Four installments into Social Proof, and we’ve landed a powerhouse interviewee. Shaan Puri is a multi-hyphenate entrepreneur, investor, and creator with platforms that reach millions of people every day.
From his two newsletters, one personal and the other called The Milk Road talking about crypto, to his audience of over 300,000 people on Twitter, to his popular My First Million podcast, Shaan’s creative output is fascinating. And his platforms are just a side hustle – he also sold his startup, Bebo, to Twitch and now runs a rolling fund investing in other startups.
In this interview, discover how Shaan has grown and leveraged his personal brand, as well as an interesting exercise in personal branding that everyone should try.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me for Social Proof Shaan! We’re starting with a two-for-one question: What do you think about personal branding, and would you call what you have a personal brand?
The way I think about it is: I’m just trying to put myself out there. It’s like when you’re in a car and have the music so loud that other people can hear it from their cars. Whatever I am, I want it to be loud enough that if somebody hears it and they like that song, they'll start nodding along.
My goal is that by putting my thoughts, ideas, and personality out there, I will attract like-minded people who enjoy those thoughts and have similar ones to share. It’s just my way of attracting like-minded people to me.
Q: And when did you start this process of attracting like-minded people?
I started when I was first interviewing for a job. I asked myself, “what am I trying to do in this interview?”
Ultimately, I wanted to walk in and leave an impression on whoever I was meeting. And that's a brand, right? That's what a brand does – Nike and McDonald’s want you to know something about them. They want it to be memorable, and they want it to be favorable. So I thought that, instead of preparing answers to their questions, I should consider what I wanted them to know and remember about me.
I was interviewing with two companies that day – Stripe and an idea lab called Monkey Inferno. And I decided that when they discussed me, they’d all say, “He’s really ‘blank’, ‘blank’ and ‘blank’.” I thought carefully about what words should go in those blanks, which is how I worked backward from figuring out my brand.
Q: I like that you mentioned the words because that ties in nicely to my next question: what three words would you use to describe your personal brand?
Going back to my interview prep story, I remember writing: I want them to know that I'm
- Bold aka I take action
- Fun/Funny, i.e., someone they would want around the office
- Clever so that I might not be the smartest person in the room, but I could always think of creative ways to win.
Naturally, a lot has changed since I first did this exercise, and my preferred last word is: Successful because I find that people want to do business with people who are already successful.
And I used what I call a “pillar branding exercise,” where I draw out pillars – similar to those at the front of the White House. This is meant to help visualize the pillars that hold up my brand. At the top of each pillar, I wrote bold, funny, and clever.
Putting it into action was a bit different. I couldn’t just come out and tell [the interviewers] I'm bold because nobody would believe that. What I needed to do was tell them stories about things that I've done that would lead them to have only one conclusion about me: he’s pretty bold, or he takes action. To facilitate that, I started pulling stories from things I've done that would support that pillar. And I would fill [the pillar] out.
And for some of the pillars, I had more stories than others, which helped me realize that even though I wanted to be perceived a certain way, I hadn’t taken enough action in that direction. So this exercise was also a note to try more things I wanted to be part of my brand. It became more than just a branding exercise – more of a roadmap for how I wanted to approach life.
There's also one last piece of the puzzle that you can also add as a pillar which is what you are not. I want people to say, “He is not blank.” I would say the words to fill up the space here are: fake and robotic. I don’t want to come off as either when interacting with someone.
Q: You do many things – podcasts, newsletters, posting regularly on Twitter, launching a course. Which of these has been your favorite medium of expression? Which one do you think is the most effective for your brand? And how do you balance doing all these things at the same time?
I think they all go together. You asked a question about time, and many things you mentioned are what I do in my spare time – work is occupied by the two businesses I run. This is why I don’t buy the excuse of time – a lot of these activities are passion projects, things I enjoy doing. They don’t feel like work to me.
In terms of value, I think the most valuable content medium for me has been the podcast, but they all go together. It’s like a funnel – at the top is where people discover you, and that discovery tends to be through Twitter for me. I grew my Twitter in the last year from maybe 20,000 followers to 300,000 followers. And I did that because I wanted people to have an easy, lightweight touchpoint.
And there would be people who wanted to go a bit further down the funnel, which leads them to my newsletter. So beyond the shorter-form Twitter content, I could also be in my audience’s inbox and share more in-depth thoughts.
Anyone that wanted to go further can then be led to the bottom of the funnel through my podcast, where you hear my voice, tone, and inflection. It’s the closest I get to my audience and where I can build the most trust. If I’m in your ears 50 hours a year, that’s more than you talk to most people. So it helps build a very valuable relationship with people.
Q: What three tactics would you recommend people try when figuring out which vehicles they can use to build their brands?
I would say don't do it if you're just trying to build a brand. Because then you've just created work for yourself. And honestly, if you're going to work that hard on it, you might as well build a business or work at a job. The way I look at it is I want the projects I do to be what I already enjoy.
I suggest you find what type of content you like to create, whether interviewing people or curating stuff for your feed. Whatever it is, just do what's fun and natural for you. And the byproduct will be your brand getting built. You can do some things along the way to go a little faster or be more intentional about it, but the more important part is finding what you enjoy.
And even if no brand got built out of it, it would still be worth it. For example, my podcast is valuable because it gets about 20 million downloads a year. But when I started, I didn't plan for people to listen – I thought that was very unlikely. I was more interested in having interviews and conversations with interesting people. Sure, some people might listen to it, but that wasn't my reason for doing it. And that's why I stuck with it.
Most people have some external goal like fame or money for starting creative projects. And when they don’t immediately see results, they get discouraged and give up. The people who win are the people who do it because it's fun for them. The act of doing it is the reward – they don't need the other stuff, and therefore the other stuff comes because they keep going.
