By Sebastian Juhola
I was lucky, but you can learn from my luck.
I started @theminimalistwardrobe in 2017 for two reasons. I wanted to create an audience for a business I was planning, while at the same time wanting to learn the game of Instagram.
At the time I had an existing business with its own Instagram account, but I was too afraid to try things out. I was stuck in my safe routine. What would my customers think if I suddenly posted 8 posts one day? Would they be annoyed? Is it weird if I post something else than my products?
These were the insecurities I had, and a fresh account with no responsibilities was the perfect solution to test everything.
The new business I was planning to launch was a clothing brand, with high-quality essentials and minimal branding. After some tinkering with names on Instagram, I settled on ‘The Minimalist Wardrobe’. That wasn’t meant to be the name of the clothing brand, I simply wanted to create a like-minded audience, so I didn’t have to launch to crickets.
I posted my first post on February 19, 2017. It was a low-resolution photo of clothes rack with some shirts and a few pairs of shoes underneath. There was no real strategy here. I just enjoyed the freedom of posting whatever and analyzing the results.
Little did I know what it would lead up to.
From 0 to 4000
The first followers are always the hardest to get, everyone knows that. I got my first few followers by posting a few posts and engaging with some similar accounts.
That’s a method that still works, but it’s not scalable. Engaging with other accounts is time-consuming, and even if you’d automate it, Instagram is cracking down hard on all software that is against their terms of service.
I grew the account to a little over 4000 followers in 8 months. Nothing to write home about, but during this time, I didn’t really use any strategy. I just learned a little from every post I posted and leaned into what worked.
I didn’t make any groundbreaking discoveries but learned how to use hashtags, what kind of photos and captions my audience seemed to like, and the best times to post. I started scheduling posts with Later so that I could create a bunch beforehand, and not be on my phone the whole day.
The followers came from my engagement, and from the posts that reached new people through hashtags.
After 8 months I just stopped posting. I had scrapped the clothing brand idea a long time ago, as soon as I realized how much work it would require. I also happened to find some brands that had executed my idea better than I ever could (a shoutout to Asket, from where I still buy my clothes).
As for the learning part, well, I felt like I had learned some useful things, and honestly just lacked the motivation to continue playing around with a useless account.
I logged off the account for half a year.
When it Finally Clicked For Me
I can’t remember why I logged back into the account after 6 months. Maybe I had a boring day. In any case, that was one the most significant days for The Minimalist Wardrobe, because that was the day when I understood that I’m on to something.
To be a little more specific, I understood it the next morning. I had published a post in the evening and woke up to over 300 likes. The caption said “Long time no see! Did ya miss us?”
Now, 300 likes with 4000 followers is nothing to brag about, but it was still enough for me to understand that there’s an actual audience that really enjoyed what I was posting.
I realized that the account is promoting something that people wanted. Beautiful photos of clothes racks and basic garments painted a picture of simplifying your wardrobe. I had somewhat unintentionally conveyed my own philosophy for clothing.
This is the moment I decided to apply a real strategy to grow the account, and treat it as its own project. Now things got interesting.
Sliding Into DMs All Day Long
The first thing I started doing was contacting accounts of the same size (or smaller), asking them to do a shoutout exchange with The Minimalist Wardrobe. They’d simply post about me on their feed, and I’d post about them.
I spent hours and hours finding suitable accounts to cross-promote with, and I must’ve sent over a hundred DMs — daily — to people. I didn’t mind if the accounts were smaller. Anything over 1000 was worth it for me, as posting was easy, and my audience seemed to enjoy the posts.
Once I grew, I could get bigger accounts on board, which is why the growth was exponential. I had also perfected my strategy by only contacting accounts with good engagement, and instructing them on how to promote The Minimalist Wardrobe when agreeing on the shoutouts. A clear call-to-action to follow made a huge difference.
From Shoutouts to Deeper Collaborations
Sending DMs for hours every day wasn’t sustainable, but the results were undeniable. I needed a better solution. Essentially I wanted collaborations that would give me constant exposure, but only needed to be set up once.
