Both enterprises are about creating something out of nothing. Whether it’s a work of art or a company, we imagine possibilities that others can’t see and persevere tirelessly until they become real.
So it's no surprise that the personality traits that make me an artist are the same that make me entrepreneurial: drive, passion, discipline, vision, self-confidence, motivation, and an attraction to risk and rule-breaking. Throw in resilience and problem solving for good measure, too.
Note that the ability to sell, schmooze, and network are not part of that package. What sells us is our passion; what connects us with others is our authenticity.
And what helps us succeed are the very things we create.
If you spend your time building your brand, you run the risk of going overboard and letting online marketing become your full-time job. You don’t only have to write a blog, you need to tweet your posts several times a day, comment on every relevant article, manage your website, go to events.
And chances are that amid this back-breaking branding effort, you aren't really creating anything. The creative entrepreneur should be working tirelessly on actually building something instead of trying to be popular. No number of fans or followers is going to make a mediocre artist into a great one. Nor will it help a lousy CEO inspire their team. And what happens when it's discovered that your carefully curated image doesn't quite correspond to reality?
It's not that being recognized by your peers doesn’t matter, or that hiding inside a clam shell is the way to go. Of course it’s important to get out there, but the best way to become an industry expert is through your proven talent and hard-won experience, not your online presence.
Entrepreneurs are busy creating and running companies. On the whole, artists much prefer to create than to self-promote. Advocates of personal branding might argue that you're doing it wrong if your efforts don't build meaningful, authentic relationships, and that may well be true. But in practice, most branding efforts simply don't. They value superficiality over substance and tend to favor a certain kind of person.
If you're naturally extroverted and love to have an audience, you’ll thrive. But what about the introverted, creative entrepreneur who's doing incredible things that fly under the radar? What about those who believe their work should speak for itself, or who can’t stand to toot their own horn?
Ultimately, there's a contradiction in terms at the heart of even the most well-meaning personal branding advice: Good branding is supposed to be more about what you do for others than about yourself. But it's really tough to have it both ways. Just as corporations are not really people, people are not brands. Try as you might to sound as inclusive and customer-centric as you can, personal branding is still inherently ego-driven—that's why the word "personal" is in it—and manipulative. What's authentically personal can't be branded.
In an article for the Atlantic last year, William Deresiewicz argued that we need to rethink the relationship between art and entrepreneurship:
The operative concept today is the network, along with the verb that goes with it, networking . . . But the network is a far more diffuse phenomenon, and the connections that it typically entails are far less robust . . . A contact is not a collaborator. Coleridge, for Wordsworth, was not a contact; he was a partner, a comrade, a second self. It is hard to imagine that kind of relationship, cultivated over countless uninterrupted encounters, developing in the age of the network.
We’ve all seen the potential of online social networks in creating powerful social movements: think the Arab Spring, or Black Lives Matter. I believe we can build platforms in which everybody can thrive while still being their authentic selves, where people are rewarded not by how many followers they have, but by the contributions they make.
It's hard to think of a better entrepreneurial mission than connecting such people in order to generate the "situations of intense, sustained creative ferment" Deresiewicz writes about. Call it what you like. I call it innovation, and there's no branding required.
Beatriz Helena Ramos is an artist, entrepreneur, and the founder and CEO of DADA.nyc, an online community where users from around the world can converse through drawings.