And one more note: people can tell if you're having fun with your content because you're nerding out about this topic that you love. That is also what makes content pop.
Q: You tweeted recently that everything you’ve done, no matter how random, has worked out and contributed to your success. Which of your projects was the turning point for you? When did you realize, “Yeah this is working?”
I have a philosophy: the people who are my customers are those that love what I do. If I love what I do, then the right people will find it because it'll resonate with them the same way it's resonating with me. So the first sign of success is just liking your own work. Most people fail at that, either because they're way too harsh on their work, or they're trying to please other people, and they don't even like what they make. And that's a recipe for failure, in my opinion.
And second, before the numbers get big, you'll start to get emails or comments that will keep you going. And it's amazing. You can have five comments on a YouTube video that keep you motivated for a year because you’re assured that somebody somewhere really likes this thing. I know, I'm not crazy, this thing does work.
Q: Interesting. You mentioned in an interview with Sacra that you were able to raise funds from the people who had engaged with your content and built a relationship with you. What has been the biggest reward from publishing content for you?
Some background here is that we have a rolling fund that lets other people invest alongside me in the startups I invest in. I have a good network and experience with angel investing, so other people who live outside the US, or don’t have the network or time, can choose to invest in this rolling fund. But the creation and growth of the fund wasn’t something I would have predicted going in – it was a byproduct of doing the work.
The podcast and my Twitter account had started getting popular. Then I tweeted, “Hey, I'm going to raise a rolling fund, and I want to raise a million dollars from people on Twitter, and I'm going to take no meetings,” doing it as a challenge to myself. And we hit that goal in like two days. And then it just kept going.
Now, the fund invests between eight to ten million a year across the startups we work with. To this day, I think I've taken maybe one meeting with someone to explain what we do – the whole thing has been driven mostly by people who already listened to me and trusted me.
These are not people I've met in real life, but they've been listening to the podcasts and following me on Twitter for a while. And they felt enough conviction to be able to invest in the fund.
Seeing that conviction come through, especially because people were giving me their money, was the signal that building a personal brand and consistently putting out content really builds trust.
Q: It’s amazing that you could get to that point with two consistent content formats – and your years of experience, of course. I have a chicken or egg question for you. Did publicizing your projects lead to you publishing on social media? Or did you get the ideas for your projects after publishing consistently on social media?
I started making content because I thought it'd be fun and I’d be good at it. And I had more time because I had sold my company – that's when I started.
Q: And which of your efforts, whether it be the podcast or Twitter has led to the opportunity you consider the most valuable?
I wrote a thread about Clubhouse when it was really popular. Everybody thought it was the next big thing and I kind of read a thread saying, “Hey, I don't think so. And here's how I think it's gonna play out.”
And it went viral – 10 million plus people read that thread – which led to a bunch of really interesting people emailing or DMing me saying, “Wow, this is great, we love the way you think, we'd love to get to know you.”
A similar tweet and result was one I did on the metaverse, essentially saying, “People think about the metaverse one way, here's how I think about it differently.”
That also reached many people, and Mark Zuckerberg referenced it and mentioned that it influenced the way he thinks about the metaverse.
Q: What would you tell your past self about building your personal brand if you were starting from scratch?
I would say, “Hey, what you're hoping will happen will happen.”
But if I was going to do it differently, I might just niche down a little more.
Currently, I'm pretty broad – I have The Milk Road, which talks about crypto, and I have Twitter, where I talk about whatever. Then there’s my personal newsletter, curating tweets, and the My First Million podcast, which is more about business breakdowns and ideas. So quite spread out.
But if I really focused on one of those areas, I think I could become maybe the most well-known person in that branch in that niche, but I didn't do that. So I think that would be the only improvement that I would suggest to myself.
Q: What are some downsides you've experienced in your journey as a creator?
To be honest, not many. The content is a bit of a treadmill – you have to keep doing it. It's unlike software where you make it once, and people just use it daily. I think that's probably the biggest downside – you can’t automate creativity. Another thing is the more popular you get, the more people will say mean things to you online. So you have to be able to not worry about that too much.
What I love most about this interview is how actionable it is. Shaan’s passion for the projects he takes on has led him to some amazing opportunities – here are some of the biggest takeaways from our chat:
- Take control of your narrative: Without prompting, Shaan mentioned the three-word exercise that has become commonplace in Social Proof interviews, framing it as “pillar branding.” Using the pillar-branding exercise is a creative way to visualize what you want other people to get out of their interactions with your online persona. Let us know on Twitter if you’d like a templatized version of the pillar branding template.
- Do things that match up with how you want to be perceived: When describing the pillar branding exercise, Shaan also mentioned that he thought a certain way about himself but didn’t have enough stories or “evidence” to back that thinking. This shows that it’s vital that you not only think about how you want to be perceived but also take actions that correlate with that perception. Want to be seen as knowledgeable about social media? Experiment with different platforms and tactics with your accounts.
- Leverage your reputation: Crafting and eventually benefitting from your online persona is something that has come up in previous interviews, but Shaan’s use of his reputation is quite interesting. You may not be raising millions of dollars for an investment fund, but the work you’ve put into growing your online presence should not be siloed. Take advantage of the connections you make to get the opportunities you need.
- Pick mediums and niches that you enjoy: Whether it’s through writing or speaking, Shaan has found his preferred methods of getting his thoughts out there. You can’t be everywhere or talk about everything, but prioritize finding and settling on your preferred personal branding medium first. This can help pave the way for you to discover what you want to be known for (your niche) and focus on creativity
💡Shaan says it best: you can’t automate creativity. What you can automate is how you put your creative work out there – and that’s where Buffer can support you. Take advantage of our stacked Freemium tier to build a habit of consistency and help maximize your creativity.