How I Started an
Employer Brand Consultancy
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Steve Keith, founder of employer brand consultancy, The Branding Man. In 2018, I left a successful corporate career working for one of the world’s biggest professional services firms and started my business.
I work with student employers ( who employ apprentices and graduates) to create brand campaigns and experiences that help young people make better, and more informed career choices. This could involve managing their social media channels, helping them to understand the UX on their website or interviewing their apprentices and graduates to help inform planning.
Everything I do is centred around young people’s needs. It is a core value of my business and helps me to decide what work I choose to do. It’s really important I do work that I love!
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
When I talk about my career story I call it the ‘Which Career? No Idea.’ dilemma. I grew up in the Lake District (a beautiful part of the world). Once I’d finished my A-Levels, I moved to Durham where I’d been offered a place to study Geography. It was my favourite subject at school and sixth form college. It is also subject in which I achieved my highest grades in alongside Science and Art (all A*!)
However passionate I was about Geography, I failed to prepare for finding a job once I’d graduated. I’d followed something I loved but hadn’t taken the time to work out where that could lead me. I ended up staying for another year to study a master’s degree in Business Management, at my own cost – burdening myself with more student debt.
A year later, and I was still no closer to finding the career I wanted to pursue, so I moved home to live with my parents. Six months later, I decided to apply to the Teach First leadership development programme, a scheme for graduates interested in teaching and tackling educational disadvantage. I spent two years teaching in some of the UK’s most challenging schools. It was during this period that I realised a second passion in my life: helping young people to reach their potential.
After leaving teaching, I joined the student recruitment team at Teach First as a Brand Ambassador. I spoke to students studying at London’s top universities helping me to discover my third passion: storytelling. I had hundreds of them to tell about my time teaching, and once I’d exhausted my own stories, I decided to move across into the Learning and Development team. There, I discovered even more stories to tell! This time, from other people’s perspectives based upon the observations I had made watching other trainee teachers.
I then decided to seek out opportunities to understand the final piece of the puzzle. Namely, the experience of young people as recipients in learning and their application into the world of work. Sadly for me, this role was cut short as funding for the charity I had now moved to was pulled and I was made redundant.
What followed was a wonderful summer. Similar to the one I’d had in 2018 after leaving my role at EY, where I was the head of marketing and communications for apprenticeships. After three months of introspection about my future, I realised that both roles had a common focus on young people.
My journey at EY started in October 2010 where I worked for almost eight years alongside a fantastic team. We built a multi-award winning apprenticeship brand and attraction strategy, which ultimately led me to the decision to leave in 2018 and start my own venture. ‘d be doing similar work, but for a broader set of clients.
My moment of inspiration for The Branding Man came to me in a beach bar in the Philippines. I’d chosen to escape there after handing in my notice in early 2018. As I watched the sunset over the gorgeous archipelago, I found peace in myself and my thoughts. I realised I’d been missing that for a few years. At that moment, I reconnected with all of my passions. I decided that my business would focus on bridging the gap between the world of work and the classroom. I’ve never looked back since. Well maybe a couple of times, but in pride for everything that I’ve achieved so far!
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
The first choice I made was how to structure my business finances. Whether I would become ‘sole trader’ or form a ‘limited company’. Either could have applied, given that I provide a service rather than a product. However, I preempted the scope for hiring people in the future and decided the limited company route would be best.
I was fortunate to have savings and ‘seed’ investment to get things going. Finances were, and still are a key part of starting any new business. You need to be able to forecast forwards for your business and yourself. I had become accustomed to a monthly salary, with all deductions made. It is important to take these into account when managing your business finances.
Competition is also important. Even with twelve years of experience in the industry, I took time to research the market I planned to enter into as a supplier, rather than an employer. I then used that research to find market gaps. This helped me to better explain my unique selling points (USPs). I also gained confidence through discovering opportunities to build my business around.
With that said, I am a firm believer that you can try to find out too much about your competition. Likely, in an attempt to be the ultimate ‘purple cow’. The truth is, you will never know everything – and this is okay!
Something I was thankful for (and still am) was my established social media network and my tribe of ‘besties’. When planning to leave my corporate career behind, I asked my close friends for feedback. I also took a step back from my social media channels and decided how I wanted to use each to grow my business.
During my time at EY, I had created a strong personal brand on LinkedIn. However, on other platforms, I wanted to be clear about what I did and didn’t share. Instagram became the ‘‘Behind the scenes of The Branding Man” and my journey. I used Twitter for business updates and for building new connections. Facebook I used to build a community, though it has fallen by the wayside for now. When you run a business, you quickly realise that Rome was not built in a day!
So far, my tribe of ‘besties’ have been a huge source of strength and support to me. Some have been valuable sounding boards for new business ideas. Others have been shoulders to cry on when I thought I couldn’t carry on. Some have been there to help me celebrate the important milestones, like completing my first year in business. Others have offered business opportunities and kept the fire burning just as it was about to go out.
I’ve learnt LOTS about who is important in my life. Who was holding me back and who will ultimately be there, by my side, cheering me along. It’s been very humbling.
Who is your target market?
My target market it employers who like (or want) to think differently. I love working in the student recruitment industry, but sometimes it can be its own worst enemy. Sometimes there is well-voiced intent to work collaboratively and solve issues by ‘poking the bear’. However, things rarely seem to materialise. Particularly at the moment, when we have a huge opportunity to stop doing things ‘as they have always been done’. When we have time to pivot and make a real difference in the lives of our young people. Especially since they are the ones who will be left to navigate the fallout, long after we have gone.
I’m particularly interested in employers who want to dig deep and ask the important and honest questions about their inclusiveness. There is a lot of rhetoric around ‘diversity and inclusion’ but I’m very frustrated by the invisible ‘i’ in the conversations that I hear – inclusion.
