This week on the podcast, we’re talking with Craig Swanson who partners with creators, educators, and influences who already have a strong brand and a large audience. He’s sharing how to scale a personal brand for small businesses, the common challenges, and why it’s so important to learn from your audience.

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • The challenges of scaling small businesses and creating a personal brand
  • How Craig creates a more significant and more scalable brand model for his clients
  • Why mission-driven (and not money-driven) people are Craig’s ideal clients
  • How is allowing your public identity to be separate from your personal identity important for growing a better business
  • Knowing how to deal with self-image issues


More on Craig:

Website  | LinkedIn

Britney Gardner 0:02

All right, Craig, I am so excited to dive in to this conversation with you. So welcome.

Craig Swanson 0:09

Welcome. Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

Britney Gardner 0:11

Yeah, so I have heard your name bounded around for a good decade or so. Didn't know what you looked like, didn't know much about you. So this was this was an interesting one. But I'm really excited to hear your take on on, on topics around work and entrepreneurship and and really just how it all flows together for you. But before we we do that, would you mind giving us a brief history?

Craig Swanson 0:38

Yeah, absolutely. Well, it's interesting, you mentioned that you don't know what I look like, because very few people do unless, unless they're in the early days of creative life or different things. So I, I was one of the original co founders of Creative Live back in 2010. Prior to that, I had an IT service company that I ran for about 20 years. So trading time for money, getting clients, all the all the all the work of being a small business owner. And since starting Creative Live in 2015, I spun off on my own and I basically have been building online education platforms, with, with, with it with, with educators and content creators, that have a really large following already. So basically, they've already built a brand around themselves, they've developed a following. And then I come in and partner with them and help build a platform around them. And we've done a lot in the photography space, and in some other spaces as well. Yeah, so it's, you know, it's

Britney Gardner 1:41

interesting that you say that they've already done the work of building a following, which, you know, a lot of people struggle to even get there. So they've already done a, you know, huge amount of work, but, you know, they're moving into an entirely different business arrangement, like just how do you run things? How do you do things? How do you set it up? How do you scale, right? I mean, all the all the stuff that people talk about, and they're probably not so familiar with that.

Craig Swanson 2:04

Exactly. And that's, that's the big challenge is a lot of times what what people are able to build with themselves, there is a step at which they become their own block for the next phase. And we all as entrepreneurs reach this place. And it's one of the reasons I really love the challenge of scaling small businesses, because it is such an opportunity for us to learn about ourselves in the process. I think there's personally no better place to learn about myself than in the intersection between me and the market, and figuring out where my values are, and what I want to create a what I'm willing to give up in trade and all this back and forth, I think is just a huge opportunity.

Britney Gardner 2:49

I love what you just said, what I'm willing to give up as I create, because I think realistically, most people don't don't look at it that way. You know, most people are like, Yeah, I want to do this thing, I want to do this thing. And it's it's not obvious that doing this thing is going to carve out time from your life. But it's also going to carve out your attention from not just your free time, but from your other, you know, business endeavors from the other things that you've already been doing. And it will require some shifting at minimum, right? Yeah, I'm

Craig Swanson 3:26

actually thinking about this. And I've been thinking about, like the balance of time and core values and priority. And I think, I think scaling done, well done effectively becomes a lighter on a owners shoulders as the company scales. But I think most self made entrepreneurs without a chance to step back and reevaluate their path and what they want tend to swell. Instead of scaling, they tend to add more things on that add weight upon them, as opposed to building a streamlined system that actually lifts them up. They spend their time carrying the company and staying letting the company carry them.

Britney Gardner 4:09

So I imagine one of the reasons that happens is because you know it's their baby. And they're used to controlling all the things right, like you go from a team of just yourself, where you literally did every last thing to you know, maybe you hire on a few, a few support people, but it's still you making all the decisions, you know, the buck stops here, right? Yeah. I've seen a fair number of people in my world recently, but they've been talking about this that you know, as you as you grow, you can't just keep adding more and more responsibilities to your plate. Even if you have people doing portions of the work. If you're still the decision maker, you're the bottleneck.

Craig Swanson 4:45

Yeah. Yeah. You know, it's funny you said the business is their baby because I honestly I never would have separated for my business. If we didn't. My wife and I had not gotten pregnant with a real baby.

