Growth November 30, 2020

How I Grew an Instagram Account From 4000 Followers to 190k in a Year

Sebastian Juhola @Juhola

I started @theminimalistwardrobe in 2017 for two reasons. I wanted to create an audience for a business I was planning, while at the same time wanting to learn the game of Instagram.

At the time I had an existing business with its own Instagram account, but I was too afraid to try things out. I was stuck in my safe routine. What would my customers think if I suddenly posted 8 posts one day? Would they be annoyed? Is it weird if I post something else than my products?

These were the insecurities I had, and a fresh account with no responsibilities was the perfect solution to test everything.

The new business I was planning to launch was a clothing brand, with high-quality essentials and minimal branding. After some tinkering with names on Instagram, I settled on ‘The Minimalist Wardrobe’. That wasn’t meant to be the name of the clothing brand, I simply wanted to create a like-minded audience, so I didn’t have to launch to crickets.

I posted my first post on February 19, 2017. It was a low-resolution photo of clothes rack with some shirts and a few pairs of shoes underneath. There was no real strategy here. I just enjoyed the freedom of posting whatever and analyzing the results.

Little did I know what it would lead up to.

From 0 to 4000

The first followers are always the hardest to get, everyone knows that. I got my first few followers by posting a few posts and engaging with some similar accounts.

That’s a method that still works, but it’s not scalable. Engaging with other accounts is time-consuming, and even if you’d automate it, Instagram is cracking down hard on all software that is against their terms of service.

I grew the account to a little over 4000 followers in 8 months. Nothing to write home about, but during this time, I didn’t really use any strategy. I just learned a little from every post I posted and leaned into what worked.

I didn’t make any groundbreaking discoveries but learned how to use hashtags, what kind of photos and captions my audience seemed to like, and the best times to post. I started scheduling posts with Later so that I could create a bunch beforehand, and not be on my phone the whole day.

The followers came from my engagement, and from the posts that reached new people through hashtags.

After 8 months I just stopped posting. I had scrapped the clothing brand idea a long time ago, as soon as I realized how much work it would require. I also happened to find some brands that had executed my idea better than I ever could (a shoutout to Asket, from where I still buy my clothes).

As for the learning part, well, I felt like I had learned some useful things, and honestly just lacked the motivation to continue playing around with a useless account.

I logged off the account for half a year.

When it Finally Clicked For Me

I can’t remember why I logged back into the account after 6 months. Maybe I had a boring day. In any case, that was one the most significant days for The Minimalist Wardrobe, because that was the day when I understood that I’m on to something.

To be a little more specific, I understood it the next morning. I had published a post in the evening and woke up to over 300 likes. The caption said “Long time no see! Did ya miss us?”

Now, 300 likes with 4000 followers is nothing to brag about, but it was still enough for me to understand that there’s an actual audience that really enjoyed what I was posting.

I realized that the account is promoting something that people wanted. Beautiful photos of clothes racks and basic garments painted a picture of simplifying your wardrobe. I had somewhat unintentionally conveyed my own philosophy for clothing.

This is the moment I decided to apply a real strategy to grow the account, and treat it as its own project. Now things got interesting.

Sliding Into DMs All Day Long

The first thing I started doing was contacting accounts of the same size (or smaller), asking them to do a shoutout exchange with The Minimalist Wardrobe. They’d simply post about me on their feed, and I’d post about them.

I spent hours and hours finding suitable accounts to cross-promote with, and I must’ve sent over a hundred DMs — daily — to people. I didn’t mind if the accounts were smaller. Anything over 1000 was worth it for me, as posting was easy, and my audience seemed to enjoy the posts.

Once I grew, I could get bigger accounts on board, which is why the growth was exponential. I had also perfected my strategy by only contacting accounts with good engagement, and instructing them on how to promote The Minimalist Wardrobe when agreeing on the shoutouts. A clear call-to-action to follow made a huge difference.

