In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
When husband-and-wife duo Ahmed El Shourbagy and Ashley Paguyo El Shourbagy met in July 2011, Ahmed had been posting photos to his new Instagram account, @dogsofinstagram, for a week and a half. Ahmed worked in finance and didn’t have a background in marketing when he started the account, which to this day remains dedicated to posting user-generated photos of dogs. But the day he met Ashley, he hit 1,000 followers. And in Instagram’s early days, having 1,000 followers on the platform was extremely rare.
“At the time, I was working in communications and PR for a startup, studying the mobile social media habits of millennials,” says Ashley, who had invited Ahmed to a focus group. “This guy just like, waltzes in, and I find out he has this passion project.”
Ahmed had an interest in social media and an itch to do something entrepreneurial. When he posted a photo of his Boston terrier, Lucy, to Instagram, he noticed that it got a lot more likes and comments than some of his other early photos. This aligned with his observation that many of the most popular photos on the platform at any given time were photos of dogs.
“I found myself following all these strangers because I liked their dogs,” Ahmed recalls. “So here I am, following ‘Mike’ just to see a picture of his dog every once in a while, and I thought, ‘Well, this is kind of getting out of hand. I wish I could just follow one account for a daily dose of dogs, being a dog lover myself.’ And that's kind of when it hit me.”
Ahmed and Ashley began dating, working on the project together and bonding over it. One of their first dates was a brainstorming session for the account. “We didn't have hopes or aspirations of it becoming our full-time job or monetization, but we knew that we were onto something,” Ashley says. “It was really fun, in the very early days, to sit down and say, ‘Where do we want to see this grow? What are our goals and our objectives? What are some of the values that @dogsofinstagram stands by?’”
Two years in, they started to get approached by advertisers and sponsors and people who wanted to partner with @dogsofinstagram and do campaigns. And now, more than six years in, @dogsofinstagram has 4 million followers. The couple is also behind the account @dogsofshelters, and they partner with animal rescue organizations. Plus, they’ve spun off a ecommerce business that sells dog products, named Lucy & Co. after their terrier, and they’ve produced a book and a daily calendar using photos from their account.
@Dogsofinstagram is powered by followers submitting content. When Ahmed created the account, he was just posting generic dog pictures to the account to get it started, but from the outset, he specified an email address in the bio where people could submit their photos. He received his first submission when he had only 70 followers. Today, the Twin-Cities-based couple receives between 100 to 300 submissions per day.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with Instagram?
Ahmed: At first I was like, it'd be really cool to have an Instagram page dedicated to dogs, and maybe with like a local spin, so I created Dogs of Minnesota first. For about 24 hours, that existed. And then I was like, “Wait a second. I shouldn't limit myself here.” So, I started brainstorming how to make it bigger, and I came up with the phrase, "Dogs of Instagram." I was playing around with "Dogs of the World." I wanted a name that spelled out what the account was, because I thought that would be really important for growth. When people see the account, they quickly realize what it is and are more keen to follow along. I started @dogsofinstagram like, the next day, and I never looked back from there. It took off pretty much right off the bat.
2. What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
Ahmed: We do have a Facebook page. We do have a Twitter account. They're practically inactive. Another platform just never really made sense. It's so photo heavy, so visual, so perfect that, right or wrong, we just didn't bother to spend time nurturing the other platforms.
Ashley: And it's the perfect platform to showcase the beauty of dogs and the dog-human relationship. That comes through really clearly in photography, and with the introduction of Instagram video and stuff like that, it just breathes life into these pictures.
3. How much of your time do you devote to Instagram?
Ahmed: One thing we did three years ago was, we parlayed @dogsofinstagram into another project, called Lucy & Co. It’s our ecommerce boutique, a dog apparel and accessories brand. We launched in August 2014, and I think we had about a million @dogsofinstagram followers when we started. It gave us the final kick to quit our day jobs and do @dogsofinstagram and Lucy & Co. full time. We were building our website for Lucy & Co., working on our initial products for launch, doing some photography while we had our full-time jobs, while we were doing @dogsofinstagram.
4. How do you promote your account? What's your number-one way to gain followers?
Ahmed: Same way we've always done it: Just put good content out there. We don't really promote it at all. We never have. I mean, it's Instagram's algorithm. When you have a post that goes viral on Instagram, people who don't follow you discover it.
