The Instagram boom over the last 5 years has created a blueprint for success that wasn’t available to previous generations. Yet, most still choose the typical societal path of college, a stable 9-5 job, a 401K and a company benefits package. 5 years ago, people would have scoffed at the notion that Instagram would be changing lives at the rate it is today. However, there are now more 6-figure earners coming from Instagram than any other industry in the world. Still there is a large misconception that the only reason to brand yourself on Instagram is to get free products and get paid to be an “influencer.” We sat down with branding expert and digital entrepreneur, Carson Jones to hear his story and get some tips on how he left his 9-5 job and learned how to turn the power of Instagram into a real business.

Q: Carson, tell us a little about your background and what you were doing before Instagram?

A: When I was growing up, I was told that you should go to school and get good grades because you had to go to college in order to get a good job. The American dream! So I did… and after college I got into the real world only to realize that all I had were great friendships, memories and a $100,000 piece of paper. There was no automatic path to comfort and I think most learn pretty quickly that todays American dream is very different from our parents, or their parents. I ended up with a few entry level sales jobs, then eventually settled into a comfortable role as an Insurance Sales Manager with a regional bank here in Columbus, OH.

Q: So what prompted you to leave that comfortable job?

A: After a few years, I knew I wanted something more and I always considered myself to be entrepreneurial, but just didn’t know where to start. At that point, I still had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew if I never made the jump, I would always regret it.

Q: So you quit your job with no real plan for what was next?

A: Kind of, at that point I was just looking for an out. I don’t recommend that strategy at all because life wasn’t easy for a long time. When I left insurance, I was trying everything I could to be self-employed but I had no direction. Along the way I did energy sales, roofing sales, freelance writing, multiple MLM programs and eventually door to door senior life insurance sales. I was all over the place, dissatisfied and at a loss for direction. After so much struggle, I had to take a step back and figure out why everything I was doing was failing.

Q: What breakthroughs did you have and what changed?

A: I completely lacked self-awareness. Every one of those jobs came about because I was hoping somebody else would “bail me out” and they would help me become successful. That’s when I realized that I had to figure out what I really wanted to do. Entrepreneurship is so difficult and were constantly getting hit in the mouth, so if you are doing it just for the money, you will quit once it gets difficult. I started thinking about my passions. I knew I loved writing, creating, networking and knew I wanted to build a career around a lifestyle. I not only wanted to be successful, but I also wanted the freedom to live life on my terms, and that meant not sitting at a desk for 8 hours of my life every day.

Q: Writing, creating and networking all sound great but how did that turn into a business?

A: It wasn’t at the time. It was a very raw idea and I had no idea where it was going. I just knew I wanted to learn how to market online because I saw the influencer space beginning to explode, at that time they were all just called bloggers. I taught myself how to build websites from watching YouTube videos, learned what drop shipping was and started learning the value of these bloggers and influencers. I figured out that if I didn’t have the budgets to run ads, I had to figure out a way to work with influencers to get attention for my businesses.

Q: Without a budget, how did you get influencers to work with you?

A: I think people limit themselves, and I hear the money/budget excuse all the time. “If I only had money, I could do that.” If you don’t have money, you have to be self-aware and understand what you do have. At that time, I knew I loved writing and I knew I had a lot of TIME. I also knew that these bloggers were always looking for more content and that most loved free press. I reached out to hundreds of publications to find places to guest write, with no luck. So I started ghost writing articles for influencers and letting others take the credit for my work while I was building my resume.

Q: You did all of that work for free without getting credit?

A: Yes! If that sounds crazy, trust me, everyone else did too. People don’t understand how valuable the word FREE can be, but it gives you all the leverage if you do great work. Eventually my work with influencers turned into huge exposure and access for my digital start-ups and branding agency. Most people want a guarantee before they do any work, which means they are always chasing lower tier clients. If you do the work for free, and do an excellent job, you can take those results and charge what based on the value you create. I started all of my companies by doing the work for free, which eventually led to bigger deals and high level people wanting to make my ideas and turn them into successful businesses.

Q: So what do you do now?

A: This is always a loaded question because the better question is what we don’t do. My businesses range from large brand event activations, helping people build their podcast listener networks, growing Instagram accounts through our influencer networks, two product lines and a PR/Outreach team that is second to none! When people ask what I do, I tell them that I help entrepreneurs, businesses and brands get more exposure online and more specifically Instagram.

Q: What advice would you give somebody that wants to get out of their normal 9-5 but doesn’t know where to start?

A: My first piece of advice is don’t do what I did and quit your job without a real plan. If you don’t know what you want to do, start by trying different things in the free time you do have. I know it’s easier to play video games or watch TV, but if you really want to change your life, you have to make some sacrifices. My next piece of advice is to be curious! If you don’t know what you want to do, you have to try a lot of different things before you find what you love.

You also need to understand that your first ideas won’t be winners and your first idea will likely fail. I don’t mean that to sound negative, but you have to learn to walk before you can run. Lebron James didn’t take his first shot once he was in the NBA, he perfected his craft for 18 years before he made it big. For that reason, you have to have tough skin learn to block out the voices around you. When I first started this journey, I would always tell my closest friends and family members my new ideas and they were met with responses like, “You’re doing what??” This isn’t because they don’t love you and don’t want you to be successful, they just don’t understand it and that’s ok. Invest every resource you can into yourself. That means reading books, listening to podcasts, investing into your personal brand, finding a mentor that you trust, going to conferences and continuing to grow along the way. The more knowledge and connections you gain along that process will lead to opportunities that you can’t even fathom right now. You have to be tough enough to get through the losses and learn from each of them, because they will always lead to the next thing if you refuse to give up!