A typical workday for Sam Ushiro begins at 6:30 a.m. and wraps up by 1 a.m., when her boyfriend takes her laptop out of her hands after she's fallen asleep with it.
Ushiro, 24, is the sole employee and creator of Aww, Sam, a DIY lifestyle blog and accompanying Instagram account (@aww.sam) that she started a year ago in her Brooklyn apartment. Today, that Instagram account has 144,000 followers and is her primary source of income, and can bring in as much as $20,000 per month. While that's a pretty impressive number, it still falls far behind that of some of the top Instagram influencers in the world, such as Aimee Song (@songofstyle), and Chiara Ferragni (@chiaraferragni) of The Blonde Salad, both of whom have over 3 million followers and have been estimated to make millions annually.
For anyone trying to make a living on Instagram, followers equal income: The more people you have, the more money you make. But as Ushiro has learned, that path is not covered with rainbow sprinkles. In fact, it's far harder — and more complicated — than anyone would think.
How Things Got Started
During Ushiro's senior year at Parsons School of Design, she began posting her DIY projects and baked goods on Instagram. Followers began asking her how to make them, so she started an accompanying blog. When she graduated last spring, she knew she didn't want to take a desk job, so she kept making things, kept posting about them — and her number of followers kept growing.
All good, right? Not really. When it came to actually making money off of her account, Ushiro was left in the dark.
"People know that top bloggers make, like, a million a year, but then you don't hear about what people lower than that make," Ushiro says. "A lot of people will say they make money off of sponsorships and blogs, but they won't say how much. It's very secretive for some reason."
Not long ago, Ushiro charged brands $30 per Instagram post, despite already having a fan base in the thousands. She was basically charging pennies for her work: Aimee Song and other top Instagrammers can make thousands for a single post, says Evan Asano, founder and CEO of the influencer marketing agency, Mediakix. Danielle Bernstein, whose account, @weworewhat, has over 1.5 million follows, has said she makes anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 per post.
But Ushiro didn't know any better. While you can search online to find ballpark salaries for well-known jobs, such as lawyers and financial analysts, Instagram influencer is still a very new job category without an established or well-publicized salary.
"The Little Guy Gets Screwed Over."
This secrecy means that brands can take advantage of up-and-coming influencers who don't know appropriate amounts to charge (and don't have a manager to help with contracts).
Justina Blakeney, who's behind the popular account, @thejungalow, (270,000 followers), also thinks this secrecy is a bad thing, so she decided to do something about it. Last month, Blakeney wrote a blog post revealing exactly how much she charges per post ($100 per 10,000 followers). It was a rare move of transparency in a world that is often, as she put it, "shrouded in mystery."
"I think having ballpark (fair) rates for things out in the public does everyone a service," Blakeney told us in an email. "Having the info out in the public helps influencers, brands, and agencies come up with fair practices."
Blakeney says she knows bloggers who have styled and designed ad campaigns for major brands — work that is on par with magazine shoots — only to receive gift cards for a couple hundred dollars or under $1,000 in cash, because of unestablished industry terms.
"When this info is kept private, I think ultimately the little guy gets screwed over," she says.
"I Don't Pay My Rent In Socks."
Despite being a rising influencer, Ushiro routinely meets people who don't believe what she's doing is a real job.
"I almost have to tell people how much I'm making," she says. "This is the hardest I've ever worked in my life."
The money that Ushiro makes goes towards props for her photos, and materials and ingredients for her DIY projects. Time is spent meticulously planning the colors and layout of every photo (she looks at her Instagram grid on the VSCO app), ensuring that there isn't repetition, and that everything fits with her overall aesthetic.
In many ways, she and other influencers function as creative directors, but brands don't always take their jobs seriously.
"Companies will reach out and say, 'We want you to feature these things and show your followers, and in return we’ll send you the product,'" Ushiro says. "I get contacted so often by sock companies and I’m like, 'I don’t pay my rent in socks.' The problem with the whole thing is they’re always going to be able to find someone to do those free things for them because there isn’t this rule book, there’s nothing written about how to do this."
Ushiro didn't realize how ridiculously low her initial $30 rate was until a friend told her she should charge more. Speaking with her mentor, Erica Domesek, of P.S. — I Made This… also helped her correct that figure. After about three months, she started charging around $250 per sponsored photo, then $1,000.
Today, Ushiro charges brands a base rate of $1,500 per sponsored Instagram post, a number that can rise depending on how much work is required. A DIY project, for example, can cost as much as $2,000. In a good month — typically one with a holiday — Ushiro can make about $20,000 pre-tax. But most months, her income is a gamble depending on what kinds of work comes her way.
Making It Work
Making a living off of Instagram is a constant struggle — to stay just competitive enough, and not charge so much that a brand chooses someone else. (And there is always someone else a brand could go with.) Only the people who can cut through that clutter and charge brands the right amount will survive.
Ushiro still never knows if she's charging enough or getting what she deserves. For now, she is trying to build a brand and create transparency among influencers so that she and others get fair sponsorship deals.
She also doesn't know if she'll be doing this for the rest of her life. That will depend on whether she's able to make enough to offset her expenses — and if she's willing to pay the price of living a social media-driven life. Ushiro sometimes laments the way things used to be, in her pre-influencer days.
"I think it was a lot easier to build real friendships before becoming an influencer, because…everything feels like business now," she says. When your social life pays the bills, business takes on a new meaning.