‘To thrive, you have to understand and communicate what makes you different’
Tolu Michaels is a digital entrepreneur, educator and self-declared people lover. Armed with degrees from both Harvard Business School and Covenant University, she teaches modern entrepreneurs to build purposeful and profitable personal brands that stand out of the crowd and sell impactful products. Through her digital programmes, she has helped students and clients from several parts of the world get the clarity and confidence to show up online, communicate their value and create a bigger impact with their work. In three years, she has built a profitable digital business with clients across five continents, trained over 20,000 entrepreneurs and reaches an audience of over 50,000 people weekly across several digital platforms. A multifaceted woman, she tells TOBI AWODIPE about dumping Mechanical Engineering for business and investment banking, her initial struggles to land a job as a new mum, the importance of personal branding, expanding your business digitally amongst other issues.
From mechanical engineering to branding and digital entrepreneurship is quite a leap, what really informed this switch?
I studied Mechanical Engineering because I love cars. However, after interning at a Toyota after-sales franchise for a while, I decided that I didn’t want to deal with the smell of petrol and engine oil every day. I enjoyed the ruggedness of the work and believe it’s a noble profession, but I’m really sensitive to smell and just couldn’t handle it. I tried moving from the practical aspect into engineering design, but quickly discovered that I was also not interested in that. I’m grateful for my engineering training though; it gave me mental dexterity and a solid foundation for future careers.
My switch into digital entrepreneurship came on the heels of a job loss. Losing my job was a catalyst to rethink the kind of work I’d rather have and when I couldn’t find it, I created it by offering my skills to serve people beyond my physical location. At this time, I had no idea what a digital business was. I didn’t know much about getting customers online, but I knew it was possible and decided to try.
Because of that decision to show up, I’ve been able to create a successful business that grows year after year, and I get invited to stages I couldn’t have dreamed of, simply because of the difference my work makes in people’s lives. My different jobs from engineering to digital content, to investment banking prepared me to help modern entrepreneurs position for profit.
You said you faced a series of career challenges early on in your career, how did this shape you into the entrepreneur you are today?
There were startling challenges like when a hiring manager wouldn’t choose me, because I was just starting a family and he felt it would affect my performance on the job. This only strengthened my resolve to create opportunities that wouldn’t require other people’s permission. There were normal challenges like not knowing how to do something I had never done before. In this case, I reminded myself that nobody was born knowing how to do anything, so I learned and grew.
Then there were life challenges that came with being a mum; motherhood changed me, changed my priorities and also made me realise how limited I am. I not only wanted to build a profitable business, but I wanted to do it without neglecting my health or family. I decided to rebuild my career around values I believed in and chose to only work with clients who valued quality work. Motherhood taught me time management. It’s easy to keep posting on social media, sending invoices, installing productivity apps, yet never accomplishing half of your goals. I learned to say no, to maximize my time and to ask for support.
As a new mum, I got tired a lot. I was doing what I loved for people I cared about, but I was tired, uninspired, and irritable half the time. So, I quickly learned that managing my energy is as important as managing my time. I learned to automate, delegate, outsource, rest, and replenish my energy. All my constraints and challenges have taught me a new way to live, and uncovered capabilities that I didn’t know existed.
You preach the gospel of personal branding often, why is this important and how does it help a career woman for example?
Thanks to technological advances and flexible work arrangements, the people who could hire you have more options than ever before. Many people are good at what you do, maybe even better than you are, and they are vying for the same opportunities as you are. To thrive, you’ll have to proactively understand and communicate what makes you different from others. The process of doing so is called Personal Branding, which helps you stand out in a sea of competitors; it is how you present yourself to the world and establish a reputation.
To build your personal brand is to discover and communicate your personal uniqueness. This is a powerful asset that puts you on the radar for exciting career opportunities. When people see your value, they are willing to pay more for your time or to participate in something because you are in it. You are also more likely to be approached for relevant and interesting opportunities.
