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How To Build a Personal Brand Without Any Money

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Every step I took to go from college graduate to writer and agency founder

I started building my personal brand online when I was 23 years old.

I had just graduated from college, had spent about six months working my first full-time job, and felt like “real life” had just punched me in the face. I was living in a small studio apartment on the north side of Chicago with no air conditioning and a heater from the 1950s.

My daily commute was on public transit, an hour each way by train — with a transfer in the middle. Most mornings, the train doors would open and every car would be packed full, and so I would have to take my backpack off, shove it between my legs, squeeze between three or four people, and then reach my hand up to grab one of the metal pillars to hold onto for the next 45 minutes. One morning per week, a homeless person would be part of that group, and the smell would be so bad you had to keep from breathing through your nose.

After working for eight or nine hours, I’d take the train back home. I’d let my backpack fall off my shoulder and onto the floor of my apartment. I’d quickly make myself an oatmeal smoothie — raw gluten-free oats, a banana, cinnamon, frozen blueberries, almond milk, and water, blended up — and guzzle it down before heading to the gym. By the time I got back home again, it was 9:00 p.m. and all I had done was ride the train, work, and lift.

“If I don’t change something, this is going to be my life. Forever,” I thought.

It was a painful realization to have.

I was working as an entry-level copywriter at an ad agency, and while I certainly didn’t mind the work and enjoyed my co-workers, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to write catchy taglines on billboards for a loaf of bread. I wanted to write books. And so my painful realization was that in order to actually become an author, I needed to do two things I didn’t really have the time or the resources to do:

  1. I needed time to write. A lot.
  2. I needed to build myself as a writer publicly. I needed to start branding myself.

Now, keep in mind, I had just graduated with a degree in fiction writing. There were no classes in our curriculum called “How To Make Money As A Writer” (which is astonishing to me now), or “How To Sell Your First Book.” Anything related to the business of writing was completely foreign territory and on me to figure out. To be honest, it was the reason why I took (and kept for four years) my job at the ad agency. My day job was, inadvertently, teaching me about business and marketing.

It was my responsibility to take what I learned and apply it to my own dreams, hopes, and desires.

Sitting in my sweltering hot studio apartment that summer in nothing but my boxers, 23 years old, I stared at the library of books next to my desk.

“How can I become that?” I said to myself, letting my eyes take in the names of my favorite authors: Vladimir Nabokov, Dave Eggers, Samuel Wilson Fussell, Ernest Hemingway, etc. I didn’t have any money to invest in making myself “look” like some big, fancy, destined-for-stardom writer. And I barely had enough time to write a few pages in my journal each day, let alone make any real headway on a substantial project like a book.

So, I had to make a decision.

Either I was going to accept my fate as a copywriter, climb my way up the ladder, get a few promotions, and hopefully, one day try to find fulfillment in being a senior copywriter or maybe even a creative director at a big ad agency…

Or…

I was going to figure out how to make the time to write and build myself as an author all on my own.

Knowing I would never be satisfied or happy with the first option, I decided right then and there I was going with the second. I was going to do whatever I had to do in order to build myself as a writer. Period.

There were four things I did to build myself and my personal brand as a writer without any money.

This is, step-by-step, how I went from having a degree in fiction writing and no real portfolio to becoming the number one most-read writer on all of Quora in 2015, an author and Top 10 columnist for Inc. Magazine in 2016, and the founder of a seven-figure ghostwriting business in 2017 called Digital Press.

1. Instead of Trying to Generate Press and Media Attention for Myself, I Used My Writing to Build Credibility Through My Work

Unlike most other writers who either receive advances for their first book or make their money elsewhere and then decide to start building themselves as an author/writer after the fact, I didn’t have the means to hire other people to make me look talented.

