The Humans Behind “Dogs Of Instagram”
Four years ago, Ahmed El Shourbagy got an idea to start an Instagram page dedicated to posting pictures of dogs. He called it ‘Dogs of Instagram’ and his first post was of his dog Lucy, a pug and Boston terrier mix. Within 10 days, he had 1,000 followers.
He met Ashley Paguyo on that day when he walked into a focus group she was conducting for a mobile start-up company that she worked for. Instagram was relatively new at the time and no one in the room really thought much about the novelty of accumulating 1,000 followers in 10 days. But Ashley was fascinated and knew that that success could potentially lead to something big. The two started brainstorming ideas and set up a business plan.
Dogs of Instagram now has over two million followers and is easily the most popular dog page on the app. Both founders have left their full-time career jobs to run the business together. Along with the page, they’ve launched Lucy and Co., an online dog boutique. There is a Dogs of Instagram book coming out in 2016 and their list of offers and clients is only getting longer.
I recently sat down with Ahmed and Ashley at a coffee shop near their home in North East Minneapolis to find out what life is like for the humans behind your favorite (probably) animal Instagram account.
How did this idea about starting an Instagram page that featured only dogs come about?
Ahmed: Well at the time, Instagram was pretty new and there weren’t a lot of people on it. I started noticing that a lot of of the pictures on the popular page were ones of dogs and the reason I followed a lot of people was because they posted pictures of their dogs. And I wanted to follow as many people as I could who posted pictures of their dogs but there were so many.
So I went home and thought it would be cool if their was just one feed that had just pictures of dogs and I created a Dogs of Minnesota page. That idea lasted for about a day until I got the idea to go bigger. I thought, There’s nobody else doing this and this could really become something and that’s when I created Dogs of Instagram.
The first submission I got came on the second day of the page being up and I got 70 followers and that’s when I knew it was going to work. I was up to 1,000 followers on the 10th day of the page being up and that was huge at the time! I met Ashley on that day.
Ashley: At the time, I was working for a mobile startup and on that day I was conducting a focus group on how millennials use their phones and Ahmed was a part of that focus group. I narrowed in on him because he had 1,000 followers and that was unheard of at the time.
Ahmed: So I walked in there flexing a 1,000 followers, thinking this girl likes social media and I have a lot of that going on right now. And most people in the room didn’t really care that I had 1,000 followers and didn’t think much of it.
Ashley: I was very impressed and then he started showing me pictures of cute dogs on his phone and I was sold … who doesn’t like cute pictures of dogs?
The account started back in 2011, what has happened since? How fast did things happen?
Ahmed: Things happened pretty fast. Ashley and I started hanging out and we put together a plan and started brainstorming ideas about how we could make this a brand. We drew up a timeline and I guessed that it would take one month to get 10,000 followers and I hit that goal. And it just kept growing and somewhere in the 20,000 followers range, I got bored of it and stopped doing it. I didn’t really know just what this was …
Ashley: Literally, it was a pet project that took a few minutes of his day and it was growing. But at the time, nobody had figured out how to make money on Instagram. We were really just doing it for the sake of excitement but nobody really cared at the time.
Ahmed: It was just really time consuming because I was getting so many submissions. Everyone thinks they have the cutest dog in the world and everybody wanted their dog featured on this page. So a few months later, we checked on the page again and it had doubled in followers! Without posting any new content.
We decided to start posting again and I gave Ashley the password and it was really fun to have a second person to do it with. We looked at submissions together and argued about which dogs were the cutest. Soon after that, we got our first advertiser, a dog products delivery company called BarkBox based in New York, and they continue to be a company we work with. They were just starting out at the time and they are now like a 100 million dollar company.
Ashley: Another milestone is that we spun Dogs of Instagram into a online pet boutique called Lucy and Co. We launched that last August and that’s when we left our full-time jobs.
Ahmed, growing up you were afraid of dogs and that fear actually followed you into adulthood. How are you around them now?