Inclusion is fundamental to creating a positive work culture. One in which people feel that they belong, and can bring the best version of themselves every day. However, it’s often overlooked by focusing the conversation too much on diversity characteristics, which are important but come after inclusion. It can lead to dangerous blind spots within workforce demographics and unintentionally exclude them. For example, those with disabilities or still not ‘out’ in terms of their sexuality.
As a gay man, I identify with the LGBT+ community and at times in the past, have not felt comfortable sharing that with colleagues. Especially during my time as a teacher. There are still so many people in the workforce who don’t feel comfortable sharing their personal lives and experiences. This is why I volunteer with the charity Diversity Role Models and regularly visit schools to share my ‘coming out’ story with young people. I want to challenge this issue and help others to feel more confident in being themselves.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
The work I do can be considered quite niche. Since I began with a limited ‘seed’ fund, tools like paid advertising are yet to feature in my marketing. I’m very much about the ‘value add’, which is what I’ve built my strategy around. In practical terms, this means giving more than you take, and ‘pulling’ rather than ‘pushing’.
As I stated earlier, I was fortunate that when I started my business, my personal brand was strong. However, I made some dangerous assumptions around this and it took time for people to see me as ‘Steve the entrepreneur’ rather than ‘Steve from EY’. Ironically, I work in branding and probably should have factored that into my planning!
One of the most successful ways I’ve marketed myself is to find and partner with other businesses and entrepreneurs with similar missions. This broadens both of our networks and draws more attention to our businesses. It hasn’t worked all of the time (I’ve made errors in choosing who to partner with) but when it has it’s been magic!
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
This year, I’ve had my first two repeat clients (there was a bottle of prosecco or two for those that evening!) I’ve found that being attentive really matters.
When you start out small, you have to focus on the things that you can control, such as providing excellent customer service. I always signpost my social channels and invite people to be a part of my journey. A great way to keep people engaged has been through regular updates to my website, with new content via my blog. Here, I write about things that are happening ‘in the moment’ to increase the readership. It also serves to exhibit ‘best practice’ in the work I may deliver for them.
I also use Tuesdays on LinkedIn to share something that I’ve seen existing clients or others in the industry doing well with the #TriumphantTuesday hashtag.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
For now, even though I am technically a ‘one-man-band’, it is still important that I build a culture to help guide myself. This is why I talk so much around ‘thinking differently’. I plan on building a community both inside and outside my organisation around this idea. We Think Differently when we can confidently share opinions that help to DRIVE POSITIVE CHANGE. Recognising the true value of inclusion to be rooted in DIVERSITY OF THOUGHT, supporting common issues facing young people when making career choices, using the POWER OF COLLABORATION. And, ultimately, holding ourselves ACCOUNTABLE to those we are seeking to serve. Young people in my case.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
I currently use Squarespace to maintain and update my website, Mailchimp to regularly contact those on my mailing list and Quickbooks for my accounting. Simplecast is my preferred platform when producing my podcast, My Career Story.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
Learning from your mistakes is one of the most important lessons that life has to offer us. I am more than happy to say I have made plenty of them. Not only since launching The Branding Man but generally within my life. It’s going to sound really clichéd when I say this, but I genuinely wouldn’t change anything about my business journey so far.
In the last month alone, I’ve had lots of time to reflect and look back on my journey. My current projects are absolutely the product of me trusting in the process, and working through the times I’ve been afraid and wanted to quit.
One bittersweet lesson I’ve learnt goes back to the tribe I’ve built around me. I have been disappointed by the lack of support I’ve had from some of my friends and contacts in the network, whether sharing the work that I do or hiring me. I took it personally to start with, and then realised that whilst I think what I’m doing is important, some people may not, and some people just might have other things going on in their lives.
I’ve also had some friends say that they ‘presume that things are going well’ which does give me confidence in my personal brand. It also presents an opportunity to have more honest and vulnerable conversations with people when I challenge their assumptions about the reality of owning a business.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
I find it incredibly empowering knowing that I am creating something of my own that will hopefully help me to build a future for myself, my future partner (whoever he is!) and maybe even our children. I’ve watched both of my parents work hard to provide for me and my brother and to help us reach where we are today. At times, when growing up, I probably took this for granted, but now I see how important it is to building character. I am also grateful that I get to do work that I love, every day, and be paid for it.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The admin! I’m naturally a very creative person and will write ideas down onto post-it notes. Sometimes, even turning those into a plan is something that I struggle with. I’m getting better, slowly.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
There are so many resources of inspiration and influence that have helped me to start and build my business so far. Most have inspired me to do things like start my own podcast or book club to find other people who share passions and interests. I’ll name one of each here, for the sake of brevity, and suggest readers contact me to ask for others. I’ll happily share with those who ask.
Kathy Caprino’s podcast Finding Brave was one of the driving forces behind me taking ‘the leap’. I was thrilled when she accepted the invitation to be my first guest on the podcast I launched last year. She has equally amazing guests and challenges the way that I think every time I listen. We both have beagles too, so we’ve been chatting about that since!
Regarding books, I’m a big fan of everything that Dan and Chip Heath write, as well as Seth Godin. The Heath Brothers’ Power of Moments was a huge part of my planning and something I reference a lot when talking to clients looking at building a ‘best in class candidate’ experience into their hiring process.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
At the moment I think it’s dangerous to think too far ahead, particularly within my industry. However, I do have a few goals that I would like to achieve before I turn 40 in 2023. These include: to have written my first book, to have delivered a TEDx Talk, and to have opened my first office (location TBC at the moment as I love London, but I’m not convinced that it’s my ‘forever’ home…) Watch this space!