I couldn’t just go out and hire a PR firm to get publications to call me “an incredible writer on the rise.” I couldn’t hire a digital agency to build a flashy website. I couldn’t spend money on advertising, I couldn’t afford to get a graphic designer to design me a logo. I literally could barely afford to buy myself Chipotle once every two weeks, let alone invest in making myself seem like someone bigger than I was.

So, I didn’t even try.

Instead, I devoted 100% of my time to mastering my craft and letting my talent speak for me. I didn’t want someone else to say I was a great writer. I wanted the results of my writing to speak for me.

I started writing on Quora near the end of 2014

Knowing that I didn’t have any of these other “buyable” options on the table, I committed fully to the process of writing on a daily basis. I told myself I was going to write one Quora answer per day, every day, for a year straight. Worst case scenario, it would be a year of extreme practice. Best case scenario, Quora would be my launchpad.

By forgoing the “instant gratification” of having outside sources (like publications) give me what is called “perceived credibility” (a third-party source saying, “Nicolas Cole is such an incredible writer”), I wrote and wrote and wrote until I earned those badges of credibility for myself. In early 2015, I had my first Quora answer republished by Business Insider. It happened on its own. Someone from Business Insider had come across one of my articles. They thought it would be a terrific fit for their audience. And they asked to republish it.

What I found out after was that Quora had partnerships built with most of the major publications online: TIME, Forbes, Fortune, Business Insider, Inc. Magazine, etc.

As soon as I realized that Quora could act as a launchpad for republishing (aka credibility), I devoted hours and hours studying what types of material these publications were looking for. I saw that Business Insider loved long lists of quick helpful tips. I saw Inc. Magazine preferred more entrepreneurial focused “self-help” information. I saw TIME had a lifestyle section that frequently republished articles on topics like productivity, confidence, life fulfillment, etc.

With all of these publications in mind, in mid-2015 I changed up my whole Quora strategy.

Nearly everything I wrote on Quora was written with a certain publication in mind. And as a result, I became one of the most re-published writers on the platform. From mid-2015 through 2016, I had one of my articles republished in a major publication each week, every week, for almost an entire year straight.

I spent $0 on PR, and I ended up generating more PR and “credibility” (I racked up a lot of logos) than I could have bought on my own — even if I’d had a $100,000 budget.

2. Instead of Spending Money on Hiring a Photographer, I Reached Out to Photography Students Studying at Columbia College Chicago

I’ve always been a huge rap and hip-hop fan.

One of the things I’ve always noticed about music, and the music business, is that a huge amount of emphasis gets placed on the artist’s “image.” Right? You hear that all the time — how you need to “look” like a superstar in order to be a superstar. And so record labels and artists— especially in 2012, 2013, 2014 when more independent artists started to catch fire on the internet —would put a significant amount of resources into their social media photos, music videos, etc. Even if you had never heard their music, if you came across one of their photos on social media, you would assume (just by the quality and execution alone) that they were a “famous artist.”

This is Branding 101.

When I thought about what that would (or “could”) look like in the world of writing, I hit a brick wall. I didn’t, and honestly still don’t, follow any writers on non-writing social media platforms. Not because I don’t want to — but because all my favorite writers are literally invisible. They publish incredible works of art and literature, but then their Instagram account consists of random photos of their cat every seven months, or a picture of what book they’re reading on a vacation from three years ago. Unless the writer has taken it upon themselves to use a platform like Quora, Medium, or their own personal website to share updates or thoughts outside their conventional book format, they don’t really exist anywhere else.

Nearly everyone I pointed this out to said, “That makes sense. Writers write. They don’t do social media.”

As a 23-year-old with zero resources and determined to build myself into a successful, fully independent writer, I saw this as a massive opportunity

Not having any other writer to use as a model, I basically decided to take the branding playbook of an up-and-coming rap artist and apply it to myself. If rappers hired photographers to take on tour with them and capture candid photos of them behind the scenes, then I was going to do the same thing in my everyday life. If rappers made their Instagram pages give the impression that they were this massive superstar, then I was going to do the same thing. If rappers had creative directors, then I was going to be my own creative director.

