How to accidentally build an “Authentic Personal Brand” when the whole idea makes you gag
Heeeeyyyyy! Check it out! I’ve got a brand-new website!
I’m proud, I’m happy…
I’m definitely completely sure it’s not finished…but I’m going live anyway!
Ever heard the phrase, Imperfect Action? It means take action before you have every detail nailed down. It means take the jump. It means Dare to be Bad.
Imperfect action is perfectly aligned with my DIY comics, punk-rock history. Let me explain…
I built my first website back in 1998, when I was about to decamp from my natal Chicago to go live in Mexico City. I worked with Matt Spiegler (lately of CheeseNotes…how lives do evolve! ) to create this first site. It’s so far in the past that I have a hard time even remembering what the process was like, but I do remember being surprised at how hard and complicated it was to write a website.
At the time, I had been self-publishing minicomics—and then publishing with legendary alt-comics publisher Fantagraphics—a series called Artbabe, for 6+ years. Naturally, I chose Artbabe.com for my domain.
What’s incredible to me, looking back at that Artbabe site, is the rock-solid voice.
It’s exuberant, a little snarky, and embodies the punk ethos of Challenge Authority…in a winking kind of way. After all, my public email address was commander-in-chief and my email subscription was the Artbabe Army—the logo for the community was a self-portrait in pink fatigues.
Everything from images to graphics design to the copywriting, it’s all...dare I say it? Completely “on brand”. And this when I had zero notion what that meant. (And would have barfed a little if someone had told me so.)
It’s not all that surprising in retrospect, since I’d been testing and living into that voice since 1992. I knew how to create and curate as “the cartoonist of Artbabe,” at, like, a cellular level.
I played the cool kid who’s down and friendly, who invites you into the cool club.
This was 100% authentically the persona I tried to live back then.
Thinking back to me at that time leaves me uncomfortable, amused, and a little bit charmed.
Now I’m about to launch the 5th iteration of my website.
Every single time I’ve launched a new website, I’ve started early and calm, and the last few days are nail-biters, racing the clock. Thanks to my amazing designer, Mel Richards, we’re going to get this baby launched!
…But it’s stressful moments like these that make me ask:
What’s a website for?
I mean, if you have a company selling socks, obviously you need a website.
If you’re an author? An artist? I would argue you need a website, but there are differing opinions on this, and some get by without one.
So maybe you don’t have a website. I’d still argue—with very few dissenting voices—that you definitely need an online presence somewhere, and the very same questions will come up whether your online home is an Instagram profile or LinkedIn or a custom website like mine.
What’s it for, really?
It’s there so people who align with who you are and what you do and make can find you and engage with your work, whether that means buying from you, joining your following, or sharing your work with others.
Who are you?
We create our identities continually, via social interactions—in concert with others. When you get dressed in the morning, you wear clothes that have some signification. Whether that’s fratboy, busy parent, movie buff, comfort-lover, metalhead, fashionista, every clothing choice—even seeming non-choices—means something.
Even if you’re quarantined (just, you know, for example) and no one sees your shirt, it still means something…but it means so much more when someone is on the other end of that non-verbal communication.
Some people go, Hey, great Motörhead shirt! (Or more likely, catch your eye and give a subtle nod of approval. Much more on-brand for a Motörhead fan.)
Other people see the same shirt and cross the street.
You build and define the edges of the communities you belong to with your actions and choices.
And that adds up to your identity.
It’s just that all those choices can be almost invisible from the inside where you’re living them, and feel impossible to translate into, say, an Instagram bio. “You can’t read the label from inside the bottle,” as the saying goes.
So now, I’ve just had the fascinating experience of label-reading as I strolled through 20+ years history of my own morphing identities, as embodied in my websites…
And man, I have a lot of thoughts.
- How is identity tied to community?
- Is it OK to curate an online identity? Why would you?
- What’s a website for?
- How do you know when it’s really, truly time to commit to a new website?
- Most importantly, how can you (that is, how can I) use a website to curate a powerful, authentic personal brand that actually works to build the community, culture, and creative life I envision?
A history in 4 websites
Have you ever checked out the Wayback Machine? If you’ve been online for a long time, you’ll find it a fascinating time-suck. It’s an archive of the internet, and lets me see all past iterations of my website. If you’ve been online for a long time, you’ll find it a fascinating time-suck—just like I did the other day.