Britney Gardner 4:58

That's a good thing. Yeah. Well, and

Craig Swanson 5:00

actually so I mean, my story that there's some trauma in my story, but the short version is we were pre diagnosed with our with our daughter had Down syndrome, which we knew before she was born. And we went through a lot of mourning and a lot of really kind of hard looking at ourselves. And at that time, I had a company, that was my baby, it took everything from me, I gave it everything I was. And I felt like I was being moral. By doing that, I felt like, like, my giving of everything I had, to this business I had created was my path was my purpose, it was the right thing to do. And I kind of had this kind of negative opinion about owners that would kind of take from their business and not not pour themselves into it and, and create some boundaries. And we were forced to really look at the business and and we made a choice that if we could not change our relationship with the business, before my daughter was born, we were going to end my business, we're going to let the business die because my daughter used to have debt. And I was not to be able to have the work relationship I had had prior to that point.

Britney Gardner 6:16

So it was forced like this. It wasn't like a no, you know, we're going through a transition. I mean, you you had a hard stop on this. Yeah.

Craig Swanson 6:24

And I think if I had not gone through that process, I never would have, I never would have learned how to delegate authority, and control my business to other people, I never would have allowed myself the risk of letting other people like relying on other people, allowing other people to drive things. I'm allowing people the type of autonomy and creative freedom to allow them to make it their own. I would never have created the space for myself that I would have had the freedom to create what became Creative Live, I, I would not have had the relationship with online selling who just so many things that that I would have fought to keep myself trapped in this small role and defended at that. At the risk of anyone that tried to talk me out of it, I would have defended this small service based role that I established myself, even at the same time as it was sucking the life out of me.

Britney Gardner 7:24

Yeah, it's so funny, I would have defended my small role, what you just said there, because I feel like I feel like you and I were meant to talk today for a very specific reason. So we're in the process of my 10 year old being diagnosed with ADHD, and it's like, a whole new learning experience for for me as a parent, you know, how am I going to help him motivate to do the right things? Right? And it would be would have been really, really accurate to say that, you know, a year or two ago, I would have been like, no, no, he needs to fall in line with what we want. And I'm learning all these new things. And we have some very good family friends who have already traveled this journey. And the data of that family texted me a link to a YouTube video. Yesterday, two days ago, and it was a take on the whole Would you rather be right? Or would you be happy? Only instead of happy? Would you rather be right? Or would you rather learn? And it was one of those, like, smack you in the face moments? For me? I was just flabbergasted. I was like, No, I would always rather learn. But, you know, in practicality, it's all different.

Craig Swanson 8:32

I mean, you know, I've got notes on the on the screen in front of me. And would you rather be right? Or would you rather X is really, like so much of what the learning process for me is about and I'm not necessarily saying that there's nothing wrong with being right sometimes choosing to be totally fine. But a lot of US trade the life we want to be right about the life we have.

Britney Gardner 9:01

That's really good. Yeah,

Craig Swanson 9:05

um, so I don't know where you want to go with this. But I've kind of got to I've got a couple different directions we could potentially take this which is more about separate identity from business or we could talk about like that, the nitty gritty of brand and like the brand consequences of these type of conversations. Is there any that you're more attracted to right now?

Britney Gardner 9:24

I think let's go for the nitty gritty on brand consequences. I mean, you've worked with some personal brands, I've worked with personal brands and and you know, I love what you're saying that there are consequences for some of these big decisions.

Craig Swanson 9:38

Absolutely. So, just to kind of like frame a little bit where I usually come into the picture because i i Very honestly I am not a Brand Builder. I am a company builder, and I I respect brand. But I am not a Brand Builder. I partner with people that have put the work into really established personal brands themselves and attract a really large following. And I work with them to create a scalable model around them and to really take what they've started and create something significantly bigger than either they think they could do by themselves or Nestle want to do a lot. And, inevitably, this is an early stage for them in terms of this damps of control and identity, and everything that they built up. And one of the things I've learned to do over time is very early on often before we even become partners or start working together it is we have a really deep conversation about Brandon values. Because one of the things that I really tend to only work with people that have a that are mission driven in some fashion that definitely are, are have a larger purpose beyond just making money or selling units. And what I asked to do is to basically go through their brand and kind of break things into the non negotiable parts, and everything else. So what is what is non negotiable? And what is everything else. And generally, what I find is that breaks into three different major categories. In the non negotiable side, we have core values, or morals are really deep seated ethical beliefs. We generally have some very strong self image beliefs around the person around whose brand this is built. And then, in the everything else category, depending on how much control they're willing to cede to the market. And to the to the rest of the world. We have opinions, aesthetics, tactics, wording, all sorts of other things. And one of the things that I really try to kind of gauge with them is how willing they are to allow the things that are that are outside of the non negotiable side of the brand, how willing they are to allow us to learn from the market and learn from the audience to educate us as to what is important, rather than us making the assumption that we know what they want.

