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The 5 Phases of Microbusiness Brand Development

February 6, 2013

Microbusiness brand development.

Photo by centralasian courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.Or, put a sexier way: making your brand more of what it needs to be to connect with your Right People. Becoming even more of who you ARE in service to your Right People. This is what I mean when I talk about ‘microbusiness brand development.’

Developing a business brand can be an arduous, insecurity-laden process. It can also feel thrilling and emancipating. It’s a PROCESS and most likely, you’ll toggle between emotional states as you do the deep work of articulating The Who, The Value, The Vibe, and The View as it relates to your brand.

So, what phase of the microbusiness brand development process are YOU in?

Identifying where you are, what you’re currently challenged by, and where you’re heading next are all ways to gain perspective — and isn’t perspective what we all really want?

Note: As I crafted this post, I was reminded of my colleague Charlie Gilkey’s wonderful series on The Business Lifecycle. While there’s some overlap between stage of business and phase in brand development, it’s not always lockstep.

Here are the 5 Phases of Microbusiness Brand Development:

→ PHASE 1: Committed Conceptualizer

This is the aspirational, Total Newbie phase. Whether you’re new to owning your own business or just new to this particular business idea of yours, we all start in this phase.

WHERE YOU ARE IN THE BIG PICTURE OF BRAND DEV

In this phase, you probably don’t know your USP from your Brand Proposition from your tagline. You know you want a business and you understand that you need a thoughtful brand to support it, but you’re not quite sure how to make it all come together. You have an idea of what business you want to be in, but don’t yet know what your services will look like, who you really want to work with, or how you will market your business (i.e. reach potential clients and customers).

WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND, BRANDING-WISE

As a Committed Conceptualizer, it’s easy to get caught up in external visual branding doodads like “Which social media sharing plugin should I use?” “Should I host my site on Blogger or WordPress?” “What colors do I want in my logo?” In this phase, these concerns seem pressing because they feel like “what your business is really about,” but in actuality, this is not the time to be concerned about the minor details.

WHAT TO FOCUS ON IN THIS PHASE

It’s time to get clear on what business you want to be in, how you want to make money, who needs the solution you want to provide, what experiences you have to help position you as credible, and what you want your experience of business to look and feel like (AKA lifestyle factors), as this suggests the type of business model in which you might thrive. And yes — all of this exploration and decision-making needs to happen before you commit to any visual branding or naming ideas.

→ PHASE 2: Avid Adopter

This is the phase in which you’re drawn to every Shiny Object that presents itself as a foolproof template or a surefire blueprint. I don’t say that as a criticism. We have aaaaaaaaallllll been there. (I currently have a tiny mirror taped to the top of my MacBook so I can watch myself as I type this. Not really. But you get the idea.) If a personal development guru, messianic business figure, or online superstar is talking, you’re listening. You sign up for every free call, download every bonus e-book, and opt-in for every coach’s complimentary 30-minute session, all in hopes of finding the spark, the trick, or the path that will lead you into pastures of business success.

WHERE YOU ARE IN THE BIG PICTURE OF BRAND DEV

As an Avid Adopter, you’re clearer on who you want to serve, why, and how, but you’re struggling to identify which strategies and tactics will help you build your business. (And you’re damn sure the right ones are out there, if only you look hard enough.) You spend a lot of time on long walks listening to marketing podcasts, panning for gold in your favorite brand’s blog post archives, and Skype chatting with friends about who said what about which topic.

WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND, BRANDING-WISE

You’re looking for voices of expertise. You’re open to input. You’re also at your most vulnerable, because you’re convinced that somebody knows something you don’t know about how to run your business. (You’re both right and wrong about that.) In this phase, you’re likely to be able to quickly name the 3 online business owners you’d most like to emulate in your brand. And if you hired a creative professional to create a website for you at this point, you’d probably tell them to make your website or your copy look or sound “just like So-and-So’s,” or “like So-and-So’s, but me.” (Again, not a slam. Just a truth. Ask any active professional copywriter or web designer how often he or she hears this and you’ll get a lot of head-nodding.)

