How Instagram influencers become enterprises, and what happens next
By the time Amber Fillerup Clark landed a major profile in The Atlantic in 2017, the blogger and Instagrammer had already spent seven years at the top of her game. Clark launched her blog—which has since been renamed but at the time was called Barefoot Blonde—in 2010, and quickly rose to the top of the mommy blogger ecosystem.
Today, more than a decade later, Clark has garnered 1.3 million Instagram followers, oversees nearly a dozen full-time employees, and Dae Hair, the beauty brand she launched in 2020, is the top-selling clean hair care line at Sephora.
But while Clark, and an entire generation of first-wave Instagram influencers, have evolved their businesses from image makers to brand builders, the social media landscape has also continued to change—and these days she’s feeling a pressure to pivot.
“It’s a shift right now, actually, and I’m spending most of my time on TikTok,” Clark tells Fast Company on a Zoom call from her home in Arizona. “Everyone is just shifting away from Instagram—I feel like if they don’t seriously change their algorithms back to what they were, Instagram is going to become obsolete, like Facebook.”
Not that Clark relies on social media for income any longer. In 2016, she parlayed her love of hairstyling into the development of a hair-extensions company, BFB Hair, and Dae Hair has been wildly popular since debuting two years ago. Some of the most in-demand products in the 14-SKU range—such as the vegan detangler and jumbo-size shampoos and conditioners—have repeatedly sold out since arriving on store shelves.
“I spend most of my time on my businesses, not on social media,” Clark says. “The time I do spend on social media isn’t necessarily for making money. It’s so important for brand awareness and interacting with the community I’ve been building over the last decade.”
In the nascent days of Instagram, which launched in 2010, hardly anyone could have predicted the platform’s future impact on the then-fledgling creator economy, which has since grown to an estimated value of $104 billion in 2022. Without the pressure of brand deals or monetization, early adopters were free to post candidly—and Clark attributes a great deal of her success to consistently publishing authentic content about her passions and interests.
“I think it came from a very authentic place,” she says. “These really are my true hobbies and I’m sharing them with you. I think when someone is actually sharing what they’re passionate about and you can genuinely feel their passion, it’s contagious. I feel like I’ve always done what I love.”
These days, an entirely new generation of creators (the term influencers is slowly fading out of fashion) embark on their careers with complete awareness of its lucrative potential. Since 2019, polls have shown that “YouTuber” is a top career of choice among most children and teenagers—and with pressure to accrue followers and win sponsorships with “brand-safe” content, for many years filtered and curated personas became the social media default. Until, that is, TikTok happened.
Short-format videos deployed via TikTok’s algorithm, which prioritizes content over creators, has catalyzed a new, more-authentic era in the influencer economy. A lower barrier of entry also means more people are in the game—and data-driven engagement metrics show that audiences and consumers prefer real and gritty over preened and pristine.
“There are so many people [on social media] now, it’s so saturated,” Clark says. But content also brings in audience eyeballs—and advertisers, including Clark’s companies, have flocked to new platforms to seek out new talent.
“You don’t have to be as big in order to make money,” she says. “It’s much easier now to get paid for doing this.”
And as the first wave of OG influencers transition to enterprise and become business owners, they’re turning around and investing marketing dollars in a new generation of social media content creators—because they know, firsthand, how authentic engagement can convert consumers.
“At Dae, we’re investing in so many micro-influencers and UGC content that comes from people who may not have big followings. We just really love their points of view,” Clark says. “I love that evolution of social media—how relaxed it is now and how nothing is off-limits. I think brands are so creative now. Their customers are at their fingertips, which creates so many possibilities. It’s definitely more fun, for sure.”