Britney Gardner 12:17

That's a that's a really powerful distinction. There, go ahead, sorry.

Craig Swanson 12:25

No, I just I was just gonna quote your own favorite quote back to you your brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room by Jeff Bezos. Yeah. And this is absolutely true. And I would say, especially in the world of creating an online community, the community creates its own understanding of a brand, in a lot of ways that is truer than what we put on our index cards, and what we put into our PDFs internally.

Britney Gardner 12:52

Yeah, 100%. And, you know, as a person who's been in the entrepreneurial space for 20 years, at this point, myself, I've been a part of a number of large communities, I've seen some come, I've seen some go, I've seen some breakdown in a glorious fireplace. But you know, I think the ones that continue on are, are doing what you say, you know, the market is demanding this, I have to decide does this go against my values? If it does not go against my values? Am I willing to concede to the market expectation, and I'm right now seeing, you know, some communities that I think will die over the next couple years, because they are not willing to go it's it's my way or the highway? Or? Well, we don't do things that way, or, you know, it's an, it's sad, it's sad when you can step back and look at it that way. And when you have found value in a community, but from the personal brand, growth point of view, if you're going to align your brand, with more than just the work you do, but a whole community, you have to probably, yeah, those non negotiables, I think I think that's really, really comes down to

Craig Swanson 14:06

I actually think it's true. And I think, I think that if you if people really do the work of identifying what the non negotiables are, what our core values are, we basically doubled down on our core values. And honestly, a core value, one of the things I look for in Brand Partners is I kind of look for them to prove to me that their core values are their core values. And usually, that proof is them stepping away from money, stepping away from opportunity that goes against the value, like there will inevitably become a time where the core values that they have stated, is tested by opportunity crisis for something big that that that gives them something they say they want outside of that core value, and then when they make a choice as to which they're going to honor that really educates me and educates everybody that's watching them what their core values are. And have been the challenge I would say, I've seen about this, especially in the photography spectrum, which I know you have a history of. Yeah. I think a lot of people end up without doing that, that really that person with their core values are versus what their opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and preferences are that that the same emotional response comes to all of those. And so a lot of people will respond as if they're responding to a moral issue for a personal opinion or tactic. In the photography, space, I'm amazed how emotionally people can become opinionated about things that are very, very tactical about gear, one of my favorite quotes around this was from Zack areas, lens choice is not a moral issue. But you wouldn't know it from some some communities.

Britney Gardner 15:57

Oh, my goodness. And for the for the listeners who did not come from the photography world. I am laughing because I cannot tell you how many threads and threads of arguments I have seen on why you are wrong to choose an 85 millimeter lens. And, and you could probably, you know, put that into any world, you know, food bloggers who are saying, you know, only cuisine art is the right brand? Or, you know, you know it and tech people saying How dare

Craig Swanson 16:26

you use cases versus tabs, spaces versus tabs for program? Yeah, yeah. The Oxford comma, the the, for me, for me, there's a personal one, the proper use of the M dash because I prefer, I prefer newspaper standard for there's a space in my M dash where if you come from book publishing, there is no space for your dash.

Britney Gardner 16:45

Well, now we can't be friends, because I don't want spaces.

Craig Swanson 16:49

If this were a moral issue, we would now no longer be able to continue this conversation.

Britney Gardner 16:52


Craig Swanson 16:55

And one of the challenges with a self made entrepreneur that has a that has a strong public brand, because the other thing that makes entrepreneurs with a strong public brand different is they they have that force of will that they're basically willing to push themselves out in the public spotlight and take the challenges of that they have enough identity to basically hold their place in that. So they tend to not be shrieking violence when it comes to their opinions.

Britney Gardner 17:23

Right? Oh, yes.

Craig Swanson 17:25

So I don't know if you have helped people with like Facebook ads, one of these moral issues, one of these issues that's very, very difficult, is the very first time that someone starts allowing someone else to be posting on their Facebook or Instagram identity, or to be running ads on their Facebook or Instagram identity identity. And to have words that are not exactly what they would have chosen be the words that show up or a crop of a photo, that's not exactly the one that they would have chosen. So and this is this is often where this is kind of when I have these conversations about separating the brand conversation into the non negotiable and the negotiable is, are these things is every post going to be vetted by you ahead of time is that where we are in the non negotiable is every choice going to be your aesthetic before it gets a chance to be tested against the market. And and this is where you choose what you're going to give up and what you're going to retain, because someone build with a strong personal brand, that is has defined their non negotiables so strongly that nobody else can play in their sandbox, they will be alone in making all these choices for the rest of their career. Yeah, and navigating, having other people being actors who can play and can take significant action for for the for the business that you are co creating with them necessitates choices that are not my own. And that for most entrepreneurs is going to feel wrong, regardless of whether the market agrees or disagrees, because there is this control that we have over our identity, that if we let go, it's almost impossible for them to go through this process and not feel like it's being done wrong.

