The playbook I used to level up from nobody to someone

There are two ways to grow an audience:

  1. be interesting and clever,
  2. do interesting things and talk about it.

Consider book authors. Skilled writers like John McPhee can write a whole book on something as boring as oranges and people still love it. But if you’re not that good of a writer, you have to pick a more interesting subject to entertain your readers. For example, if you’re writing about the shenanigans of Jho Low your writing can pretty much suck and the book will still be entertaining.

Or consider the different types of Twitter users. There are many users who try to craft “perfect” and insightful tweets. Naval Ravikant is the champion of this category. On the other hand, there are users who use Twitter to give glimpses into their world.

Another good example are YouTubers. If you’re just sitting in your room you have to be extremely charismatic and clever to produce great content. But if you’re jet setting around the world and do cool stuff every day, you can attract a large audience with mediocre skills.

Now I honestly didn’t have much of a choice since I’m not charismatic, nor eloquent, nor clever enough for the “be interesting and clever” strategy.

But I also simply don’t like content that falls into that category. It oftentimes doesn’t feel authentic and as a result, I’m feeling manipulated as a reader or viewer. For example, I’m using Twitter to connect with real people and not to read fortune cookie quotes.

Credibility Stories

If you want to pursue, like me, the “do interesting things and talk about it” strategy, the first thing you need is a credibility story.

This could either be something interesting you did in the past or an aspirational project you’re working on. The sole purpose of your credibility story is to signal “I’m someone who’s capable of doing cool stuff”.

Here are a few great examples:

(Note that most of them are not particularly well written. Instead, it’s the story that makes them work.)

An amazing credibility story can lift you from nobody to somebody in a single day.

For example, it was his credibility story alone that allowed Daniel Vasallo to grow his following from a few followers to thousands of followers. Similarly, it was their credibility stories that put people like Pieter Levels, Sahil Lavingia, and Peter Askew really on the map.

But even if your credibility story doesn’t go viral, it’ll do important work for you during your whole personal branding journey.

For example, my credibility story “I’ve decided to pursue a Bootstrap MBA” didn’t go viral by any means. But it was retweeted by Arvid Kahl and a few other people and this helped me to grow from zero to a few hundred followers. Moreover, I still have the link to it as my pinned tweet because it allows people to immediately understand what I’m all about. And this helped me, for example, to get a shoutout on the My first Million podcast.

Here’s another way to think about it. In your Twitter profile bio and on the “about” page on your website, you tell people what you’re all about. However, the first lesson everyone learns in storytelling classes is that you should “show don’t tell”. The purpose of your credibility story is to do just that.

There are certainly formulas to come up with a credibility story. You could, for example, write down adjectives you want to be associated with and then try to map them to stories in your past or projects you want to work on.

But I’m convinced that what makes the best credibility stories work is authenticity. Hence, my suggestion would be that you should trust gut and observe what kind of thoughts make your energy levels go up. If you’re truly excited about something you did in the past or planning to do, others will be too.

Once you have the idea for your personal credibility story, just write it down. Don’t overcomplicate things and keep it simple. If you’re not a native speaker, hire a proofreader on Upwork for $20. While the quality of your writing is not an essential factor, grammatical errors and typos signal laziness.

The ideal place to post your credibility story is on your personal website, but something like Medium or Substack will do too. Once it’s out share it in relevant communities and on Twitter but don’t expect too much. As I mentioned above, your credibility story will do a lot of important work for you even if it doesn’t go immediately viral.

Postcards and Evergreen Content

The second cornerstone of a successful personal branding strategy is consistency. Your credibility story allows people to see that they’ve discovered an interesting person. But before that can happen, they need to come into your orbit.

I like the phrasing: you need to become a lighthouse for like-minded people. Your credibility story is like the interior of the lighthouse that signals that this is a cool place to hang out in. However, to make sure that your lighthouse continues to emit light, you have to put out new content regularly.

It’s certainly possible to grow a large following with just one or two pieces of content. For some people, the credibility story alone generates such a bright flash that thousands of people come into their orbit. But that’s just not a replicable strategy.

