In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
With 4.7 million Instagram followers, nearly 250,000 YouTube subscribers and a spot on Forbes's European 2018 30 Under 30 list — not to mention many lucrative fashion and beauty partnerships and her own self-funded beauty company — Negin Mirsalehi's career is one to which just about any influencer would aspire.
Her hair-care brand, Gisou, which she founded with boyfriend Maurits Stibb in 2015, brought in a reported $3 million in sales last year. Working with the likes of Kiehl's, Revolve, Tommy Hilfiger, Dior, Victoria's Secret and Cartier, she earns $20,000 for each sponsored Instagram post, according to Forbes. Her dog, Mosey, has 55.8K Instagram followers of his own. (And rightfully so. He's adorable.) By industry standards, she's easily one of the most in-demand influencers of our time. And it all started with beekeeping. Yes, beekeeping.
Raised (and still based) in the Netherlands, Mirsalehi comes from a family of beekeepers dating back six generations, and she hasn't let that family tradition fall by the wayside, even with the rise of her influencer career over the past five years. In fact, she's tapped into that history to build a connection with her followers and conceptualize her brand. Gisou draws on ingredients from her father's bee gardens — including honey and propolis — and her hairstylist mother's DIY hair-care recipes, with an emphasis on using as many natural ingredients as possible.
After earning a bachelor's degree in business administration and a masters in marketing, Mirsalehi started blogging and posting on social media about her personal style on somewhat of a whim. "I started my Instagram page because a friend of mine recommended it," she told me over the phone from the Netherlands. "Back then I said, 'Why do I need Instagram? I have Facebook already.'"
Five years later, and Mirsalehi has forged an incredibly successful career path as an influencer, entrepreneur and blogger — an ideal way, no doubt, to combine her business and marketing degrees with her passion for fashion and beauty, while still finding a way to incorporate beekeeping. I caught up with Mirsalehi to find out about her business philosophy, how she finds balance amongst her many projects and why she turned down an $800,000 deal with a major beauty company to start her own. Read on for the highlights.
Growing up in Amsterdam, did you always have an interest in beauty and fashion?
I think I always knew that I had an interest in it, and especially being in high school and during my university period, I increasingly started to recognize that even more. For me, it was always hard because I loved the corporate world, as well; there wasn't really that one thing that I wanted to do. I did my bachelor's degree in business administration and my masters in marketing just because it was still very broad and I could go several ways. I was interested in fashion and beauty, but not in a way that I would follow a fashion course [in school].
So, you saw it more as a hobby or interest, rather than as a potential career path?
I think I knew that there were [professional] things to do in fashion, like being a stylist. But I think the existing jobs in fashion weren't really that appealing to me.
At what point did you decide to get into blogging and start your social feeds?
It was around the time that I was writing my thesis, so it was the last phase of my studies. Actually, that's when I discovered Instagram and that's also when I discovered the blogger phenomenon. It wasn't until that point that I started doing my research about what bloggers do and how they earn their money. That was during my thesis period that I was sort of exploring.
What first inspired you to do that?
It was a bit of a coincidence. I started my Instagram page because a friend of mine recommended it. Back then I said, 'Why do I need Instagram? I have Facebook already.' She was like, 'It's fun and you can share your outfits.' I created a profile and then when I found out what bloggers really were doing I was like, 'Oh, that's how I can combine my passion for fashion and beauty, but also for building a business.' That's when I started growing my following on Instagram.
How did you first go about figuring out what your so-called "brand" was going to be?
I had to figure out what kind of blogger I wanted to be. There were bloggers who either were focusing on fashion or beauty, or bloggers who were active within the Netherlands and bloggers who were active internationally, so I had to make all of those decisions to see what kind of blogger I wanted to be. At first, I was doing more fashion-related stuff and I always knew that I wanted to have an international reach, so that was what I focused on. I focused on posting different kinds of outfits in order to share my passion for it and grow my following.
When did you start partnering with brands, and how did you decide who you wanted to work with?
It was a very natural thing. The first company that sent me an email was a website from LA owned by two sisters, I think. Back then, there weren't specific guidelines. We had to figure everything out ourselves. It was a lot of communicating with brands and smaller shops, and then the bigger brands. It's a lot of communicating, thinking about what the goals and objectives are, what fits me as well as the brand. We started talking about those things a lot and that's how we found our way.
I want to talk a little more about your content. Can you tell me about how you've been able to make sure that your voice is consistent throughout all of your posts and videos?
Content over the last five years since I started has changed a lot. At the beginning, it was more of a fashion-inspiration kind of blog and Instagram page, but now it's more about everything; it's more of a 360-degree view. My followers don't only want to know what I'm wearing. They want to know what beauty products I'm using, where I'm traveling, what kind of hotels I prefer, what I stand for in life, if I value education, what I think about nature.
