Three steps to leveraging your personal brand to build a startup

TOPICS: Entrepreneurship , China , Jewellery

by Jeremy Sheperd

Years ago while in China, I was drawn to the beauty, mystery and promise of a string of pearls I had uncovered during a stroll through an exotic market. When a United States jeweler later told me the ones I’d chosen were worth 20 times what I’d paid, I dropped everything and spent the next eight years visiting Asia more than 200 times so I could learn everything there was to know about pearls — from cultivating the minerals to endearing myself to the farmers who cultivated them. The work I put into immersing myself in pearls has resulted in an uncompromising product, stellar global reputation and an untold number of satisfied customers.

The success of my company Pearl Paradise isn’t based solely on our exquisitely curated product though. Pearl Paradise has grown into an industry gem because my goal at the outset was to educate — others and myself — and along the way, I’ve converted my working relationships with the pearl-passionate people among us into enduring friendships and business relationships with pearl farmers, gemologists, and pearl lovers eager for confidence in their investment.

It’s certainly possible to build a successful startup without first establishing a personal brand, although the success I’ve enjoyed easily comes from the imprint I’ve made within the industry.

1. Actively engaging on social media, in the community or throughout your industry, is the best, quickest and most effective way to see how you can help others

In 2004, the same year the term “social media” entered the mainstream lexicon, I built a social media site named Pearl Guide that now has a membership base in the 5-figures where I communicate my passion and knowledge to like-minded arbiters of fine things. Just a few years ago I also founded a digital pearl school where I personally teach consumers virtually — 30,000 students to date — on pearl-buying best practices in over 10 languages.

The business of pearls has traditionally been relegated to family businesses — generally a great-grandfather starts it and subsequent generations take it over. Except pearls weren’t in my blood. And despite my lack of background, Pearl Paradise enjoys the distinction of being bigger than almost all other pearl companies in the United States. The pearl industry eyed me warily at first. That is, until my online students became their clients.

2. Keep educating yourself on the industry and share what you learn generously

By being a teacher first and a businessman second, I’ve created a culture of “golden handshakes,” with people who wouldn’t give me the time of day chasing me around for five minutes of my time. Putting others’ education before my bottom line has contributed to enhancing and expanding the pearl industry.

At the outset, our biggest challenge as a luxury goods dealer hawking non-commoditized goods was earning the trust of the online-buying public, so my mission was to create a tribe of educated and, ultimately, satisfied customers. Knowing my stuff inside out and backwards and forward while also being generous with sharing the wealth of knowledge helped get us past consumer doubt — people finally stopped asking if our pearls were real.

I continue striving to educate others. I’m the face of a community and take the responsibility seriously: I host large events, produce relevant, award-winning documentaries, and continue writing on the topic, including for the Gemological Institute of America (GIA).

3. Do what you do because you want genuinely want others to enjoy your product.

When you’re trying to grow your personal brand, quite possibly the most important part of the process is ensuring you’re in it for the right reason: Is it really your brand you’re looking to grow, or are you genuinely interested in having a product or service that serves to help or enhance the lives of others?

When your aim is effectively helping others better their own lives or businesses through education and communication, you’ll find they’ll gravitate to you more naturally and organically, with your reputation practically building itself. To build and maintain a brand that others turn and return to, seek knowledge steadily and passionately. Sharing what you learn strategically and generously will all-but guarantee your reputation will grow exponentially.

About the Author

Jeremy Shepherd is a leader, innovator, and a disruptor. From an early age he struck out on his own to satisfy his fierce independence, need for adventure, and a more satisfying way of life. As a teenager, he traveled to Japan alone and stayed to attend high school. He is self-taught and fluent in Japanese, Spanish and Micronesian. Through college, Jeremy worked for Passport to Languages as an interpreter of all three languages.To continue his world travels, became a flight attendant in 1996 and began to import pearls during his runs to Asia. In a sector dominated by generations old family businesses, Jeremy endeavored to become a first generation, self-taught pearl importer, dealer, and internet reseller. Over the past 20 years, he has traveled to pearl producing areas all over the world creating relationships with pearl producers, exporters, and people dedicated to support the pearl industry.