Though it may sometimes seem like another passing trend, influencer marketing isn’t going anywhere. 86% of women make purchasing decisions based on social media marketing, many citing authenticity as one of the most important factors. With a steadily growing number of companies embracing influencer marketing, many people now see it as a sought-after career choice. If you think you’re in for an easy ride as a professional influencer, think again! We sat down with Steph Kalen, one of the masterminds behind the Chic Sophistic brand to talk about the work behind the lens.
stnce: Let’s talk about the origin story of the Chic Sophistic brand.
SK: I always acknowledged that business was going to be at the forefront of anywhere I wanted to go; I knew early on it was important to understand how a business works, and how to handle finances. At the same time, I knew I wanted to excite that part of my mind and do something that allowed me to exercise creativity. So when I had to pick a direction, I thought marketing would be the best way to combine the two.
At a certain point in my career, enough of us (myself included) kept hearing that social media was changing the industry. That message kept amplifying and I knew it was going to sustain itself over time. I think that’s when I started to see this as career opportunity I wanted to jump into. You start hearing numbers like “this YouTuber is making $40K a month,” that’s hard to ignore. Not to say that money should always be the main driver. The people who end up making it to that point, it’s usually also because it’s an inspiration of how they want to live their lives or change other lives. I loved the idea that the whole mission behind social media was to create this level of authenticity that drew people closer to what real life is all about, in contrast with celebrities and perfect retouched photos. That actually reminds me of the stnce podcast, interestingly, because it’s about opening the doors to authentic conversations and allowing people to really connect. All of that combined well with my partner who has a film and television background and good grasp on how to bring these ideas to life in a really creative way.
Every other representation of what entrepreneurship could look like felt very “programmed” to me, but knowing I could explore entrepreneurship inside the world of social media got me really excited. When I got started, there were so many things that still weren’t answered in the industry; while so many other industries were (and still are) set in their ways. Think about it this way; if you buy a set of Lego, you can follow the instructions and make what you see on the box, or you could let your creativity take over and build something completely new. That’s what social media is like for me; a blank canvas where we have the freedom to create our own story. I knew I wasn’t going to be held within borders of what I was “supposed” to do. I get to be an artist within the space, that’s really exciting to me.
stnce: What is the one thing you wish more people knew about having a career as an influencer?
SK: You need to understand that it truly is a career. Once you go for it, it really does become a business, and something you need to add a lot of strategy to. While the excitement level may come from the concept that you can always change things, similar to the idea of being an entrepreneur, there is a ton of management on the back end. People tend to glamourize influencers and have this concept that we’re always on red carpets, and while that’s certainly part of it, there isn’t that guaranteed paycheque at the end of two weeks. That said, all of that hard work that leads up to really developing a career as an influencer. Having the understanding that once you’re full time, you’re really committed and in a way, you need to always be selling yourself. You also need to make sure you’re going about it in the most organic way without alienating your followers while at the same time teaching your brand partners, it’s a lot to manage. But I think when you really understand your value in what you bring to the table, like anything else in life, it starts to get easier, and there ends up being some sort of a flow. Once you find that, it’s really rewarding.
stnce: How long was it before that flow appeared?
SK: To this day, I still always think like that. Now, maybe I’ll go somewhere and get recognized from a post and it feels like I’m explaining myself a little less than I was at the beginning. I just try to always keep that sense of reality and stay grounded. I hope in twenty years I’ll still feel the same way. What I acknowledge as an entrepreneur and as an influencer is that things could change at any moment. Think about how fast technology is changing, and how apps are exciting one minute and drop off the next. Knowing how quickly your career can change adds a bit of that grounded feeling so you acknowledge no matter when and where you’re flowing, you’re always going to have to be pitching yourself. It’s just pitching to different groups. Even though your work might be great, and that may be evident, and it might be easy for some people to say yes, you still have to acknowledge that there’s always people who are going to have to learn more, understand more, or who may not be in your world at all. They need to understand exactly what it is you do. So that puts you back in that interview phase again. Sometimes you’ll think “oh when is that going to be over?” I believe in a sense, it never is, and there’s a certain beauty in that. Now I’ll get emails from companies who are interested in working with us, and we don’t always have to be the one to reach out. That’s a great feeling, because it gives you time to allocate your resources to something else that you want to invest in.
stnce: Influencer is still a fairly new career, what is different about managing your finances as an influencer, and what helped you?