The only problem was, I couldn’t afford a super expensive photographer.

Instead, I remembered that when I had first transferred to Columbia College Chicago, there was this website where students could connect and collaborate with each other. I had been out of school for about a year now, but I still had access to the site, and so I went poking around for people who were studying photography.

What I found out was that a lot of photography students needed to find “models” (aka people willing to stand in artsy locations) in order for them to complete their class assignments. “Looking for a model for a nighttime shoot,” one person wrote. “Looking for a model for an experimental portrait,” another wrote. For context, no part of me considered myself or even wanted to become a model. What I saw was an opportunity for me to work with photographers for free — and if I wanted professional pictures for my personal brand, then I was somehow going to have to teach myself how to, you know, model.

So I did.

I emailed 20 different students I found on the site

A few got back to me. And I just started meeting up with them, walking to different parts of the city, pretending like I had any idea what I was doing. “Look at me like you’re thinking about something,” this girl said, pointing her camera lens at my face. I thought I was doing what she had asked, until she said, “No, like, actually move your face. Make a different expression.” I didn’t know how to do that. I tried again. She said, “No, OK so like, umm. You know what, nevermind,” and I followed her to a different street where we tried again. And again.

I collaborated with probably 10 different photographers in 2014. I never used most of the pictures — and I hope they never see the light of day. I was really, really bad at “modeling.” But every once in awhile, one of the pictures would turn out super cool. It almost always happened by accident, from afar, and it looked way closer to an accidental photo taken without me knowing.

I decided that this “documentary” look was going to be my style.

From 2014 to 2017, this is how I populated my Instagram page (which now has more than 50,000 followers, despite the fact that it’s not really my primary platform). I collaborated with college students who needed to fill their portfolios. Some I became better friends with than others, and two to three of them ended up becoming regular collaborators. During these three years, I didn’t spend a single dollar on photography. I helped them. They helped me. And that’s how I started to build my “image” as a writer online.

Now, I have the resources to invest more deliberately in this part of my personal brand (which I firmly, firmly believe is one of the best investments you could possibly make in yourself). When I moved to LA, I started collaborating with a very talented photographer named Walid Azami who has photographed everyone from Usher to JLO to Kanye West.

When people comment on my work today, one of the first things they bring up is the fact that, unlike most other writers, I’m extremely visible. I attach pictures to nearly everything I write and do. As a result, I appear as more than just a writer — which was my entire goal from the beginning.

3. Instead of Spending Money on Advertising, I Started Building a Massive Library (a “Web”) of Content to Advertise for Me Long Into the Future

One of my first big lessons in the world of digital advertising happened when I was working as a copywriter at this ad agency right out of college.

I had started running ad campaigns for clients, and I saw the same thing happen over and over again. The client would approve an advertising budget for us to use. We would start running campaigns. While those campaigns were active, their stats would skyrocket — views, likes, comments. And then as soon as their budget hit $0, all their numbers would plummet.

For most clients, this was pretty normal and they were fine with the results. They had huge advertising budgets and they understood they were paying for exposure (the literal definition of advertising).

But as someone who was hoping to learn how to take my knowledge of digital ads and apply it to my own aspirations as a writer, I saw this as a huge problem. My conclusion was: “This approach works great if I have an endless supply of cash. But until then, I’m going to have to find a different way of advertising my work.”

I was 25 years old at the time, and I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel for my first book. It was a memoir and coming-of-age story about my teenage years as one of the highest-ranked World of Warcraft players in North America called “Confessions of a Teenage Gamer.” My hope was to publish the book by 2016, and so I wanted to start laying the groundwork to make the book launch successful.

When I started researching how to do that, all I found online were articles about how authors should “start a blog” or spend money on Facebook/Amazon ads directing people to their book. My experiences on Quora up until this point had taught me that starting a blog was a terrible idea — you were far more likely to reach readers by writing in social environments like Quora and Medium than on your own personal site. And spending money on Facebook/Amazon ads to a pre-order page was off the table.