It's way more personal as compared to the beginning, and that's also why I started doing YouTube, because I guess the relationship with the followers is just increasingly more important compared to, maybe, the quantity of followers. Especially over the last year, I started focusing on strengthening that relationship between my followers and me, compared to only focusing on growing my following.
What types of posts and content do you find your followers are most engaged with?
I always say the more personal, the better. But it's of course a question of how personal you want to go; how much do you want to share? For me, what I notice is that people really love seeing everything that concerns me and my partner, our business, our dogs and our lifestyle habits, like food and fitness, in combination with fashion and beauty. They like to see a bit of everything.
And then, eventually, you created your own hair-care company, Gisou. How did you decide to do that and why?
It was something that was always in the back of my mind, but I never knew how interested people were in my hair and in the story about my beekeeping history with my family. One time, I posted something about being in a bee garden, and people wanted to know so much more about that and about my hair rituals, so it was a very logical step to start Gisou.
How do you balance running your own beauty brand while also still working with other brands to create content?
At the beginning, it was just me and my partner Maurits, and the balance was hard. Everything was really new and we had to set everything up. It took almost two years to set everything up before we launched our first product. It was a lot of work — we were traveling for jobs, but at the same time, we were starting our company.
Now, of course, it's different. There's more of a balance because we have an amazing team in Amsterdam. Maurits focuses more on Gisou, like 90 percent of the time, and I do, like, 50/50, and that's perfect because when we're in Amsterdam, I can focus more on Gisou and when we're traveling, I can focus more on creating content and brand partnerships.
It seems like you got in very early on a trend that's happening more now, especially in beauty, where influencers take ownership for themselves rather than just doing collaborations. How did starting your own company change things for you?
It's a passion, of course, and it's something I wanted to share with my followers. I like sharing what my family is about, how important bees are and the passion [that I have for them]. But also at the same time, I think that bloggers want to sort of create more of our own space where we're less dependent on our advertisers or brands.
Especially when you're thinking about the long-term — and influencers nowadays are doing that — I think we're just starting to value our own power more and starting to become more independent.
Do you think that this is something we're going to continue to see more of in the future from influencers?
Yeah, I see it all the time. Almost every influencer or blogger I know has their own company, and I think, good for them. I think it's really smart. Only what I still see a lot is that a lot of people do a lot of things, and I really believe in having your focus. What I see a lot is that influencers start a company and then they sort of do it halfway. They don't really focus on it and make sure that the business is growing. Now, we have this amazing reach; this is the time to grow the business and start reaching more customers and more people.
Is it true that you turned down a campaign with a major hair brand to start Gisou?
Yeah. It was a great deal, but then I wouldn't be able to share everything I'm able to share now and take control of everything. I know exactly what I want, so you need the power to do that. If you're working with another brand, that's always more difficult, especially when we're talking about this capacity. It could have been a one-time, one- or two-year contract, but what happens after? It's about thinking in the long-term versus the short-term.
You self-funded Gisou. Do you plan to take investors to continue grow the company?
We're growing the business, but we're doing it ourselves. We're taking it step by step, and if there will be investors, it will be more of me and Maurits who will invest in it. We still want to maintain all of the control and we want the decision-making to be up to us rather than also having the voice of the investors. We're thinking about maybe growing the business harder in the coming years, but it would be an investment of ourselves.
You sell the product direct-to-consumer through your own site, but also have retail partners, like Revolve and Urban Outfitters. What was the strategy behind that, and why was it important to make the brand available internationally?
We sell 90 percent of our product through our own platform, and we do still work with some retailers, but that's either because it's a super-cool store and it does something to our branding or because it ships internationally, which we aren't doing yet. We like the fact that we have more of a direct relationship with our customers and we can really track and see what is on their minds, what do they like, what happens when we ship the products. In the end, the most important thing is that the products are arriving safely to your customer, and if you do that yourself, of course, again, you have more control.
You've accomplished a lot in the last five years alone. What goals do you still have for yourself or for your company?
There are so many. You know, I've always been somebody who loves her focus. I get a lot of proposals to start different companies, to start a fashion brand, another beauty brand or a fitness brand or whatever, but I've always loved having my focus. So, for me, it's really still going to be more about enhancing my relationship with my followers through my content and growing Gisou more. Hopefully in the future, everybody knows what Gisou stands for and why bees are so important.
Why is it important to you to use your platform to raise awareness about saving the bees?
When I look at my reach, I think people in general don't really know a lot about pollinators or bees, and coming from a beekeeping family, I want to do something good for the world. We really believe that it's so important and a lot of people don't know about it, so I'm using my voice for that.
What can people be doing to support the cause?
A very simple thing to do is when you have a garden or a little terrace, there are specific flowers that you can grow and — if there are no pesticides or anything — those will benefit the bees.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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