Long-time blogger and influencer ‘Carly the Prepster’ shares how she turned a creative side project into a full-time job — and made $20,000 in her first month of self-employment
- Successful full-time influencer Carly Heitlinger quit her job at a tech startup in 2013 after she doubled her monthly salary with income from her blog.
- Heitlinger is a lifestyle influencer; she shares fashion, beauty, home, and travel inspiration on her blog and social media.
- Today, she has a manager who helps negotiate her contracts, which range from $7,500 to $20,000 on average.
- She spoke with Business Insider about the structure of her business, how she makes money, and what advice she'd give to someone interested in pursuing a similar career path.
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There are more than half a million influencers on Instagram alone, reported eMarketer in reference to a 2019 study by InfluencerDB.
And, by 2022, they'll be competing for up to $15 billion in annual marketing spend, per Business Insider Intelligence estimates and based on Mediakix data.
So how do you actually build a career in Instagram?
Carly Heitlinger, the blogger behind "Carly the Prepster," launched her site in 2008 as a creative outlet while struggling to adjust to college life as a freshman at Georgetown University. She started earning money from the blog as a senior and then, after making over $10,000 in affiliate commission from a Nordstrom sale (twice what she was then making monthly at her full-time tech startup job in New York) a few years later, she decided to pursue influencing full time.
"That probably planted the seed in my head that maybe I shouldn't be building someone else's company and should focus on my own," said Heitlinger.
Heitlinger shared with Business Insider more about her path to blogging, the way she structures her business, and how she made the leap to self-employment successfully.
Find a way to monetize your work
Heitlinger began working on Carly the Prepster full time in 2013, before Instagram took off and before blogging as a viable career path had become de rigueur. At the time, she "followed her gut" to monetize her site.
"At the beginning, brands were just starting to realize that blogs and social media were going to be the future of advertising," said Heitlinger. "It was a slow burn. Small businesses run by women who read my blog reached out first. Then, bigger brands wanted 'in' on the social media action."
Once Heitlinger started to hear from more — and bigger — brands, she figured she'd need to soon find a way to make her blog a business and not just a creative outlet.
"I realized that I might have stumbled into something lucrative that could still be a creative outlet," explained Heitlinger. "The volume of requests from companies asking for me to do things for them, like review or feature a product, started to increase to a point where I knew I had to charge something, if for no other reason than to have some kind of response to send."
Initially, Heitlinger said, she charged mainly for sponsored posts and banner ads. And every time she felt people were agreeing to a price point too quickly or too many people were finding it reasonable, she'd raise the price.
While working simultaneously on her blog and at her full-time job in her first year post-graduation in New York, Heitlinger was able to save her entire salary. "That definitely gave me the courage and 'safety net' to leave," said Heitlinger. "I figured, if it didn't go well, I could always apply for another 'real job.' Although, I never ended up needing the safety net."
In her first month of self-employment, Heitlinger made close to $20,000 and "never looked back."
Formalize your business
When Heitlinger first started earning income from her blog in 2011, she formed an S-Corp upon advice from her father, an entrepreneur. "Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing when I had to incorporate," said Heitlinger. "My dad advised that I should do an S-Corp for the tax benefits."
After quitting her tech startup job, Heitlinger's accountant advised that she sign up for payroll and pay herself a salary. "I use ADP's payroll services so that I'm technically employed by my company," explained Heitlinger. "And then I pay myself the profit for the year at the end of the year as a K1 distribution. Then, I pay personal taxes on that income."
Set your revenue goals
Today, Heitlinger has 224,000 followers on Instagram and recently shared in a behind-the-scenes blog post that she "pretty much won't do anything for under $3,500," but that it's "the bare minimum" and she rarely accepts that rate.
The normal bell curve for her sponsored campaigns, she writes, run from $7,500 to $20,000, with some campaigns that are bigger and some that are smaller. She has a manager at a talent agency who negotiates her deals and makes 15% of all the profit she gets from sponsored content. "It's so worth it," she writes.
In the same post, Heitlinger also details how influencer commissions work. "Every retailer is different, but I don't make money per click," she writes. "It's actually per order. So, if a brand has a 10% commission rate and someone clicks on my link and buys a pair of shoes that cost $100, I make $10. The lowest rate, I'm pretty sure, is 7% and some commissions are 50%. The mean is probably 10%. My conversion rate is about 2%, so it takes 50 clicks to make a sale."
For years, she writes, her goal had been to have what she makes in commission more than cover her yearly operating expenses, including salary, new equipment, software, travel, accounting fees, contractors, etc., and have whatever is leftover be a bonus with sponsored content on top of that.
"Now I'm doing more than that, but it's still a nice cushion," she writes. "I make at least $10,000 a month on commission (after returns) for the first half of the year and then every month from July through December goes up exponentially, peaking on Black Friday."
In 2019, Heitlinger told Business Insider, roughly 35% of her income came from commissions and 65% from sponsored posts.
Update your rates — and know when to say no to partnerships
"The agency I'm signed to has helped keep me in line with market rates for the size of my audience, scope of work, and also my blog's conversion rate, which is the real value a business will benefit from," Heitlinger said. "Sometimes we 'go rogue' if I'm getting a ton of work in a particular category. For example, my partner and I just purchased a new home this year, and I've been getting so many offers in the home category that we raised my rates to meet demand."
Her agency also helps Heitlinger say no when the fit isn't right. "A recent potential partner wanted me to include branding for a big-box retailer, in addition to the branding of the product I was going to review — that just wasn't aligned with my brand whatsoever," said Heitlinger.
Even though it was a five-figure campaign that she had already spent some time on, Heitlinger backed away, knowing her audience would be put off by the off-brand ad.
"There are crazy months and there are slow months with many industries, so it's important to make sure you're still able to say no to certain things," she said. "You shouldn't be so strapped for cash that you take on a client or create a product line or sell a service that isn't in line with your core business. Otherwise, you're just on a hamster wheel to pay the bills, not build a viable business."
Aim for proof of concept
Heitlinger describes herself as risk averse and says anyone who is just making it work financially isn't actually making it work.
"I wouldn't quit until you have significant savings and proof of profitability," she said. "Even though working for that first year was incredibly difficult, I'm so glad I stayed for as long as I did because it allowed me to build confidence in my own business' financial viability. When I quit, I knew my business was making money. I didn't have to take a leap of faith!"
Now, Heitlinger is thinking about expansion, including writing a book and starting a brick-and-mortar business. "All in due time, though," she said.