Ever wondered what it takes to become an Instagram star? Former NHS speech therapist Sara Tasker, 31, discovered her knack for Instagram during her pregnancy. Documenting her life with a photo a day on @me_and_orla fast snowballed into a thriving career, and she hasn't looked back since.
Here she reveals the secrets, and pitfalls she learned along the way, and explains why growing her following from zero to 119k in under two year has helped her grow as a person, silencing her inner critic and transforming her life entirely.
"I hit a creative slump"
It sounds a little sensationalist, I know, to say Instagram changed my life - but for me, it really was the catalyst for a huge transformation. Somehow, through those daily shares in little squares, I've managed to build a new career, gain opportunities for travel, writing, photography and publicity that I'd never otherwise have encountered, and made a group of brilliant, inspiring friends along the way.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
A little over three years ago, awaiting the birth of my first child, I hit a creative slump. Too pregnant and lazy to hook up my DSLR to my churning old computer, I abandoned my decade-long hobby of photography and blogging. The camera was too heavy in my handbag, and I was too shy to share what I wrote very widely anyway.
It was for this reason, I think, that I turned to iPhoneography and Instagram. I needed a creative outlet, but with a quick and simple workflow. I wanted to socialise and talk to like-minded people, but I didn't really want to get out of my pajamas to do it.
My early efforts were exactly the same as yours; overly-filtered cups of coffee & beaming barroom selfies with friends. In January 2012 I resolved to view it as photography, not Facebook, and began to up my game.
People who say you have no time with a newborn are probably doing too much hoovering or similar. I did none of this; instead, I let my daughter lie in the once place she slept best - stretched across my chest on the sofa - while I scrolled, one-handed on my new favourite app. I photographed my daily slice of cake, and her tiny socks, and the flowers I bought to lift the gloom of another grey city day. Perhaps because these things are relatable and cheerful, my audience began to grow.
"I discovered that free stuff is rarely actually free"
Within six months I had gained over 35k followers. I knew that this was something - what exactly, I couldn't say - but determined not to let any opportunity pass me by, I approached a few favourite brands and asked if they wanted to send me some products. This is literally what I asked - want to send me some stuff to show to my followers? - and as it happened, they appreciated my moxy and said 'yes we would'.
In hindsight, this was pretty brazen of me, but under-socialised, impoverished and badly dressed as only a new mother can really be, free pretty shit seemed to me then like the Holy Insta Grail.
I learned a lot in the 12 months that followed. I discovered that free stuff is rarely actually free - if you're styling, taking photographs and working to stay popular and relevant, then you are actually working in exchange. I learned that all that work still added up to a whole lot of fun, and that doing it in exchange for shoes was really no bad deal for me. And then I learned that, sadly, mortgages and gas companies do not accept said free shoes in payment, and that this wasn't really a viable long-term business model.
"It took a chorus of other people's approval to drown out my inner voice"
I found out that no amount of money or products can compensate for diluting your voice. I originally started sharing just to empty out my brain, so handing over my outlet to a PR department felt distinctly uncomfortable. I wasn't secure or experienced enough to know when to say no, and with no rulebook or even clear regulations to guide me, I stumbled through Mistakeville making endless trips and falls.
There's generally a lot of scorn and concern heaped on the 'like-addicted' generation, and the idea of affirmation from social media approval. Certainly, tying self-esteem to those fickle numbers is a dangerous trap, but I found I cherished the immediate feedback that my online interaction gave me. If something fell flat, I knew right away that it wasn't resonating, and had opportunity to reconsider, reflect, and improve. It made me a better writer, a better photographer.
As my audience grew, so did the permission I gave myself to pursue my creative ideas. When someone rolled their eyes at my stopping to take a photo, I'd think about that community who saw things just like me. When my Dad criticised my photography, I could flip my hair and tell him, "75,000 people disagree with you". Like a lot of women, I'd always let my inner critic stamp out my big dreams, and it took a chorus of other people's approval to drown it out enough to really try.
"I felt like I was trespassing in someone else's life"
After my maternity leave ended, my NHS day job vied for my time against glitzy press events and BBC radio interviews. I worked my eight-hour days, then came home and spent another six on my creative work. People started wanting to be my friend, despite me still being the same socially-awkward loser I'd always been, simply because I appeared to be popular.
It was fun and silly and entirely unreliable, so I was happy to ride the wave and make the most of the opportunities that came. Standing on top of a fairy-lit London rooftop on a cold December night, sipping champagne at the official Instagram Christmas party, I felt like I was trespassing in someone else's life. The bubble could burst any time, fizz away to nothing like the drink in my hand.
"It's made me a whole lot braver"
Now, another year on, I've worked to make that life my own, and something more secure. There's not so much glitter and glamour, and I say no to those free shoes more often than not. Instead, I work with companies who get what I do, on thoughtful campaigns that have room for my values and ideas. I've got a better idea what those are too - what I want to share, which problems I won't be a part of. My old job in my old life was very helpful and worthwhile, and it's tricky to rationalise that against the superficial world of Instagram sometimes. I try to use my voice, however quiet, to add something positive whenever I can.
After not being laughed off the internet for my blog posts and prose, I agreed to start writing for other publications - the job I had always been so sure I would do whenever I was asked as a child.
As the workload increased, I was able to say goodbye to my NHS day job - a role I loved, but where I couldn't progress, that made me feel trapped and restricted. I become self-employed, doing all of the things that I love. The last thing my NHS manager said to me was, "I hope the internet bubble doesn't burst too soon", and I steeled my resolve to prove her entirely wrong.
Perhaps the biggest shift has been internal; I've faced a lot of my anxieties, and stepped way outside of my comfort zone. Travelling solo, speaking in public, running workshops and meetings with ad execs and editors all still terrify me, but they're increasingly becoming a part of my everyday. It's made me more confident and a whole lot braver.
I tell people now, you really can make things happen, and I mean it in a way I'd never have believed before. As a mother, that feels monumental; I'm teaching my daughter about life and ambitions with a totally different mindset to three years ago.
When people ask what I do now, it's difficult to explain. Sometimes I say I'm a photographer, or a writer, or 'I work in social media'. Sometimes I say I'm a blogger, because people seem to have at least a sense of what that involves. What I really want to say - the truth of it, in the end - is that Instagram changed my life, and I really can't thank it enough.
Meet the UK women making thousands a month from Instagram - and find out how to do the same - right here