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How We Used Instagram To Launch Our Business

Can you remember the last time you asked someone where they got their shoes? I can… because I do it for a living.

My company @shoesofnyc, documents street style photos and stories of people’s shoes. My business partner Huston and I (both NYC-transplants from Seattle, WA) spontaneously approach people with dope shoes and ask them if we can take a picture and record a quick interview. We post  the photos and narrative to Instagram for shoe enthusiasts everywhere. In 2014 we started the account as a passion project and in 2017, went full-time.

Now we have a variety of unconventional revenue sources such as white label content creation for footwear brands, @shoesofnyc branded partnerships and affiliate sales from our newly launched website, shoesof.com, which documents footwear around the world thanks to a network of contributing photographers.

So how’d we get here? How did we leverage Instagram to launch a full-time business? Enclosed are some lessons we’ve learned along the way.

You’ve got to find your thing. I’ve always been into writing, photography and fashion, pursuing freelance projects and different personal blogs while working a full time retail job post-college in New York. After retail, I moved into a marketing position for a jewelry company and learned the ins and outs of influencer marketing and the power of digital. I was fascinated by this space and all of my experience and interests led me to the concept for @shoesofnyc (shoes + storytelling). Whatever your thing, fitness, fashion, or sustainability, learn as much as you can about the space you’re interested in and if your intention is there, you’ll discover your own unique point of view.

Establish a consistent aesthetic and push your creativity within those self-set boundaries. Once we had our concept it was important that we found a signature style and posted photos that were immediately recognizable as @shoesofnyc. We could have gone many different directions for shoes + storytelling but after some experimentation, we landed on side profile, shallow depth of field, 5×7 crop and right-facing street style pictures. Without aesthetic differentiation (whether that comes from the colors, concept, crop, etc) it’s difficult to stand out and establish a voice, so it’s important to keep things fresh. How can you innovate within your boundaries? We’ve experimented with illustrations of shoes in our signature style as well as audio images where you’ll hear a voiceover in place of a text caption. It’s your concept and aesthetic coupled with an ability to innovate that will draw followers.

Pay attention to follower count – but don’t take it too seriously. The follower thing is a tough one. Before the algorithm we saw consistent organic growth and after the algorithm audience growth drastically decreased, but it’s not all about the numbers. Sure you need something and you’ve got to hustle to get those follower numbers up (we suggest manually searching hashtags/locations and leaving genuine comments on accounts who’d like your page as one strategy), but it’s less about having a million plus followers and more about engagement and establishing a niche presence. We have friends who’ve managed to create successful businesses with fewer than 10,000 followers. Whatever your angle is, make sure to foster relationships with current followers as opposed to stressing too much about new ones.

Network across and build up together. Too often we make the mistake of attempting to network up as opposed to partnering with other up-and-coming influencers and brands. Tap into your community to find like-minded partners – ask for intros, cold DM – and collaborate on fun projects and initiatives that are mutually beneficial and…often unpaid. We’ve done it both ways – we’ve hustled our asses off and gone after the big names and brands, most often falling flat. We’ve pitched Converse, Nike, Christian Louboutin and more. It wasn’t until we took a step back and began partnering with niche brands and publishers who were doing big things on a smaller scale, that we were able to build our name and portfolio, ultimately attracting the interest of larger brands.

Identify your value and look for opportunities to expand. So you’ve established a point of view,  created a unique aesthetic, built a solid-enough audience of followers and brought together a supportive community of partners and collaborators. What’s next? For @shoesofnyc our next move was clear – it was time to expand outside of Instagram. We realized we knew a lot about shoes and we knew how to develop strong narratives around footwear. We decided we could create content for other brands and started with the relationships we had already built with designers. We also  realized we could pursue @shoesofnyc branded projects with bigger brands based on our collaborations with like minded and similarly sized partners. Finally, we decided we could build our own website and platform for footwear discovery based on our unique point of view.

I’m not saying it’s easy to take a simple concept on Instagram and build your own business, but there are certainly ways to generate income if you have a distinct point of view and think outside the box. Maybe you could contribute to other publications with a fee per submission. You could also consult for brands given your own personal interests. Perhaps you create a product or service or even leverage your community for sponsored posts and advertisers. Maybe, just maybe… you can do it all.

This article was originally published on January 23, 2018.

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