Today we have the huge privilege of interviewing Ethan Seow, a music entrepreneur born and bred in Singapore. Ethan left his full time career as a doctor to follow his passion in music. In this interview, Ethan shares with us his thoughts about personal branding as an entrepreneur and a freelancer. Enjoy!
WW: Hi Ethan! Thank you for agreeing to this interview.
I understand that you have been functioning as a freelancer and business owner for the past 10 years. From what I understand you’ve been in multiple industries and have had to rebrand regularly. How do you brand yourself and what you do to continue your work?
Ethan Seow: The hardest part to running a business, or work as a freelancer is personal branding. It is required for both finding new clients and I span across many fields of work (education, learning and development, music, product development and design) which makes it particularly difficult to explain to people what I do. I let people label me through time as they get to know me better when I offer to help them propose solutions for their work.
How I have built my personal brand over the years is by showing what I can do for people – this is through offering solutions to existing companies and creating personal relationships with the stakeholders. This is in the form of music, education, product development and design work. I built my portfolio through word of mouth and creating specific portfolio as I pitch to potential clients.
Through my networking runs due to my previous businesses, I’ve also developed a network for me to seek collaboration and potential clients. My Facebook becomes an essential part of my work – I’m known for the posts I put up and the thoughts that they evoke. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but it allows me to streamline to the collaborators and potential clients who I can work with.
This is especially important as I find myself creating a new form of consultancy where I function as the Secondary Entrepreneur for the start-ups and companies I work for – where I come in with an external lens for companies to drive innovation and further developments. With that I need to show what I can do more than ride on a current industry.
WW: That sounds like an uphill battle. Why do you not just follow formulae that other people have been laying out online? There are plenty of resources and courses to streamline this process.
Ethan Seow: I’ve had internal struggles on that one. I used to hate marketing and branding because I saw plenty of people who used set formulae to brand themselves but not actually provide the value they promise.
I paid for and attended a marketing course on how to brand yourself and therefore your business, only to realise that I couldn’t use majority of the material. This is because I do not feel comfortable with using the tactics if it is not aligned with who I am. I see this happening for many of my peers as well – people who are great at their work but have difficulty explaining and branding themselves.
Effective personal branding is all about consistency, and I can’t brand myself as something I’m not. It requires a lot of testing and self-awareness to come to a point where I am comfortable with the brand.
One of my associates called me “the person who turns the esoteric into technical”. And another one just describes me as “the nutcase”. People who have met me in person can identify it, but would find it difficult to share it with the next person.
However, it became a strength of mine, where people would be interested in meeting me. And that’s exactly how I can showcase and offer the most value for the clients. “You have to meet him” became something core to how people introduce me.
My next phase is to use some of the tactics I’ve learnt – videos, materials, market niche explanation – to be able to develop my personal branding to the next level. I’m working on a few credibility building platforms that I firmly believe in. The beautiful thing is that once you figured it out, it’s possible to use this branding for the long term and be true to yourself throughout.
This to me is what people like Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Jack Ma all use as effective ways of personal and business branding.
WW: I see. It sounds like a long arduous route to take. How did you come to your way of branding? How did it reconcile?
Ethan Seow: I think I’ve been fortunate because when I first started playing as a freelance musician, I got my first headway because of a friend who started a gig agency. I was cheap and played the double bass, a key commodity in the jazz music market. He was a senior from NUS Jazz Band that I was vice president of. We had quite a few interactions with him as he came back to play for our anniversary concert.
Another angle I entered the gig market was going for jam sessions and learning from local musicians who would then get me to jam at their gigs or to substitute them for a regular gig for a more lucrative one. This was the common way of entering the gig market. Again, as one of the few people playing the double bass at that time, I served a need in the market and therefore found my way in.
People know me for my bass playing in specific genres because of the exposure. I haven’t really done any personal branding in that area other than playing, hanging with the musicians and putting myself out there. In this field, word of mouth is powerful!
Being a likeable person, being there for their gigs, and serving a niche are what I eventually learnt were the best way to get personal branding, music or not.
I got my biggest lesson when I started my first business, distributing an amazing product that I love. I was on my way to Los Angeles when I met the biggest distributor of musical equipment on the same plane flight to the same Music Merchant convention I was going for.
We talked for a good 10 hours on the plane about music and equipment. I didn’t even know who he was then!
He really liked me and what I was doing and gave me a powerful advice I live by today:
“Be consistent – if you’re an asshole stay that way, if you’re a saint stay that way; there’s nothing more hurtful in business than being inconsistent.”
Of course, it took me several years to understand that fully, but I now live by that concept personally. Like I mentioned above, I had to figure out who I am and where I wanted to go before I could create a brand of my own. And I also allowed the market to decide what I meant to them. And adapted the latest information to see if I could make use of it.
It is all about playing the long game. Know who you are and what value you offer, and your personal branding would come along. That’s what I believe and has been serving me so far. It also allows me to be secure in whatever people have labelled me as (that is another difficulty in branding).
Because I knew who I am and where I choose to be in. By constantly adapting to situations, I can pivot my branding according to the need of the fields I’m in.
WW: Sounds complicated. And a lot like the jazz you play – constantly improvising what you put out there into the world. What would you give as an advice to freelancers who has as diverse a portfolio as yourself?
Ethan Seow: Know your value, and see how the world brands you.
When you get an interplay of your own direction and the way the world sees you, you can adjust your message to see if it is more aligned with who you really are. Because the world likes putting people in boxes just so it’s easier to manage. Don’t fight it, use it to your advantage.
Be open to learning about marketing and branding. And be ready to not use anything they teach you. There will be a time when you use it. But most of the time, you wouldn’t need it till much later. It is a steady game of resource collection and credibility building.
Your biggest asset is also your ability to communicate in person. Cover that and half your battle is won– just because word of mouth is your strongest branding medium.