Britney Gardner 19:26

So you make so you bring up a really interesting point, and I'm sure I have a feeling you are going this way anyway. But when you know the brand, the personal brand is so closely attuned to who you are, because that's how you how you built it and and maybe it was built on, you know, opinions on and so forth. But when you come to this point and you you've defined your non negotiables and you're struggling with the idea that my personal opinion on the exact word choice in this post is no longer as important as growing the business because of my goals, right? How do you separate you from what's being said in your, quote unquote voice?

Craig Swanson 20:15

A lot of people can't. And a lot, a lot of people define the room that they want to play in by that choice. Um, I use a lot of parenting analogies. So, and let's even be even before we talk about parenting analogy, if if I could go to most small, most entrepreneurs that are still in a, where they are the full actor in their business, and where they have delegated, they have delegated exact tasks where there's really no discretion in the person they're delegating to. They're just basically delegating to a body to do the work as instructed. And I asked them to basically draw two circles have different colors on a sheet of paper, with one color, representing the shape of their business identity, and the other being their personal identity. Most business owners in the early phases, certainly me before we became pregnant, I mean, it was my wife that became pregnant. Those two circles are almost perfectly overlapped, there is no space between those, there is no space between my business and big. So anything the business does is a reflection on me, and anything I do is reflect on the business. And if I want to build a business that is greater than me, I have to allow those circles to start to separate, which means that I have to start to allow my public identity to be separate from my personal identity. I did make a couple of like a couple things I think are like necessary. mindset. One is, especially if you're going to play on stage with a lot of a lot of people. I believe we need to be okay. being misunderstood.

Britney Gardner 21:54

Oh, I heard. Yeah,

Craig Swanson 21:58

it is a big one for me, you know, I think about all the things I've touched all the things I've built. Um, and if I tried to control what everybody thought of me, I would be unable to function. And I have to get to a place where I am okay, being misunderstood, because it is a necessity, when I'm playing a large enough field that there's a lot of people involved, the only way that I can control my ability to be understood is by talking to very few people, except for those that I can do immediately personal follow ups for right, I don't know what or by just driving myself crazy. I can't control this just by whether I think I control it. And I can't control people think. So. It is kind of like allowing that the world is going to think what it's going to think and that is not necessarily the same thing as being true. And it's also not my job to clean up every misunderstanding around my identity. Yeah. I've kind of lost my own thread. You're saying? I'm so so in terms of being able to like, like, separate and like allow other people to play in my space. So one of them is, first of all, to have these conversations about what is negotiable, non negotiable. And then also, I have a lot of conversations when it turns out something that everyone agreed was non or that wasn't negotiable. Trips a switch is non negotiable. And we have to go back to kind of founding principles and decide what is it we're trying to build why we're trying to do it. And in the parenting analogy that it was a parenting analogy for me. I have I have built enough businesses and I have left enough businesses that I have created that I am that the business has grown to where they're no longer my baby. But they become more analogous to my teenage child, or my semi adult child. And one of the analogies I would use is if you've ever had a teenager or if you're coming up on having a teenager learns to drive I need to let my business learn to drive. And that is a messy process of making a lot of mistakes and doing things worse than if I was directing. And I be clear on what's on the other side of that because I one thing that happens with a teenager the drives first of all, I am releasing that person to be in it to be a mature adult and to learn the skills. And that analogy applies to both the business and also the team in the business that I'm trying to develop. And also just speaking as a parent, assuming that relationship with our teenagers are good. Life really opens up when there are additional drivers in the family all of a sudden younger children Got to be taken to practice on someone else's way. But the car gets dented in the way in the process.

Britney Gardner 25:05


Craig Swanson 25:06

So am I willing to let my personal brand get a few dents in the process of letting a team learn how to drive, and am I willing to take on a mentoring role of others to help them learn how to, to do things, or am I going to try to control and manage everybody and really is the difference between functioning as a leader or functioning as a manager, if I am basically going to hire people that I want to give no discretion to, then the company can really only grow to the to the size of my discretion. But if I can lead people who on their own are in are bringing in their own creative talents, and we are working with a growing and evolving common share values, it's really possible to take things to an amazing level. But it's also really painful. And in most of that pain comes down to self image. I kind of buried a buried an element in this when I when I was defining the non negotiables. And the negotiables. I said core values and self image, I put self image in the non negotiable side, because that's where it usually starts.