WHAT TO FOCUS ON IN THIS PHASE

This is not the time to invest in a full-scale brand design. This is the time to put up an inexpensive template site you can customize (Elegant Themes, Woo Themes, and Theme Forest have  some lovely, fairly flexible ones), write your own copy, and launch your first modestly priced service. Get your feet wet. In fact, do lots of your own writing around your business ideas, your Right Person, and your beliefs about what needs to change in your industry — and be prepared to scrap it all. This is a discovery phase and you will change a lot from month to month and year to year as you learn, practice, and integrate. The most important thing to focus on in this phase is coming to terms with your own strengths, style, and voice — and to tune out the noise. Unsubscribe from anyone’s e-newsletter whose insights you aren’t immediately applying. They will still be there when you’re ready.

→ PHASE 3: Devotedly Disillusioned

This is the phase in which you’ve tried a few things — and failed. Or tried a few things with a mediocre return. You’re burned out on seeing the Same Old Online Superstars launch project every project and garner more tweets, more Likes, more book deals, more guest appearances, and meanwhile, you can’t seem to get a viable business off the ground. (Branding? Who the eff cares right now, you’re thinking.) You’re starting to wonder if this whole “build a business around your passion and market it online” thing is a frickin’ scam. Can anyone do it besides those who’ve already Made It? Is it too late for you? Is the market too saturated? You’re in eff-it mode.

WHERE YOU ARE IN THE BIG PICTURE OF BRAND DEV

If you’re Devotedly Disillusioned, branding is not the first thing on your mind. You feel like a shiny new website is just icing on the cake — and you’re aware you haven’t yet baked the cake you want to keep serving. You can’t really hire a copywriter because you’re not sure what you stand for anymore or what your business will be about once you emerge from this funk. You somewhat bitterly watch colleagues and peers launch new websites all around you, and feel as if there’s something wrong with you for not being able to pull your brand dev together.

WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND, BRANDING-WISE

You just want to know what works. Nothing works. Everything could work. You feel lost, confused, and frustrated — even a little bit tricked by the “industry” you thought was so easy to “break in to.” This can be an incredibly painful phase of brand development, because it’s shining a spotlight on all the gaps in your business model and showing you your areas for growth. As Devotedly Disillusioned as you are, you still probably have days where you peruse designers’ portfolios or pore over copywriter and branding specialists’ packages, looking for that magic something that will reignite your flame.

WHAT TO FOCUS ON IN THIS PHASE

As counterintuitive as it may seem, this is the time to lean into your strengths and rediscover your personal power — by getting offline, looking away from the theatre of values-based online microbusiness, and reconnecting to what you love to do and are fantastic at. Take your skill sets out into the “real world.” Read a book or some magazines that have nothing to do with your topic in business. Devotedly take a powder from following your online mentors and worthy peers. Show yourself that inspiration is everywhere. Living it in 3D makes delivering it in 2D so much more satisfying and meaningful.

→ PHASE 4: Meaning Masterminder

This is the phase in which you’re embracing the fact that probably no one knows your best path to business success but you, through figuring it out as you go along. You start experimenting. Maybe this works. Lemme try this. You have some wins and some losses. Yay, you! Experimentation is the true heart of entrepreneurship. You’re not willing to throw out “best practices” and what works well for other people entirely, but you’re interested in adapting what you see out there into something that feels good for you and your Right People readers and prospective clients. In this phase, many people get themselves into peer coaching circles or Mastermind groups, with the intention that sharing experiences cumulatively and giving each other feedback will help each one. (Sometimes that’s true; sometimes not. I’ve seen many a well-meaning entrepreneurial type be held back by the group she joined for support. So vet your peers carefully and go with your gut on this one.)