Turns out that first website—Artbabe.com—did a bang-up job of reflecting exactly who I was at the time, in all ways genuine and overly confident. A wholly authentic personal brand.
As I drafted this article, I heard musician Laura Marling on the Song Exploder podcast:
“When I was young — in a really wonderful way, and I think everyone experiences this when they’re young — you’re kind of a functioning narcissist in that you have this experience of the world in which you are the central character. And I think that is wonderful because it’s full of color and vibrancy and it’s a very necessary experience when you’re young.”
And I’m like, Yep. That pretty much sums it up.
Living that promise took a lot of energy and a sort of heedless self-confidence…both of which I had plenty of at 22 when I named my first minicomic Artbabe.
Even though my lived reality didn’t line up with the image all the time (I had plenty of private doubts and challenges, not to mention seriously uncool moments), I could live with the disjunct.
But as I got older, life got more complex. Those doubts (and uncool moments) came more often. I also started caring a lot less about being the “cool kid.” I grew a frontal lobe in my brain.
Then, when I moved to Mexico for a couple of years, where I lost several important identity-anchors. My facility with the English language didn’t help me in Spanish. I didn’t know anyone. More: I wasn’t known by anyone.
The experience of going to Mexico caused me to I question my place in the world, and it led to a lot of growth. I came back with a more nuanced understanding of who I am as an artist and as an American.
Just FYI, a nuanced, more humble appreciation of where you fit in the world is not conducive to presenting yourself as the “cool kid.”
Ironically, pretty much as soon as I “finished” my first website, I was already growing out of it.
When a website is past its “sell-by” date
I used the Artbabe website for 8 years. But by year 3 or 4 I was toning down the language, minimizing the brash Artbabe voice, and making it into a more functional catalog of my work.
Then, finally, I just couldn’t use Artbabe site anymore.
I was working on my next book, La Perdida. La Perdida is a pretty rough book. The main character thinks she knows what’s what in the world, acts accordingly, and accidentally causes mayhem all around her.
The book is entirely fiction. But I can certainly see how Carla’s story reflects the growing-up I was doing.
“Artbabe”—even the URL!—wasn’t going to work as the home for a story like that. It felt wrong.
What I realize now is that when my websites feel way past their sell-by dates, it’s because they’re out of alignment. When my whole orientation to life changes, my voice changes, and I feel increasing pressure to do something in order to get this to line up.
Building (and refreshing) an authentic personal brand
In 2006, again on deadline—because the collected edition of La Perdida was due out—I launched a new website, jessicaabel.com.
It could not have made a bigger contrast with Artbabe.
“Brand” name —> my name
Black and colorful —> white and minimal
Obvious and fun way to join —> basically no way to engage with me
This last bit is the most shocking to me, looking back from where I am today.
I’d been building a community-vibed mailing list of fans since 1992, when that meant a literal US Postal mailing list. I’m betting a few people reading this article were ON that list. (Hey Artbabe Army Footsoldier! I see you!)
Suddenly, in the mid-aughts, I became inaccessible.
In fact, I managed to forget my list so thoroughly that when I started a new list a few years later, the company I’d been using had gone out of business without me noticing.
Now that my whole professional life revolves around community and cohorts and teaching, this seems totally bizarre. I know at that moment, I felt like, What am I doing with an “army”? That doesn’t make any sense.
But I think dropping the mailing list actually reflects a larger identity shift: I used to be a scrappy, punk minicomics artist. Now I’m a Big-5-published author.
And sure, there was an element of shaking off the old DIY me, and leveling up. But it was also self-protective, a matter of time and energy. I was insanely busy, mostly with author-ey things—book tours, speaking gigs, comics conventions.
I was teaching several days a week at the School of Visual Arts. I was starting my first comics textbook, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures while finishing two other books.
I had an agent. No, two agents. No, three. I had to fire one and get a new one.
I was deeply suspicious when my new web designer, Demetrie Tyler, suggested we needed to use a blog-based platform (can’t even remember the name of it now…) instead of an html site, because I was like, “Blog? Who has the time??” (I used it for “news” every month or so…)
Don’t get me wrong: It’s not like I was shaking off the “brand” trappings and this minimalist approach was somehow more “authentic.” Artbabe WAS an example of an authentic personal brand, back when it started. Then it went off-key.
Jessicaabel.com Version 1, too, was a strong, coherent, and authentic personal brand. It took a while to settle into it, but for a few years, it fit like a glove.