Britney Gardner 26:17

Yeah, and you're saying starts meaning we need to maybe move that somewhere?

Craig Swanson 26:22

Well, it is a conversation, everyone gets to choose for themselves. But one of the things that you have advocated for is creating a life balance with your business 10 hours, 15 hours a week, I would offer as a thought that when there is a small business owner, that is putting 40 hours worth of work in a week, for a business that only needs 10, I would say 30 of those hours are things that have absolutely no value to the business, but are protecting their own self image. Either they're either their self image as a hard worker, there's a lot of self image issues of allowing other people to do the work instead of me, because I am a hard worker. And if I'm not working too hard, I'm not valuable. Or self image of I know I know what I'm doing like not allowing any weaknesses to show and so therefore relying on other people becomes a weakness. My favorite example is just one of appearance was just one of appearing to be really good. The very often the very first podcast or video or some type of form of content creation that I will encourage someone to create, we do so much editing work on, not for the market, but for to protect that person's image of themselves in front of the camera, or in front of the mic. The very first podcast episode for one of my partners that I was building around, I had to go in and remove every like that she said in the podcast interview.

Britney Gardner 28:03

Well, I do have an editor take care of all my knees. That's more for the listeners benefit than my. But I've said it on here before, when I first started this podcast, I wouldn't listen to myself I do not like how I sound on recordings and and from a psychological point of view, I know it most people feel that way. Because how we sound in our heads is different than how we we actually sound right. But I just had to get over it. You don't run a podcast for six years without having to get over that. So

Craig Swanson 28:33

I think honestly, that's really how you deal with self image issues. And a lot of ways is you go ahead and pay the price for a while you pay the extra price, you put in the extra work for a period of time. And then at some point, at some point, you start to release things that seems non negotiable about protecting my image of myself, because I start to realize that maybe other people don't care as much as I do around these things. And it can be anything from hairstyle, to weight, to, to dialect to language, almost anything. We all have pieces of ourselves that we're deeply ashamed of. And being public forces those things to the surface for us, and if we indulge our desire to try to protect our image against who we are, then we both put a lot more work into our public image then we really need to because we are basically doing the job three or four times we are doing it once and then we're cleaning it up and cleaning it up and cleaning it up. And we also in judging others tend to think we tend to shy away from people who are fake from people who are not showing the vulnerabilities. I don't I don't know who said that quote. But vulnerability is the superpower that is disguised as weakness. And that could be Brene Brown, it sounds like Brene Brown actually Don't know where that quote came from. But a lot of times our willingness to show our vulnerabilities to show our imperfections are the things that we initially want to hide. But those usually are the things that allow large communities to connect to us.

Britney Gardner 30:16

And, and ultimately, I think, you know, as you, however you decide to scale your business, whether that's from a personal brand, to the less personal brands, led by a person, or whether that's in another ways, I think the the ultimate connecting piece is other people realizing, hey, you've struggled, I'm struggling right now, I can probably learn something from that struggle, and that journey along the way, but if you don't show it, and if you don't, you know, own up to the fact that there is so much more to be had, when you do release that you will just cap yourself and cap your income and cap the amount of people on impact, you will be able to help out there.

Craig Swanson 31:01

Yeah, absolutely. And for some people, it's worth it for some people staying in control of their identity, their space, everything else, they would rather have that as a life choice, then to have a greater impact. And, and I think I think everyone has to honor their choices. I'm just a huge advocate of being honest with myself about the emotional choices I'm making.

Britney Gardner 31:26

Yeah. Craig, I think that's a great place to kind of wrap this conversation. I love where you went with this. Any closing thoughts?

Craig Swanson 31:39

Um, I mean, other than this is, I am repeating this on my own cycle over and over and over again, at different altitudes. I mean, this, I think, is what I am here to learn for myself, which is why I end up talking about it so much. I mean, this is a very human path for all of us. And there are really no wrong choices. It's just a matter of what we want. And, and I just would, I would I think, if anything I just I most admire people who are willing to trade, what they have today, in honor of what they want to create tomorrow. And it's a really scary thing to do. And I really honor that, regardless of what happens after that attempt.

Britney Gardner 32:28

Awesome. Well, thank you for this conversation. It's been fantastic. Thank you.

Transcribed by

To Market Your Business Online:

Navigating how to market your service business online–especially when you’re moving from 1:1 services to a 1:many model–doesn’t have to be hard even when you have a lot of moving parts.

You just have to know where you’re going. The Biz GPS Intensive is the best way to get that 30,000-foot view of your business–and a concrete plan for the next six months.

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Music by Michael De La Torre. Thanks, Mikey!