WHERE YOU ARE IN THE BIG PICTURE OF BRAND DEV

You’re ready for A Brand. You’re in a terrific position to begin investing carefully, thoughtfully, and consciously in a full-scale brand design (or redesign) with an experienced professional branding specialist, copywriter, and/or web designer. Chances are, this won’t be the last iteration of your work in the world, but it certainly can (and should) be a strong, clear, and gorgeously composed one.

WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND, BRANDING-WISE

You’re massively interested in understanding your Right Person — the person most likely to buy from you. And you want a brand identity that speaks directly to that person. You’re perusing websites you like the looks (and sounds) of and vetting creative professionals left and right. You’re probably talking with peers about who they’ve enjoyed working with, who gave great perspective and who was little more than a hired pen or pixel-pusher. You dread making bad decisions, but you also know that choosing and committing yourself to moving forward thoughtfully is the only way you’ll make progress. You’re concerned about how you will adequately communicate what you have in mind to a creative pro, but you’re willing to trust the process.

WHAT TO FOCUS ON IN THIS PHASE

When you’re a Meaning Masterminder, it’s essential that you begin to separate your own personal vision, tastes, and core needs as a person and a buyer from those of your Right Person — the person most likely to buy from you. Now’s the time to humbly but confidently and without bias or assumption step into the shoes of another and see life as he or she experiences it. This isn’t the easiest thing to do, but making this mental and emotional shift will free up so much creative energy for you as a business owner and brand creator. You’ll begin to have lots of clear and actionable ideas that can truly support the growth your Right Person wants for him or herself. (To help business owners do this, Tami Smith and I created Empathy Marketing.)

→ PHASE 5: Earned Empathizer

This is the phase in which you have earned a degree of empathy for your Right People — through conscious observation, clearheaded question-asking, and the laying aside of your own ego so that you can hear what people really need and want to buy from you. To say you have empathy for another person is one thing, but earning empathy is an ongoing process of being open to what is instead of projecting what you want to have happen.

WHERE YOU ARE IN THE BIG PICTURE OF BRAND DEV

Your brand reflects a degree of empathy for your Right People: you’ve designed it that way. Granted, business owners’ audiences can change and shift as the market does, so it’s possible that the Right People you once served so well are no longer searching for a solution like yours. Or it’s possible that your own interests have changed or your skill sets have been upgraded, so you’re ready to serve a different Right Person through your business. And your brand must realign to reflect it.

WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND, BRANDING-WISE

You think a lot about your brand’s positioning in the marketplace with respect to your Right People. How’s your conversation landing? Are you as available and accessible in your brand as your Right People need you to be? How are your brand advocates sharing your message out there? You also think a good deal about conversion (a somewhat scary-sounding word that’s really important to a smart business owner). Your brand is designed to support your business (not the other way around), so if your offers aren’t converting — if people aren’t buying from your sales page, if they aren’t signing up for your e-newsletter, if they aren’t registering for the call from the opt-in page — something needs to shift. You get that.

WHAT TO FOCUS ON IN THIS PHASE

Earned Empathizers need to stay watchful — watch the market, watch your peers and competitors, but most of all, watch your Right People. Don’t be afraid to reiterate or re-focus your brand conversation to move in a different direction (or — buzzword alert! — pivot). This is the phase in which to do what works, to know why it works, and for whom it works, and to be quick and light on your feet when it’s time to innovate.

All values-based microbusiness owners go through the 5 phases of brand development, and it’s a recursive process — which means it can loop back on itself.

A business owner who once found himself squarely in Phase 5 can find himself back in Phase 3 again when he’s reiterating or starting a new venture from scratch. The nice thing is, we take all of our previous experiences with us, so we’re never totally without chops again.

In the comments, I’d love to know:

Do you see yourself and your brand in any of these phases? Which one(s)? Which phase can you currently relate to most? I’ll be hanging out in the comments and I look forward to talking with you.

(Image credit.)

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah February 6, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Ugh Abby!! I cannot express how comforting it is to see my own process laid out right here. After unplugging and stepping away from defining what I do, I am now returning with a new focus and clarity. I find myself just now entering into phase 4 and whew- because the first three are brutal. I resonate with the idea of experimenting and being open to the continual development of my voice, offerings and brand as a whole. I suppose I had to go through all the crappy formula’s and failures to find myself here.