Instead, I started reading and researching a very different form of thinking about online advertising called “evergreen content.” In a nutshell, there are two ways to think about launching a product. You can either:

A) Do a ton of work upfront, start a buzz, build an email list, hype, hype, hype, launch, and hope to blow your product out of the water.

Or…

B) Create what’s called “evergreen content,” which is intended to be “timeless” and will continue to attract the people you are looking to reach long into the future.

In a metaphor, A is like having enough money to buy so many shares of a company that you can force the price to go up and turn a profit. B is like being a broke college student, putting $100 into a stock you believe in, and hoping that $100 turns into $300 a few years later.

B was my only option.

Instead of expecting my first (very niche) memoir to be some blowout success, I took a second to pull back and see the larger vision. This wasn’t going to be the only book I wrote, nor was it going to be the one and only project that represented everything I am.

Instead of hyper-focusing on the success of this one book, I started to make decisions based on the success of my entire career as a writer — that is to say, “me.” My experiences as a teenage pro gamer were niche, yes, but they were also fairly universal. So instead of only thinking of the book as it related to gaming, and instead of writing about the larger lessons gaming taught me about life, I could nod to my book in nearly everything I wrote about.

I even did it here in this article — I’m telling you how I built my personal brand as a writer, and I’m using my first book as a story to highlight the point I’m trying to make. This article could be read by someone tomorrow, or it could be read by someone 10 years from now. Either way, the article will hold its value. And either way, it will point readers to my first book.

That’s not an ad.

That’s an investment that pays you a dividend.

Once I started executing this strategy for myself, I started to see the secret weapon I had unlocked for myself

Every article I wrote was another asset that I owned. The more assets I owned, the more organic viewership I started to attract. The bigger the library got, the wider my reach, the more “sticky” my web of content got, and the higher my average monthly views went.

Today, whether I write anything new or not in a given month, I still average over 500,000 organic views on my written content online.

And unlike those ad campaigns I used to run for clients at the ad agency, those views don’t plummet as soon as the budget runs out. There’s no budget to begin with. I invested my time — hundreds, probably thousands of hours in order to write thousands of articles online — and in return, my content continues to pay me dividends: in exposure, in social proof, in book sales, in ghostwriting clients, in networking opportunities, etc.

4. I Sacrificed Short-Term Opportunities to Make Money for Longer-Term Opportunities That Had Exponentially Higher Ceilings

The last thing I did, and this is a choice I continue to make for myself today, is I always questioned whether or not it was time to start monetizing.

Most people who want to build a “personal brand” see it as an easy way to start making extra income. They see other influencers on social media either selling online courses, products, etc., or getting paid as an affiliate/sponsor to promote other people’s products. What they don’t really take the time to question, however, is how that’s going to feel for them once they do it.

Personally, I don’t see anything “cool” about using your audience to sell FitTea or skin creams.

In 2015, I accumulated more than 20,000,000 views on my written content. And I didn’t make a single dollar off any of those views. To someone looking for a short-term dollar, this was a massive failure. To me, this was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to make a dollar today. I wanted to make $100 tomorrow.

Instead of looking for ways to monetize my content, I always thought about my content as a web to bring me larger opportunities. If someone reached out and asked me to promote their plastic product on Instagram for $250, I ignored it. $250 wasn’t going to take me out of my studio apartment with no air conditioning. I wanted opportunities that had the ability to fundamentally change my life. Not just buy me a fancy dinner.

By 2016, I got my first small dose of what this could potentially look like.

I’d been given a column with Inc. Magazine where I was offered to be paid per page view. Now, keep in mind, in 2016 I was literally averaging millions of page views on Quora every single month. So even though the math meant I was going to make pennies on the dollar writing for Inc., I believed in myself so much that I actually preferred being paid on performance and not a more guaranteed flat rate, like $50 per article.