From Shoutouts to Deeper Collaborations

Sending DMs for hours every day wasn’t sustainable, but the results were undeniable. I needed a better solution. Essentially I wanted collaborations that would give me constant exposure, but only needed to be set up once.
I decided to build a simple website and set up a blog. Then I reached out to sustainable and slow fashion bloggers and asked if they’d like to write for my new blog.

I’ve always believed in fair relationships, not just because I’ll sleep better, but because at some point the one who’s getting the worse end of the deal will call it quits — it’s just a matter of time. Fortunately, The Minimalist Wardrobe’s following was somewhere around 15k at this time, so it was a great opportunity for the bloggers to get in front of a new audience and gain new followers too.

Every time someone wrote a post for my blog, we’d both promote it on Instagram. That way both reached a new audience. Eventually, I had over 20 guest bloggers, with a new blog post 5 days a week — each of them promoted by the blogger.

The account kept growing fast, by over 2000 daily followers at best. 30k, 40k, and 50k were just simple milestones which I celebrated with a smile and started counting when the next one would come. I hit 100k in late November, just 6 months after taking this seriously.

My Experience With the Infamous Follow/Unfollow

The account’s growth kept accelerating, and I didn’t stop exploring different ways to grow. I decided to try the most despised way of growing an Instagram account: Follow/Unfollow.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the idea is to follow accounts so that they get a notification, and a percentage of them follow you back. Then at some point, you unfollow them.

I did it for a while but stopped doing it for a couple reasons. Firstly, I hated the idea of it the whole time I was doing it. It was a cheap tactic, and honestly, I didn’t need it. My curiosity simply won and I couldn’t help myself. Secondly, it wasn’t sustainable either. I was back to tapping for hours on my phone.

Truth to be told though, it did work. My growth rate increased. It’s hard to say how much this influenced it, but it definitely helped. (Un)fortunately, Instagram has cracked down on action limits recently, so this shouldn’t be as viable anymore.

The Real Reason For the Growth

The collaborations with bloggers were great, as were the earlier shoutout exchanges. I got a boost from following a lot of people. My analytical approach to using hashtags and putting effort into each caption paid off — many posts reached thousands of new people, turning a good amount of them into new followers.

All these strategies accelerated the growth of the account, but the real reason why so many wanted to follow The Minimalist Wardrobe was simple: The core idea was something that people were interested in. I was posting content that people wanted to see.

None of these growth hacks would’ve worked if the foundation of the account wouldn’t have been golden. Now, I got lucky by being into something hundreds of thousands of people are also into and happened to create an Instagram account for it. I probably got lucky with the timing too.

Nevertheless, the core idea of the account is the key to exceptional growth. How you execute it is almost as important. Growth hacks lag far behind.

When you truly have an account people want to follow, Instagram will help you out too. They’ll suggest you to new followers whenever someone follows an account that’s related to yours, and your posts will often be featured on the explore page.

Can This Be Recreated?

Is it still possible to grow any account to almost 200k followers in a year? Sure it is. There’s nothing that’s stopping you. The growth strategies I wrote about here aren’t difficult to copy. If you have the drive to hustle, you can do exactly what I did.

The challenge is coming up with — or stumbling upon, as I did — an interesting idea for your account. That’s really the message I’m trying to send here. I even wrote an article about how to get your Instagram foundation right.
It’s too common to see people apply perfectly good growth strategies to their accounts, and not seeing any growth.

The Minimalist Wardrobe isn’t growing as fast as it used to anymore, and that’s fine. It grew into something so big so fast, that I wanted to take a step back and turn it in to something helpful, not just inspirational. I took my foot off the pedal for a while and am investing in the core idea, which I think will pay off in the future.

“Build it and they will come” is bad advice. You need marketing to grow — at least initially, before word of mouth kicks in. The thing is, the methods to accelerate growth aren’t rocket science. What I did wasn’t particularly sophisticated, and the results were tremendous.

