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The risk of vanity metrics (and copying others)

I see a lot of startup entrepreneurs copying successful businesses.  The entrepreneurs observe what those businesses do and assume it would work for them. Or they attribute the success of a company to a certain strategy or practice.

The confusion has gotten worse with the publication of “The 4-Hour Workweek.” For example, many entrepreneurs and companies look for social proof from the start. They hope to get featured on media outlets or gain a slew of social media followers before the business has achieved success and changed customers’ lives, which would cause those things to occur naturally.

It’s not all bad. It’s just marketing, even very good marketing. However, copying what others do can lead to unintended outcomes.

Here’s a story of how it went hilariously weird for me.

Back in the early days of FringeSport, I was obsessed with building our audience. I was interested in what I now believe are vanity metrics — the biggest email list, lots of Facebook likes, the most Instagram followers.

The problem with this approach is when you chase vanity metrics, you can end up with many followers but not a lot of results.

… when you chase vanity metrics, you can end up with many followers but not a lot of results.

Years ago I knew that Instagram was an up-and-coming channel for brands. I had friends who had attracted many followers on Instagram. They told me that FringeSport could do it, too.

So I hatched a strategy: Get as many Instagram followers as possible. Not only did I want Instagram followers for FringeSport, but I also wanted to build my personal feed. The more overall followers the better, so I thought.

My plan was to use my personal Instagram to put out a nuanced message about FringeSport. I also thought that my personal feed could launch my personal brand.

FringeSport could be the brand for our garage gym and strength and conditioning efforts. But what if I wanted to launch a travel brand or be an authority in entrepreneurship? Surely a huge following on my personal Instagram would help those efforts.

I got to work building my personal following — using white hat and gray hat practices. I tracked the posts (photos) that received the most response and then created similar content.

Short shorts

There’s an important aside here. I’ve always liked short shorts. It comes from the fact that my father is from Brazil, and my mother used to let me swim in Speedo-type swimsuits. When I was in college I played rugby (more short shorts). When I got into strength and conditioning, I started working out at a gym in Austin called Atomic Athlete. One of Atomic’s owners is an ex-Army Ranger. He introduced me to Ranger Panties.

Ranger Panties are extremely short shorts. In many cases, they’re shorter than boxer shorts. But Army Rangers and other branches of the armed forces wear them with pride. And that’s what we did at Atomic Athlete. We wore our short Ranger Panties with pride.

Moreover, Austin, Texas, is hot. We often work out with no shirts.

The result is a bunch of sweaty dudes, wearing Ranger Panties and not much else.

I started to notice that my workout photos, which I posted my personal Instagram feed, received a lot of engagement.  I thought it was a good thing. I said to myself, “All right, this is where I need to be. I need to be the short shorts guy. That’ll be part of my personal brand.”

After all, my follower count was climbing.

The first sign of miscommunication was when I started getting a lot of direct messages on the platform. And, coincidentally, the messages were mostly from males. They would often ask what I was doing, but nothing about FringeSport or entrepreneurship.

And then the underwear started to show up. One man started sending new underwear from Amazon. And then he started sending direct messages requesting to see pictures of me wearing this underwear.

Call me slow. But that’s when I got it.

I had managed to build a following in the gay community. My followers evidently enjoyed seeing the pictures of me wearing short shorts while sweaty. There’s nothing wrong with that. But to quote the famous Seinfeld episode, it definitely was not the demographic I was going for!

The experienced caused me to think twice about my personal brand, and following others.

Peter Keller
Peter Keller
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