Managing the High Risk Business of Brand “I”

Known for crafting cookbooks on a tight budget and fighting poverty, Jack Monroe is a far cry from King Charles’ son, Prince Harry. The former had little money as a single parent and had to turn to food banks. The Duke of Sussex spent most of his life in the gilded palace, enjoying meals prepared by chefs. However, the two have some things in common. Both are examples of what I’ve come to see as “self-entrepreneurs”: people who commoditize their personal lives.

Monroe began her career as an expert in thrift shopping, meal planning, and budget recipes more than a decade ago, blogging about cooking with cut prices while she was out of a job and struggling to provide for her young son. This sparked a career in media and publishing. In contrast, Prince Harry’s life has been plagued by media greed since birth. Recently, he decided to cash in on this interest (reportedly over $100 million) and take control by telling his own story in a Netflix documentary with his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and in his in his new book, save, It reveals deep wounds, sibling rivalries and broken dog bowls in the royal family.

Monroe and Prince Harry aren’t the only ones monetizing their personal lives. Entrepreneurs are everywhere. (I know my neologism is ugly, but consider the rewards of all the hours I had to endure reading “mumpreneurs,” aka a woman with kids and a business.) The most obvious examples of me being an entrepreneur are TikTok, Instagram and YouTube influencers. They might share the good and flirty parts of their lives, posting pictures of cute babies, nights out with friends or interior decorating, but there are also serious people discussing grief, mental or physical health issues. Some people are both. Recently, actress Naomi Watts shared her experience with menopause as part of the launch of a women’s skincare line targeting dwindling hormones.

Self-employment has even infiltrated the tedious world of white-collar work. As loyalty between employers and employees dwindles, self-branding becomes even more important. More than 25 years ago, management guru Tom Peters made the case for asking employees to create “a brand called You.” Back then it meant bragging about your expertise and skills. Today it’s even more personal. LinkedIn, once a social media platform dedicated to bragging about our professional credentials, has become increasingly emotional. For example, a post of a man in a hospital bed went viral last year. Written after a heart attack, he decided to prioritize his family over Zoom meetings.

This merging of personal and work is part of the authenticity trend, also known as bringing your whole self to work. In some cases, that means sharing stories of anxiety or infertility with office colleagues.

I have almost no immunity. I write about experiences of bereavement, parenting, and harassment. Reporting personal stories can show the impact of policy and bring data to life. After all, one person who loses a job contributes more to the unemployment rate.

Monetizing your life comes with risks. First, it messes with your head. You may wish to have the narrative, but you cannot control the reaction to it. To put it mildly, these can be capricious.

Life inevitably changes. A recent interview with Monroe in The Guardian described how she spent money on booze and furniture while battling drug addiction — money she raised from the public to continue her writing on the budget. Some have called her a fraud, an allegation she denies. But she could also be seen as trapped by a story that highlighted her frugal credentials and brought her to the public’s attention. The public is fickle – if you don’t deliver, they can move on.

What happens when you run out of personal material? save is Harry’s first book, and there are reportedly more to come. It’s full of sibling fights, wicked stepmothers, and fairytale romances. It’s hard to see how he can continue to provide material to satisfy interest.

Harry’s financial future looks bright. But for anyone becoming a self-employed entrepreneur, there are risks to consider. And without sounding like a dork, maybe get a sensible job to lean on?

Pilita Clark returns next week

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