Can You Really Make a Living on Instagram?

Entrepreneur Becky Wilson with her daughter River. Photo by Gavin Bond.

If you’re not Dwayne Johnson or Kylie Jenner, can you really earn a living on Instagram? Can you afford to quit your day job and work from home?

Becky Wilson, a British interior designer and new mom, thinks the answer is “maybe”.

At 38, and heavily pregnant, she was commuting each day from Maidenhead to Notting Hill in London to do residential and commercial design. But after her daughter, River, was born, she’d had enough.

She loved her job — a dream job really, as she was designing the interior of a hotel in Devon — but the stress and hours (not to mention expense) of commuting by subway and train were too much.

She’d been trying to get pregnant for years. Then the baby arrived. Soon she’d be back at work and hardly ever see her. It made no sense.

“I decided I didn’t want to be away at work five days a week and not see River,” she says. “It was time to bite the bullet.”

This was November 2019.

Instead of returning full time, she switched to freelancing for her employer two days a week while brainstorming ways to stay in design and yet work from home. One day she came across people selling vintage homeware on Instagram. “I’ve always been a treasure hunter,” she says, “and maybe I could just sell what I find.”

Instagram Entrepreneurs

One positive side effect of the Covid pandemic has been a surge in entrepreneurship. Six weeks into a raging pandemic, and amid a recession, America started to undergo a “startup boom.” The number of new businesses also increased in countries including the UK, Turkey, and Chile.

Just check out Instagram. The world’s sixth-most visited website, with more than a billion monthly users, is buzzing with new businesses — particularly those that cater to a new coronavirus virtual retail economy.

Wilson chose Instagram because she didn’t want the hassle of building a website. She called the business Bohome Interiors and started small, buying items for £5 or less — a brass fish trinket dish, spongewear pottery, candlesticks — and selling them for a reasonable profit. She picked up a couple hundred followers and some weekly sales. But she had hardly replaced her full-time wage.

Image by Bohome Interiors

Still, with her daughter in daycare two days a week, and with grandparents helping out another day, Wilson got to spend time doing something she loved: poking about vintage warehouses, auction houses, charity shops, flea markets and car boot sales.

One day at a vintage shop, she found a pair of wood side tables with scalloped edges at a bargain price. “These tables are like gold at the moment,” she says. Scalloped tables, bobbin chairs and tables with bobbin legs, and anything with shells on them. “In the last few years, people have gone mad for these kinds of things,” she says. The tables sold four hours after she posted them. The buyer (an interior designer herself) told her own followers on Instagram where she found the tables and directed them to Wilson’s page. It was a turning point.

“I was thinking, ‘This is easy,’” says Wilson, “but then I thought, ‘right, I need to take this more seriously. This could work out well. I could work from home and earn a living.’”

Her husband, who works as a floor and bathroom tiler, was less convinced. “Are you seriously going to sell trinkets and expect to make a living?” Wilson recalls him asking.

Then in March 2020, five months after Wilson set up shop, Covid struck and the UK shut down. Her daughter’s daycare closed. The grandparents had to socially distance. Wilson’s two-day a week side gig with her old employer disappeared. As did the furlough pay she would have been entitled to had she stuck with her full-time job. Now what?

GOING SOLO AMID COVID

Another welcome consequence of Covid is that is has forced many of us to rethink how we spend our time each day, including how we earn a living and what we sacrifice to make it all work.

Many people I know (myself included) are venturing into new areas — often going solo — and even at ages and stages of our careers at which we imagined we’d be more settled. My writing on Medium, for example, is a result of having less paying editing work during Covid. The challenge, though, is to bring in the kind of money we once earned working for others, without having to put in a lot more hours.

Wilson thought about applying for another interior design job, but wasn’t wild about returning to her previous routine. She decided to give the new venture more time.

Gaining traction (similar to Medium) is often as much about posting inspiring content as it is about following others and liking their work. But you have to be sincere, says Wilson. “I only repost things I really like.” You’re building a brand that people will trust.

She upped her ante, spending £40 to £50 for a chair or a side table or antique oyster plates, letting whatever she liked guide her choices. Soon, she had a community, not just of followers, but also of sellers on Instagram who she could turn to for advice and support — and could count on to repost content.

A bobbin chair on Bohome Interiors

With retailers closed during lockdown, Wilson hunted for inventory on eBay, and on online sites of local auction houses. She added antique prints and handmade cushions to the site, which soon became her bread and butter. Next, she moved into furniture upholstery and design.

In January 2021, she got a lucky break. Vogue mentioned Bohome Interiors in a story about some of the best vintage furniture and interior shops on Instagram. A week later, Wilson had 1,000 new followers and items started selling faster — sometimes within a minute of being posted. Over the next few months, she picked up thousands of new followers, and attracted customers in the UK, the US, Ireland and Italy.

Of course with more business, has come a lot more work. “There’s a lot of hype about vintage sellers of curated furniture on Instagram with people making it seem like it’s really easy to make a lot of money,” says Wilson, “but a lot of bloody work goes on behind the scenes. I’m knackered all the time.”

You have to remember, says Wilson, that each item has to be sourced first. It takes time to find just the right things. Then you have to photograph it, get dimensions, and then there’s all the back and forth with different customers who may or may not buy it, then packaging it and getting it off to the post office. After all that, sometimes things break in the mail. Just the other day, Wilson broke a mirror, which hadn’t sold, while moving it to get a better photograph.

In the end, it’s a gamble that Wilson hopes will pay off. She saves a lot by not commuting, nor eating lunches out. And for now she’s only working three days a week. Her daughter is with her the other two days. At some point, she could up the amount of time she devotes to the business.

Still, she’s less stressed and enjoys being her own boss. “That’s the best bit about it,” she says. “ If I want time off to spend with my daughter, I can take time off. That was the dream.”

Writer, editor, parent. Former staffer at Quartz, WSJ and Inc. magazine.

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