And then it also went off-key.
Curation as brand-building
For a long time, I thought the answer to the off-key feeling was: add more. Fill in the picture. I had this unspoken assumption that the ideal website would be like a “Wikipedia of Me,” with basically everything on there.
However: No one except the as-yet-unborn future grad student who will write my biography one day (LOL!) needs to know it all. All is confusing. Assuming anyone wants to know more than a sliver of what you are and do offer is navel-gazing.
It feels “honest,” but it’s obfuscating.
People come to a website to find something they need: a product, information, a sense of belonging
…they don’t come to research your entire career.
I sensed this at a gut level with the Artbabe site, which is why several planned sections remained marked “Construction” for all 8 years of their existence. In my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t important to create an online catalog of everything, so the job of finishing everything never rose to the top of the list.
(It stayed on the list, however, torturing me with a feeling that I sucked at making a website! I didn’t learn the lesson of simply cutting down the list for MANY years.)
How do you create a brand, in simplest terms? Curate a set of stuff that aligns and gloms together into something.
If that stuff is aligned not only with itself, but also with you—who you are and what you like and feel and do—then it’s going to be a brand that makes you feel awesome, and you’ll want to share it.
Yes, of course, curation is part of making yourself look good online (hi there, Instagram!), but good is also in the eye of the beholder.
And in some ways the simpler your communication is, the fewer elements you add, the clearer and more compelling the statement of who you are and what you do.
That’s a brand.
Building an authentic personal brand doesn’t mean painting yourself as perfect.
People who feel seen, will like it, and stick around, if you give them a way to do this. (Like my awesome newsletter!)
People who feel alienated, won’t, and they’ll leave. (That’s a good thing. Buh-bye!)
THAT is how you create community.
Why build a personal brand?
Amy Walsh talks about branding very much from an artist’s point of view. She sees branding as potentially radical culture-making, meaning you can use your vision to create the culture you want, and invite others into that space.
When you are somebody who produces work that people see or read or hear—you’re an author, an artist, whatever—your website, as a representation of your brand, is about creating a culture around you.
An authentic personal brand is a way to say: This is what I believe.
…Be welcome. Come on in.
The lacuna (jessicaabel.com v.1.5)
Around 2010-11, life things started getting really hard. I had two tiny children. I was burnt out on teaching, just plain burned by a major publishing project, and juggling a whole bunch of not-drawing-comics jobs. It had been almost 6 years since I’d actually drawn comics.
I also turned 40, and had a lot of feelings about that.
I still had the same website, but started to think about using it more energetically. It was technically super-outdated by then, so I worked with Rusty Gibbs to refresh the back end.
But thinking about how far I’d moved from the New York Author persona and shaking loose the last vestiges of the Punk Minicomics Artist persona left me with…nothing.
I had to draw a self portrait for some reason in 2012, and I literally couldn’t think how.
Me! Queen of exuberant, in your face, feminist, punk self-portraits!
From this (2001)…
…to this (2012)
I was lost.
I was starting to draw comics again (I decided to draw my own script for Trish Trash, with major assistance from Lydia Roberts), but without the mission-driven feeling about comics that I had when I was in my twenties.
Teaching was changing for me. Not for the better.
And I felt invisible as a human. I considered starting a “project” of some kind called the Visible Woman (that’s when I got on Instagram, where my handle is @visiblewoman!)
…which led to me giving away a bunch of my old, Artbabe-identified clothes on Kickstarter (not kidding!).
…which led to me started to talk, just a little, about myself. You might even call it… “blogging”!?
That blogging, as minimal as it was, eventually led me back to a sense of self, maybe because, as I proposed above, identity is formed in a social context. When I talked about myself, others reacted, and I started to figure out how I felt about my public self.
By putting myself out there even as I tried to figure it all out, I was creating my own “brand.” I didn’t know I was doing it because that’s how being authentic feels. You just are who you are and that’s what other people are drawn to. The authentic personal brand is a journey. Sure, for your audience, but mostly for you.
Another book? Another deadline!
I raced to get a brand-new website finished in summer 2015 as Out on the Wire was about to come out, first with an awful company I won’t name (found on UpWork…I had NO IDEA how to find and vet a web designer…) and pulled out of the fire at the last minute by Jen Walsh, who I found by posting a desperate call to a Facebook group. Whew!