I look forward to your branding insights. Keep em coming <3

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abby February 6, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Sarah! –

Thank you so much for expressing this. You’re right: the first three phases do kind of suck, don’t they? It’s hard to see your way through to the next one when you’re in the middle of one. The awesome thing is, we ALL go through them so they are somewhat trackable and predictable. Phew!

So glad to hear you’re emerging into Phase 4. It’s a much more powerful-feeling phase to be in than Phase 3.

All you Phase 3-ers reading this: hang in there! It gets better.

xo

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Sarah Yost February 6, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Yes! I’m hobbling between 3 and 4. It is so comforting to read exactly where I am. In fact, it helps me feel more energized about this whole thing (just hobbled into 4) although I’d rather watch Downton Abbey and wire wrap some beads than deal with it (back to 3). So, yeah. This is perfect. Thank you.

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abby February 6, 2013 at 4:13 pm

LOL. Thank you for sharing that, Sarah. Wonder what would change if you could imagine yourself gliding back and forth rather than hobbling? (But — I know. I’ve been there.)

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Susan Wilkinson February 6, 2013 at 4:16 pm

This was excellent. Abby. I see why you felt like you were birthing a baby! Important post surely. Like Sarah, I’m oh-so-happy to be in phase 4, at least conceptually. I’ve worked my business in my head and through my own design concepts through many iterations now, sort of using empathy to see what will work and what won’t each time–alternately putting myself in the role of business owner and consumer. Not going through the first 3 phases publicly has made it so much more enjoyable! It’s felt safe, like pulling beautiful clothes off the rack and trying them on in private–only to find some of them look hideous on me.

Because I’ve worked alone through almost all of this so far, I know there are gaps in my work, but I think that’s mostly an organization issue. Many iterations means lots of trial and error asking the same questions. Some answers gets saved, some not, some get nuanced. My creative process includes Evernote, but not soon enough! (I watched the EM video and would pay money to have just the empty templates so I can easily see in an organized manner exactly where I am and what I need!) In my gaps I may need to go back a phase, but I’m not sure. Right now I’m full-throttle on getting into the head of my RP. (Would already be an EM customer if I could).

Btw, I read Tara’s post yesterday just before your newsletter came and I had the same reaction. Wonderful! I’m a Cross-trainer/Survivor hybrid. Although I suppose being published traditionally gives me a bit of the Specialist thing, but it’s not how I identify (and was just the opposite before being published).

Annnd there was sumpin’ else I wanted to tell you, but it’s slipped my distracted mind at the moment. If it reappears, I’ll letcha know. ;) Thanks for the wonderful post. OH! I know what it was… one of the things I appreciate so much about your work is that it’s really personal development through the lens of microbusiness branding and copywriting and that’s why it speaks to my soul.

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abby February 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Oh, iterations. Tami Smith and I went through lots of iterations before we launched Empathy Marketing. Designing the process, beta-testing it, designing the infrastructure, beta-testing it, re-designing the process and infrastructure, etc., etc. Each time it became a stronger and clearer version of itself and now we’re confident that we’re connecting clients with what they need, when they need it, in the way they need it.

It’d be great fun to work with you, Susan, and see firsthand where you’re at in your process. Let us know when the time is right!

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Laura Simms February 6, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Spot on Abby. I was chuckling from recognition throughout. I work with many many people in Phase 1, and I can’t tell you how often people want to dive into taglines and logos and fancy websites before they can even clearly articulate who they are, what they do, who they help, and how they help them. I’m developing a service precisely to help people answer those questions, because as you note, that’s the foundation that has to be in place before you can decorate it and make it look nice. Mega post!

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abby February 6, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Phew. Thanks, Laura. It was indeed a mega post. I don’t plan on writing one this “epic” in length again anytime soon. ;)

Hats off to you for working so well with Phase 1 clients. It’s a slippery and confusing time for people, but also marvelous.

