With so much social media, content marketing, and just plain noise in the world right now, it’s extremely hard to get noticed, whether you’re building a personal or a company brand. At Foundr, we’ve been fortunate enough to build a brand in a short time that is recognized and respected by millions, rising to influencer status and building our company tremendously fast.
How exactly did we do it?
I figured it was time to get it all out there. So in this article, I’ll be detailing the fundamental steps we took to become a respected brand and an influencer in our market, and how these can be replicated in any industry so you can build your own successful brand from scratch.
How Foundr Got Started
It was March 5, 2013, and I ended up one of the thousands who had created a digital magazine covering the topics of business, entrepreneurship, and startups. I remember thinking to myself, I hope I can just make enough money to leave my 9-to-5 job, which was excruciatingly boring.
The day my business went online for the first time, I made a whopping $5.50. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it was an amazing feeling, having that very first dollar come in from my very own business. It was something that I had created with my own two hands, with a little bit of knowledge and some hard work, and people paid me cold, hard cash for it. It meant the world to me.
I clearly couldn’t quit my day job just yet, but I did begin to focus on Foundr a great deal to get it going. And even though it took a while, it did get going. Since launching, we’ve developed a top-ranked business podcast, an email subscriber list of more than 300,000+ people, tens of thousands of customers, and millions of followers on social media, and almost all of this happened within the past two years. Today, Foundr Magazine is among the top 10 business magazines you’ll find in the App Store, in good company with such long-established publications as Entrepreneur and Forbes.
There are a few key things I had on my side that I think are largely responsible for that success. I don’t have a long track record as an entrepreneur, and when I started, I didn’t really know anything about business, design, writing, or publishing. But I knew there was a huge need for some kind of authoritative voice to help aspiring and novice entrepreneurs.
I also knew one business gem from the outset, which was about the power of branding and what it can do for a company. This is true whether you’re trying to build a personal brand or a company brand—the brand is what people remember, and it’s what gives them an instant mental image of your company.
Finally, I’ve had the great fortune to interview some of the most intelligent and successful businesspeople on the planet, and I’ve learned a great deal from them. I became quite good at contacting some of these highly successful people and securing a little time with them (I’ll show you how to do that later). And the rest was just learning, trying things out, and adjusting as we went along.
Today, I’d like to share with you some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned during that journey about building a great brand, both through talking to these legends, and through our own trial and error at Foundr (and we’ve had our share of error!).
As you go through these steps, think about how you can apply them to a series of assets that collectively make up your brand: your website, social media, lead magnets, free material you’re giving away, products and services, packaging, and the all-important logo.
The overall thing I want to communicate to you about the significance of branding, is that it’s all about attention, and it’s all about trust. I hope you’ll keep those two principles in mind, as I lay out some of these distinct techniques you can use to build your own epic brand, increase your following, and influence the market you serve.
1. Treat Your Brand Name Like Gold
Everything we do at Foundr revolves around how we can get more attention and how we can generate more trust from our audience. To do both of those things, you must cherish your brand.
Put simply, your brand is what people say about you when you’re not around. That means you have to treat your brand name like gold, and act accordingly. As Jeff Bezos says, your brand is who you are, similar to your reputation as a person.
Perception is reality in the minds of consumers—if they perceive you as an amateurish, uncaring company, that’s what you are. If they perceive you as a reputable, high-class, reliable company, then that’s what you are.
You earn your reputation in business by doing hard things well, and by doing the simple things exceptionally well. When it comes to building an epic brand, you really have to create something amazing, something that will capture the imaginations of your audience, and earn a fixed place in their minds. That’s your brand.
2. Look to Build Trust However You Can
Making promises and keeping them is a great way to build trust in your company, and to build your epic brand name. When we say we’re going to do something at Foundr, we actually do it, because we recognize how important it is to follow through on any promises we make.
You can see how that goes back to trust, because when you come through on all your promises, you begin to build up trust over a period of time in the minds of your audience. Everything else you do to build up your brand should be an action that helps to build trust and form a bond.
3. Use Great Design
One of the ways that you can distinguish yourself from your competitors is with great design, and that’s why it’s something we obsess over at Foundr. I’m going to dwell on this for a while, because I consider it that important.
