I’ve been waiting a long time to share my success story, but now that I have my own business, I feel it’s worthy of a blog post. I really hope that this story inspires you to work hard and live your dreams, regardless of your age. It’s been quite the journey, but most of you have only been following it for about three years. I have been involved in the branding and internet world since I was very young. Here is my story…
From Nobody to Brand Name Entrepreneur in Under 3 Years
The Story of 26-years-old Dan Schawbel
Personal branding, or how we market ourselves to others, was an innate talent of mine. My real passion for the Internet came together when I started to learn how to craft websites for a hobby. My first website was a James Bond fan page, and I was very proud of it so I told all of my friends who shared the same interests, which was my way of marketing the site.
Wired in High School
I always gave nicknames to my friends, even if they didn’t want them, and I even invented my own buzz words that people would use around school. I had custom Nike’s shoes with my name on them, and even a shirt with my picture on it that my friend illustrated. After school, I would go to my best friend’s house and watch as he would use Photoshop to design impressive images and wallpapers.
In high school, I never fit in with all the social cliques and was discouraged by the competition at school. I enrolled in my first marketing class during my sophomore year and presented on custom music CD’s as my final project, which, back then, was an innovative idea (now we take it for granted and don’t even use CD’s). During my senior year, my parents connected me to a successful local entrepreneur and he gave me my first real summer job. I started my first internship with Galaxy Internet Services, which provided DSL and dial-up internet to households and small companies. I made about one thousand cold calls during that summer, with zero success, but with an understanding that I wasn’t cut out for sales, and that marketing was where I could excel. Before I graduated, I developed another website for my eight closest high school friends so that we could keep in touch. Each of my friends had their own profile page, and there was a discussion board so we could communicate.
Building self-confidence in College
I never considered myself an exceptional student in High School, as my report cards typically showed mostly B’s, and a few A’s and C’s. When I was applying for colleges, I applied “early decision” for Bentley College (now University), and was deferred to regular admissions. I used this as my motivator and finished senior year of High School with straight A’s. I even interviewed on campus and sent them a strong letter of how much I wanted to attend. I received my acceptance letter during the regular admissions period. I took College very seriously because I knew it was important for my career. After a lot of hard work, I received straight A’s my first semester, and proved to myself that I could do anything with a lot of hark work. This gave rise to my determination, ambition, and work ethic that I still have today.
The real self-marketing begins
During my freshman year, I realized that it was going to be very competitive to get a job in marketing when I graduated, so I built a development plan that linked me to a series of internships in all marketing disciplines to set myself up for graduation. I stopped relying on my parents and their networks, and started to figure a way to market myself. I created a toolkit (I call it a personal branding toolkit now), which had a business card, custom cover letter and resume, a CD portfolio, and a website. I would have multiple internships at a time, while attending relevant classes. I interviewed for an internship at the Reebok headquarters one summer, and didn’t get it because they typically recruit sons and daughters of executives there, but I never gave up. When I get focused on a goal, it’s impossible to stop me. I spent over a year accumulating more experience, as well as starting my own web development company and taking on a few small business clients. I eventually got an internship at Reebok the following year.
During this time, I became very entrepreneurial, which I got from my father, uncle and grandfather that had successful businesses. I had my own consulting company, creating websites and marketing plans for small businesses. After eight internships, straight A’s, and holding seven leadership positions in campus organizations, I was finally ready to enter the job market. The only problem was that I avoided professional networking for the past four years because I was introverted, shy, and didn’t know how to do it. As a result, it took me eight months, meeting fifteen people, and getting rejected twice, to finally become an EMC product marketing employee, which was my goal at the time. I realized that networking would be my main priority for the rest of my life.
A leap into social media
On October 4th, 2006, I started my first blog called “Driven-to-Succeed,” which was a career development guide for college students. It was my way to share what I had learned in the recruitment process and how they can prepare for the real world. The challenge I had was that no one commented on the blog, and very few people would answer my emails because no one had heard of me. It wasn’t until I read Tom Peters famous “Brand Called You” article on March 14th, 2007, when my entire world changed. It was like a breath of fresh air, and I finally had meaning in my life. Upon reading the article, I realized that Tom’s words were identical to my own, and that I could become the Gen-Y spokesperson for personal branding because I had been living it all along.
