Interview with Jay Acunzo

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About the Interviewee:

Jay Acunzo

Jay Acunzo is a keynote speaker, author of the book Break the Wheel, and founder of Unthinkable Media, which makes docuseries with B2B brands. He's a former Google digital media strategist, head of content at HubSpot, and VP of Brand at the VC firm NextView.

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What motivated and inspired you to focus on your own personal brand?
I’ve never once thought about the concept of “personal brand.” I do, however, think about writing and telling stories and creating all the time, and I think the byproduct of doing that consistently, in a way that resonates, is that others go, “Oh, that guy has a personal brand.”

In 2011, one moment changed how I viewed all of this stuff for good. I was working at Google, advising brands and agencies on their digital marketing. I remember someone shared a video with me that was unbelievable, the kind you watch five or six times in a day. I went home and hyped this video to my then-roommates, but right as I went to play the video on YouTube, a pre-roll ad played instead. I felt like an idiot, but I also thought, “Dammit, Erik.” Erik was my colleague at Google whose client this was. Lastly, I realized, “Oh no: I have the same job as Erik.” That meant someone, somewhere was cursing the name of the person responsible for a frustrating experience in their day, and that person was ME! And given my work at Google, that wasn’t ONE person. That was tens or hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions. That is NOT why I entered the workplace. I got into this line of work to create things that are meaningful to me and meaningful to others. In other words, I’d rather make stuff people want than make them want stuff.

It took me six more years to fully leave the notion of a day job behind and branch out on my own, but from that moment onward, I focused all my time on resonance, not reach.

Tell us what you believe your personal brand stands for:
Between my podcast, my speeches, and my weekly newsletter, I spent the past three years exploring why there’s so much commodity or average work out there. My book contains three years of stories and lessons and research, all distilled to one thing: Trusting your intuition. I want to help others trust their intuition — not the fluffy ideal or gut feelings, but the scientific understanding of the term. In other words, my work helps others make the best possible decisions for THEM, regardless of the best practice.

Why do you feel having a personal brand in today’s world is crucial?
It’s not. Focusing on resonance instead of vanity metrics like reach is crucial. Talking to customers is crucial. Serving others over your own goals (which always ends up serving your own goals BETTER) is crucial. A personal brand is something others describe. You’re X or Y or Z. Replace “having a personal brand” with “being awesome.” Why do I feel “being awesome” in today’s world is crucial? I don’t. I feel that doing work capable of being declared awesome is everything. Focus on the means, not the end result, and you wind up getting better end results.

How did you begin your own personal branding journey?
I launched my own business in 2016 on the back of my podcast, Unthinkable. At first, it was just a side project — a way to tinker and tell stories and craft narratives not often found in the business world. But this was my 38th side project in the working world (and sadly, yes, I’ve counted). Additionally, I spent 12 months working 1 day per week, plus early mornings and a few nights, on that show. So whether you’re talking about Unthinkable or, more appropriately, my entire body of work, there can’t be one single moment you start working on a “personal brand.” I guess my pithy answer is: when I was born. Everything you are, everything you’ve done contributes to the work you create. So in that way, every single thing you do, at any point, creates others’ perception of your personal brand (which, before the internet, we just called “your reputation”).

What early wins did you experience in your personal branding endeavors?
Every step is important, whether it looks like a win or not. Plus, I’d say I learn more from things that don’t work than things that do. I suppose getting my first paying speaking gig was a huge moment for me, but equally as crucial were all the free or low-fee events where I spoke. It all rolls together, and the more we can approach our work like that, the less we can stop obsessing over the spikes in results. Those don’t matter.

What mistakes did you learn the most from in your personal branding endeavors?
The moment you start to think, “I’m building my personal brand,” instead of, “I’m creating things to serve others,” is the moment you’ve lost your way.

Best and worst advice you’d give to our readers wanting to GROW their own personal brands + followings:
1) Don’t ever try to grow your personal brand. Try to serve others.
2) Pursue meaningful questions. Don’t be a person who has answers. Expertise is cheap. Exploration is rare… and more powerful for others.
3) Focus on resonance instead of reach.
4) Don’t ever try to grow your personal brand. Try to serve others. I’m listing this again, it’s that important.

Any books, podcasts, courses, authors, or resources that you’d like to recommend to our readers?
Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and any collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics.

Who inspires you? Anyone in particular you follow or admire with their own personal branding endeavors?

I’ve always loved how the late, great Anthony Bourdain could pull out big, meaningful moments and emotions from the seemingly day-to-day lives of others. That’s ultimately what I aspire to do. His entryway into those moments was food and physical location. Mine happens to be workplace topics instead. But I’ve studied him, in addition to appreciating him, for years now.

How have you remained motivated through difficult times or moments of self-doubt?

If you’re focused on constant improvement, and not success, and if your priority is perpetual motion or moments of creating, instead of whether or not you’re “worthy” of doing that work, then you’ll never have time for self-doubt to creep in. In the end, you’re gonna die. Why waste any more time debating? Start, or keep going, and let the motion of making help you find your groove, not some guru with self-proclaimed secrets.

Are you currently running any promos, contests, giveaways, etc that you would like our readers to know about?
Every week, I try to give away something exclusive on my newsletter. I’ve done 1:1 video calls, behind-the-scenes of how I made something, free chapters, free books, stickers, notebooks, and more. Mostly, I want to serve those who read me each week in a deeper way than try to run promotions for the outside world who may passively engage.

Which social media outlets would you like our readers to follow you on? List them below with your handles
My newsletter is the best way to keep in touch. It’s called Damn the Best Practices. I start by sharing my most popular writing for new subscribers, and I reply to every response I get.

What do you hope our readers come to learn about your story:
Finding the best practices isn’t the goal… finding the best approach for you is.

If you could do one branding thing differently, would you do?
I’m grateful to do the work that I do, and I believe in the butterfly effect. No changes 🙂

Are there branding efforts you plan on doing or watching others do in the future?
I’m betting it all on resonance in 2019. I will do zero growth-focused activities, and reinvest all my time on the people who know, like, and trust my work today.

Any final wisdom or insight you’d like to share with our readers?
Don’t focus on your personal brand. Focus on serving others. The former is a byproduct of the latter.

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