You’ll notice as you go through the pages of Foundr Magazine that everything looks great, and that it stands out as visually appealing and professional. Of course, you need a great product or service to begin with, but if you can manage to pair that with great design, it really becomes easy to stand out from the crowd. So many people in so many businesses overlook this as an important factor, and they lose this opportunity to stand out from their rivals, even if do they have a great product or service.
I’m sure you’ve visited a website that’s poorly laid out, or overly busy, with so much on each page that you can’t really distinguish anything important from all the material plastered on the screen. This is an example of the opposite of good design, and it’s something that will likely end up losing attention and trust, just like great design can help build both of them.
Here is an excerpt of Foundr V1.0 our printed coffee table book
Keep in mind that design speaks louder than words, and what I mean by that is, no matter how great your content might be or how much it might appeal to an audience, great design makes it more appealing. It will keep a website visitor in place long enough to read on and find out more about your company. On the other hand, if that design is too cluttered or too confusing for a visitor to digest, they won’t waste their time on the content, and they’ll click away to someone else’s website.
Steve Jobs once said that design isn’t just how a site looks, but how it feels. It’s very important that your design has the right look and the right feel, so that instead of repelling visitors, it draws them in for a closer look.
One of the ways that you can generate a positive feel for a website is by making it exciting. You don’t have to do this with a lot of bells and whistles or animated graphics. You can just make it really fresh, and something the visitor hasn’t seen before. Something that’s a little bit quirky and fresh can really add life to a website, and that’s the feel you should be looking for, not something that might put your audience to sleep.
Here is the cover for Issue 50 of Foundr Magazine with the one and only Tony Robbins
This was a lesson that we learned very quickly with Foundr Magazine, because we had to compete with the big guys like Forbes and Entrepreneur. We realized that we had to use design that would signal we were on their level or higher, so potential buyers would consider downloading.
There are so many people doing the same thing out there, even in the niche of business magazines, but we made ourselves distinctive using our attention to design, and that’s how we got a foothold. There are lots of ways to go about doing this, but one thing we always strive for at Foundr is to get people to take a second look. Once people take that second look, we feel like the high quality of everything else is going to keep them around.
If you think that you can’t achieve great design without spending a lot of money, I’m here to tell you that that’s not really the case. We achieve all of our great design concepts at Foundr in a pretty economical way, using a few key principles.
First of all, you need to have some great designers on your team, and yes you could spend a fortune on really good designers, but you don’t actually have to. You can find some very skilled designers on a website called behance.net, or at Dribble, where designers showcase their work. These sites showcase talented people at all levels of their careers, suitable for a variety of budgets.
Here is another example of Issue 30 with Michelle Phan
You can also look around for sites that you think look great, check at the bottom of the pages to see who created them, and then contact the designers. For the very first issue of Foundr, it only cost me a few hundred dollars to produce a 60-page issue, and from that first issue, we’ve grown to become a full-fledged media company and brand.
4. Make Use of Case Studies and Testimonials
Another strategy that can really build your epic brand and support your case for selling a product is providing as many case studies as possible and demonstrating before and after scenarios for people who have purchased your products.
Case studies are very convincing and excellent for providing official-sounding and trustworthy justification for how good your product is, and how well it solved the needs of other clients.
Here is an example from the foundr.com website where we use testimonials from our community members.
Then you can back that right up with your before and after cases, which describe a specific pain point or need that a client had before buying your product, and then demonstrate how well that need was fulfilled by the purchase of your product.
Another great technique is including testimonials from influencers, i.e. people who have their own followings and can move some of those followers toward becoming your customers too. We rely a lot on the Law of Reciprocity for this, meaning we might give away some product or something of value to an influencer, while asking for nothing in return. But human nature being what it is, many of those influencers will be very happy to do something helpful for you when the opportunity comes up.
All of this also encourages word of mouth, so people will tell their friends about you, and build a level of buzz that gains a life of its own, and paints a positive image of your company.
5. Create a Manifesto
This is the cover of the Foundr Manifesto
A manifesto isn’t something that every company needs, but it’s been a big part of the success of Foundr. This might sound like a strange idea, and I can’t claim it as my own, because I actually borrowed it from Seth Godin, but it’s something that has really paid off for us.
In our company manifesto, we’ve included a collection of our opinions and beliefs, and the things we value, so people will understand why Foundr is different from any other magazine.
You can download the full document at foundr.com/manifesto/, and at least 50,000 of our readers have done so. We even put it on our About page. We’ve gotten a great response from readers who tell us how much it resonates with them and makes them feel connected to our brand, which is exactly what we are trying to accomplish in our niche.
