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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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.

→ 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.


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.


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.


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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