By this time, I’d been blogging and engaging on social media enough to have regained my footing. I was ready to step out with another new iteration of my brand persona, this time, a straightforward, trustworthy teacher and guide to podcasts and storytelling.
I was drawing myself again, over and over and over, for the Out on the Wire…but you could hardly call these “self-portraits”.
I felt that this persona required a certain distance. The focus of the book is the work of amazing radio and podcast producers. It felt weird to draw attention to myself.
So the gateway to re-embracing my own, personal voice as a core element of my brand turned out to be my podcast. There, I shared about my struggles to finish Trish Trash, the ways I wandered in the Dark Forest for so long with Out on the Wire, and I even subjected myself to a totally public edit of one of our episodes by pro podcast producers.
I started blogging about my struggles as an artist, and using my own experiences in the podcast, it felt very, very vulnerable.
But the more I did it, the more I was able to connect honestly and deeply with my audience.
I led an online “working group” of hundreds of people making work reacting to the podcast, and instead of taking over my life, as I feared, it led to a great opening, and my latest giant pivot.
OK, wait. I just realized.
That means it actually really did take over my life!
And I like it!
The Out on the Wire Working Group formed the bridge from the teacher/guide/author persona to what I am, and my company is, today.
Really, Jessica? Is that srsly necessary, “punk-rock DIY” lady?
A few years ago, I incorporated as Autonomous Creative, LLC. It felt…very free. I was able to set down the heavy the yoke of defining my brand as simply me.
I have kept my website at jessicaabel.com because that’s how people look for me, but the truth is, I’ve moved away from my life as an author over the last few years to focus on teaching and coaching. I now work with two other people behind the scenes (Lousine Boyakhandjyan and Mari Elaine Lamp), and hope this number will grow over the next few years.
This website is the bridge to that future. There are photos on this site. And not only photos of me, either. There’s a lot of really elegant design, and functional development, and a simple, boiled down message (Thanks to collaborator Mel Richards!).
And…even as we polish it up and get it ready to launch, I realize I’m probably going to need to rebrand the website as Autonomous Creative in the next few years.
Are you afraid of creating an online home for your work?
You might not have, or want, a website. But let me just ask you, when was the last time you updated—or even looked at—your Instagram bio or LinkedIn?
If you’re a professional creative, or want to be, an online home for your work is an unskippable prerequisite. And when you get so scared you avoid it, you’re cutting off your own ability to grow professionally.
The very thought of authentic personal brand would have made my younger self shudder (okay, gag), but in actual fact, a brand is less a shiny, polished representation of your aesthetic essence, and more about helping people find and connect with you and who you are.
When you put something out there that allows the right people to find you, understand who you are, and see that you are building the culture they want to be a part of, you can ask them to take action of some kind. To do something.
Whether that’s reading a book of yours, or joining an email list, or buying something from you, or just sharing your work with their friends, this is how you grow your community of fans and friends and clients.
It feels scary. Being visible is vulnerable. It IS scary.
We have a deep fear of being seen (and judged), and at the same time, a deep need to be seen, heard, understood.
The thing we mostly fail to understand when we’re in the middle of it (it = life) is that you do, already, have an authentic voice and message, and a pent-up, waiting audience.
It’s worth putting something out there to see what sticks, and what you need to evolve!
More importantly: It’s OK to learn and change and pivot in public
As I’ve rolled through change after change, some people stick with me, and some fall away, then others show up, and the community and the culture stays vibrant. It’s only when I’ve stopped putting my work in public, and pulled into myself, that I’ve lost my way.
With that in mind, thank you for being here!
Your readership, your engagement, has been the steadying force helping me define my path so far…and I hope to continue for a long time to come.
Just imagining what my Wayback Machine search will turn up in 10 years… 20 years… it’s enough to make me tired already. But it also motivates me to put more imperfect action out into the world!
Your work could be transformational for so many people...
if only they knew about it.
Join me for this FREE training that could be seriously life changing if you’ve been struggling to build an audience and Authentic Visibility for yourself and your creative work.
Plus: Walk away with a brand new social media bio that will turn heads and make fans!
this is great Jessica, really helpful to see you taking stock in this open way. Has given me inspiration to try and tackle this scary aspect of my creative life. Thank you!
Damn! Authentic Autonomy. This was almost as astonishing as The Dark Forest.
So happy to have found your voice Jessica. I’m taking notes!
Awesome, Valorie! Thanks for reading!