Ahmed: Yeah, growing up, I was afraid of dogs and continued to be afraid of them until I was in college. I was born in Egypt and not a lot of people have dogs as pets. Most dogs there are spray dogs and people are either scared of them or just don’t really care about them. In college, I had friends who had dogs and I would go to house parties where dogs were around and I started becoming comfortable around them. Eventually, I got Lucy and that’s when I got over my fear. I was obsessed with Lucy and whenever I took her out for walks, people would run up and pet her and she got so many likes on when I posted pictures of her. At the time I was single and the girls loved Lucy and I loved that.
You two met 10 days after Ahmed started DOI, you had 1,000 followers at that time. Did you think it was going to become as big as it is now?
Ahmed: No, absolutely not. If you told me that we would be at 2.1 million followers someday, I would have laughed at you. I was just doing a social media experiment and was hoping for a few thousand followers. I knew I was creating a community for dog lovers but never thought it was going to be what it is today, that it would lead to a career.
You both had full-time career jobs before you started the DOI but you left those careers to run DOI together. It’s kind of amazing how social media has literally transformed people’s lives and careers. What do you think of this emergence of social media as an avenue to transform your career or even as a tool to do the one thing you’ve always dreamt of doing in order to make a living?
Ahmed: It’s very cool but also scary because their is nothing to compare it to. With any traditional career path, you have steps and know where things will lead to. With this, it was like where and what does this lead to? It was amazing that I was able to create this unique career but I didn’t know how it was going to pan out and that was the scary part of it. But not scary enough to stop me from leaving my full-time job. So there is definitely less barriers of entry in terms of pursuing your dreams and that’s thanks to social media and the internet.
Ashley: What I think is really interesting about it is that when I was graduating from college, everyone was telling us to be careful about what we post on social media because it was permanent and it could come back to bite you. As the years have gone on, social media has evolved and you can use it as a tool to promote yourself and show the world what you’re capable of.
The Billfold is a site mostly about how people do finances. Without getting too specific, how does DOI make money?
Ahmed: Advertising is the main model. If an advertiser reaches out to us about posting on our feed, we have a per post rate. We’re also selective on the brands we choose to advertise and they have to make sense in terms of matching our brand. We have contracts in place with some companies we’ve had long term relationships with. We have non-compete clauses in these contracts so we don’t work with their competitors. It works best because we have a fixed income coming in from them and they have the benefit of being featured on our page, without having to worry about their competitors being featured as well.
Ashley: Occasionally, we get invited by companies to come to their events and they have the legitimacy of saying Dogs of Instagram will be here and those appearances also bring in revenue.
How is it working with your spouse everyday and running a business that is really taking off?
Ahmed: It’s good but it definitely has its challenges. It’s great to be able to do this together and it definitely has its perks. I live with my business partner so if I have an idea at 2:00 in the morning that I’m really excited about, I can just nudge her. On the other hand, when we get into a professional argument, it’s hard not to let that carry over to our personal life. Their is no professional and personal off switch.
Ashley: In addition to that, his successes are my successes. We have the fortune of being on the same exact page and knowing what’s happening in each other’s professional careers. But his stresses are also my stresses. Living and working together, there is no definitive boundary where at 5:00 you get to go home and enjoy your family.
What advice do you have for people who have these creative types of ideas in their head but are just too afraid to try something new?
Ahmed: One piece of advice I like to give people is that you don’t have to leave your day job to pursue a passion. You can have a 9-5 and start making money with your idea on the side.
Ashley: At the end of the day, whatever your creative idea is it comes down to priority. It comes down to committing to things. I’ve had many creative projects before DOI but they didn’t work out because I didn’t work. I don’t think a lot of our friends realize that we didn’t just quit our jobs one day to do this. We were quietly working on Lucy and Co. in the background for about eight months leading up to launch. You have to set yourself up for success and make sacrifices and most importantly, prioritize!
Photo credit: 2nd Truth Photography
Yasin Mohamud is a writer based in Minneapolis. Follow him on twitter @callmeugas