The Bootstrapped Founder

What does it even mean to be "authentic" online? Just posting things you want other people to see? Sharing everything, treating people like friends? Or maybe it's being extremely professional at all times. With audiences in the hundreds, 1000s, and millions, the old rules of what it means to be yourself in front of others don't apply anymore.

We have to recontextualize our self-presentation online, to be able to both feel like we are ourselves and to make our audiences feel that they get to see the real us. Unfortunately, this does not work with our traditional approach.

When it comes to authenticity, the size of virtual audiences we can quickly build creates the need for a new and slightly different way of thinking about what it means to be our true selves in front of people who only get to see the surface. Here is how you can be authentic in a digital world.

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Creators & Guests

Arvid Kahl
Empowering founders with kindness. Building in Public. Sold my SaaS FeedbackPanda for life-changing $ in 2019, now sharing my journey & what I learned.

What is The Bootstrapped Founder?

Arvid Kahl talks about starting and bootstrapping businesses, how to build an audience, and how to build in public.

Struggling with what it means to be authentic online? Well, you're not alone. The moment we

want to use social media intentionally for projects or entrepreneurial efforts, we feel like

imposters almost immediately. I certainly do. I think we need a new way of thinking about authenticity

in the global village. Welcome to the Bootstrapped Founder. Today, we talk about the challenge of

intentional online self-presentation. A quick shout out to our sponsor, More on that

later. Now, let's be authentic. Well, there's this cardinal rule to effective digital writing. And I

was talking to Dicky Bush about all of this stuff earlier this week. You have to write for attention

first. Then you add whatever message you might have, whatever you might want. Lead with value,

lead with insights, start with the outcome. And that's how writing for social media works right

now. And it begs the question, is this still authentic self-presentation? And Cory Zue pondered

the slow death of authenticity in the attention economy recently. And he has a point. The way we

communicate online isn't how we approach real life interactions. Things have changed. And what it

means to be authentic has changed too. Authenticity isn't very clear for most people who are using

social media today. You can pretty much be as authentic as you want, but if no one reads it,

it has no impact, right? So how impactful can authenticity even be in this? And can being overly

authentic, too authentic, actually prevent you from making an impact? Well, authenticity at first

glance sounds like something that is very internal, comes from the inside and identity freely and

honestly shared from the inside out. But as social beings, social animals, our authenticity is

determined by the people who either recognize it or deem it lacking in us. So what is authentic to

them is mirrored back into our self-perception. And coming to terms with being authentic online

starts with recognizing the expectations of the people in front of which we place ourselves.

Without them and their expectations, there's no authenticity. And most people go to social media

looking for meaningful, relatable content. This might be for entertainment or to learn something

or to feel some kind of bond with other people. And those interactions happen around the content

we produce, the tweets, the videos, the articles, the messages. And there is a lot of content out

there done and created by a lot of people. Now, there used to be a time when gatekeepers ensured

the quality of what anyone would get to see. But that's not the case anymore. We still have editors

and they still exist in publishing, but they're not the only source of written information anymore.

The shelves of the bookstores and the pages of the magazines that we read have been supplanted

by the algorithmic feeds of YouTube and Twitter. Access to creators is now direct. And there's no

arbiter for quality. No external arbiter anymore. Because the actual gatekeeper is still around,

and the gatekeeper for quality is now the consumer. We have to filter information ourselves.

For every single piece of content, we are the gatekeepers. Trust has shifted from the external

gatekeepers to the consumer. If we don't trust the content, we will not consume it.

So, to build trust on this honest foundation means connecting with people's shifting expectations

of what it actually means to be trustworthy. Your authentic representation from five years ago

might not align with your audience today. Back in the day, people valued professional distance and

an aura of sophisticated smartness. Now, people want to see the real person behind the business.

What makes you relatable is flexible now. We need a flexible authenticity. But is this good?

Is this bad? How can you even call this authentic? It sounds like acting or manipulation.

I think it's time to rethink self-presentation at scale. These nuanced levels of connection

that we have in the physical world around us do not exist in a world of thousands and millions.

Dunbar's number, around 150 people who you can realistically forge deep bonds with,

that number is quickly reached when you put effort into building an online audience.

The new reality of operating in virtual environments of the masses redefines what

authentic behavior is, what it can be, and what it can effectively do for you.