There is an excerpt from our manifesto on what we believe at Foundr.
6. Align Yourself With Influencers
Another thing that I’m really passionate about is aligning with influencers, because they can have such a great impact on readers everywhere. In our eighth issue, we interviewed Richard Branson, even though Foundr wasn’t really even on the map yet, and no one had heard much about us.
By getting our first interview with Richard Branson and putting him on the front page, I was able to get interviews with a great many other rockstars in the entrepreneurial field, and it opened so many doors for us. These days, we have no trouble getting interviews with just about anyone in the entrepreneurial space, because we have established a great deal of credibility and trust in our brand, and many of these people actually want to express their views through our magazine.
We have made a point of making connections with every powerful influencer we could, and by featuring many of them on the cover of the magazine, we show how in tune we are with the entrepreneurship field. I can’t stress strongly enough how valuable it is to be aligned with some of the movers and shakers in your field, and how much currency they can bring you when it comes to trust and credibility.
As I previously mentioned, testimonials can be very powerful in much the same way. We recently launched a new course on Instagram marketing, and we got testimonials from Gary Vaynerchuk and from Michael Stelzner, social media giants who know their stuff and carry respect and credibility. This added significant weight to our product.
They have acted as ambassadors for our products and services, and have really expanded our reach in the social media space. Of course, that makes us look great, because if celebrities like them are recommending us, it stands to reason that we must really know our stuff. We make a point of enlisting testimonials from many other influencers in various fields on our homepage.
Another thing I would strongly recommend is changing the way that you look at your competitors. Where, exactly, is it written that you have to fight, undercut, and outperform your competitors at every turn? What if you could actually collaborate with them in ways that are mutually beneficial?
If you think about things a little differently, you might see that there really are enough customers out there for everyone, and if you actually collaborate with some of your competitors, both of you might come out ahead. For instance, by having conversations with competitors to find out what works for them and what doesn’t, you might pool your knowledge and improve your focus in ways that bring more value to both companies.
7. Serve First, Ask Later
If you’re wondering what you possibly could have to give in a reciprocal relationship with an influencer or another brand, I suspect you have more than you think you do. You could purchase an influencer’s product or service, volunteer time to help them with some project, or even do something as small as letting them know you’ve discovered a typo in their copy. Yes, that sounds inconsequential, but it’s part of their communication with followers, and it’s very important to them, or it should be.
You can comment on their blog posts, tell them what you like or how it may have been different from your own opinion, maybe even suggest something you would have added. If you have your own podcast or publication, you can invite them on for an interview. There’s really a lot you can do to break the ice and develop an ongoing rapport with a person of influence.
By serving first and asking later, you build up trust with people, and establish a relationship that may be of real value at a later time. Someone you do a huge favor for today might remember it in six months and return the favor in a way that really helps you out.
Want to learn the exact strategies Foundr used to connect with Sir Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington and more A-list players?
8. Give Away Your Best Stuff for Free
Related to the previous point, experiment with what I call “moving the free line,” which means you should give away your best products and services for free. Make your giveaways so good that you really could charge for them. We did this at Foundr Magazine by providing our issue with Richard Branson—at the time and arguably still our highest-profile interview—as a free download for anyone who wanted it.
We recognized it would build up tremendous trust and credibility for us in a very short period of time, and that’s exactly what happened. That’s the kind of thing that can spread like wildfire and get you and your business on the map faster than almost any other idea you can imagine.
This is issue 8 of Foundr Magazine with the legendary Richard Branson, an issue we still offer for free to our audience.
Another example is our Instagram marketing course, something we could very easily have charged $50 or $100 for. Instead, we gave it away for free, and it’s now been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. We’ve heard from many grateful readers about how the course has helped them—just the kind of interaction that builds trust between our brand and our community.
9. Constantly and Consistently Deliver Value
Whatever it takes, you have to consistently provide great content and great value to your readers, and if it can be unique or distinctive, that’s even better. Consistency should be something you take very seriously. Our monthly magazine has never missed a shipping date, and is always ready by the middle of the month for our readers, who have come to rely on it and know that it will be there for them. That builds a lot of trust and credibility.
The past 50 issues of Foundr Magazine, rain or shine.
