🔴 1.4 million followers (slowly, then very quickly)

Eight years in the business-life of a creator, ft. Caitlin Murray of @bigtimeadulting

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Today’s guest is Caitlin Murray, better known by her Instagram handle @bigtimeadulting. After her son was diagnosed with leukemia in 2016, she started blogging to keep friends and family updated — nearly 8 years later, she has 1.4 million Instagram followers. Today, we look at the story in between:

  • 📕 Getting rejected for a book deal

  • 💰️ How Caitlin approaches monetization

  • 🤝 When and why she began working with agents

  • 🤳 How she built such a large and loyal Instagram audience

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— Francis Zierer, Editor

P.S. As always, we’ve published this week’s interview on our podcast. Listen on Spotify, Apple, or YouTube.

“The complete loss of your autonomy is a very difficult thing to wrestle with and to come to terms with after having children. And in some ways, you find it again, but it’s completely different. You never really have that pick-up-and-go carefree mentality or ability after you’ve had a child.”

Caitlin Murray, on a recent episode of her podcast

Book deals are hard to come by. It helps if you have an existing audience of thousands of people who are near-guaranteed to buy your book. If not? Buddy, you’d better start posting. This is why Caitlin Murray started her Instagram account, @bigtimeadulting, at the end of 2018.

Caitlin’s first child, Calum, turned three in November 2016 and was diagnosed with leukemia one month later. As a parent, as a mother, what do you do? Obviously, you take your kid to the hospital secure the best possible treatment, but what do you do?

Caitlin’s answer was to write. She started emailing friends and family regular updates about Calum’s health before switching to blogging, for posterity’s sake. Happily, it took less than four years for Calum to beat the cancer.

In the middle of Calum’s fight with leukemia, an editor Caitlin knew asked if she’d be interested in writing a book. Caitlin’s blogging was an important creative outlet in a tough time — yes, she wanted to write a book. A publisher squashed her dream: “The writing is fine, but she doesn’t have any following,” as Caitlin paraphrased. “So I was like, well, maybe I’ll start an Instagram page.”

“At that point, I was still working. I was pregnant with my third child. I had a five-year-old who was in treatment for leukemia and a three-year-old. And I just, you know, I had no fucks left to give. So, I came to Instagram and started sharing my inner thoughts on motherhood and the challenges of everyday life as a mom.

Not so much to do with the deeper, more challenging things I was facing at that time with my son, but it just gave me this opportunity to be free and honest about all the hard parts of being a mom.

Six years, over 1,000 posts, and countless Stories, later the @bigtimeadulting account has 1.4 million followers.

By the end of her first year, Caitlin had 31k followers. The real inflection point comes in October 2022, nearly three years after starting the account. Instagram launched Reels, she started experimenting with them, and new followers came flooding in. That month Caitlin had 141k followers — one year later, October 2023, she had 1.13M.

Three years from 0 to 141k. One year to add 1 million on top.

How Caitlin built her Instagram audience

In January, 2021 an interviewer described Caitlin as “the foul-mouthed soul-sister of every stretched-too-thin pandemic parent.” Drawing from Instagram analytics, Caitlin says her audience is 95% women, most of whom are 35-44 years old. Of course, this is Caitlin's own age bracket, and she assumes that "99% are parents or mothers."

Caitlin had no experience in social media. Before quitting her job to care for her son, she’d spent 15 years working in fundraising, first for a non-profit and most recently for an elite private school. She did her research early on, reading all the articles she could find about “what to do, how to post, how frequently to post.”

A week of posts from late January 2019, Caitlin’s second month of posting to @bigtimeadulting.

Outside of regular posting, Caitlin was highly active on stories and — crucially — made sure to connect with like-minded accounts and comment on their posts.

Whenever a friend, "a like-minded account," shared one of Caitlin's posts, she'd notice a follower bump. She kept engaging with these accounts until her own content started getting enough organic shares that it made the most sense to create and share only her original content; she started to break out of the pack.

A week of recent posts from May 2024. Caitlin almost exclusively posts Reels; her last non-Reel post was two months ago at the time of writing.

When an algorithm-driven social media platform releases a new feature, like Reels, the company tends to tweak the algorithm to promote content that takes advantage of the new feature. In other words, Caitlin grew because she was early to Reels, and Instagram was promoting Reels.

But the algorithm only magnified Caitlin herself. She’s charismatic and already had over 100k invested subscribers at the time — she’d been developing the @bigtimeadulting voice for nearly four years. The fire was already burning; Reels just bloomed it in the wind.