I decided to build a simple website and set up a blog. Then I reached out to sustainable and slow fashion bloggers and asked if they’d like to write for my new blog.
I’ve always believed in fair relationships, not just because I’ll sleep better, but because at some point the one who’s getting the worse end of the deal will call it quits — it’s just a matter of time. Fortunately, The Minimalist Wardrobe’s following was somewhere around 15k at this time, so it was a great opportunity for the bloggers to get in front of a new audience and gain new followers too.
Every time someone wrote a post for my blog, we’d both promote it on Instagram. That way both reached a new audience. Eventually, I had over 20 guest bloggers, with a new blog post 5 days a week — each of them promoted by the blogger.
The account kept growing fast, by over 2000 daily followers at best. 30k, 40k, and 50k were just simple milestones which I celebrated with a smile and started counting when the next one would come. I hit 100k in late November, just 6 months after taking this seriously.
My Experience With the Infamous Follow/Unfollow
The account’s growth kept accelerating, and I didn’t stop exploring different ways to grow. I decided to try the most despised way of growing an Instagram account: Follow/Unfollow.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, the idea is to follow accounts so that they get a notification, and a percentage of them follow you back. Then at some point, you unfollow them.
I did it for a while but stopped doing it for a couple reasons. Firstly, I hated the idea of it the whole time I was doing it. It was a cheap tactic, and honestly, I didn’t need it. My curiosity simply won and I couldn’t help myself. Secondly, it wasn’t sustainable either. I was back to tapping for hours on my phone.
Truth to be told though, it did work. My growth rate increased. It’s hard to say how much this influenced it, but it definitely helped. (Un)fortunately, Instagram has cracked down on action limits recently, so this shouldn’t be as viable anymore.
The Real Reason For the Growth
The collaborations with bloggers were great, as were the earlier shoutout exchanges. I got a boost from following a lot of people. My analytical approach to using hashtags and putting effort into each caption paid off — many posts reached thousands of new people, turning a good amount of them into new followers.
All these strategies accelerated the growth of the account, but the real reason why so many wanted to follow The Minimalist Wardrobe was simple: The core idea was something that people were interested in. I was posting content that people wanted to see.
None of these growth hacks would’ve worked if the foundation of the account wouldn’t have been golden. Now, I got lucky by being into something hundreds of thousands of people are also into and happened to create an Instagram account for it. I probably got lucky with the timing too.
Nevertheless, the core idea of the account is the key to exceptional growth. How you execute it is almost as important. Growth hacks lag far behind.
When you truly have an account people want to follow, Instagram will help you out too. They’ll suggest you to new followers whenever someone follows an account that’s related to yours, and your posts will often be featured on the explore page.
Can This Be Recreated?
Is it still possible to grow any account to almost 200k followers in a year? Sure it is. There’s nothing that’s stopping you. The growth strategies I wrote about here aren’t difficult to copy. If you have the drive to hustle, you can do exactly what I did.
The challenge is coming up with — or stumbling upon, as I did — an interesting idea for your account. That’s really the message I’m trying to send here. I even wrote an article about how to get your Instagram foundation right.
It’s too common to see people apply perfectly good growth strategies to their accounts, and not seeing any growth.
The Minimalist Wardrobe isn’t growing as fast as it used to anymore, and that’s fine. It grew into something so big so fast, that I wanted to take a step back and turn it in to something helpful, not just inspirational. I took my foot off the pedal for a while and am investing in the core idea, which I think will pay off in the future.
“Build it and they will come” is bad advice. You need marketing to grow — at least initially, before word of mouth kicks in. The thing is, the methods to accelerate growth aren’t rocket science. What I did wasn’t particularly sophisticated, and the results were tremendous.
If you put most of your effort into creating a valuable product — which in this case was the Instagram account — you’re setting yourself apart from the masses.
Way too many businesses have great marketing with a mediocre product. Don’t make that mistake.
Notes from the Honeypot editors
Sebastian is not an author in the classical sense. But his experience is relatable to us authors. Unlike the many boring how-to-instagram articles we get a real-world instagram case study here. And boy, do we love those photos. We could never iron shirts so sharp.
Image: One Line Man | Shutterstock