You have to look at who you are online through a pragmatic lens now. It's an inevitable consequence

of scale and diversity in thought and experiences. You cannot be a unique person to every single

person of your virtual audience. At some point, those clear lines that we have with friends and

family who know us for years will start blurring in the virtual realm. Authenticity online is a

constant experimentation with how others perceive you as authentic. In a way, authenticity becomes

an externalized projection of other people's expectations. You lean into their perception

of you. And that feels like cheating, right? Well, if you experiment with Dunbar's number

in your mind, just see what happens there. Imagine you could have strong relationships

with 500 people. Wouldn't that be great for you as a creator? I guess you could deeply connect

with a more sizable audience, four times as much as you can now, but even then, you might not be in

the top 500 of the people that your individual followers even want to interact with. Between

celebrities and their social peers and relatives and work relationships, you might not rank in the

top 500. So, even with a higher capacity on your end, the strength of your relationship with them

would just be as limited. And with a growing social following, you will find no matter how many people

you could be your true real-world self with, you will eventually scale out of that. And it's their

limitation that prevents that deep bond. You are trying, you're just not ranking for them.

People will always see you in a simple way that doesn't fully represent your true self.

And here's why that matters. To them, authenticity happens when you live up to their simplified idea

of you. If you do something outside of this, they might see it as inauthentic, even if it's true to

who you are, and that ironically damages your relationship with them. To deal with this,

a lot of people who are doing all this audience building, they play it safe by projecting a very

strong persona that is easy to live up to. They might even choose an extreme identity, like always

being positive, or a reliably funny troll, or always seeing the negative and stuff. This just

makes it easier for them to meet expectations and avoid disappointing others. The people who

follow those people, for this clear-cut persona, they get exactly what they expect. People often

become caricatures of themselves to fit into these personas. And this is the new challenge of

authenticity at scale. There's really no perfect solution to this. But one approach that I would

recommend looking into is to choose an idealized version of yourself that has a positive impact on

the people around you and is easy for you to actually live up to reliably. I've done that,

and I'm doing this as much as I can, every single day. I choose to be the kindest person around.

I celebrate the success of others, I commiserate with them when things go awry, and I give more

than I take. Intentionally. I make this the role that I want to project, because it's the deeply

seated core behavior of mine to begin with. If you meet me in the real world, you'll find a more

nuanced version of this, a deeper, more attentive version, but at its root, it's still the same

thing. I just want to be nice to people. And by picking this persona, I can better navigate

all my relationships at scale. Whether they're parasocial or real-life connections beyond

Dunbar's number, it's one way to cope with the challenges of maintaining authenticity

in today's connected world. So, choose a collection of things, a collection of ideas

that you can and want to live up to when you're presenting yourself online. And consistently

show up as that person. You'll find that authenticity here is a consequence, and not just a prerequisite.

And that's it for today. I will now briefly thank my sponsor,, for sponsoring this episode.

Imagine this. You're a founder who's built a solid software as a service product. You acquired

customers, and all of these things are generating consistent monthly recurring revenue. The problem

is, you're not growing for whatever reason. Maybe it's a lack of focus, lack of skill, or you just

don't care anymore, and you feel stuck. What should you do? Well, the story that everybody would like

to hear is that you buckled down, reignited the fire, worked on the business rather than just in

the business, start building an audience, which I highly recommend, start building a personal brand,

equally recommended, move out of your comfort zone, do sales and marketing. Also something that I

struggle with, hey, six months down the road, you've tripled your revenue. Unfortunately, reality is

not as simple as this. Your situation will be different. But in a way, too many times, this story

ends up being one of inaction and stagnation until the business becomes less valuable, or at worst,

worthless. So if you find yourself here already, or you think your story is likely headed down a

similar road, think about another option. Consider selling your business on because you

can capitalize on your time right now, the value of your time. I think that's a pretty smart move.

And is free to list. They've helped hundreds of founders already. They will help you.

So go to and see for yourself if this is the right option for you and

your business right now. Just check it out. Thank you so much for listening to the Bootstrapped

Founder today. You can find me on Twitter at arvidkahl, A-R-V-I-D-K-A-H-L. You can find my books

and my Twitter course there as well. And if you want to support me in this show, please subscribe

to my YouTube channel, get the podcast in your podcast player of choice, and leave a rating and

a review by going to rate this Any of this will really help the show. Thank you

very much for listening. Have a wonderful day. Bye bye.