Building a Brand Called "Me"


By Erin Chambers As entrepreneurs go, Donald Bifareti and Josh Taekman don't have too much in common. Bifareti started his Annapolis, Md.-based business after 37 years in the electrical construction field, realizing that he was ready to stop the heavy lifting, but did not necessarily want to kick back in full-blown retirement. Taekman, just 35, worked in the music industry in Los Angeles before helping launch the marketing division of P. Diddy's Bad Boy Records, with a campaign targeting urban youths in their own communities, at parks, malls, and other hangouts.

Their fields differ, but both consider themselves experts. And rather than confine their expertise to the needs of a single big company, Bifareti and Taekman recently have branched out on their own as independent consultants. "Being your own boss" is an entrepreneurial refrain, but with increasingly user-friendly and affordable technology, being your own company has become an increasingly attractive choice for those who have achieved success in their particular fields.

WHAT'S ON OFFER. It is, of course, a nice thought, but at least in the beginning, learning to sell yourself can be a tricky business. Although the Internet can be a relatively cheap and easy marketing tool, when you're just starting out, it can be tough to find worthwhile resources amid the clutter. One need only type in the words "sell" + "yourself" in a few search engines to realize the scale of existing knowledge on the subject -- over 2,000 products on Amazon.com (AMZN) and at least 72,000 Web sites listed on Google (GOOG).

Topics range from "How to sell yourself to your boss or clients" (Clients for Life: Evolving from an Expert-for-Hire to an Extraordinary Adviser by Jagdish N. Sheth, Andrew Sobel ) to "Sell yourself without selling your soul" (A Woman's Guide to Promoting Herself, Her Business, Her Product, or Her Cause with Integrity and Spirit by Susan Harrow). Some even lay out numbered lists (1001 Ways to Market Your Services: For People Who Hate to Sell by Richard C. Crandall). But no matter the approach, most circle back around to one simple conclusion: selling "you" is no different than selling any other product.

"Every consultant also has a list of features such as education, industry experience, location, and price," says Jacques Werth, president of High Probability Selling, a consultancy in Media, Pa., and the co-author of a book by the same name.

BUILDING CREDIBILITY. Branding expert Rob Frankel also sees the person as a product, and believes that a consultant should not only present himself as better than the competition, but as the only solution to a client's specific problem. After that, it's just a question of proving why you're the only one for the job. "And that's not a problem," adds Frankel, "if you've got the goods."

Having the "goods" can mean many things. Traditionally, getting a degree in a related field or writing a book adds credibility, but many who have succeeded as independent consultants say it's more about building a reputation with clients through networking and the occasional pro bono work. Debbie Bermont, 43, author of Outrageous Business Growth: The Fast Track to Explosive Sales in Any Economy, started her independent consulting business, Source Communications, by writing for local industry newsletters like St. Louis Small Business Monthly and speaking for free at an Association of Professional Consultants conference. She received $50,000 in business within three weeks of the conference, and says 80% of her current business in St. Louis stems from those two events alone. And once you have customers, she says, you can start building a reputation.

Taekman started with a desk, a phone, and no salary at Bad Boy in 1996, but it took just a few months and a some marketing deals with Miramax and Pepsi (PBG) to prove himself and nab a vice-president's title. A few years later, he had enough credibility in the industry to start Buzztone, his private New York City consultancy helping Corporate America reach the lucrative -- and often misunderstood -- urban youth market. Taekman calls it "sweat equity," and says he still consults about projects with many clients for weeks before getting around to talking compensation.

MANY EGGS, MANY BASKETS. Bifareti, who now sells himself as an expert witness on electrical issues to large insurance and manufacturing companies, says advising lawyers on a case over the phone before starting the clock on his fees is how he stays in the Rolodex of outfits like Rockwell (ROK). "The 'I'll tell you but you'll have to pay me first' method just doesn't work," says Frankel, whose own clients include Honda (HMC), Disney (DIS), and Burger King. "People just won't trust that."

Getting paid can be one of the stickier elements of selling yourself to a client. Bifareti says securing a steady income as a consultant is a constant challenge. "I'll get $20,000 a month for a few months and then have nothing to do for three or four weeks," he says. And when payday comes, how do you put a price on advice, expertise, or your background? Taekman works out a detailed business model, justifying the time and value he brings to a client, but calls the process more of a "sliding scale" than a bottom line. Regardless of payment method, Frankel recommends imposing caps -- no more than 30% of revenue should come from any one client -- to maintain a stable income.

Once the kinks are worked out, most of these entrepreneurs say their newfound autonomy is perhaps the most rewarding part -- and often why they went out on their own in 0the first place. "I love the freedom I get from being my own boss," Bifareti says. It definitely has it's perks. Chambers is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York


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