It’s holiday time so for this week I wanted to reflect on identity again, through a holiday story from the past and my Dutch and Italian roots.
The Dutch guy
It was a warm summer weekend in 2000, me and my family were spending the weekend in our camper which was now almost permanently stationed at a small camping site next to the Lago maggiore in Italy.
I was 12 at the time and both me and my brother were at the European school 20km from the camping site. Here we got classes in Dutch, English, Italian and extra language courses in German. As my mother is Italian and my father Dutch, we were quite comfortable in this international environment.
A local Italian girl at the camping approached me with a question for the first time, that afterwards I would end up hearing pretty much for the rest of my life: “do you feel more dutch or more italian?”
Having been raised literally half of my life in the Netherlands and the other half in Italy I somehow found this very difficult to answer at the time. At the same time I also felt I kind of needed to pick one, so to avoid making things too difficult, I would just say: “I guess I feel more Dutch”.
The girl nodded and happily hopped on with her day. The universe was in balance again and everything was assigned a proper definition. My identity was now clear, for all my young Italian friends I would always be “the Dutch guy”.
The animation guys
Many years later we would build Funk-e into one of the biggest animated explanation video studios in the Netherlands, which to many of our clients would make us “the animation guys”.
I wore this title with pride as it really meant we managed to build something memorable, and clients would keep referring other clients because to be quite honest: how many people do you know that have a company that makes cartoons for a living?
Over time however, the company would change. We had transformed the company from doing only one thing, to solving for a much bigger internal communication problem. Half of the company didn’t have a background in animation anymore and half our revenue started coming from very different kinds of corporate projects.
We would put out article after article, and podcast after podcast about internal communication and change management, trying to explain to customers that we were not only the animation guys anymore, but also the broader explanation campaign people, with strategists, consultants and project managers.
Doesn’t exactly make for as easy of a tagline as “the animation guys” however.
A reputation that sticks
A reputation is probably the most important asset you have as a business owner. It takes a very long time to build up and once you have one, it can be very difficult to change peoples perception of you or your company. Especially it can be hard to redirect that perception in a direction of your choosing. (Scandals for example can change a perception instantly, but never in the direction you were hoping).
Someone once told me it takes 3 years to re-brand or change peoples perception of your brand. It sounded like an exaggerated amount of time back then, but after transforming Funk-e for the past 3 years it feels quitte accurate.
The same also counts for transforming a personal brand. For years to people I was the animation guy. It was a box where I comfortably lived and which brought me lots of new clients that knew exactly what they could get from me.
Breaking away from that image that took so long to imprint in peoples minds feels risky. The moment I made that choice I felt it would be difficult to turn back.
At the same time,even though I have clearly communicated my new journey over the past six months, I still get calls from clients enthusiastically asking for a video from their favorite animation guy 🙂
So even though a reputation from the past can stick around for a long time, I found it can easily co-exist next to a new identity.
My new company and title “mister awesome” feels good. It’s a new title I got to give myself and is close to what I feel like doing now: growing as an entrepreneur and learning from new industries, problems and innovations.
As I said in my previous article (https://misterawesome.nl/life-after-startup-the-humbling-solo-narrative/) for me as an entrepreneur, my work is a big part of my identity.
So, after a long time of living in the skin of the animation guy, it feels good that if it’s necessary, I am free to redefine who I am.
I will need to accept that it might take up to 3 years before people catch up with this new and evolved identity, but that is ok.
Which brings me back to the story of 12 year old Alex and his Italians friends. It took me a while to realize that it is not always necessary to be one thing or another. To be the Dutch guy or the Italian guy, to be the entrepreneur or the animation guy, to be the pitch guy or mister awesome.
Whenever people ask me now: “so what do you feel you are more, Dutch or Italian” I just say, I feel 100% both.