I was interviewing a doctor at his Los Angeles home when a young woman wafted into the room, all asymmetric hair and tattoos.
“This is my daughter, Precious,” the doctor said.
“Hi,” I said and asked what she does.
“I’m an eBay trader,” said Precious.
“That’s south California for unemployed and still living at home,” added her dad.
That and other conversations have made me wonder how much young people really make when they work at online pursuits.
We hear about gamers making six-figure earnings from their bedroom but sense dictates that these are exceptions. The same with bloggers and people who try to make a living posting to social media.
The Beganoviches, posting separately, have 658,000 and 617,000 Instagram followers. The top Instagram fashion blogger has 2.8m.
I have a friend in London who is smart, expert in Instagram, Snapchat and the rest, and — it’s significant — very pretty. She started more than a year ago tirelessly trying to build up a commercially viable following as a lifestyle and nutrition coach
She has gathered only 3,500 Instagram followers, 750 on Twitter and is running out of the savings she hoped would fund her business.
Even if she had done better, she may not have made money. Last year, Gaby Dunn, a social media star, wrote that she was barely making a living. She had walked a red carpet, she said, while having just $80 in her bank account.
So when I received a PR email introducing two sisters in New York who work as “digital influencers” in fashion and lifestyle and have nearly 2m Instagram followers, I was sufficiently intrigued to want to go to meet them. I wanted to know what being a professional Instagrammer entailed but, most of all, how much they earn.
Amra and Elma Beganovich might have worked with brands from Avon to Johnson & Johnson to Uber, but they are midsized compared with others who supposedly make a living putting photos of themselves on the internet.
The Beganoviches, posting separately, have 658,000 and 617,000 Instagram followers, and 148,000 and 271,000on Twitter. The top three Instagram fashion bloggers in one breakdown have 2.84m, 1.76m and 1.6m devotees.
I met the sisters at their small serviced office near Times Square. Aged 31 and 32, they are Bosnian Muslims from a professional family in Sarajevo. During the siege of that city in the 1990s they lived in a bomb shelter for eight months until, when they were 7 and 8, they were spirited away inside a UN tank.
They were flown to Finland, where they went to school. They eventually settled in the US and went to university in Washington DC.
When, to the derision of family and friends, they left their jobs in 2013 to become fashion and beauty bloggers, Elma had been working as a lawyer in DC, Amra as an economist. They now employ 12 people in Bosnia who work both from an office and remotely, and regard themselves as a digital marketing company.
We talked first about how their jobs work. They choose some of the clothing and other brands they feature, including animal charities, because they like them; others they are paid to spotlight.
The women are good at what they do and brands struggling with social media are turning to them for help. They are also famous and good-looking and get paid to be at fashion events.
The basis of their appeal, they explained, is understanding their audience (70 per cent in the US, 30 per cent in Europe; 90 per cent is female and most are aged 16 to 35). Authenticity is crucial — they cultivate an image as regular young women.
From the start, we approached social media as we would a science,” said Elma. “It was an experiment.
“The world we reflect,” continued Amra, “is everyday but with a touch of inspiration, a little bit of a dream world. We come across as cute rather than perfect, so it’s a kind of organic content people can relate to, with everyday products in everyday settings”.
So, a little nervous of being thrown out, I asked the Beganovich sisters how much they make.
They looked briefly at each other and said they would ask their office to send me the figures for their 2015 earnings.
An email duly arrived from Sarajevo.
Total annual income for Elma, 2015: $714,000. Amra’s was very similar,” it read.
We factored in medians and averages to better represent the monthly variations: Blog earnings: $30,000, average per month $2,500; Instagram posts: $480,000, median per month $5,000 per post with eight posts per month on average; Twitter posts, $60,000, median per month $2,500 per Tweet with two posts per month on average; event attendance: $144,000, median per event $6,000 with two events per month.”
The reasons why the women left pressurised careers in DC suddenly seemed a little clearer.
But short of asking them for their tax returns, and given that I found the sisters credible, I still had to wonder if the figures were believable. I often find it hard in the US to know where refreshing transparency ends and bragging begins.
So I asked a digital communication specialist, Mark Malone of the Communications Store in London, which uses digital influencers — Brooklyn Beckham being one.
“It’s not at all out of the realms of possibility,’ Mr Malone said.
“A big brand will pay from £5,000 to £250,000 for three pictures from a major influencer, and £10,000 to £20,000 is normal for a post if the audience is right.”
Other things that rang true about the sisters, according to Mr Malone, are their office in New York, having been around a long time in social media terms, being invited to the right events and, most likely, being known for having a good proportion of quality, active followers.
So, yes, it seems the cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words might be an understatement. And that if you get a few things right, you can make a living from posting photos of yourself online.
From what I learnt in a couple of hours with the sisters, I worked out what might be holding back my clever friend in London from becoming a superstar digital influencer.
One factor is photography. Amra and Elma use professional, high-quality photos taken on a DSLR camera rather than sketchy images snatched on a phone. Another is expertise: they have been to coding school to fully understand their medium.
Above all, though, the sisters speak to a universal desire for women to look “a better version of themselves”, as they put it.
My friend’s yoga tips and recipes for green vegetable juices are perfectly good as “content” goes. But Amra and Elma’s glossy execution and granular understanding of their audience clearly propels them into a higher orbit.