In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
While Jess Hannah was studying graphic design at California Polytechnic State University, she took classes with a metalsmith on the side and had a workbench in her bedroom. She graduated in 2013 and spent a year as an apprentice, then started building her own jewelry brand. As Instagram gained popularity, she created an account and posted about what she was making.
“I was documenting the process of how I started building a brand,” Hannah says.
Back then, Hannah says, there was no “formula” or trendy way to post on Instagram. Many of her friends weren’t even using the platform. As Hannah began working on her first jewelry line, her brand, J. Hannah, began to develop via her posts, which reflected her inspiration, day-to-day life and minimalist personal style.
“It’s really important for us to show what I do and that it’s me, and that’s why I post selfies every now and then, or things that I’m wearing or things that I’m doing or eating,” Hannah says.
She began selling pieces to her Instagram followers, as well as those who discovered her through her website. Today, Hannah lives and has a studio in Los Angeles, has more than 212,000 followers @j.hannah and has doubled down on her business making “jewelry for how it should be worn: never taken off.” She mostly sells her custom-made, 14-karat gold pieces directly to consumers.
In addition to photos of her jewelry, she still posts a variety of other content to Instagram, from swatches of “flesh tones of Lucian Freud’s ex-wives as nail polish inspiration” (she recently launched a J. Hannah nail polish set) to photos of her cat to behind-the-scenes shots of her pop-up jewelry displays.
“My brand is my name. I’m not a faceless brand that’s not attached to the designer,” Hannah says. “My posts aren’t like, ‘This is the company’s pick of the week.’ It’s very much stuff that I’m inspired by, and it really tells a story to our customer that you don’t get if you just walk into a store and buy a piece. They feel connected in a way that’s much different.”
Read on for Hannah’s take on creating her brand and building a following on Instagram.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with Instagram?
I went to school for graphic design and graduated, applied for a bunch of graphic design jobs that I wasn’t qualified for and then didn’t get a job. Then I was like, “OK, well this is what I actually want to do. I’m going to try it for a year and see what happens.”
Before I started the business, I was using Instagram to talk about how I was starting a brand. Previously I had sold rings on Etsy, and I had sold rings to my friends.
A couple of months before I actually started my line — I feel like saying “line” is so funny because when I look back at it now it was just random rings that I made — I was posting process photos to show that I was starting this brand. I would post my logo that I made. I did my whole website and logo, and looking back, it looks terrible, but I didn’t have any money. I did everything myself.
And then I remember posting a countdown a few days before I launched my website. I used Instagram in a promotional way and was gaining followers. Mostly how I started was just documenting literally what I was doing.
2. What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
I use Pinterest about once a week, mostly for personal fun. I just pin stuff that I like, really, and look for inspiration. Sometimes I syndicate @j.hannah posts to Facebook, but I don’t really use Facebook or Twitter. I also think it’s better to focus your energy on the one that you enjoy most. If you like doing it, you can build a community around it, and it’s better for your business, instead of doing everything with a little bit of effort.
3. How much of your time do you devote to Instagram?
I have help in deciding what goes on it, because it’s basically a full-time job otherwise. A fair amount of the content now is produced editorials, lookbook images, stuff like that and some of it is found imagery. My team and I search for inspiration images, and then a portion of it is stuff that I’m taking myself, jewelry on my hands, stuff that I see, stuff in my house. It’s hard to know how much time I spend, because my team produces some of it, as well as spends some time working on copy for our the brand’s blog, The Journal. I personally probably spend two hours a day on Instagram related things, if I could guess.
4. How do you promote your account? What’s your number-one way to gain followers?
I just started using Instagram ads, and my team and I answer everyone’s comments. When I was starting out, I spent a lot of time engaging with people on Instagram and finding the people that I like to follow. Some of my real-life friends are people who I’ve followed on Instagram, and we just really related to each other’s interests. I still have people who I’ve never met before but I consider them my Instagram friends, just because you can kind of tell what people are into and aesthetically are like.
5. What’s your content strategy?
My content strategy is posting stuff that my team and I like. Mostly that I like, I guess. It depends on the week or month. So, if we have a product launch, then we’ll post inspiration images leading up to the launch, teasing what it will be. And then when it launches, we’ll post editorial images of the product and user-generated images. If I’m going on a trip, then I’ll post something about that.
