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From Freelancer to (Multiple) Startup Founder Using Branding


Having co-founded and pushed the growth of WooThemes as a CEO, I believe that having a strong personal brand is a big part of how my projects grew fast.

Learn about my journey from freelancer to multiple startup founder. With the right brand personality and positioning you can leverage your skills, build your reputation as an expert, and achieve you definition of success. You can also learn more via my latest e-book Brandiing.

Keep in mind, once you achieve your goals it doesn't end there. It's then time to pay it forward. Learn about my new project toward the end of this article. PublicBeta is a learning platform for entrepreneurs by other (very) successful entrepreneurs.

First, my brand story, from humble beginnings, to leveraging rockstar branding and beyond.

Identify Opportunity and Use It

I’m now a retired rockstar.

Not the type to be thrashing around on stage to hair ­metal tunes, but a web design rockstar who could use any open ­source code to produce beautifully designed themes and websites.

At school I had studied Financial Accounting, thinking this would be the quickest and easiest way to climb up the corporate ladder. Yet, I soon realized this would lead to a very dull, boring path, and used my curiosity to explore what else was happening on the world wide web.

Back then I wanted be part of the "cool kids", and noticed quite a few of the early adopters already had a blog. But I didn’t want to just contribute to their blogs, I wanted to make my own websites and create my own designs.

It was at this time I discovered WordPress and their open source code meant I could learn how to code by modifying other people’s code. My skills progressed well and soon I started to receive requests to design other people’s websites. I quickly realized two things:

  • I could actually design, develop and implement a WordPress­-powered blog.
  • Other people needed help in doing these to the point that they would be willing to pay (handsomely!) just to get help. Meaning, I could actually charge other people for my services! This revelation kick started my passion for branding, marketing and design and meant I could use my skills to freelance as a web designer on top of the WordPress platform.

Now at the time not many people were able to use this skill, and I used this opportunity to my advantage.

The Birth of Adii Rockstar

If I was to get my services out there, I felt I needed to give myself a brand name.

I was born Adriaan Pienaar. As you can see it’s not a very easy name to pronounce. At the time, I was thinking about what to call my business and I recalled a few of my high­ school friends calling me "Adii" ("ay­dee"). I figured, since it seemed to work for them, this nickname would resonate with my target market too.

Using 'rockstar' worked extremely well because it resonated with my audience, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Around this time, the word "rockstar" was used (abused?) as a way to describe someone who was really good at something. I'd say that "rockstar" rivaled the current use of "ninja" in very
much the same vein.

Using "rockstar" worked extremely well because it resonated with my audience, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Calling myself a rockstar, while not playing any kind of music instrument or being part of a band,­ was deemed to be arrogant by quite a few people within the community.

The fact is, though, this controversy (at least in my very small corner of the internet) had people talking about me. It got me the attention that I used to make more money.

From Freelancer to Founder

During the early days of my freelancing career, while I was just a one-man-band, I quickly realized that I needed to develop my own unique voice.

I was vocal, opinionated and I got my customer’s attention. It was through this strategy that I build up an engaged audience of web designers, entrepreneurs and self-­starters. I shared my key learnings, insights and mistakes via my personal blog and took every opportunity to guest post on other sites which targeted my customer base.

One of the side projects I was dabbling in at the time was to actually sell premium, WordPress themes which was a new concept at the time. I released my first ever product via my blog on November 2, 2007 and managed to leverage the attention of the audience I had built there, to successfully kickstart my new business.

From there ­as they say ­the rest is history... I met my eventual co­-founders as a result of these pursuits and in 2008 we migrated our activities and audience to co­-found WooThemes. Today WooThemes has 150,000+ paying customers, more than half a million users and a team that boasts 30 individuals.

I’m 100% convinced that all of my branding-­related activities prior to November 2007 set the stage for my initial success, which eventually became the gateway to meet my co-­founders and create something magical (with WooThemes) alongside them.