In a world where career pivots are inevitable, and some jobs of the future have not been created yet, personal branding is career insurance. It makes you future-ready and gives people a reason to choose you always, because they care more about you than just what you’re offering. Studies show that people have up to five different careers in their lifetime, so you don’t even know what is ahead of you, but one thing you’ll always have is you. You’ll always have your credibility and reputation and that’s a benefit of personal branding. Especially, as a woman, just because of the lifestyle many of us want to lead and the responsibilities of nurturing a family, you need that flexibility; you need to be able to grow yourself to the point where people know who you are and why they should trust you. So, it helps to future proof your career.
Today more than ever, many are turning to the Internet as their main source of employment. Do you think this is sustainable on the long run?
Yes! In fact, we are in an era of unprecedented leverage. Years ago, the average person could not publish and distribute their ideas at a reasonable cost. But today, anybody anywhere in the world in any time zone can access your best thinking at any time and they can do it without taking your time at all. Today, anyone can start a business; tools that were entirely out of reach are now accessible. Software that should cost an arm is now available for free or next to free.
Internet access is cheaper and more people are online – statistics show that as of January 2021, there were 4.66 billion active Internet users worldwide – 59.5 percent of the global population. Anyone can learn, find and share anything. Because of the Internet, we can show up in bigger ways, reach a larger audience, and share our passions with the world.
The opportunity is abundant, but for it to remain a sustainable source of income, one must think like an entrepreneur. It’s important to build the skills to grow and market your business. For it to be sustainable, you must stay profitable. To stay profitable, you must learn how to get your ideal client’s attention, build trust, and successfully deliver the product/service. Just like there’s no going back to the time when there were no computers, the Internet is our reality now and in the future. For as long as people continue to exchange knowledge and services on the Internet, businesses will continue to run on the Internet.
Many call themselves digital entrepreneurs these days. You being one of them, what does it mean and entail?
Digital entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs who take advantage of the availability and accessibility of the Internet to offer products and services to people who want them. Digital entrepreneurship means you leverage tech tools to find your customers, create and sell products or services online and generate revenue online. One main advantage of digital entrepreneurship is that your options for what kind of business to build are almost endless and you don’t need a lot of capital investment to start. As you build, you can continue to invest in yourself, and your ability to communicate and deliver your services profitably.
Unlike traditional business models where you need a physical location, you don’t need to own an office or leave home at all. In fact, you can live under a rock if you please, as long as you have Internet access. This gives you flexibility to collaborate with a team virtually, and serve customers anywhere in the world. Because of the Internet, I’ve been able to attract students and clients from different countries and even places I’ve never been to.
How would you say your digital programmes have impacted and helped young people, especially modern day entrepreneurs?
It’s one thing to have skill and talent, it’s another thing to know how to use it to help others or even get paid for doing so. Through our digital programmes, we’ve helped thousands of modern entrepreneurs gain the clarity and confidence to become visible, communicate their value and create a bigger impact with their work. In the past three years, we have trained over 20,000 entrepreneurs online and the feedback is precious. I remember one in particular, who had no idea what she could offer, but after going through our programme, she has a profitable business, solving problems for people and a responsive audience. She feels confident in her future. There was someone else who used what we taught to communicate her value and ace a job interview with a multinational company.
Many of our clients and students have created their own programmes, written books, and built communities. They are now able to attract quality clients and do impactful work. My favorite feedbacks are those who talk about personal transformation such as, ‘I don’t limit myself anymore, and my mindset has grown and I now know how to present my work with clarity and price my packages with confidence.’
When you say you have built a profitable digital business, with clients across five continents, what does this mean specifically and what is its impact?
We’ve signed up clients from more than a dozen countries in our paid programmes. We have clients in Africa, North America, South America, Europe and Australia. Thanks to the power of the Internet; we’re not limited by place or time, in terms of the pool of people that we can reach and the results that we can create. People continue to find and work with me online.