Ashley: We really stand by the quality of our work and we try and curate stuff that is delightful for followers and hopefully it's stuff that they want to share. So it's not uncommon to go through our comments and see that people are tagging their friend during finals week, like, here's a cute dog picture to get you through your test.
Ahmed: When we're looking through all of those hundreds of submissions, the first thing we look at is photo quality. Is the photo blurry, or is it sharp? Are the colors right? From there we're looking for something unique and interesting and something that will resonate with our audience. That part is a little bit less tangible. I kind of categorize it in my mind, photos are either super beautiful, like an Australian Shepherd on a mountain with a sunset behind him. Then there's cute, like a French bulldog puppy in someone's palm. And then there's funny.
Ashley: And I'd also argue there's “the everyday,” like a really cute dog snuggled up in its bed with a blanket over it because it doesn't want to get out of bed on Monday. That's a relatable thing. We also look for variation in dog. We're not Chihuahuas of Instagram.
5. How do you engage with others on the platform?
Ahmed: The lowest-hanging fruit is just engaging with our followers through the comments on photos. It's hard to keep up with that, just because we get anywhere between 100 to 5,000 comments on a photo. But we also take somewhat of a proactive approach with the community of creators on Instagram. So, people who have devoted an account to their dog. Or photographers.
Sometimes, if we identify somebody who didn't even submit to @dogsofinstagram that we really want to work with and engage, we'll reach out to them and say, "Hey, we really want to do a series about your photos, we think they're really special and we want to highlight you with a post and a dedicated feature in our Instagram story." That's also something that's a bit more recent. For so long, we were getting hit with so many -- it was all kind of incoming. So there wasn't really a need to be proactive and go out there, but now we have a little bit more bandwidth to be a little bit more proactive and engage our community in that way and be part of the content creation process rather just like, "Oh, cool, we got a nice picture through email.” That's still our bread and butter, but we're trying to be more involved up front.
6. What's your content strategy?
Ahmed: Weaving video into our feed has been really fun. We're just trying to find a way to do that in a way that aesthetically works with our feed. But when you do have a really good video clip, it has a lot more viral potential than a photo, the way Instagram's algorithm works now.
Ashley: We definitely have met a lot of dogs and humans by way of this project over the last six years. It's also been a unique vantage point into this phenomenon. There are dogs that are way more famous than any of us will ever be because we're not a specific dog account, we kind of get to be flies on the wall and watch all of this roll out.
We have the unique privilege of receiving all of these stories each and every day where people are telling us about the very intimate relationships that they have with their dog and it fuels us, it keeps us wanting to do this. Dogs are not terribly controversial. They're day-makers. Scrolling through @dogsofinstagram is a pretty wholesome experience.
7. What's your best storytelling trick?
Ashley: We get a lot of submissions in real time. The people who have followed for a long time know to anticipate a roundup of Fourth of July photos and things like that, so we might start getting them a few weeks in advance. but then, in real time, people are enjoying an afternoon Fourth of July with their dog at a backyard barbecue and they're snapping that and sending it to us immediately.
Ahmed: Over the years, we've had interns. We have an employee now. But we still do the vast majority of that piece of our business ourselves. When we've used help, it was really just to filter out all of the stuff that had no chance of getting posted and just having a lower number of pictures for us to choose from.
Ashley: When we post submissions, we're able to link back to the original creator in the comments or in the caption. So, if there is something that catches your eye and a photo you particularly love or a dog you just can't get enough of, you can figure out where to find more of their content.
Ahmed: It's hard to take credit for anybody's success, but there are a lot of dogs that are famous now got their start, especially early on, with a @dogsofinstagram feature. And that's exactly what we wanted. We wanted people to discover dogs to follow.
8. How do you set yourself apart from others on the platform?
Ahmed: We almost never post a photo that didn't come with a caption. And we always post the captions exactly as they were sent. We let the content creators themselves tell the story, because we think that's the purest and realest story that you're going to get about this dog.
Ashley: Though we have that editorial eye, we let the voice be true to the dog or the human or the dog-human connection.
Ahmed: There are a lot of accounts that popped up after @dogsofinstagram that were kind of trying to do the same thing. People were just screenshotting photos off of hashtags and then posting them. And that's fine, but we always wanted this to be a lot more intentional, so we only post photos that are submitted through email or our submission portal. We have terms and conditions that people have to read and check that they've read. We want to make sure we aren't posting things without people's permission.