We do the same with our podcast, which we broadcast every single Thursday at the same time, adding to our reputation of reliability. Our feature blog post is also published every Tuesday without fail, just one more element that people have come to count on us to deliver.
The Foundr Podcast is a consistent piece of content we produce every week
You can bolster your regular output with major projects like producing a book, appearing on podcasts, or speaking at conferences and other gatherings of your peers. Over time, all of these things build influence with followers, and that’s exactly the kind of long-term relationship you want to cultivate.
10. Interview Other People
One last point for building an epic brand for your company is something I like to call the Oprah Strategy. I don’t exactly remember where I heard about this, but it’s something that I’ve been doing at Foundr for quite some time.
If you think back to when Oprah Winfrey first started out, not many people really knew about her, but she became famous and got a large following over time, in part because she was interviewing a lot of famous people that viewers could connect with. As time went on, people began tuning in, not so much to hear what those guests had to say, but instead, to hear what Oprah herself had to say. She had increased her own stature so much, that she became more of an authority than many of the people she interviewed.
There are many other other examples of people who’ve spent large parts of their careers talking to other people, only to eventually become authorities themselves. But how do you contact those other people in the first place?
How to Contact Influencers
As promised earlier, I’ll get into some of the tools that I use to do cold outreach. You might use these techniques when trying to track down some influencer you want to collaborate with, or feature in your blog or podcast.
Hunter.io – This service allows you to type in anyone’s name, and it will track down an email address, even for a very hard-to-reach person.
Rebump – This little Gmail plug-in is great for business development and following up with people. When you send someone an email, and you’re not sure they’re going to reply, you can use Rebump to send out automatic follow-ups. For example, if you don’t receive a reply email from someone within a pre-specified period of time, say a week, an automatic follow-up email will be sent to remind them of your original contact and to ask again for a response.
LinkedIn – LinkedIn is actually a great way to find people’s contact information. If you want to know who the head of public relations is for Virgin, for example, you can run a search to find out.
Publishers and PR Agencies – Contacting the publishers of people’s books, if they’ve written them, is another good way to track people down. Same goes for personal gatekeepers they set up, often through PR agencies. That’s how I got interviews with Tony Robbins, Casey Neistat, and Tim Ferriss.
Who.is – if you go to this site and type in the website domain of the person you are looking up, you can often find contact info. I’ve found a lot of people that way, and featured them in Foundr, just because I knew about using this simple little tool.
Foundr’s Email Templates – Finally if you’d like to use the templates of some of the very same emails that I used to get interviews with some of the great influencers in entrepreneurship, you can go to foundr.com/emailswipe, and you’ll have the exact templates that I used when I approached these people and began collaborating with them.
Are You an Influencer?
So let’s say you’re doing all the right things. How do you know if it’s working? How do you know if you are, in fact, an influencer?
Here’s what I consider the ultimate test of your influence within your market or niche: If 10 of the top 20 influencers in your market read your material and would recommend it—congratulations, you are an influencer!
This is exactly what you have to work towards, and it should be your ultimate goal, because it’s those top influencers in every market who get paid the most, and who get the most recognition from their peers. I hope you’ll come away from this post taking that goal very seriously.
On that note, I would also recommend you come up with a list of those influencers in your market and your niche. Get to know who they are and what they’re doing. They’re doing a lot of things right that you probably ought to be doing yourself. I’m not saying that you need to copy them and repeat everything they do, but find out what approaches are working, and consider making some of them part of your own approach.
For example, if one of your market influencers puts out a blog post that immediately gets hundreds or thousands of views, consider why, and maybe find a way to incorporate that same element of appeal into your blog in a unique way that fits your own brand.
One last thing I highly recommend for everyone in entrepreneurship is reading a book by Robert Cialdini called Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.
As I wrap up this long explanation, I’d just like to review the key action items take-home points one more time:
1 – Treat your brand name like gold and act accordingly
2 – Look to build trust however you can
3 – Consider the design of all your marketing collateral
4 – Use case studies and testimonials
5 – Create a manifesto
6 – Align yourself with other influencers
7 – Serve first, ask later
8 – Give away your best stuff for free, even if you could easily charge for it
9 – Constantly and consistently deliver value
10 – Use the “Oprah Strategy” and interview other people
All of these will help your company gain attention, and they’ll all help you build trust in your company. Follow these 11 steps with enthusiasm and with unwavering persistence, and you will end up with that most important business asset—an epic brand.