Every week, we reach tens of thousands of readers across several digital platforms. The biggest impact of my work is the fact that we’re inspiring a new crop of digital entrepreneurs who serve a global audience and sell impactful products. When people read my story or see our content, they write back to tell us of the strides they’re taking and how our work has given them permission to do the same thing.
How can more people use digital media to grow their businesses, especially now that the space is witnessing some form of restrictions in Nigeria?
A lesson we all can learn from the recent social media restriction happening in Nigeria can be summarised as ‘don’t put all your eggs in another person’s basket.’ The Internet allows you to not just have access, but also to have options, so I advise that businesses should take full advantage of the options to build out all of your online real estate. It’s difficult to be active on every platform, but at least be present everywhere so that given the opportunity; you can take advantage of it.
Digital media goes beyond social media, blogs, magazines, podcasts and so on. I use digital media to meet new people, communicate with my subscribers and clients. Two things to note: Create your own asset. Instagram followers are not asset, because you can lose all of it. Instead, get your audience onto an email list or telephone list to give you continued access to them; no platform can take that away. Explore other people’s media platforms: Using digital media to reach new audiences doesn’t have to be about firing out a Facebook ad and hoping for the best. You don’t always have to use your own media platforms. Consider collaborating with others who already have a platform, to increase your reach. It’s necessary to ask yourself, ‘where are the people I’m trying to reach, and who can help me reach them?’
Tell us three tips readers can follow to find success online?
Tip 1: Get clear on how you want to position yourself. If it’s not clear to you or others, you’ll confuse them out of following you. Take some time to decide what you want to be known for and how you’ll like to be remembered. Use the following pointers to think through it:
Who am I? Why am I online, and what would success look like? What do I do and for whom? How am I different from others who do the same thing? Your answer to these questions form the foundation for how you’ll show up online and grow your personal brand across several platforms.
Tip 2: Communicate your value. Your work can’t really speak for itself, it needs a voice and there’s nothing wrong with starting with yours. People are so busy and inundated with information that they won’t sit down to create a coherent narrative about you. They’ll simply make assumptions or inaccurate conclusions about your capability and credibility. Tell your story, share your ideas and show your work so you can own your narrative.
Many people will look you up online. Make sure your profiles reflect clearly whom you are and the value you deliver. At the end of the day, everybody will call you what you call yourself. If you don’t control your own narrative and show what you can contribute, odds are very few people will see your value.
Tip 3: Stay different. Most people will want you to blend in, but if you’re the same as everyone else, there’s no reason to choose you. To be preferred, you have to be different. Remarkable success comes from thinking differently and being different. You are already unique; nobody else can be you. All you need is the confidence to lean into that and show up as your real self. The more of yourself you put into your work, the more unique and memorable it becomes.
You authored a book last year, what is it about and who are your target audience?
Show Up is a blueprint for building a profitable brand doing work you love with clients you like. It is for people who believe that they have a message to share or knowledge and skills they can get paid for, but don’t know where to start, how to stand out, or attract the right clients. In Show Up, you’ll find clarity on how to position yourself as a profitable and valuable brand, strategies to communicate your message in a way that people listen, a framework for creating products and services that sell themselves and confidence to create a business that you love.
As someone who wears several hats, including wife and mum with a busy career, how do you make everything work and create balance?
I doubt that work-life balance exists. I mean, balance in the sense of 50 per cent work and 50 per cent life, I don’t think that exists, but I believe in priorities. We can choose to prioritise what is important today; this week, this month and so on, and plan according to those priorities.
Also, I have a support system, my husband is a hands-on dad and we do family chores together. My friends support, encourage, and share their lives with me. My adopted big sisters who give me pointers for career and family success, My mum — I can pick up the phone anytime to run something by her and my mother-in-law who is a pharmacist and helps me make sense of prescriptions. Finally, my housekeeper and people at my daughter’s school, who take care of her during work hours, are all part of the system that helps me make everything work.
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