‘Because of Instagram, they said yes!’ Here’s the story of Jamel Saliba, better known as Melsy’s Illustrations to her 108,000 Instagram followers.
9 min read
In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
On a weekday at 3 a.m., Jamel Saliba sat in her parents’ Massachusetts home drawing a girl with wavy hair, seated in front of a vanity mirror and surrounded by makeup and perfume. The girl’s face was hidden, but you could see her striking high heels — red soles à la Christian Louboutin — pointed towards an ornate mirror. Saliba called her “Vanity Girl,” and she woke her mother to show her. “It’s beautiful — go to sleep,” Saliba remembered hearing. She decided that every year, she’d create a new version of the drawing, and eventually, she’d have a collection.
Saliba is the woman behind Melsy’s Illustrations, an Instagram account (and business) with 108,000 followers and counting. Inspired by a birthday gift of a fashion illustration for her wall, she’s been illustrating since 2013 — and the hobby helped her through tough times at her full-time job at a Massachusetts-based defense company. Saliba has since turned that hobby into a full-time business, and this year, she said she’s poised to make almost 14 times the salary at her former job.
Entrepreneur chatted with Saliba about the risk she took to follow her dream, what a typical day looks like for her and her advice for budding Instagrammers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get your start with illustrating and with Instagram?
One year, a friend gifted me a fashion illustration for my birthday, and I thought it was cute and wanted to have more — maybe 10 — around my room. I thought, I can’t buy all of these — they’re way too expensive. Maybe I can draw my own. I started using it as a creative outlet because I had been working at a Massachusetts-based defense company for years, and I was miserable at my job. It wasn’t for me — I felt too creative for it, and although I always wanted to get out, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. Illustrating helped me get through the hard times at my my job. I couldn’t wait to go home and draw.
When I first started drawing in 2013, Instagram was still pretty new. People were just posting regular pictures on there — they didn’t use it much for business back then. I started a lifestyle account and posted my drawings, used different hashtags and tagged people. Back then, it was easier to get recognized because the algorithm was different. I started getting a lot of feedback and people asking me to create illustrations for them, and I eventually changed the account name to Melsy’s Illustrations. I also posted on Facebook and Pinterest, and after I saw my Instagram doing well, I opened up an Etsy shop.
How did you transition from your former job to running Melsy’s Illustrations full time?
I started off with about 500 followers when I created my lifestyle account, and it wasn’t much, but when I started illustrating, people would say things like, “This is so cute!” and be more interactive on my posts. I think I got about 5,000 followers in a month, and from there it just kept growing and growing. I directed my followers to my Etsy shop, and I still wasn’t making a lot of money, but I decided to move out of my apartment and move back home because I knew that if I left my job while I still had my apartment, I wouldn’t be able to afford rent. My parents told me not to leave because it was a steady job with a great 401(k) and amazing benefits, but I told them, “I need to leave. I’m not happy here, and it’s not worth it.” After I moved back in with my family in Boston, I had that cushion and felt like I could afford to do Melsy’s full-time. I went to my boss in November 2013 to give my two weeks’ notice.
I got a part-time job from mid-December to May to supplement my earnings from Etsy because I needed to be able to afford my supplies, such as paper and markers. In May, I got a tent at a pop-up market in Boston. I would only go two days a week — Saturday and Sunday — and I made more money in those two days than I would in a week at my former job. In 2015, I applied for a pop-up spot in the Bryant Park Winter Village, and they said they loved my stuff. At that point, my Instagram had about 22,000 followers, and I feel like Instagram definitely played a role in the acceptance because it made me more reputable, and it was my online portfolio. The spot was really expensive, and to pay for it, I pulled money from my 401(k). In the end, my former job was worth it because it gave me a chunk of money that I used towards my booth. At the Winter Village, my Instagram blew up, and people from all over the world — Italy, Switzerland, China, Dubai — came to visit my booth. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Instagram.
I know you use Instagram to get the word out about your business. How much do you make today?
I’ve only been open at the Winter Village for about two weeks, and in that time, we’ve made about $50,000. When I started my former job, I was making $48,000 a year. Every year, revenue from Melsy’s goes up, but we made $130,000 in 2015, $230,000 in 2016, $500,000 in 2017, and this year, we’re projected to hopefully make $709,000.
As far as projects, I’ve worked with Reebok, Bloomingdales and Randi Zuckerberg — I did illustrations for promotional items she used to promote her new book. I gained my first partnership through Etsy, and that was a Massachusetts-based company called Graphique de France. They contacted me during my first year on Etsy and told me they loved my stuff and wanted me to be a licensed artist. I thought, What is this? I don’t even know what this means. I think this is fake. I asked who their clients were, and they mentioned Marshalls, T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods. I thought, This is a lie. I had a friend who was an attorney go through their licensing agreement, and she told me it was legitimate. Now, I have a whole Christmas collection with them.
I also work with Hallmark, and I reached out to Hallmark Signature through an Instagram message. I told them I loved their designs and asked if they wanted to collaborate. Because of Instagram, they said yes!
Take us through a typical day.
This season, the Winter Village booth hours are between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., so I aim to be to open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. I wake up and take a shower, then sometimes I have to bring a bunch of the inventory to the booth because we run out of stock so fast. A couple of my employees and I bring entire IKEA bags filled with illustrations, and sometimes we have to take a dollie for a few blocks on the New York sidewalks from my apartment to Bryant Park because there’s so much traffic in the morning. After that, I have an employee working there, and I go back to my office and work on filling Etsy orders and answering Instagram messages, emails, Etsy messages and texts. I can answer all of my messages and then get 40 more within a couple of minutes. Sometimes at my booth, I don’t even have time to go to the bathroom or eat sometimes. It’s definitely exhausting, but it’s exciting — and a lot of fun, too, because it’s what I love to do. It doesn’t really feel like a job because it’s become my life now, and it’s a way of life. Every single day is different.
What advice would you give others who want to build a brand on the platform?
Definitely don’t get discouraged easily. I feel like now, people think, there’s so many other people out there doing the same thing, or, the algorithm changed. But it doesn’t matter as long as you have something unique and you use Instagram to your best ability. You can even pay for sponsored posts and build your following. Be interactive on Instagram because businesses love it. I love when people comment on my stuff, but I have to do the same in return. Know that it definitely takes a lot of time — it took me years. You just have to be patient with it and just keep posting new content. Consistency is huge; you have to post stuff every day.
See below for five of Saliba’s favorite posts.
“Meeting SJP was such a dream of mine. She’s been such an inspiration to my artwork and career.”
“This was so fun to see at Hallmark when Melsy’s launched its very first collection of signature Hallmark cards.”
“It was so fun to create my artwork in real life! It was my first time in Paris, and I had to take a photo in front of the gorgeous storefront to bring my artwork to life. I will never forget this day. It was the day I bought my very first Chanel handbag.”