Why?

Because nothing life-changing can happen with a fixed rate of $50 per article.

But something life-changing can absolutely happen when an article racks up a million views and I get cut a check for $10,000.

As I was onboarding and getting my column set up with Inc. Magazine, my editor said, “Now in order for you to get paid, you need to write at least six columns per month. Can you do that?”

I paced around my boss’s office after everyone had left work for the day. I had to take the call there because I needed internet, and I didn’t have internet back at my apartment. I was so determined to finish my book and continue mastering my craft as a writer that I didn’t allow myself to have internet in my studio apartment for four years. From 2013 to the end of 2016, if I wanted an internet connection, I either had to stay late at the office or walk down the street to a coffee shop. You think I’m joking. I’m not.

Eager to take my writing career to the next level, I said to my new editor, “Would it be possible for me to write more than six articles per month?”

Publications live and die by the volume of content they’re able to produce, and so this was music to her ears.

“Sure! How many do you think you would want to write in a month? Eight? Ten?”

“What about thirty,” I said. “Could I write an article per day?”

There was this long silence on the phone, until she said, “I mean, sure. If you think you can make every article high quality, I don’t see why not.”

I had been writing one Quora answer per day, every day, for more than a year at this point. I was in peak condition and ready to kill the game.

From that day forward, I wrote one Quora answer per day and one Inc. Magazine column per day, five to seven days per week, every week, every month, for months on end

In my first month writing for Inc. Magazine, I had my first small viral hit, and I made something like $1,000. The next month, another article caught fire. And then again, and again. Until eventually, what I was earning from Inc. Magazine alone wasn’t too far from what I was making working eight or more hours per day at the ad agency.

Knowing I wanted to “take the leap” and go out on my own, I saved every dollar I made. I didn’t upgrade my lifestyle. I didn’t buy myself a cool pair of sneakers — even though mine were falling apart and covered in dirt and stained from Chicago’s sludgy snow. I didn’t buy myself more take-out food or treat myself to an afternoon of shopping. I saved until I had about $5,000 saved up and knew it was time for me to go all-in on myself as a writer.

Which led to the second big opportunity.

You see, by not spending any of the money I made and not choosing short-term rewards, I was able to make a fundamentally different decision for myself to achieve a much higher ceiling. There were a lot of people who saw me start writing for Inc. and said, “Man, you’ve made it.”

Made it?

Made what?

I was still falling asleep to a heater in my apartment that made gunshot noises. My shower still screamed at me when I turned it on in the morning before running to catch the train for work. My kitchen was my bedroom was my office was my front hallway. I could stand in the middle of my apartment and be in all four rooms at once.

I hadn’t made anything yet.

Instead of seeing my Inc. Magazine money as this nice side hustle that allowed me to buy pointless stuff, I postponed any and all gratification to remove the biggest barrier of success in my life: my nine to five.

Working eight to 10 hours per day is exhausting. It’s mentally draining. It’s tiring. It’s far. It’s stressful. My job was the thing keeping me from being able to maximize my talents as a writer. So, by removing my job from the equation and giving myself 10 more hours each day, I now had so much more time and energy to invest in myself as a writer and my personal brand.

So that’s what I did.

The same day I published my first book was the same day I quit my job. Two weeks later, I had an entire roster of ghostwriting clients and was earning double what I had been making before — with way less stress in my life and way more balance. The month after that, I doubled my income again. The month after that, I doubled it again. And by the time I had been out of my nine to five job for a year, I had founded a seven-figure ghostwriting company with one of my closest friends called Digital Press. And hundreds of thousands of dollars in new business was generated (and is still generated) by my articles online and my personal brand.

Nicolas Cole Author

Writer | Founder of Digital Press | 4x Top Writer on Quora | 50M+ Views | www.digitalpress.com

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