If you put most of your effort into creating a valuable product — which in this case was the Instagram account — you’re setting yourself apart from the masses.

Way too many businesses have great marketing with a mediocre product. Don’t make that mistake.


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  1. 3

    Great summary! I kinda gave up on instagram after about 3K followers and struggling to find my differentiator (and being tired of "travel instagram" in general).

    I love the concept of your account and I can understand why it resonates with people. I love some of your quotes and can imagine they're inspiring people to follow for more.

    I'm curious how much time per week you spend on instagram as you were growing your account? Was it a huge time commitment or were you able to get it down to, e.g. an hour a day? I know you mentioned spending all day doing DMs, is that representative of your time commitment all year? How has instagram translated into ROI for your business?

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Sebastian!

    1. 1

      Hi Monica! Glad that you found this interesting.

      The time commitment was rough in the beginning, but I wasted a lot of time since Instagram was so new to me. I'm confident I could spend a fraction of the time today DMing people and getting the same results, just because now I know better how to qualify (or rather, disqualify) accounts to collaborate with.

      Content curation is something that takes me a lot less time nowadays too. I've enjoyed a minimalist lifestyle for many years, but haven't really thought about it actively before The Minimalist Wardrobe. When I first got started, all concepts took longer to think through.

      Plus, the whole process of going from a small idea to finding a fitting image, writing a good caption that generates discussion, and using the right hashtags is something that's quite natural to me nowadays. Back then it wasn't and posting took a lot longer.

      I don't know if everyone has to go through this, though. I'm sure some people have previous experience in something that translates better to running an Instagram account that I had.

      Now I don't spend a lot of time on the account really, and consider it a passion project more than anything. It is a profitable business, but I definitely leave a lot of money on the table. I've found that I enjoy the kind of business model more where the account is more of a sandbox for me, from where I can take my learnings and apply them to more profitable scenarios, meaning helping other businesses.

      So it's kind of a hobby that helps me stay on top of skills that make me money.

      1. 1

        That was insightful, thanks for your thoughtful reply Sebastian!

  2. 2

    Really great post!! Thanks for sharing :)

    1. 2

      Thanks for reading Benas!

  3. 1

    This article was so well written. Great experiment you conducted and congratulations!

    1. 1

      Thanks Ethan! I appreciate the kind comment.

  4. 1

    Hey Sebastian, nice work man! I’ve just checked your engagement rate and it’s pretty good. Much better than many other accounts!

    Where can I contact you? I would like to talk about your logo. You have so much room to grow even more on brand identity side.

  5. 1

    Lol! I did something similar (0 to 200k in 12 months) in the same niche (men's fashion) in the same period (2018 if I remember correctly) so I can really relate to your experience!

    I didn't do hashtags, collaborations or engagement pod though. For me the key to that hyper growth was constantly appearing in the explore tab. Why? Like you said I found out exactly what kind of pics people wanted to see to the point that before posting them I was able to predict their engagement performances.

    I ended up selling the account so I can't say publicly its name but it's been really fun! 🙂

    1. 1

      That's really cool! I've got a decent amount of growth through the explore tab too, but I kind of just treated it as an automatic bonus from posting interesting and engaging stuff.

      Good for you for selling an account like that! Hopefully you got a good price on it. Thanks for sharing.

    2. 1

      what was the strategy to appear in the explore tab constantly?

      1. 1

        Knowing exactly what my target audience wanted to see and posting only great content. When you get a lot of engagement the algorithm notices it and put you there.

  6. 1

    Great stuff @Juhola

    Not sure if there's any alignment, but one of my businesses is a site related to men's style and clothing advice (askandyaboutclothes.com).

    If you'd be interested in seeing if we can help each other at all, I would welcome the discussion. My email is in my IH profile :)

    Regardless, congrats on your success with your TMW IG account.

    1. 1

      Not sure either, but if you come up with something, feel free to reach out at juhola.org. I have to say that I'm definitely no style expert, though.

      Thanks for the kind comment!

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