9. How do you leverage your Instagram and to what extent do you monetize it?
Ahmed: Brands will often reach out to us and want to do a campaign. That's the way we started monetizing the feed early on and the way we were able to fund our own ecommerce business. One of the first brands we ever worked with was BarkBox. We've worked with movie studios -- Warner Bros., Universal, Sony.
Ashley: In the early days of our partnerships, the more obvious brands approached us -- dog products.
Ahmed: As it's evolved, it's become more brands that are using dogs in their marketing as a passion point. It’s widened what we can do as far as sponsored posts. We've had brands that have come to us with everything in place, they even have the content ready, like a video featuring this really cute dog and telling the story of their brand. We look at it, and if it feels like something we would post anyway, then we're like, "Great, easy breezy." We've also had brands come to us and are like, “We think you guys would be a great partner, based on the kind of work you do with other brands.” So, we'll start brainstorming with them, like, all right, here are all of the different kinds of campaigns we can do, depending on the goals you have. From there, we'll help them create content, whether it's us hiring a photographer, or if I'm shooting something myself.
We did a campaign with West Elm recently talking about dog-friendly furniture. And I shot that campaign myself. It was the first time I did a full-on shoot. And that shoot became a blog post on West Elm's site. So it's really cool like in addition to posting on behalf of a brand, we sometimes will create content that will live on the brand's sites.
GoPro is one of my favorite brands we’ve worked with. I think they're very similar to us in that they focus on user-generated content. And we really actually took that learning, and not just from GoPro, because they're not the only ones doing that. But they have a real advantage because they sell cameras, so all their customers are doing is creating content. And so that takes the weight off of them to create content. At the same time, their followers and customers appreciate it, because they're highlighting their work. And so, when we started Lucy & Co, and we were thinking about our social media strategy, we thought, a big part of our social media content for Lucy & Co hopefully will be people buying our stuff, going home, taking a picture of it and then tagging us. And we'll highlight it. That's like 80 percent of the content on Lucy & Co is our customers. And for us it's great, because instead of going out and constantly doing photo shoots, we have all these customers sort of doing that work for us and they love it. They probably bought something from us, a lot of times, so they could take a picture of it.
10. What advice do you have for other Instagram influencers or people who want to build brands?
Ahmed: It wasn't like having a million followers on Instagram meant that we could just open any ecommerce company and make a ton of sales. That's what people think, but it couldn't be further from the truth. We really had to work hard at product. We had to do everything that any other ecommerce startup would have to do. We have to be very thoughtful about what we're making and we have to market it in a way that resonates with people. The only difference is, we had sort of this free and organic marketing channel to use. But if your stuff's not good, if it's not priced right, if you can't get it to the customer, you can't have good customer service, it still won't work. So, it's been a slow process growing Lucy & Co., but I think that's the right way to do it.
11. What's a misconception many people have about Instagram?
Ashley: I think one thing people don't realize about @dogsofinstagram, because they don't care about the humans behind it. It's all about the dogs, which is super cool. We were doing @dogsofinstagram for three years on nights and weekends and it was a true pet project, by definition. It was just something that our free time we were devoting toward not only growing the account but continually improving the content that we were sharing.
Ahmed: First of all, if you're going to do something, do it because you're passionate about it. Because it's hard, especially nowadays, to break through the clutter and noise. So I think that the right approach, if you want to do something, is to not worry so much about followers. A lot of people get too hung up on followers. Before they've even created any content, they're already thinking about how many followers they have. My advice is, spend the first few years just doing it. Do it not because you're going to make money off of it or because you're going to become famous. You've got to just do it. And that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to take off, but it won't take off unless you do that. You've got to put in the time and effort, be passionate about it and do the best work you can to give it a chance to become something. And then from there, it takes a bit of luck, for sure.
Something that I think helps is collaborating with other people. And not in a, "Hey, will you post my stuff?" I always advise people to start by doing things for other people. Have someone be a guest blogger on your feed or take over your story. Do stuff for other people first before you ask them for a quote-unquote "shout-out. “
In 2017, there's probably somebody out there doing something and just about every category and every interest. But that doesn't mean there isn't room for somebody to take off, you just have to find a way to do it differently than other people. Find your little niche. Get as specific as you can.
Click through the slideshow to see five of Ahmed and Ashley’s favorite @dogsofinstagram posts.