The Irish influencers turning social media careers into successful businesses – The Irish Times

As a child, Keilidh Cashell always had a crayon in her hand. When her mam had organised professional photos to be taken of her, she clutched a yellow one and refused to let it go for the entire shoot.

Anything she came in contact with would be coloured in: walls, furniture, pictures. But as she grew up, she found a new medium and swapped walls for faces.

When Cashell didn’t get the required CAO points to go to art college, she opted for a one-year make-up course, which later helped her to secure a job as a make-up artist on a counter in a department store.

The Monaghan-born make-up artist rose to prominence through tutorials and creative challenges she shared online, where she has amassed 2.8 million followers on TikTok and 570,000 on Instagram. One of the first times she went viral was when she transformed herself into Game of Thrones character Daenerys Targaryen, complete with a realistic dragon eye prosthetic.

The move from crayons to make-up spurred what she describes as a lifelong dream to own her own beauty line. Building an online following meant that desire could become a reality far sooner than she had hoped.

“The managers that I have, they’re my really good friends; people that I trust with my life. And they turned around to me one day and were just like ‘why don’t you do it?’ And I realised I didn’t know why I wasn’t doing it. So that was the answer in itself,” the 26-year-old entrepreneur says of starting her own line.

Kash Beauty hit the market in 2020. The product is manufactured in China and is cruelty-free and vegan-friendly. The mission statement of the company is to inspire people to get creative and go out of their comfort zone.

Cashell continues to share creative looks online but also incorporates everyday make-up, or glam looks, most of which are created using Kash

“Initially, [my name] is what will get people interested. My influence would help in the beginning. But the longevity in it is making sure the products are able to speak for themselves. The long-term goal is to have Kash standing as its own brand, that people are using Kash and they haven’t a breeze who I am.”

Cashell was heavily involved in the product development and had “great guidance” on the other aspects of bringing it to market. She sourced a team in Asia, and travelled to visit the labs before deciding who was the right match for her brand.

The brand has a team of five in Asia who liaise with the factories for development, negotiations and inspections. In Ireland, she has an expanding team; originally just herself and two business partners, she now has staff operating in marketing, dispatch, stock control, operations and finance.

Her products are sold online through her website, and delivered internationally, with particularly high sales in the UK, US and Italy. Easily recognisable by its trademark black and gold packaging, Cashell is working on plans that will see Kash being sold in other outlets — online and in-store.

Cashell continues to share creative looks online but also incorporates everyday make-up, or glam looks, most of which are created using Kash. The products range from face, lips, eyes and tools, with her most recently released product Skin Glaze — a dewy liquid highlighter and blush duo — creating considerable excitement on TikTok.

She isn’t the only social media influencer who has made this journey. The first big success story was Suzanne Jackson, a fashion, beauty and lifestyle influencer who released her blog SoSueMe in 2010 when she was working as a receptionist for 98FM. The blog instantly became a success, enabling her to pursue it full-time.

Five years later, in 2015, she released SoSu by SJ, which has recently rebranded to SoSu Cosmetics, a beauty line that includes fake tan, contour palettes, highlighter kits, lashes, nails, and eye make-up.

The beauty brand has become a household name, selling worldwide and stocked in a range of retailers including Pretty Little Thing, Boohoo, Missguided, Cloud10, Beauty Bay, Dunnes Stores, Tesco and Primark.

According to the most recently filed accounts, profits for Jackson’s Cohar Ltd increased by 29.5 per cent to €2.12 million for 2020, rising from €1.64 million the previous year. By the end of 2020, the company’s accumulated profits totalled €4 million.

With that sort of earning potential, it is not surprising more so-called influencers are choosing to take up the mantle. But they’re not all beauty businesses; influencer entrepreneurs generally develop a product that fits the sector in which they’ve created a following.

Former Miss Universe Ireland Roz Purcell has an Instagram page called The Hike Life, where she shares routes to some of Ireland’s most scenic peaks, offers tips on how to prepare for the activity, as well as organising free group hiking events. In 2020, Purcell released The Hike Life apparel including hiking buffs, hats, bags, jackets and tops, marketed toward women.

Entrepreneurs are really good at reading signals, and sort of triaging actionable insight out of which they can generate a business. But this phenomenon is the opposite. It’s essentially building a personal brand, building an audience first

—  Peter Robbins

Offaly woman Rachel Gorry garnered an online following by sharing stories about her now late husband Daniel’s cancer diagnosis in 2018, and his death in 2020, aged 29. The mother-of-three, who shares outfits and styling ideas to her 254,000 Instagram followers, recently set up the clothing line Alined the Label, which primarily consists of dresses, and is an anagram of her late husband’s name.

Lifestyle and fashion influencer Rosie Connolly-Quinn, who predominantly shares beauty and fashion tips online, released casual clothing company 4thArq in 2020, while Ellie Kelly, who posts updates on her day-to-day activities as well as insight on make-up and outfits, released sunglasses line EK Eyewear.

Peter Robbins, assistant professor in innovation and entrepreneurship at DCU, says these women are inverting the conventional model of setting up a business.

“Entrepreneurs are really good at reading signals, and sort of triaging actionable insight out of which they can generate a business. But this phenomenon is the opposite. It’s essentially building a personal brand, building an audience first,” he says.

“It’s people who find a truth that resonates with other people. The genesis of this is marketing, and influencer marketing, which is dependent on the scope, scale and relatability of the person.”

Having a built-in clientele before launch can be very beneficial to these businesses, Robbins says, adding that the only danger that arises would be if they scrimped on quality.

“As long as they’re faithful to the proposition then there’s no danger. Just like there’s no one right way to fall in love, there’s no one right way to find the heartbeat of an idea to start a business,” he adds.