Yes, we have plans for launches and things like that, but it’s not like everything is kind of planned out or strategized. I mean, there was a selfie of me eating a burrito — I was in New York. I want to tell people what I’m doing, not, “Oh, here’s the regular scheduled jewelry post of the day.” Although I do do that as well. We do have a schedule many weeks, but it’s kind of loose. We can mix in other things.
I post everything — I don’t have like, a button pusher. I mean sometimes I’ll have a really beautiful editorial picture, and I don’t know what to say, so I’ll ask my team to help me with a caption. I like getting a second opinion sometimes or being like, “Hey, is this caption weird? Does it seem off brand or is it funny?”
When we’re posting inspiration, we try to make it thoughtful. We try to tie it into a story somehow that makes it a little bit relevant time wise or to what we’re talking about. I definitely like to post our inspiration images, but I do like having 70 or 80 percent of the content that we post be our own. Don’t get me wrong: I follow inspiration accounts and I love seeing people’s curations and opinions and selections of inspiration images. But I think that it is important to show your own voice and not just be using other people’s stuff to express your point of view. Especially when you’re a brand or creative person or selling a product, I think it’s important to be creating your own vision that tells that story. I don’t think it’s bad if you use found images, but to us, it’s important to create a lot of our own.
6. How do you set yourself apart on Instagram?
Something that people say all the time is, you need to set yourself apart. But it’s also really hard when you’re on Instagram being inundated with inspiration and other people’s content.
I don’t feel like I’m taking huge strides to set myself apart. I’m just doing what I want to do and trying to block out the noise of paying too much attention to what other people are doing. Yes, I have friends who are brands and making jewelry, and I support and love them. But in terms of paying too close attention to my competitors, that’s when you get bogged down, if you get bummed that someone’s copying you and focus too much on that, and then try to make yourself different just because you don’t want someone else to have the same thing as you.
What’s important to me is focusing on what I know my brand is, what I want to do and what I want to make. I try to selectively see what other people are doing — not pay too much attention, not follow accounts that I’m not inspired by or feel like it’s doing something cool and different. I’ve been copied many times, and it’s also narcissistic to assume that they copied me and weren’t inspired by the same thing. But sometimes you just know. There have been times where I let myself get really bummed about that, but I’ve kind of learned to just move on from it and that there’s nothing I can do. I don’t need to drastically do something different just because it happened, but I also need to know that as an artist, I’m continuously evolving. But I mean I also make very basic pieces, so there’s only so much I can do.
7. What’s your best storytelling trick?
The key is finding a balance between highly produced editorial images that we created a mood board and a plan for and a story and hired people to work with and collaborate on, but then also having very pared back, in-the-moment content.
8. How do you leverage your Instagram and to what extent do you monetize it?
I’m not monetizing my Instagram in the sense that I’m getting paid $1,000 to post a picture for a different brand. But I’m monetizing it in the sense that I’m creating content that lends to the sales of my own product — showing people how to wear it.
9. What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on Instagram?
It really just super depends on who I’m talking to. I don’t really have general advice. I help my friends all the time with things, and it really depends what you’re doing on Instagram depends on your brand depends on the story that you’re trying to tell. It depends on who you’re trying to appeal to or what you’re selling. I don’t think there should be any formula or one piece of advice.
For me, what works is posting produced content, posting stuff we’re inspired by, posting real life, whatever. But that’s not how everyone should do it. That’s what works for me, because I am very much a part of my brand. But some people are not and some people don’t want to be, and that’s OK.
10. What’s a misconception many people have about Instagram?
People for a while were complaining about how what you put on Instagram is fake. “We want to see more real stuff.” But the whole act in itself is you’re putting up what you like. No one said that it was all supposed to be real.
I’ve even talked with my team about, “Oh, I need to post more of my friends wearing my stuff and more of what I’m doing.” But what’s real about my life is that I don’t have a phone in front of my face all the time.
I feel like people have all of these amazing pictures of everything they’re doing and it seems so effortless and cool. But that’s in fact the opposite of effortless. It’s a lot of effort.
Click through the slideshow to see five of @j.hannah’s favorite posts.