Arruda and others date the new paradigm to a 1997 article in Fast Company magazine by the business writer Tom Peters. "We are the CEOs of our own companies," he wrote. "To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called "˜You.'"‰" Arruda, who had made his career in corporate branding, was taken with the concept. He launched a personal-branding business in 2001, when few people were doing it. Now the field is cluttered with personal-brand consultants and coaches.
The underlying idea, that of the brand, is old. "It's a unique promise of value," Arruda explains. Your brand isn't just a label you give yourself — it's your reputation. "Each of us has a personal brand, whether we're aware of it or not," according to Malcolm Levene, who has consulted on branding from London for 20 years.
The function of branding is to distinguish you from the competition. "If you're not a brand, you're a commodity, and you compete on price," Arruda says. This is something that not only companies and entrepreneurs but even conventional job-seekers increasingly need to worry about. Until recently, most people subsumed their own reputations under their employers'. But nowadays, the first thing many prospective employers check is your online reputation — that is, your brand.
Job seekers need to look after their Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter presences, as more than a few have learned the hard way. "We're moving into a more transparent world," says Jorgen Sundberg, founder of Link Humans, an online-branding consultancy. "It's harder to hide in a huge corporation or a huge team."
COUNTING ON YOURSELF
In any case, fewer people want to. For many younger people, burrowing into corporate life seems to be a myopic and often self-defeating strategy. Dan Schawbel is a 28-year-old marketing researcher and consultant who specializes in targeting his own generation. He makes the point with typical Gen-Y bluntness: "You're competing against everyone in the world. You can't count on anything anymore. The only thing you can count on is investing in yourself."
Where hypercompetition and the recession have created the will to abandon the traditional employment model, the Internet has provided a way. An accountant or designer who establishes a distinctive online brand can sell to clients around the world, and more are doing so as companies downsize and outsource. In 2010, according to The Wall Street Journal, more than a fifth of American workers were operating as consultants, freelancers, free agents, contractors, or solo entrepreneurs, and "current projections see the number only rising in coming years."
Solopreneurs take the freelancing mind-set a stage further. While a freelancer typically practices a single trade, solopreneurs resist pigeonholes. Rather, they view their job as developing multiple lines of business, preferably diverse but all revolving around a central, defining brand. "You never want your income based on one avenue," said John Michael Morgan, a branding consultant who juggles speaking, writing, consulting, and training. "If something happens and you lose that method of making income, you realize you didn't have a business, you had a job" — and it's gone.
"The only thing you can count on is investing in yourself."
The majority of solopreneurs seem to be female — two-thirds of them, according to unscientific surveys by Larry Keltto, a former journalist who now coaches and consults for go-it-aloners. Just over half, Keltto has found, earn less than $40,000 or lose money; but some of them, once established, earn into the six figures. The vast majority work from home. How many are there? Hard to say. Probably not many — yet.