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Claire February 6, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Wow, I’ve seen “Stages of X” articles before but usually for bereavement or divorce, never for business! It is strangely comforting to see the stages laid out even if you realise you’re still in the earlier ones (I’m flip flopping between 2 and 3 at the moment).

Looking forward to seeing a glimpse of phase 4, thanks for showing me that it is there, waiting for me!

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abby February 6, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Hey, Claire –

Thanks for commenting! Yes, Phase 4 really is there — and you’ll love it. Glad this exploration-of-the-branding-process-in-phases worked for you. :)

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Meagan February 7, 2013 at 6:50 am

This is great Abby! Thanks for such a detailed awesome post. I’ve definitely gone through most of these phases with my businesses, and right now I’m in the Meaning Mastermind phase. It’s taken a lot of time to get there… learning as I go… trying things out and having it work or not work, but that’s business growth and clarification I suppose. It’s been fun and I love looking back to see how far I’ve come. Now it’s time to look forward and really focus my businesses on me, what I can bring to the table for my customers and clients, and really be of service to them! Thanks!

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abby February 7, 2013 at 9:45 am

Glad this post was helpful for you, Meagan. Wishing you great fortune in this season of your business and brand development.

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Hannah February 7, 2013 at 9:47 am

Thanks for creating this framework Abby, I love the way you’ve broken down the different stages. I think the one that resonates most for me right now is stage 3: Devotedly Disillusioned. I recently had an epiphany about not trying to appeal to everyone with my site (kind of obvious, I know…), and since then have been working on creating a brand that is more true to my own values. “Nothing works. Everything could work” is the perfect description of what’s going on inside my head most of the time. I’m still very much in the trial and error phase, and am trusting that I will discover the recipe I want to use for my baked cake right around the corner!

Given my intermittent feelings of stuckness, it’s been really helpful to read your post, recognise where I’ve come from and remind myself that there is a path ahead too :)

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abby February 7, 2013 at 10:34 am

Oh, Hannah, I feel so much relief reading your comment. Rest assured that what you’re experiencing with your brand right now isn’t some idiosyncratic process unique to you. It’s a phase we’ve all gone through. Just think how good emerging from it will feel! You are on the right track. :)

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Hannah February 7, 2013 at 10:42 am

Thanks Abby, I think it will feel awesome :D

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Kristy Lyseng February 7, 2013 at 10:48 am

I’m currently sitting at Phase 2! It’s reassuring to know the things I am currently focusing on are what I should be focusing on. I’ve quietly launched my sales page and will start actively marketing, and posting, once I’ve been able to get my premium template working to the best of its ability. (That’s been the most difficult part so far.)

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abby February 7, 2013 at 11:48 am

Hi, Kristy –

Good for you! This is big progress. Yes, those premium themes that are marketed as “so user friendly” really have given me a run for my money in the past!

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Amanda February 7, 2013 at 1:42 pm

This is DEEELISH. I’m in the midst of Phase Four, segueing into Phase Five over the next year or so. I’ve been so used to doing everything myself that when I finally relinquished control over the bits that need to get done but that I really, really don’t have time for… I’ve freed myself up to actually invest in this incarnation of my business in a big way.

The mastermind that I’ve got myself in is all kinds of supportive and brilliant. Couldn’t ask for a better group of people to help guide me through this phase.

I think that this is a Must Read for my potential clients as I lead them through intake, Abby. Just so they know. Thanks for putting this oh-so-eloquently.

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abby February 7, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Hi, Amanda –

Someone asked me which Phase I see myself in, and I, too, answered “transitioning from Phase 4 to Phase 5.” I spent a good while in Phase 2 (when I first brought my freleancing biz online 3+ years ago), a relatively shorter time in Phase 3, and have been in Phase 4 for well over a year now. It’s cool to notice at what points we move out of one phase and into another one.

