What started out as a side project for Sharmadean Reid has grown into a constantly booked nail salon, two books, brand-partnered pop-up shops around the world and even acknowledgement from the Queen of England.
And it’s all in part due to Instagram.
“I essentially wouldn’t have a business if it wasn’t for it. That’s just the fact of it,” Reid told Entrepreneur. “It’s not just about messing around with you friends, it’s about having a channel that is another way to describe and show your brand’s personality and also have direct communication with your fanbase and your customer base.”
WAH originally got its start in 2006 as a hip-hop and fashion magazine for girls when Reid was a 22-year-old university student at art school. Three years later, she started her first WAH Nails salon as a side project.
In 2015, the 33-year-old British beauty was awarded an MBE (an Order of the British Empire) for impact on the beauty industry, and her latest project, Future Girl Corp, is all about to empowering young women to launch their own businesses and dream big.
The WAH Nails Instagram account has 437,000 followers, and it’s not just likes and shares that Reid gets through fan’s engagement with the account — she gets customers.
“We can’t handle the amount of requests we get. We get people DMing us for appointments,” Reid says. “We’re pretty much always booked.”
Entrepreneur spoke with Reid to get her insights on how she augmented her business with the popular social platform.
How did you get your start with Instagram?
We were going to New York to do a pop-up nail bar for British Airways to promote their new London to New York extra route. All my team was in the airport about to board the plane and I just thought, let me take a photo, actually why don’t I Instagram this and start an account for WAH. When we got back, we had like 8,000 followers. It was insane. We had all these New York girls come and experience WAH and then their friends saw what they were posting. It’s so shareable.
What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
Instagram is our main gig. Our business is so visual. That’s really important for us. We spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter. That’s it. We don’t have a Snapchat account. I feel like those are the big ones. It’s Instagram first, then Twitter and then Facebook.
I’m a natural early adopter for any new technology. I just would make accounts for anything new. [But the death of] Vine just made me think you spread yourself too thin if you concentrate on too many channels. You should just play to your strengths.
What makes Instagram a better platform than other social media?
I think because it is essentially a creative tool. I think if it was just about uploading pictures it wouldn’t be great. But it’s all the fun things you can do with the pictures from filters to adding videos, slideshows. It’s a creative tool for augmenting images and also bringing the salon experience to life through the platform. We’ve got followers from all over the world. They may or may not have actually ever been the salon, but it’s a window into what’s happening here.
How much of your time do you devote to it?
All the girls contribute to it. But we do have a full-time person on it. And I help with the overall direction of the themes of what we’re doing. But I would say it’s essentially someone’s full-time job and for all the girls in the salon, at least in terms of their time, on top of their normal work, part of it is about posting.
How do you promote your account? What’s your number one way to gain followers?
We don’t promote it, really. The reason is because we are a service-based business with a finite amount of customers. We can probably serve a maximum of 50 people a day. Right now we’re not selling product. But when we when we do sell product again next year we’ll be looking to grow our following. But we can’t handle the amount of requests we get.
We get people DMing us for appointments, emailing us for appointments that we can’t handle the amount of traffic that we already get. We’re not concentrating on growing it right now. I think that for me it’s about the quality of the followers, not the quantity. I prefer to track engagement rather than the number of followers.
How do you engage with others on the platform?
We try to mix the product with inspiration and customer images as well. Even if the customer images don’t get a lot of likes, for me it’s still important for our followers to see the fact that girls like them come to the salon. We use it to promote all of our in-salon events. It’s definitely an ongoing conversation with customers in real time.
How often do you post?
We can post up to six times a day, especially if something big-ish happening. Most people have a bank of things to post or they schedule their posts. The girls prefer scheduling because they like to have control of what’s going on. But if I was just doing the Instagram myself it would be way more haphazard because sometimes people forget the “insta” in Instagram. It is about what you’re doing right here, right now.
What’s your content strategy?
We tend to focus on a color or theme for at least a week. You might see all pink or all orange. The only thing that defines that week is color. I tell the girls, post whatever you want. If you have a nail that’s not on the theme, just post it with it as the background color.
How has your content strategy evolved as Instagram has added features?
What I love about Stories is that if you look at our Instagram feed it can be really clean and almost can feel a bit clinical. But what Stories does is kind of mix it up with the vibe of the salon. It’s just another way of showing a different side of our brand’s personality. And I know a lot of people use Stories as sales tools. But I think as a company all people care about is what’s it like at your company. What’s it like to work [there]?
So I really think that Stories should be a window into your world. The girls have a space where they can be free. They can be funny, they can be crazy, all without disrupting the main channel. We also do customer images. One thing I want to introduce to before and afters. But before you would have to chop the image in two but now it’s like a slideshow, it makes it easier.
What’s your best storytelling trick?
We did an incredible thing for the election in the U.K. where we used Stories to basically tell the story of the vote. And I said to Ellen, who is our social manager, I really [want] to make an emotive story full of stills and video. But basically [the theme was] women have died to enable you to vote, so don’t waste it. So she started off being like, listen up girls, this is a story you need to hear. Then she had pictures of the suffragettes, and then you could click on different stories about each of them. It made me so proud.
How do you set yourself apart from others on the platform?
I think we set ourselves apart by being really consistent, by having that inspiration and just the quality of our images because we train our team how to take photos in the WAH style. When we opened the salon everyone took photos in different ways.
The photo style is, we always have the hands away from the background surface. We have a shallow depth of field. We try not to have a plain white background. Backgrounds should be textured and should apply context for the images. I believe that images are so important. We read all these minor social cues from images — is it for a fancy hotel or a restaurant? Does the background have a book in it?
I make sure that the girls have this type of subtle information within the imagery. And then fingers together, I hate fingers spread apart. We make a playbook that we train the girls to allow them to understand what it is. But they pick it up really quickly.
How do you leverage your Instagram and to what extent do you monetize it?
We monetize by using it to get bookings in the salon. We’re pretty much always booked. And I know that’s because of our channel. But because we’re not selling product right now we don’t have direct monetization. We can just track that people call or email us because they’ve seen us on Instagram and try and make a booking that way.
What advice do you have for other Instagram influencers or people who want to build brands on the platform?
Have a consistent look and feel. You have three [chances] on your feed to make people want to follow you. I like to see patterns, and if there is pattern recognition, people understand who you are and want to follow you.
What’s a misconception many people have about Instagram?
I think perhaps people don’t realize that it’s not just like a fun social thing. I essentially wouldn’t have a business if it wasn’t for it. That’s just the fact of it. It’s not just about messing around with you friends, it’s about having a channel that is another way to describe and show your brand’s personality and also have direct communication with your fanbase and your customer base.
Before Instagram there was no way of you having any understanding of what people thought of your product. It’s like a real-life focus group. So I think people don’t realize the power of the data that you can gather up for your customers and fans and followers. I don’t think they understand that is a channel to show your brand’s personality. And I don’t think they understand that it’s an incredible customer acquisition tool. People want to be part of a community.
Writer: Nina Zipkin