One bad date helped launch Samira Kazan’s Instagram career.
She had begun to grow frustrated with online dating when, on the evening of July 14, 2015, she wore a tight top to a first date and saw the man eyeing her “food baby.” Embarrassed, she went home and teared up, searching for stomach toning tips online. After discovering that eating a healthy breakfast was a top tip, she decided to give it a go.
“I said, ‘I’m going to try this because I’m going to look after myself — and screw all guys!’” she says. She resolved to focus on being happy while single — and to eat healthy for herself and no one else.
Kazan, who goes by @AlphaFoodie on Instagram, has more than 600,000 followers and is known for her creatively-topped smoothie bowls, geometric fruit shapes and wildly colorful breakfasts. But before sharing her food art on social media, she rarely ate breakfast — resulting in feeling distracted most mornings at work. She would regularly ask her co-workers to grab lunch at 11 a.m. — and they always said it was too early.
In Kazan’s line of work, focus is vital. She’s a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London, and in her research she analyzes brain signals from experiments conducted in MRI scanners to gauge which areas of the brain are active when. The Oxford University PhD graduate also teaches physics and mathematics to university students, but she’s currently taking a gap year in order to focus on Instagram and tutor in London.
How did such a unique background help Kazan reach Instagram success? “I’m a scientist,” she says. “I see what works and what doesn’t work based on statistical analysis.” If she sees her followers engage more with certain content — like her popular smoothies — she knows posting similar photos will help her account grow. Plus, she began using math, symmetry and shapes to set her account apart (think avocado stars and dragon fruit spheres).
Read on to learn how much Kazan makes from Instagram compared to her day job, her take on edible flowers and why she turned down an advertisement offer for almost $35,000.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with Instagram?
I went to Google to look for healthy breakfast ideas, and I started hearing more about things like chia seeds and kale. I had never heard of those before — this is about two and a half years ago. I went to the market and bought some greens, and I started experimenting. My first was a smoothie bowl with pineapple, banana, lime, ground oats and spinach or kale. When I started trying these smoothie bowls, I was feeling better at work and concentrating more. I started encouraging everyone to eat them because it was really helping me.
The intention was never to post these photos on any social media — it was just for me. But when I showed pictures to my sister, she said, “Why don’t you put it on Facebook?” I said, “No, I don’t want to show off what I’m eating.” She insisted, so I made a Facebook album and shared my breakfasts with friends for a month or two. Then, they said, “Please stop spamming us with the food! Can you go to Instagram?” I wasn’t comfortable with social media, but after two or three months, I was bored one day, opened an Instagram account and started sharing. I noticed people starting to like the photos, and when I reached 100 followers, that was a big deal to me. I was like, “One hundred people believe in what I do!” I started to notice a trend — anytime I posted a smoothie, it became very popular, and I got loads of followers. It was growing and growing. After that, I was featured in Vogue magazine, and I think that brought exposure. After that, I was invited to China to appear on their national TV.
While all of this was happening, I was working full-time teaching MRI physics and mathematics to university students. As the account grew, I started getting offers to fly to places — Cannes, Dubai, Italy — to do workshops or sponsored events. In academia, you have a month of holiday, and I would take off work and use these holidays as Instagram workdays.
2. How much of your time do you spend on a post, and what does that entail?
I spend maybe two hours planning and creating, plus buying and shopping for ingredients. I have three people working for me — two part-timers and one full-timer. Usually, we don’t just go into the kitchen and create — we go to a coffee shop to plan. We’ll say, “Tomorrow, we’ll make a smoothie that will look like this.” I always experiment and come up with ideas, but sometimes it works well, and sometimes it’s so bad. But experimentation is fun!
Let’s say we’re going to make a smoothie bowl. I always have the frozen ingredients in my fridge. In drawers, I have frozen bananas, blueberries, strawberries — all the fruits that can possibly be frozen to use in a smoothie. What’s involved is the design: Are we going to make a smoothie bowl? What kinds of decorations are we going to put on it? It’s important to think about what the feed looks like (like, “I want to do pink today”). One thing we always buy is edible flowers. I spend so much money on edible flowers. It’s an investment!
What we really spend a lot of time on is campaigns for clients. If we know we’re making an advert for somebody, then we spend a lot more time on it than for our own picture. We want to make sure it looks interesting, engaging and creative because if the advert looks a bit more creative, then the followers don’t mind.
3. What’s your content strategy? How do you decide what and when to post?
It’s statistics and mathematics. If you see your followers engage with certain content, and the number of likes and saves are up, you think, “OK, I must be making more of this if I want my account to grow.” The other aspect is the mathematical shapes. I don’t know what it is, but people react to any mathematical design. My followers really like circles of fruit, symmetry and pairs. If I put two smoothies next to each other, it’d be more engaging than one smoothie alone. Twos always seem better than ones. And if you have a pie decorated with squares and triangles, it gets much more engagement than a pie with some strawberries on it.
As for inspiration — you get inspiration even from walking in the street. There’s inspiration from other people. There’s art everywhere. It’s your own twist and how you look at it. One day, workers were outside making a brick wall. I thought, “I’m going to make a fruit wall.”
4. How do you leverage your Instagram account, and to what extent do you monetize it?
The money isn’t the main drive here. Sometimes, in one day on Instagram, I earn the same amount as I make as a university professor in two months. But Instagram is not stable. In general, it’s very variable. I love mathematics, and I teach mathematics as a hobby — I still do that every day here in the U.K., even with Instagram. I rely on that as my income even though it doesn’t make as much. You could make a lot of money in one Instagram campaign, but you don’t know — one day, you could wake up and Instagram isn’t here anymore.
I really love long-term collaborations because they’re better for both you and the brand. It shows loyalty, and that means you have stability of income for the next six months. Sometimes from a six-month contract, you make more than in a whole year as a university teacher.
I get loads of campaign requests, and I turn down so many — either because I don’t like them or they don’t align with what I do. Two weeks ago, I got a request for something I would never do: 25,000 pounds for two posts to advertise for electronic cigarettes. And I don’t even drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t support smoking and that’s not something I agree with. The brand was trying to go with the angle of it being healthier with no nicotine, and I said, “I’m really sorry — it’s not for me.”
5. What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on the platform?
Use hashtags, and make your picture interesting. Don’t worry if your account is not growing. If you post a cool photo, then everybody will share it and tag you in it. People gain followers by sharing your photo, and you gain followers and exposure. Also, look at the grid and plan your feed. Let’s say I have nine pictures for next week — I would see how they look next to each other.
Ask your followers questions, and show your interest. People like to be asked — if I say, “Left or right?” in a caption, they want to engage with it. I also love Instagram stories. I always do polls and ask my followers, “Which one do you prefer — this or this?”
Also, if you have an Instagram account, you can’t spam your followers all the time with adverts. Balance is very important. If you advertise for something, it’s very important that you actually believe in what you’re advertising for. When you do collaborate with any brand, whether it’s small or big, it’s very important to do the best you can because if you do a good job, they will come back to you.
6. What’s a misconception many people have about Instagram?
People think it’s easy. I get so many negative comments sometimes. People think we don’t know what we’re doing and that we’re entitled. They don’t realize we really worked hard for our followers. It’s like a full-time job — that’s why I have people to help. It’s a lot of work.