I had established myself as an expert within the WordPress community, which meant that people trusted me enough to either hire me as a consultant or to purchase my digital products. Being that expert opened so many doors and became a major part of the DNA that is now ingrained in WooThemes.

Standing Out From The Crowd

When people think of brands and branding they usually associate it with logos, websites, colors and design.

I take a more holistic approach. For me, the concept of branding is much more than designing a logo but an extension of a founder’s (or a team’s) personality. Branding encapsulates everything from the company ethos, to services delivered, recruitment and the way brands communicate with their customers. This is what makes your company unique.

Your brand and business brand are not superficial entities, but are based on you, your passions and your unique perspective on the world.

I was most definitely not the best designer or developer around, but I used this personal branding to ensure I captured the attention of the greater WordPress ecosystem. This attention resulted in page views on my blog, which in turn generated new client leads.

I was standing out from the crowd, because I was being myself which meant that I was
inherently interacting as a unique individual. By labeling these interactions as “Adii Rockstar”, I simply found a way to communicate and package who I already was.

Within a couple of months, I managed to establish quite a nice freelance business for myself, had a steady influx of new (and repeat) clients for whom I did custom design work and I even found the time to dabble in a few side ­projects on the side.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons about using a personal brand for your business. I learned that your personal brand outlives your professional brand.

Since becoming a "retired rockstar" I have continued to build various side projects, and although my brand did not follow me, I realized that the views and values that I stood for, still remained the same.

No matter what company you decide to build next, the idea of having a personal brand is a way for you to anchor your business ethos and influence your customers to trust you based on your past actions.

Your brand and business brand are not superficial entities, but are based on you, your passions and your unique perspective on the world.

How to Use Your Brand to Position Yourself as an Expert

Now since you too are passionate about your business, and have a strong sense of who you are, ­both professionally and personally,­ you can use this confidence to position yourself as an expert in your industry.

People take notice of experts. They trust experts. They do business with experts.

It doesn’t matter if you feel you don’t have enough experience, what matters is that you use your unique perspective, points of view and opinions to develop your voice.

In branding, you're dealing with the perception of your audience. To be regarded as an expert is what really matters. This isn’t a form of trickery or positioning yourself as a "marketing guru". It just requires a change in the way you communicate.

As part of your branding activities, it's important for you to have a voice. It's crucial that we differentiate between a voice and an opinion here: an opinion is what you say while a voice is how you say it.

Aarron Walter, Directer of User Experience at MailChimp, has said this about the voice of their company:

We take our brand very seriously at MailChimp, not because we are hyper brand­ nazis, but because our brand is our personality. It’s who we are as individuals and as a collective. We think a lot about how to convey our personality consistently while adapting to different contexts.

Teach Others What You Know

Another way to reinforce yourself as an expert, is to teach others what you know. This is part of the reason why I wanted to start PublicBeta, because I wanted learn from other successful entrepreneurs and how they would have done things differently.

Knowledge sharing is an effective branding exercise. By demonstrating to your customer that you really know what you are doing, you are able to earn their trust.

There are plenty of ways to do this:

  • Use your personal and business blog to share key learnings, and be transparent about your tactics.
  • Write an E­book.
  • Send out a newsletter every week.
  • Sign up as an instructor at General Assembly.
  • Start your Clarity.fm channel.
  • Apply for speaker opportunities at conferences and events.
  • Host an event.
  • Arrange a Google+ Hangout and upload it to your YouTube channel.
  • Upload your slides to Slideshare.
  • Curate your own Flipboard newspaper.

Lots of people talk about what they can do, but if you share these practical techniques and tips then you are more likely to be perceived as an expert.

When you start out as a freelancer, it can be a daunting task to get that first client. But through branding and positioning yourself as an expert, you are able to stand out from the crowd. What is
important is that you don’t lose sight of why you are unique and the value you can bring to prospects.

I truly believe that part of my success at WooThemes is because I had a solid brand that resonated with my customers. To move from freelancer to running a business and hiring over thirty staff was definitely a steep learning curve. Without having a strong sense of self, I would not have achieved such success and this would have been an entirely different story.

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