Monetization wasn’t the priority

Let’s be clear: monetization has never been an urgent issue for Caitlin. This is an advantage. She acknowledges that she “was coming from a position of privilege because [her] husband was the breadwinner and [she] was primary caretaker.” Yes, Caitlin’s original goal was to build an audience so she could get a book deal, but that means monetization was a long-term goal and never a short-term necessity.

Bringing in agents to build the business

March, 2023. Caitlin’s Instagram following has quadrupled in the past six months, and her Gmail is flooded with cold emails — “a lot of outreach and people wanting to collaborate with you and do this or that and other things. And that's when I started thinking about partnering up with an agency.”

Most of the agencies Caitlin found didn’t appeal; they were “bigger, influencer-type agencies” whose models didn’t appeal to her. Around this time, a duo, Kat Peterson and Sam Ryley reached out. And their message got through:

“They're Canadians and two moms and they understand my content and who I am. They work very hands-on with the people that they take on and had a lot of similar visions that I did when we spoke. It was just a really lucky, awesome fit.”

Caitlin says signing a partnership with her agents was a mental shift — “It was not just me doing my own creative thing anymore.” Instagramming had stopped being simply a means to securing a book deal some hundreds of thousands of followers earlier.

The goalposts had moved; Caitlin’s agents helped show her where, how, and why. They founded their business in 2016 and don’t give much away on their website, but according to Sam’s LinkedIn, some of their other clients include PewDiePie and his wife, ItsMarziaPie.

Getting down to business

Brand deals are currently Caitlin's primary source of revenue as a creator. But she's picky about who she says yes to and says she has to "believe there's integrity to the brand itself." At one point last year, her Instagram account disappeared for a day, and she learned a lesson about how little control creators have on the platform. This past Mother's Day, she ran a campaign with Meta.

Caitlin’s Meta-sponsored Mother’s Day post

Caitlin has been doing a few speaking engagements. She’s mentioned a TV pilot, though details are sparse. She started a podcast in late 2021, but it’s been dormant since this March. Her newsletter, started late last year, has taken over as her chief non-Instagram interest.

If you want a book deal, you’d better have an audience ready to buy books. Caitlin has built that audience, and she says to expect “some news about a book pretty soon.” Safe to say she’s re-found some of that autonomy — but it is, indeed, “completely different.”

I asked Caitlin if she had any advice for other creators trying to build an audience: “Pick a theme and be consistent.”

This is great advice, at least in the early days — and those days may be years-long. It also helps to be as charismatic as Caitlin, and it helps to use algorithm-driven platforms to broadcast your charisma. It helps if you don’t need to prioritize monetizing, too, but the tricky bit is, eventually, figuring out how to diversify and monetize that audience.

Find Caitlin’s Instagram, podcast, and newsletter here.

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🎙️ In Caitlin’s episode of The Creator Spotlight Podcast:

  • 🧒 What happens to her work when her kids grow up

  • 💼 We go more in-depth on the business of @bigtimeadulting

  • 🎶 How she uses Spotify playlists to engage with her audience

Listen on Spotify, Apple, or YouTube. 

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Creators 🤝 businesspeople

It’s not a complex issue: creators hire agents or managers so they can give all their energy to their creative output while still maximizing their business opportunities.

On this week’s episode of The Colin and Samir Show, Samir had a good point on this, though he’s specifically talking about YouTube creators at a certain stage of growth:

“If a manager is gonna help you hire, get a manager, even if it’s more commission. Rather than an agent, ‘cause an agent’s there to help you sell, but they’re not necessarily gonna help you hire.

But a manager might take care of more stuff for you. Yeah, you’re giving away more, but actually I think we maybe undervalue our, like, personal time, mental space, and all of that in exchange for, you know, revenue, growth, and some of the other levers.”

Samir Chaudry

When I spoke to Andrew Huang earlier this year, I asked if he had any advice about hiring as a creator. He said, “At this point, I recommend people do it as early as possible.”

You may never hire an agent or manager, but if you lack the business acumen and still hope to monetize a creator project, the lesson is to find someone who can help you navigate the business side from the start. Could be a friend. Could be someone you send a cold LinkedIn DM to.

On the flip side, if you’re trying to build a creator project and find you’re better at the business side than the creative side, lean into it: pivot to creator management or business consulting.

Thank you for reading. Want more? Caitlin is a great conversation partner — this was a particularly good podcast episode.

For next week's issue, I spoke to Peter Ramsey, an entrepreneur who, by accident, has become one of the best UX content creators on the internet. Check out his work. He'll be giving Spotlight readers a no-credit-card-info-down free trial of his premium content, too. It's excellent stuff.

Talk soon,
Francis Zierer, Editor

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