A Dog Photo Is Worth… 1.3 Million Followers

As a fellow dog owner, I know the joy a pet can bring to a family. The feeling of walking in the door after a long day at work and being greeted by pure excitement has no comparison. It is no surprise that photo-sharing apps such as Dogs of Instagram are loved by people from all walks of life, whether they be pet owners, animal enthusiasts or just those who appreciate a cute photo of something fluffy.

Co-founded by Ahmed El Shourbagy, a 2010 graduate of the Full-time UST MBA program, and his girlfriend, Ashley Paguyo, Dogs of Instagram is a result of vision, passion and entrepreneurial spirit. Winners of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal’s 2014 Diversity in Business Award, El Shourbagy and Paguyo have an enviable job: evaluating hundreds of dog photos daily based on cuteness and quality to determine what to share with their 1.3 million followers. But that’s not all they do. Dogs of Instagram also provided much of the inspiration for their latest endeavor, Lucy & Co., a dog-themed online boutique.

El Shourbagy recently shared his vision, passion for dogs and the entrepreneurial inspiration driving the continued success of Dogs of Instagram and Lucy & Co.

What surprises you most about the Instagram platform and its followers?

I wasn’t expecting Instagram to grow as much as it did. It also receives some of the highest rates of user engagement compared to other social media platforms. Most followers find us because a friend “tagged” them in one of our pictures. We try to engage our followers as much as we can. The Instagram community in general has been a great community to be a part of.

Is it a means to make a living or purely a passion?

It was a passion for a couple of years, then it became a second source of income, but now – along with Lucy & Co. – it has become a means to make a living. Ashley and I launched Lucy & Co., an online boutique that sells everything from apparel and accessories to prints and greeting cards.

What prompted you to leave your job as a management consultant and launch Lucy & Co.?

I’ve always had a strong interest in retail, both professionally and personally. I spent three years working for Target Corp. and learned a lot about merchandising, marketing and supply chain. Personally, I’ve always invested in my purchases. I take pride in buying things that I can use and appreciate for a long time. I launched Lucy & Co. in August 2014 because I felt like there was a gap that needed to be filled in the pet apparel and accessories world. Lucy & Co. is a curated shop with a commitment to quality and design. We work with some of the best independent makers and brands in America to create beautiful, quality products for dog lovers. Although I was learning a lot at my job as a management consultant, I had to take the opportunity to start something of my own. I gave my two-week notice three weeks before launching the site. Fortunately, the company I was working for suggested that I continue doing freelance work for them while we ramped up business. This was an amazing opportunity that made taking the plunge feel just a little bit less crazy. Now I’m working full time on Lucy & Co.

What role did Dogs of Instagram play in your decision to start Lucy & Co.?

Dogs of Instagram inspired my decision to launch Lucy & Co., having immersed myself deep into the dog community and culture in the three years leading up to Lucy & Co.’s founding.

How will you grow Lucy & Co.?

One of the biggest challenges for any e-commerce site is traffic. Without a big marketing budget, many online stores struggle to get enough people to their site. Fortunately, with Dogs of Instagram I have a built-in traffic mechanism – the ability to place Lucy & Co.’s products in front of more than a million dog lovers without spending a dollar.

What prompted your idea for Dogs of Instagram?

I was on Instagram very early on, long before any of my friends joined. Instagram had a section called “the popular page,” which was populated with pictures from all around the world that were getting a lot of “likes.” I noticed two things about the popular page: 1) A lot of these pictures were pictures of dogs and 2) I started following a lot of strangers just because I really enjoyed seeing pictures of their dogs. I started wondering how many ran- dom strangers I would need to follow to populate my newsfeed with cute dog pictures. That’s when the idea hit me. What if there was a single account that curated these amazing dogs? I went home and created an account called “Dogs of Minnesota.” Twenty-four hours later I realized I was the first to do this and there was no reason to limit the community to a specific geography. That’s when Dogs of Instagram was born.

What was your initial vision? How has it evolved?

The vision hasn’t really evolved much. From day one, there have been three key components to the vision:

First, every picture that we feature is from an email submission from an Instagram user, and we credit every photo. I wanted people to take the time to email a photo and say a little bit about their dog. People’s relationships with their dogs are very personal, and I wanted that to come through in the captions.

Second, I wanted the feed to be a curated gallery of beautiful photographs. In the early days, when I was receiving only a couple submissions per day, I would go days without posting anything until I received something of high enough quality. That has really differentiated Dogs of Instagram from other copy-cat accounts.

Finally, I wanted to keep the feed fresh by consistently posting content that is relevant. That means posting pictures of dogs snuggled up under a blanket on Monday mornings because we know most people are struggling to get out of bed, so they can relate. It means posting World Cup “pupdates” from community submissions of dogs wearing team jerseys from all around the world. Over time, our audience has picked up on this. In anticipation of every holiday, we will start to receive pictures that are relevant to that holiday as far as a month in advance. Dogs in Halloween costumes, dogs being patriotic for Fourth of July and dogs curled up under Christmas trees.

Why dogs?

Dogs are cute and full of emotion and personality – they make for great photographs. They’re also very noncontroversial. While some photographs might appeal to some groups of people but might offend others, photographs of cute dogs are universally liked. We’ve received dozens of emails from people telling us how much joy these pictures bring to them or a family member.

How do you receive and filter content?

We receive anywhere between 100 and 500 emails every day, and we look at every single one. We feature two to four of our favorites each day. Photo quality is the first filter; we never feature poor quality photographs.

Are you hoping to raise awareness for something?

We’ve partnered with a great organization called Susie’s Senior Dogs, which raises awareness for older dogs. These older dogs are often overlooked for adoption even though they make for great family members and are typically a lot less work than a puppy. Every Sunday, we partner with Susie’s Senior Dogs to feature an adoptable senior dog from around the country or an inspirational senior adoption story. We also regularly partner with other organizations on a one-off basis to help get dogs into loving, permanent homes.

How do you select the products you offer?

First, we identify brands that we admire; we seek out companies that excite us personally as consumers. Then, we assess overlapping principles and figure out if there’s a potential product collaboration that stays true to both brands. If the brand doesn’t currently make any dog products, we brainstorm ideas for products that would be complementary to the brand’s current offering. If the brand already makes a product we’d like to sell, we co-create an exclusive version of the product (exclusive color, size, packaging, etc.).

While pursuing your M.B.A., did you know you wanted to do something entrepreneurial?

I’ve always had a strong interest in entrepreneurship. I figured that I’d work for a company for many years before I decided to go out on my own. I never expected that I’d be running my own business at 28. Running a business requires you to know at least a little bit about all the aspects of business. Having had exposure to marketing, accounting, finance and organizational development as a part of the UST MBA program has definitely given me a great foundation of knowledge and experience.

Any other entrepreneurial pursuits in your future?

I’d love to turn the Dogs of Instagram gallery into a beautiful coffee table book someday. Aside from that, I remain very focused on the future and growth of Lucy & Co.

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