The first question I ask somebody when I start doing career workshops with them is, "do you have a website?"
If the answer is "no," then I ask them, "why don't you have a website?"
I have yet to come across a good answer to this question.
You don't have to be an entrepreneur (or wannabe entrepreneur), a "personal brand," or a job-hunter to benefit from having a website. You don't have to take weeks to build it. It doesn't have to be perfect (it just has to be good enough). And you don't need to have years of blog content on it.
You just need to have a website.
Starting my website (the first iteration of which hit the web in 2008, the progenitor of this site didn't hit until 2012) was the best tool for my career. It provided me a place to write, a place to send people who were interested in learning more about me, and a launching point for the rest of my career through whatever changes and transitions I had to make.
The Purposes of Your Website
Your website plays a few different roles in your career toolbox. It lets you build a robust career and avoid letting your day job be a single point of failure.
Your Website as Portfolio
Most obviously, your website is a place where you can show off your professional accomplishments, side-projects, and interests. It's a place where you can broadcast your skills and the fruits of those skills. LinkedIn lets you connect with others and say what you've done, but your website lets you show what you've done.
This is particularly helpful if you work in any career track where you can show off your work. Chaz Stead, for example, is a graphic designer, so he can show off his portfolio on his site.
Even if you don't work in a creative track, you can use the blog component of your site as a portfolio to write about your work and your knowledge of your field. It's your place to establish your expertise. I've written before about how my friend Josh Blackman used his entrench himself as an expert in the constitutional law world. Jake Yablonski runs an advertising agency in Philadelphia and writes about his experiences at his site.
Your Website as Personality
I used to do a lot of admissions and job interviews.
Some of the worst interviews were those where, when asked about their personalities, applicants told me they had a "passion for creating value."
Nobody has a "passion for creating value." That'd make you a complete weirdo that nobody wants to work with. You have a passion for certain areas and interests and doing work well in those areas.
This was always a case where somebody forgot "show, don't tell." These candidates intellectually understood that employers want to see people who will create value for them, but they didn't quite have the social intelligence (at least in this context) to signal that interest through projects or real interests or even a list of books they enjoy reading.
Using your website as a personal website is completely okay and can in fact still play a crucial professional role for you. Write about topics that interest you. Write about them sincerely. Some of my old blog posts on this site are all about philosophy because that's what I enjoyed studying. Some are about aviation - that landed me a podcast interview talking about aviation.
Your Website as Canvas
If you have any interest in content marketing or writing, your website is a public canvas where you can write, get feedback on your writing from readers, and iterate on ideas quickly.
Nobody is just born into this world a fantastic writer.
Becoming a better writer takes time and practice for real readers. You can write in your journal all you want but you won't get feedback unless you start writing publicly.
Your website is a canvas where you can write on different topics, experiment with your expertise, and double down on what works well.
When I start working with a client who is starting a consulting business, one of the first things I push them to do is start a website where they write about their expertise. We first start by asking their existing clients (most of my clients start as freelancers who decide they want to build out a consulting business) about their major questions. Then they write content related to those questions on their website and send it out to other places on the internet where people like their clients hang out.
If something gets a lot of attention, we double down on this.
I call this D2W2 - Double Down on What Works.
Without a website to write at, a canvas where you can start with your ideas, you have to look around for outlets that will let you test what works. This considerably extends your iterative process.
You should own your own medium first. Then start building on other platforms.
Your Website as Insurance
Business partners, employers, and platforms come and go during your career. Your website is the one thing entirely in your control.
Maybe your job starts to suck and you decide to quit. You can use your site as a way to broadcast that you're looking for work. Or you can use it to launch an online business. Or you can use it as a way to build an email list that you can then ping letting know that you're looking for a new job.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make early in your career is letting your job become a single point of failure (i.e., when you lose your job, you lose almost everything). I've seen people have to start over just because they had an unfortunate departure at a job or got fired.
Owning your website helps you minimize that damage.
It's also a positive insurance tool for networking. If you want to meet with somebody who runs a coffee shop, for example, writing a blog post about roasting coffee helps you establish rapport and expertise. You can send this post to them and capture their attention. Molly Beck used this extensively in her outreach, which she talks about in her book Reach Out.
Don't Get Stuck in Particulars
Most people I talk to know they should start a website but get caught up in particulars.
The particulars are less important than you realize. Rome wasn't built in a day and most of the websites you use as models have been around for a decade or longer.
"What About SEO? Paid Advertising? Affiliate Marketing?"
Don't get caught up in internet marketer lingo. Focus on getting to square one first: starting your site. Then focus on square two: creating good content. Then, and only once you see a way that internet marketing makes sense for what you want to do, start focusing on that.
I've only in the last year started looking at SEO. I focused first on creating excellent content. To this day, if something will be an excellent article but weaker in SEO, I'll focus on that before I focus on SEO.
"What Technology Should I Use?"
Buy your domain. Choose a host you like (as of June 2018, my site is on Tap). And set up your site on Wordpress.
Don't get caught up in any other particulars. This would be like fretting about the thickness of your business card before you have a business.
"What Should My Domain Be?"
If your name is Jack Applejack, buy JackApplejack.com. If it's Sally Neumaster, buy SallyNeumaster.com.
If you can't get the .com, go for the .co.
Don't go for cute or creative for your personal site.
"What Should My 'Brand' Be?"
Look, I get why your high school teachers told you, "be careful what you post online! An employer might see it someday!" I do. But don't be so sterile and boring that you sound like you're running for congress.
Your brand is generally perceived as whatever you write about most often and the tone with which you write. This takes a long time to develop and isn't something you should get caught up in when you start. Your brand evolves over time.
As for content, just write about whatever you'd feel comfortable defending if asked in public why you wrote it. That's it.
"How Should I Promote My Site? What About Traffic?"
What happens when somebody promotes a website, you go there excited to see the content and...there's nothing there?
You never go back.
Focus on getting some content on your site before you worry about promotion. At this stage, your site is more a place you can point specific people than a place that you drive larger audiences.
When you do start promoting your writing, start by sending it to your friends who share your interests.
You can use a quick script like this:
Hey [First name],
I'm writing a little bit more over on my personal site and wrote about [shared interest]. You can check it out here:
I'd love to hear your thoughts on [specific part of post] when you get some time. Specifically, do you think [interpretation A] or [interpretation B] makes more sense?
You can post to social media - but unless you already have a strong following on there that regularly engages with your content, don't expect this to be the way you drive traffic. Write for real people first, send it to them, and, in time, ask to contribute to other sites that can drive traffic back to your own.