Four years ago, I made the transition from running a company with employees to going it solo. I spent some time considering company names for my new business, but in the end I decided that the simplest option was the best, so I registered and started building an online presence here. It has always stood at the intersection of personal and professional, as the work I’ve been doing – coaching, writing, teaching – is more personality-driven than my previous roles.

However, as I’ve moved deeper into the world of personal brands–where individual people market themselves with all the careful curation and business savvy of large corporations–I’ve become more and more skeptical of the kind of culture we are contributing to. Because as a higher and higher percentage of people become self-employed, and presumably take to the web to promote their services, a dystopic vision begins to form in my mind:

Seven billion personal brands. What a complete and utter nightmare–for everyone.

Picture the vitamin aisle in your local supermarket, and how overwhelming it is: the dozens of options for Vitamin B or probiotics; the hundred bottles of multivitamins, which you have to pick up one by one to find the one with iron or magnesium or whatever it is your doctor told you to look for.

Now imagine that there are seven. Billion. Options.

I mean, OK, I’ll grant you that every single person in the world is not going to be selling what you’re selling. So let’s make it a smaller number. Let’s be really generous and say there are, I dunno, 1,000 different kinds of freelance jobs one could perform, and that maybe half the population is employed at any given time, 40% of whom are self-employed. That would bring it down to 1.4 million people competing in every category. (Admittedly, this is extremely rough, back-of-the-napkin math, but bear with me. The exact numbers don’t matter so much as the broader brushstrokes.)

Using our analogy, that means in order for you to buy a jar of vitamins, you have to confront 1.4 million options. Talk about decision fatigue.

It’s an exhausting prospect for consumers, and equally exhausting for those of us trying to build a personal brand. Frankly, I don’t want to have to compete against 1,399,999 other people doing roughly the same thing I do, I don’t want to contribute to the online equivalent of the vitamin aisle. The mere idea of it makes my skin crawl.

An Alternative to Vitamin Aisle Overwhelm

Let’s shake the image of the vitamin aisle out of our heads, and replace it with something that’s human-scaled, aesthetically pleasing, and designed for connection: the farmer’s market. Farmers’ markets are one of my happy places: invariably, when I get to one, I have serendipitous meetings with friends and neighbours; my thirst for beauty is slaked; and I’m so surrounded by healthy and delicious options that I wind up eating well all week. And of course, in the process, I get to meet the people who grew my food, learn about how their seasons are going, and get new recipe ideas along the way.

Those are my benchmarks for a delightful shopping experience:

  • Beauty
  • Delight
  • Serendipity
  • Connection
  • Manageable scale (i.e. no decision fatigue)
  • Sustained value (i.e. I feel good about my choices afterward)

…and those standards hold anytime I’m having to shop for things (which, as the primary parent in our household of four, is pretty often).

Now, keeping those standards in mind, let’s return to our Personal Brand / vitamin aisle dystopian nightmare–and how to avoid it.

Marketplaces have sprung up to help consumers find the right match for their needs, in a variety of contexts: AirBnB leads the way in temporary accommodation; Etsy handles handmade and vintage goods; dating sites help you filter through staggering numbers of potential mates and hook-ups; Apple and Google have app stores. And Amazon is arguably still the leader when it comes to finding books and other goods; I regularly rely on its recommendations engine.

There’s no such marketplace for the work I do. But imagine if there were.

What if you wanted to find a coach or consultant who could help you develop your leadership skills, expand your team, or improve your health? You might have a few filters: maybe you prefer someone with experience in your industry; with a certain amount of experience; and within a particular price range. Perhaps, like some of my clients, you prefer someone who can meet face-to-face, in which case geography becomes important. These are all relatively trivial things to build into a database-driven site or app.

And from the coaches’ perspective, would it not be a relief to let someone else do some of the marketing, some of the time?

The same is true for the world of online courses.

It feels like everyone and their podcast microphone is launching an online course these days, but how the hell do you pick one? Comparison shopping is pointless, because everyone shares different information, and besides, the number of options is simply too high.

This is a much more crowded space already – edX, Coursera, Udacity et al. are tackling this problem, although they are focused primarily on university-type courses rather than personal development, and they are also learning platforms themselves, rather than simply marketplaces. I’m very curious about what might emerge if you gathered together a bunch of independent teachers and invited students to provide reviews of the courses they’ve taken, like a kind of Yelp for online learning. We might learn things like:

  • How much of the course did you complete? (Or did the materials languish on your hard drive?)
  • How would you rate the value of the content?
  • Who is best positioned to receive value from this course?
  • If you’ve taken other courses on this subject, how does this one compare?

I, for one, would love to know that since I loved Randi Buckley’s “Healthy Boundaries for Kind People” course, I might also love Lianne Raymond’s “Cherish.” Or that if I’m primarily an auditory learner, I might appreciate so-and-so’s teaching style. Or that Jen Louden’s “TeachNow” is the #1 ranked course on teaching, or that Tanya Geisler’s “Step Into Your Starring Role” is the Editors’ Choice for anyone wrestling with the imposter complex. And so on.

(None of those are affiliate links, by the way.)

As a teacher, I would also love to know who else is teaching courses in my areas of interest; how they’re approaching their subject; and how I can better differentiate my offerings. This feels like a win-win-win, to me: better clarity for students; more efficient marketing and promotion for teachers; and at least a modicum of accountability for everyone (in the form of reviews, standards for inclusion, and so on).

It’s important to note that I don’t think the solution is necessarily curation in the sense of publisher-author models or tying people into a particular delivery model. I prefer vendors to maintain their own approaches when it comes to course platforms and coaching methodologies. But I think online marketplaces offer some interesting possibilities here in terms of models that could be adapted.

I’m sure there are limitations to the way I’m seeing this question – and heaven knows the App Store has many, many flaws, as do Yelp, AirBnB, Etsy and the rest – but if anyone out there is trying to tackle this problem, and avoid the hellscape that is the Find-a-Coach Vitamin Aisle (or the, I dunno, Online Course Towel Department at Target?), I am all ears. Because I am tired, tired, tired of this personal brand situation, and I am ready for some better options.

Author’s note: While I’ve been mulling over the ideas in this post for many months, I want to give props to Jonathan Harris’s excellent essay, “Modern Medicine,” and particularly the section “Healers and Dealers,” which succinctly and elegantly articulates the distinction between marketplaces and attention economies – something I’ve spent over a thousand words rambling about here.