The rise of personal branding (and this blog)
That night, after an EMC training session, I raced home and turned my current blog into PersonalBrandingBlog.wordpress.com (now PersonalBrandingBlog.com), and have never looked back since. From the blog, came the Personal Brand Awards, which was a recognition program for people who were building successful brands using social media. Then, I launched Personal Branding TV, which was an online video series with me as the host giving personal branding tips, helping students, and interviewing CEO’s on how they built their brands over the course of their careers. Then, I wrote an article for About.com and it was published, which was an incredible feeling since I was 23 years old and never had seen an article I wrote on any other website except my own blog. I used that published article to get my next opportunity, writing a best practice article for the American Marketing Association, and then I continued to build my profile by getting published in BrandWeek Magazine, and now I’m a columnist for BusinessWeek!
Turning the tables on the recruitment process
On August 1st, 2007, I launched the first issue of Personal Branding Magazine, with ten articles and an interview between Donald Trump and Guy Kawasaki inside. On the same day, Fast Company wrote about my six months personal branding journey, which was exactly ten years to the day Tom Peter’s article came out on the cover of Fast Company. I never understood the power of publicity until I received an invitation to speak at Google after they read my profile in Fast Company. EMC had no idea what I had been doing outside of work, and I didn’t feel that they needed to because I considered it a hobby. EMC public relations had caught wind of the article after receiving a Google Alert notice and sent it directly to a Vice President who was starting a team to manage EMC’s social media program. I received an email the next morning from the VP, and we met. I then met with the head of Public Relations and was ready to interview with him, and I even brought a press kit. I created the first ever social media position at EMC, and at a Fortune 500 company, without ever applying. Instead of pledging to the company like a fraternity, they were coming after me for my talent, thus I was able to make money doing what I loved. I knew at this time that I was onto something big!
The Me 2.0 saga
I wrote a book proposal for Me 2.0, a book on personal branding for students and young professionals because I saw the need for it, and knew I was the right person to share my story and inspire others. I sent it to a few publishers that rejected it and then was told that I needed an agent, yet seventy agents ended up rejecting my proposal. In January of 2008, I signed a contract with Kaplan Publishing. During this time, I would come home from my full-time job and start working on the book and even on weekends. I also learned that the author is charged with book marketing, not the publisher. I worked as hard as I could to build up relationships with the media, as well as other authors, and eventually built the brand of the book before it came out. It also had an endorsement from The Dean of Kellogg, and a few interviews with BusinessWeek and Entrepreneur. I ended up doing a massive launch, which catapulted the book to the #1 job hunting spot on Amazon when it came out on April 7th, 2009. The book was dedicated to my Grandfather, who passed away when it came out.
Brand leverage and network building
Me 2.0 led to a lot of opportunities. I was featured in over 150 media outlets, from NPR, to ABC News, to The New York Times, and even Shape Magazine. In December, I was in Times Square doing a photo shoot for Details Magazine with Seth Godin and others. Also, I became a syndicated columnist with Metro US, reaching 1.2 million people bi-weekly, as well as BusinessWeek’s youngest columnist, and wrote for Mashable. I started interviewing major brand names, including Tom Peters (my hero), as well as Ivanka Trump, Perez Hilton, Timbaland, George Foreman, and others. I received a lot of speaking and consulting inquiries, from the likes of Time Warner, CitiGroup, Harvard, MIT, and others. My first blog became very successful, attracting over 60,000 people per month, and is one of the top marketing blogs ranked by AdAge. I recruited other experts to help me scale the blog, so that I could focus on the marketing outreach. I extended the success of my first blog into a new blog called Student Branding Blog (studentbranding.com), which has branding and career advice for students of all ages and is written by the top college career advisers in the country, corporate recruiters and student peers. I even became one of the first bloggers to have their own iPhone application.
From employed to entrepreneur
It was becoming more obvious that I didn’t need a full-time job anymore. I had been building a business outside of work for three years, even before I considered it a business! After coming back from vacation on a Cruise in January 2010, I resigned from my job at EMC, and thankfully my team was very supportive of my new career path. Later that month, I started my company called Millennial Branding, LLC (website coming soon). What started out as a vision three years ago had finally became a reality. I also signed EMC as a client, and am currently working other major companies and individuals.
Millennial Branding, LLC is a leading personal branding company, focused on delivering online branding strategies for both personal and corporate brands, in order to help them stand out in the marketplace and achieve their goals.
What you can learn from this story
I believe anyone else could achieve this level of success with hard work, commitment, focus, and some creativity. I was able to turn my passion into a business without taking venture capital money and taking on debt. Everything you’ve seen here has been started from scratch and with very little investment. It’s also a great case study for how taking a niche and using online social tools can help you have a successful career and live your dreams, regardless of your age.