SK: Managing your finances as an influencer is similar to being an entrepreneur. You’re everything; accounting, sales, marketing, creative … it’s a whole different role. It’s two pronged; it’s more challenging, but at the same time, it also serves to give you more clarity on how your business runs. Knowing you have that much insight makes you more conscious about how you approach things. You’ll have a holistic understanding of how one thing affects the other. It’s such a different perspective than, say, a nine to five where everything is really structured for you. But when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a bit more all over the map because you’re always trying to manage those moving pieces. What helped me was to put a focus on one priority at a time to make sure you have everything else planned. When you’re in the hustle, it might not always feel stable, so sometimes you need to take a pause and say “ok, I’m going to make X a priority for the next three days”. Give yourself a focus and get your finances to a point where you can feel secure with it and explore the other aspects.
stnce: Let’s talk about hustle culture. There are so many messages on social media – Instagram especially, that if you aren’t hustling 24/7, joining a 5 am club, and biohacking to make yourself more productive, you’re doing something wrong. What are your thoughts on this, as someone who works for yourself?
SK: Hustle culture is not realistic – we hear stories about people who do have success because of the hustle. And that’s who we end up looking up to because they are the definition of success, whatever that means. *laughs* I often think about Lady Gaga, who has spoken about burnout after a really exciting time in her career. She said she was out for seven months – she couldn’t write anything or perform. I think it’s important to understand that yes, there is hustle, and excitement for your brand and doing something great in life, and to change the lives of others. You’re also a human being. Your body will tell you when you need to rest, and you have to pay attention to that. Without your health and wellness, you can’t do anything. The hustle and excitement are great because you have something driving you. Then there’s also the component of having people around you who love and support you. The one thing that is a constant is balance. You need all of those elements to feel like there’s a sense of normalcy in your life.
stnce: A guest on our recent podcast said something that stuck with us “there is no should”. What is something everyone seems to think is a “should” that you think is BS?
SK: There’s definitely a few but the idea that you save for your retirement and then that is when you get to start enjoying your life … that’s kind of BS. Don’t get me wrong, saving is important, and planning is important. In life we should have an idea of where we are going, and saving, whether it’s having an emergency fund or RRSP, gives you a sense of security. But this whole concept that you save all your money until you’re 65 and then blow it out and have the best life ever … I grew up with that concept and now I’m starting to really dissect and remove from my framework of how I view finances. You have a whole life ahead of that point where you want to explore things and enjoy things. How you’re going to look at something when you’re 30 is completely different than when you’re 50. Life is meant to be experienced. At the end of the day, what we walk away with is those memories and experiences. So I think it’s important to really examine that concept and how it fits into your life.
stnce: We are inundated with messages on social media all day every day. It is said that the average person sees 5,000 ads per day. Let’s talk about authenticity. What sets you apart from the “noise”?
SK: I think you never really know because you’re hoping that what you do really does translate into what you visualize. Hearing feedback from followers really solidifies it for us and helps us know we’re headed in the right direction. But I think what we were always aiming for is looking at things from a couple of different perspectives. First, if I were the viewer. Would I be interested in this genuinely? Is it going to excite me? Second, can we give this a real connection? Can I tell a story? That connectivity with people is important. Being open with people is so key and it’s great to see the results when you do that. The third thing is having your unique authentic voice in place and understanding that sometimes you might have to tell a brand “no” because they want you to change the way you present something. You need to have the strength to keep your integrity and be ok with the fact that you might lose a client for sticking to your brand. A company could say that their head office doesn’t agree with your vision, but you need to stick with it, because your vision helps to direct your content and keep that authenticity. That’s really worked for us so far. It really all circles back to staying grounded and keeping your strategy in mind. The content needs to be exciting, not just for you, but for your audience.
stnce: Something that happens all too frequently on social media is that we are taught that “success” looks like one thing. How do you define success for yourself?
SK: I think the best way to describe it is maintaining balance, and that translates into everything we do. Money comes and goes, but I believe success in life is true success. Valuing that you wake up feeling completely amazed that you’re alive, I think is a good place to start. You know that moment when you’re by yourself, in perfect silence, no distractions, and you just sit in wonder with the fact that you’re alive. That’s a great feeling.