So beautiful to hear that you’ve found yourself a supportive and recharging Mastermind group. Last year, I intentionally took myself out of most peer support networks and am continuing with that commitment to myself through this calendar year. That may change at some point, but for now, I’m really keeping momentum by having less accountability to others.

I hope this will be helpful to you in your work with clients, Amanda! xo

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Naomi Niles February 7, 2013 at 2:21 pm

This is SO helpful, Abby! I can recognize all the different stages I’ve been through at one time or another.

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Abby Kerr February 12, 2013 at 10:01 am

Thanks, Naomi. Always glad to see you here. :)

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Jules February 12, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Devotedly Disillusioned on track to Meaning Masterminder – mostly because my current business isn’t my first venture, but I do feel as though I’ve tried every webinar, free ebook or consultation I could get my hands on. Right now, I’m happy to stick with the insights and newsletters from brands/people that I trust, and know that the growth of my business is always going to be a learning curve regardless of what stage I’m at – and I welcome that, because it gives me the opportunity to really learn from my mistakes and ensures that I’m always in tune with what’s going on.

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Abby Kerr February 12, 2013 at 5:22 pm

” I . . . know that the growth of my business is always going to be a learning curve regardless of what stage I’m at –”

I’m so glad you said this, Jules. I absolutely agree. The business owner who stops learning is pretty much dead in the water, it seems to me. Still learning — and failing — and getting frustrated and disillusioned — and having victories over here all the time. :)

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Sarah February 12, 2013 at 4:04 pm

This is fantastic.

I read 1 & 2 and thought, yes, I’ve been there, and then read 3 and felt a bit depressed. I think that’s where I am many days at the moment, but when I read Phase 4, I felt like I’m starting to step into that one. It may only be some of the time right now, but it’s where I’m headed, and that’s exciting.

Thank you!

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Abby Kerr February 12, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Thank YOU, Sarah. For as frustrating as Phase 3 is, Phase 4 is equally fun and rewarding. Enjoy your journey.

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Simone February 12, 2013 at 4:15 pm

I can really identify my past struggles in those earlier phases. Lots of frustration and tears over the years!
I think now I’m actually in phase 5, but have only just been there a short while. I’m still falling back into phase 4 from time to time, so I guess I’m in a transition period between the two.

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Abby Kerr February 12, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Hi, Simone –

Ah, those transitions. Just like in labor (so I’ve heard), they can be the most uncomfortable part. Hang in there!

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Tahlee February 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Oh Abby. It’s like your psychic. Each step I read I nearly laughed out loud with a “yes, that’s EXACTLY what I do”.
I feel like I could be swinging wildly between them all, but perhaps settling in around Phase 4? (Oooh, it feels scary to say that out loud. Perhaps I need to go back to scouting resources in Phase 2?! :D )

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Abby Kerr February 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Hi, Tahlee –

Thanks for commenting! (I’ve wondered what your name is, since it’s not on your Twitter profile or in your handle.) I’m glad to hear you’re recognizing yourself in the phases at different points. Less important than declaring which phase we’re in is just recognizing the patterns that play out in them. Reassures all us that we’re normal and on the right track! :)

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Tahlee February 14, 2013 at 1:15 am

Haha! Thank you, I just updated my Twitter profile :)

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Abby Kerr February 14, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Oh, awesome! No problem. It’s so easy to overlook the little things on our own sites and profiles. Believe or not, I overlooked installing social media sharing buttons on my blog until a few readers prompted me about it. ;)

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alssasda asdam March 3, 2013 at 12:31 pm

wow! thanks for that amazing document. I really cherished it to your core. Hope you keep publishing this sort of impressive article content

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Maia June 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm

So happy I discovered this blog!

I’m in phase 4. But I can really identify with phase 3 because I’ve spent A LOT of time there. Those were some dark days with lots of frustration. I also experienced information overload that did not lead to clarity for my brand. The good news is I’m happy to have moved out. I’m totally focused on defining my brand value now. I don’t have all the answers yet, but I’m getting in the right mindset to figure it out.

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