How Chris Guillebeau Built A “Cult of Personality”
Recently, an up-and-coming fitness coach and friend of mine asked me how to get more visibility online. I’ve built successful marketing funnels for web hosting companies, this blog, a software-as-a-service company, and now a chain of retail stores. All of those marketing funnels are different, but the one a coach or a consultant follows I would call a “cult of personality.” It’s what I did with this blog, and it’s also how several people I know became quite famous and are making large incomes online.
Let’s explore one of them: Chris Guillebeau.
I got to know Chris Guillebeau when, many years ago, he asked on Twitter if there was a place he could stay in San Diego while he met with his agent (this was as he was writing his first book!) A mutual friend suggested me, so I got to hang out with Chris for a couple days at my house and get to know him on a personal level.
Be Dedicated. Turn Off the TV!
The first thing that struck me about Chris was his complete dedication to his readers. There he was, sitting on my couch one night…I knew a mutual friend of ours who was really into “The Amazing Race”, and wanted Chris to see it. I had a couple of recent episodes saved up on my Tivo, so I queued them up for Chris.
While I was engrossed in the show, Chris was furiously typing on his laptop. It turns out he was responding to every email he received and every comment he got on his blog (a dedication that Pat Flynn also picked up and used to his advantage.) Chris didn’t watch TV or do anything else until he got those emails done. And the thing about Chris was, even back then, I don’t think the emails ever stopped coming in!
Back then, Chris used to post pictures of his cat on his blog and call his cat his assistant. I encouraged him privately to get a real, human assistant, but I understood why he didn’t. He wanted all those people to know he really cared about them, and he felt like an assistant would weaken the connection he had with his readers.
With my low energy levels at the time, plus bad (undiagnosed at the time) ADHD, I wasn’t good at replying to emails and comments. (I’m better today, but I’m still nowhere near Chris’s level.) But those replies, to whatever his readers had on their minds, helped him develop an unmistakable bond with them. I suspect many of them still read and buy everything he has to offer, because 8 years ago he took his personal time to respond to their email. I have massive respect for his dedication in that area.
Achieve a Really Difficult Goal…And Share Everything Along the Way
Chris got publicity by having a really difficult goal and then writing constantly about his efforts toward achieving it. If you know Chris or follow him, you’ll immediately know what I’m referencing, because everything he did or said looped back to it. If you don’t know or haven’t followed Chris, his goal was to visit every country in the world by the time he was a certain age.
He did end up completing this goal in 2013, but when he stayed at my house he was still working on several of the more difficult countries–ones that wouldn’t let him get a visa or had exorbitant entry fees–and it was really unknown whether he was going to make it or not. He shared that doubt honestly in his blog, and it drew readers in like nothing else.
I’ll dig in to some of the factors that made this a huge success. First, Chris, if you know him, is a really genuine and unassuming guy. But he’s also dogged in pursuit of his goals. The goal itself was polarizing to a lot of people (if you can’t imagine why a goal like that would be polarizing, well, welcome to the Internet!) There were people who complained he was wasting his time, that he was ruining the environment by flying so many places, and–the most common complaint I saw–that his goal was stupid because it didn’t do anything or prove anything.
But his true fans got it. Chris’s personality helped; he was an introvert, but people genuinely liked him. The dude had basically no ego (I doubt he does even now; though I haven’t seen him in a while, he struck me as the type of person who would be exactly the same when he achieved his goal as before he achieved it.)
And the goal itself was an interviewer’s dream: Why would someone come up with that goal? How did he plan to achieve it? Where did he get all that money for travel (Chris was quite intelligent about this and turned his unique way of getting frequent flyer points into a “travel hacking” course and several blog entries)? Who was this introverted, slightly awkward kid with huge dreams who wrote about visiting every country in the world on a blog?
How to Build Fame When You’re Nobody
Now, if you’re wondering what you can take away from this, it’s that you don’t necessarily need to be “already famous” to make it online. But what you can do is have a polarizing, challenging goal and write about it. Think about what people would want to read about in a magazine. Then build a blog and videos and show yourself, every day or at least a few times a week, working toward that goal. Make people believe it is possible. Build your audience–get an email list going and have them sign up. Then, as you draw in fans, respond to their fears, concerns, and goals that they write to you about.
I look back at myself at that time and I certainly could have gone the “cult of personality” route. In fact, by 2012, this blog drew in over a million unique visitors a year. But I decided I didn’t want to; instead, I wanted to grow another business that was larger than just myself. Ever since then, I’ve been growing businesses, including the chain of retail stores I now co-own that has been hugely successful.
The Downside of “Cult of Personality” Businesses
My health then was precarious; I didn’t want to grow a cult of personality based all around me and then fall ill and suddenly stop producing content. That’s the negative side of any cult of personality business–it’s all based on you and your ability to perform. So consider this before you jump in with both feet: yes, it feels great to be famous, but can you really commit to living, breathing, and growing this business every day? To taking risks and being exposed if you do fail (and believe me, you’ll fail!)? To continuing to produce content even when you’re not on top of your game, and to producing extra content when you are on top of your game so you can take a break or be sick sometimes? You must consider all of this carefully before you begin.
If you think you can–then, by all means, grow a cult of personality! I’ve given you some insight on how to do it. This is why I’m back and blogging again; I’ve finally gotten my health in the right place to really commit to being here and showing up for my readers. I’m aware of the commitment it takes and I’m willing to do it this time around. The only question I have for you is: Are you ready, too?
NOTE: I didn’t reach out to Chris or interview him for this blog post, for a specific reason: I didn’t want to be influenced by what he felt made him successful. My goal was to write from my own perspective of knowing and following him in his early years and watching him grow his blog and business. If you’d like to learn from Chris in his own words, I encourage you to take a look at his 279 Days to Overnight Success manifesto (written back when he was still getting started) or his more recent “Success as a Travel Blogger” post.