Most people need hundreds of attempts until they find their voice and a perspective that hits a nerve. In the past, this process usually took years. But nowadays, thanks to the internet, you can put in the necessary reps in a few months.

To optimize your progress focus on two types of content

  • Postcards - short updates that give a glimpse into your life and don’t require much work. Share what you’re currently working on, things you enjoyed, problems you’re struggling with, achievements, or just random observation. The goal is to explore as much territory as possible, refine your public image, and stay connected to the people who care about what you do. Twitter and a newsletter are ideal formats for this kind of content. Here’s an example.
  • Evergreen content - whenever you’re truly excited about a topic or notice that a lot of people are interested in something you shared in a postcard, take the time to write a deep, long post. (Alternatively, you could of course also record a podcast or video.) The best mindset is to write something you’d have loved at the beginning of your journey. Post your evergreen content in all communities that might find it interesting and promote it as much as possible. Whereas postcards primarily will help you to deepen the connection to your existing audience, evergreen content will help you to grow it. What you’re reading right now, is one of my evergreen posts.

Content in between these two extremes is usually a waste of time.

Keep doing cool stuff

Focusing on evergreen content to bring new people into your orbit is a great strategy. But there are also other ways to make sure your personal lighthouse continues to emit light.

My personal favorite is side project marketing. In addition to long form essays, I publish mini tools like What to Tweet. Each “launch” on Product Hunt makes thousands of people aware of my existence.

A key to make this strategy work is a tiny “made by” badge in one of the corners of my mini tools.

Ego Strokes

Start talking about other people and they’ll take notice of your work.

This final puzzle piece in my personal branding strategy is something a lot of people do but no one is talking about.

If you’re just starting out and write a big essay on the meaning of life, chances are high that no one will care no matter how good it is. But if you write an essay summarizing what Naval Ravikant thinks about the meaning of life, it’s almost guaranteed that he’ll retweet it and that fans of Naval will upvote it in relevant communities.

For example, Eric Jorgenson and Jack Butcher grew their followings using different variations of this strategy.

The best aspect of this strategy is that it’s permissionless. Of course, it would be cool if you would record a podcast episode with Naval. That would certainly give a big boost to your follower count. But what are the odds that this will happen? In contrast, you can just start without his permission to summarize his thoughts right now.

There are many formats that you can experiment with:

  • Write a long blog post that summarizes what you learned by studying a given person. This is, for example, what I did in my 6 Lessons I Learned from Nathan Latka essay. (It doesn’t always work but in that case it did. Nathan shared it with his 60k+ followers.) Another example is David Perell who built much of his reputation with an essay titled Peter Thiel’s Religion. Instead of an essay, you could also do a Twitter thread or ideally, even both.
  • Publish summaries. For example, Wes Kimbell recently started to summarize episodes of my Product Ideas podcast in his newsletter and, of course, I’m sharing it every single week. Visual summaries also tend to do well.
  • If someone inspired you in any way, say thanks a give credit. For example, a comment by Andrew Wilkinson inspired me to build Product Explorer. When I mentioned that on Twitter, he shared it and not only got tons of new followers but also made quite a few sales. Here’s another random example (Jack retweeted it).

A nice twist is to publish these kinds of ego strokes for people who are at your level or maybe just one step ahead of you.

Last words

Six months ago, I had zero Twitter followers and zero newsletter subscribers. No one had any idea who I am. Now there are thousands of people who care about what I do and people regularly reach out to me.

While I’m certainly not famous by any means, I feel like my strategy worked quite well so far. While many people grew a bigger following in less times, this is usually the result of something going ultra-viral. Cool when it happens but not plannable.

In contrast, I’m convinced that my strategy can be replicated by anyone who is willing to put in the work.

So if you learned something from this post and want to grow your following, feel free to stroke my ego on Twitter.

Credit where credit is due: I borrowed everything in this post from someone else. I got the “credibility story” terminology from Daniel Vassallo and the postcard vs. evergreen terminology from David Perell. Not sure where I picked up the term “ego strokes” but I certainly didn’t invent it.

Written on February 20, 2021
P.S. I'm now on Twitter too if you'd like to follow my adventures. Alternatively you can enter your email address below and I will send you occasionally a short email whenever I publish something new.