Robbins views this recent wave of female entrepreneurship as a positive development which could grow or “completely change” the market.

“That is very very heartening that suddenly women are taking centre stage and developing products and bringing these ideas to the table. This is a really contemporary way of making a living, of building a business. It’s pretty original and radical.”

So what exactly is causing this pivot to entrepreneurship? According to a 2021 survey by the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI), more than half of Irish consumers (57 per cent) find too much-sponsored content “annoying”.

It would make sense, then, that those working in this sphere would seek to ensure they are not over-reliant on this source of income, and inadvertently lose the interest of their audience.

The way in which they are making money is also evolving in line with technology. Ronan Hickey, founder of The Marketing Consultant, which helps businesses develop marketing strategies, including partnering with influencers, says TikTok — which has more than one billion active monthly users — is becoming the next big social media platform.

“One of the issues that’s coming up with TikTok is the influencers aren’t earning as much from their branded posts as they would have with the likes of Instagram or Facebook and other networks,” he says.

The algorithm of the app means views fluctuate on TikTok, while the short nature of the clips means viewing time is shorter, resulting in a “stark contrast” in the earning potential between that network and others, he adds.

However, Hickey acknowledges that starting their own brand is a “natural progression” for those with a ready-made audience.

According to the influencers themselves, the desire for entrepreneurial activity is motivated by the need to diversify income streams.

“We don’t know the longevity of influencing. It could be five years, 10 years, we have no idea,” Cashell says. “I think you have to be smart about it, and set it up in a way that if it was all to close down tomorrow, would I still be okay? Or do I have another thing I can fall back on?”

The survival of influencing and social media arose in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when brands pulled back on paid partnerships due to uncertainty around consumer sentiment. While work picked up soon after the initial slump, influencers had, like the rest of the world, much more time on their hands. This had other unexpected consequences.

For professional make-up artist Aideen Kate Murphy, it gave her the time and opportunity to finally create her own make-up brand.

Murphy, who earned 159,000 followers on Instagram by sharing make-up tutorials, and ran her own online 4-week make-up course, said the goal was always to pursue this avenue of business, but the decision was expedited by the arrival of Covid-19.

Murphy’s line — True Beauty by Aideen Kate — is one of the most recently released influencer-led businesses, having gone live in April. To date, it features a face palette, lip kits and lashes.

“We were going to move to Australia, we had everything ready other than our bags packed. Then the pandemic hit,” she says.

“There were a few scenarios in 2016 and 2017 when I was going to launch but they didn’t work out. Then at the end of 2019 and the start of 2020, I got serious about it.”

Influencers are involved with the market, meaning they know what consumers want. As a make-up artist for the past decade, the key for Murphy was to design the products she would like to use or that were missing from existing collections.

“I love loads of different products, and I really wanted to make my own so they’d all be in one range. I really wanted a one-stop shop for all your face bits. So that’s one of the things we released first.”

The way most brands start out, you have a little leeway for mistakes. But for me, when you’re so closely associated with the brand, you have to try to get things as right as you can early on

—  Louise Clooney

Murphy is retailing True Beauty through her own website but says the next steps are to enable worldwide delivery and get it into stores, with news on the latter expected in the coming months.

“It’s still such early days. And I definitely have my moments where I’m like ‘what am I doing?’ but I have an amazing team. I work on product development, but I have a great team behind me. It’s been going really well so far. I want to just keep going and make it the best it can be.”

Trying to reach perfection is a refrain echoed by all in the sector, due to the close alignment between the brands they’re starting and their presence online. The anonymity afforded to most start-ups is absent for these women, with added pressure due to the trust and relationship developed with those buying the product.

Louise Cooney quit her job in Tourism Ireland to go full-time blogging eight years ago, and has since built up her Instagram page to more than 200,000 followers. Her social media posts focus primarily on lifestyle, fashion and exercise. Earlier this year, she decided to combine these interests to create a new business, and released CLOO activewear.

Cooney says getting the quality of the brand, which sells leggings, bras, tops and jumpers, to a place she was happy with was the biggest challenge so far.

“If one thing is slightly not right, you need to get another sample. You need that attention to finer detail that most people probably wouldn’t notice but some people do. So everything needs to be perfect,” she says.

“The way most brands start out, you have a little leeway for mistakes. But for me, when you’re so closely associated with the brand, you have to try to get things as right as you can early on.”

The two things – the person and the company – become closely intertwined, for even the creators themselves.

“I had been thinking about investing in something, and then I was thinking about buying a house as an investment, but the market was just so bad. So I decided, instead, I was just going to invest in me, in my brand.”

CLOO isn’t Cooney’s only business venture; she also has a book podcast and is preparing to launch a wine spritzer line called 67 Spritz. She hopes this recent trend of entrepreneurship could help alter the perception that those on social media don’t have “real jobs”.

“Before I had the activewear, I was constantly asked when will it end, or what if it doesn’t work out. There’s actually a lot of work that goes into what you see. You’re working evenings, you’re working weekends, you’re working on holidays; that’s just the nature of the job,” she says.

The women say they face bouts of uncertainty; while the businesses are in sectors they are familiar with, the roles they’re taking up are vastly different from what they have done before.

Cooney adds: “It’s scary starting your own business; there’s this feeling of fraud or impostor syndrome. The learning experiences have been incredible. It’s a whole different ball game.”

So where is this trend going? According to marketing experts, it’s going to persist as the number of Irish influencers continues to grow.

Cashell agrees. “You can see what online can do for business, or people like me — a little girl from the back arse of nowhere being able to make a brand like this. And if I can do it, absolutely anybody can do it.”

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