Building a Personal Branding Company: An Interview with Irene and Steven McConnell

Over the years, technology has revolutionized the way people apply for jobs. From online video interviews, uploading resumes easily, to using the power of social media to highlight your core strengths and value proposition. Despite this tremendous growth, some job seekers are still not aware of the importance of using digital media to enhance their profile, thereby making it easier for potential employers to find them.

However, a company is changing this by including a unique mix to resume writing. Arielle Careers is a premier boutique Australian personal branding company that ultimately delivers worthwhile job search and career-enhancing results to clients. They infuse an exceptional combination of services including, Classic Identity, Digital identity and Digital PR, all of which create both online and offline personal branding strategies for sustained strategic career success.

Founders of Arielle Careers, Irene and Steven McConnell spoke with me about their stories and how they’ve been able to grow their business with their diverse but complementary backgrounds, while also being business partners and married couples at the same time.

<a rel="nofollow" href="https://arielle.com.au/our-team/" target="_blank">Irene McConnell </a>
Irene McConnell

Tell us your background story. What were you doing before you started Arielle Careers?

Irene: I was a corporate HR manager. I rose through the ranks relatively quickly and was lucky enough to work for some big brands - Louis Vuitton, Caltex and Toyota amongst them. This experience was invaluable because it taught me how to communicate effectively with very senior people. A lot of people are intimidated by senior managers and executives, but I was expected not only not to be comfortable around them, but to be able to be frank, to advise them, to know when to push and when to let something go. These skills would come in very useful later when I started Arielle Careers.

Steven: I’ve had a very unusual background. Out of school, I joined the army. Being in the military taught me a lot, but I didn’t fit in very well in such a highly structured organization. I got in trouble a lot. After I left I went to university to study Psychology, but half-way through caught the entrepreneurial bug. I didn’t drop out to start a business, like the cool startup kids do; I managed to finish - but only just. My next few years were spent trying to start various businesses, learning as much as I could about business and bartending to pay the bills.

Is it difficult to be married to your business partner?

Irene: Like everything, it has its pros and cons. Business-wise, we are lucky to have complementary strengths. I pay attention to people and detail; I’m a real relationships person. Steven is much more of a head-in-the-clouds, systematic type of guy - he likes to plan long-term and take bigger risks.

Steven: Yes, our strengths and weaknesses create a useful balance in the business. However, they also create a tension in our personal relationship which can cause issues if we’re not careful. Sometimes, for example, we argue as business partners, but the parts in us who are lovers get hurt. Learning to separate the two has been instrumental. We’re still not always successful at that, but we’ve become a lot more skilled at it.

Arielle Careers is an unusual business, isn’t it?

Irene: It started off as a simple resume writing gig. Then, as the world continued to move online, we realised that resumes alone were no longer effective at helping people get jobs - especially people who are serious about their careers. Today, people need to be marketed in the same way as business brands are. You have to start by understanding the needs of a hiring manager who is hiring for a specific role, then craft a value proposition which speaks to the needs of that manager.

Steven: And only then you begin to think about the channels you’ll use to market the person. For maximum effect it should be a mix of online and offline channels. In this sense a resume becomes a small piece of a strategically designed marketing strategy.

How long did it take for you to start making money? Have you considered getting funding?

Irene: We’ve grown relatively quickly, doubling our revenue approximately every 6 months since we started. Last year was slower because we focused on rebuilding our systems and processes rather than growth. Which means we’re almost ready for another growth spurt, which will bring about the next set of challenges.

<a rel="nofollow" href="https://arielle.com.au/our-team/" target="_blank">Steven McConnell</a>
Steven McConnell

Steven: We’re both control freaks, so having investors on board would create some interesting challenges. This idea gets raised every now and then and we decide against it every time.

What challenges did you face and how have you overcome them?

Irene: Dealing with the sheer volume of work has been difficult. At some point working 13 hour days, 7 days per week, for 3 months at a time became the norm. We put quite a few things on hold to make Arielle work - fitness, hobbies, sleep, even each other. For a few years it was business-only kind of lifestyle.

Steven: When people ask me about what’s involved in starting a business, it’s the first thing I tell them - get ready for it to be all-encompassing. Decide on what you’re willing to sacrifice. If you’re not willing to sacrifice anything, you’ll get out-maneuvered by people who are.

What are some other entrepreneurship lessons you’ve learned?

Irene: I’ve always been quite diligent when hiring people, and even despite that I’ve made a few hiring mistakes over the years. Now I’m even more picky about the people I hire. These days, it’s probably more difficult to get a job at Arielle than at the White House. Actually that’s a bad analogy because since the last election the White House is probably not that hard to get into, ha. But that’s another story.

Steven: Business, at its core, is a game of risk. Essentially, you’re making moves which you think will pay off while protecting yourself from threats which you believe can sink the ship. Once you begin to think that way, you can get quite creative. It gets interesting at that point because the more creatively you can shield yourself from threats, the more risk you can afford to take on, which means you can become quite aggressive in your strategy. This, in turn, enables you to grow faster.

What are some common job application mistakes amongst job seekers?

Irene: Where do I start! Not understanding needs of the business which you’re applying to is a big one. Often people submit the same or similar application to 10 employers and wait for a response. I understand why they would do that, but it’s not a highly effective strategy. Creating targeted applications and making an effort to understand specific requirements of the role that you’re applying for is instrumental.

Steven: Also, people tend to position themselves as jacks-of-all-trade. It’s important to remember that a generalist brand, by default, is less valuable. A GP gets paid less than a neurosurgeon. A Ford is less desirable than a Maserati. Aim to position yourself as a niche specialist.

What career and life advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?

Irene: Don’t get caught up in trying to be cool. When we started in business, it wasn’t a cool thing to do. We were just two people who quit our jobs and were sharing a sub-minimum wage to build a dream. Our peers thought we were weird because they didn’t understand what we were up to. Today, starting a business is a mainstream activity except it’s called “having a startup”. It’s considered cool. It can seem that this life is centered around being a hipster with a Mac in a cafe or a funky co-working space. While it certainly can look that way, it’s far from the full story - especially in the early years.

Steven: Don’t expect to become an overnight success. It’s important to make enough mistakes so that you begin to intuit what will work and what won’t. But, as Irene pointed out, there’s a lot of “cool” attached to entrepreneurship these days. This leads people to embracing failure as an egoic badge of status. If you tried to start 4 businesses in as many years and they all failed, you’re not a “serial entrepreneur” - you’re a shitty entrepreneur. Someone like Max Levchin, for example, just scrapes into the definition of a serial entrepreneur in my books. The rest of us should spend less time thinking about the label we put on ourselves and more time about how to create more value.

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