“What’s a follower?”
These were the words Kayla Itsines, now a global internet fitness sensation, said when she was told of her first 100 fans on Instagram.
Now with 1.7 million followers on Instagram, 915,000 likes on Facebook and 163,000 followers on Twitter, you would never think this social media queen originally thought Instagram was simply an app for storing photos privately.
“I didn’t even think about it at the time. I used Instagram and had my own blog but, I know this sounds stupid, but I didn’t know people could see what I was uploading,” she recalls.
While Itsines had been uploading before-and-after photos of the clients she trained, she had unsuspectingly been gaining a worldwide audience.
“I didn’t even know what was happening [at first]… people were following and asking what I was doing, and I realised they were commenting,” she says.
“I know it makes me seem silly now, now that I know so much about social media.
“I didn’t want to make a name for myself, it just blew out… I can’t explain it. It’s crazy.”
This is when Itsines realised she was onto a good thing. She began interacting with her followers, answering the question and providing them with advice. Inspirational photos and exercise ideas, this is what the people wanted.
But then her humble following started to grow – fast.
“I was trying to be nice and helpful so I was like ‘Let me make an eBook [of my programs]’,” she says.
That’s when things went pear-shaped.
“…then everything was crashing and everyone was freaking out.”
So many people went on her website ordering her eBook, the system went kaput. And Itsines, well, she was at a loss.
“When I first released the eBook people were saying ‘this doesn’t work’ and ‘that doesn’t work’, because too many people were on it and it was crashing,” she said.
“I didn’t think anyone would be interested. I was just like ‘I released an eBook, it’s out there now.’
“I was so stressed because people would have looked at me and thought ‘Oh, she’s really experienced in this’, or ‘She has a business, she has people working for her’, but that was my first thing I ever did.
“It was just me, I was answering thousand and thousands of emails and crying and thinking ‘this is too hard’.”
Itsines quickly came to the realisation this was beyond her capabilities and she need help, fast.
That’s when she brought in the big guns – her boyfriend.
“I write programs… I’m a good personal trainer, I can do seminars but Tobi is the one that’s technologically savvy and was able to help me,” she says.
“There were heaps of challenges with the website. That’s why Tobi started up Pearce and Co,” (the digital marketing agency which now assists Itsines’s social media empire).
“So many things went wrong but now that we’ve got a strong team it’s going fantastically.
“It’s just what happens. It’s the journey, and when you work hard and you get rewarded.”
Now Itsines is even followed by celebrities, from Victoria’s Secret model Candice Swanepoel to Australian swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Stephanie Rice.
Business Insider asked Itsines what was the secret behind her international success. Her reply: the combination of a solid program, focusing the business around fitness and not about “Kayla” and, of course, having a good social media game plan.
Having worked on perfecting her routines and testing them out on her clients since she was 18 (she’s now 23), Itsines’s credibility as a trainer who delivers incredible results can be seen in the “hundreds and thousands of transformations” she said their customers have achieved.
And by looking at the before-and-after photos she post of her clients, you can tell she’s not exaggerating.
So what is it about Itsines’s training programs that makes it so appealing to 20-year-olds, 40-year-olds, 50-year-olds, mums and men?
“The only thing I changed was the fact that you didn’t have to kill yourself at the gym every single day,” she said.
“While the workouts are only 28 minutes, they are high intensity and repetitive.
“A lot of women lose motivation because they think ‘I have to workout for an hour and a half every single day, five days a week, and when they start not doing that, they think ‘Well, stuff it, I’ve stuffed it now, I’m not going to do it anymore’.
“I think that’s what people love about my program – I’ve taught them you don’t need to kill yourself at the gym. It’s 28 minutes, it’s high intensity and then you’re done.
“You repeat the exercises for seven minutes straight, and it’s up to you to push your body as hard as you want to. If you have to right mindset you will be absolutely stuffed.
“It makes you think ‘I can just push on a little bit more’ and then you do it again, and again and again.
And for those who say they don’t have time to exercise, Kayla has three words for you: “Yeah you do.”
Simple as that.
“You have time, everyone has time,” she says. “The good thing about this is that you can do it at home.”
“I understand that people don’t have time to drive to the gym. The gym might be 20 minutes away and 40 minutes of your day wasted, plus you have to do your workout. I get how people don’t have time but this one you can literally get a few pieces of equipment up in your lounge room and do it.
“All you need is the length of your body as space on the ground and you can achieve a great workout.”
I must admit, when I first started following Itsines, I thought “Here’s just another account which posts before and after photos”, but there’s much more to it.
Earlier in the year, Business Insider’s Chris Pash wrote an article on how before and after photos are misleading based on the efforts of a trainer by the name of Mel V who proved the “transformation” could be achieved in 15 minutes.
But Itsines says while anyone can fake a before and after photos, when done correctly and you are true to yourself, they can be an important element on your fitness journey.
“Anyone can sit there push their stomach out and make their legs bigger, and if you want to do that, that’s fine. But what I do differently is that I tagged the girl whose photo it is in the caption so you can… click on that and you can see her step-by-step transformation,” she said.
“We are very picky with who we upload because we don’t want to upload an account that just has one transformation, we want to watch their body change and I think that’s the difference.”
As well as these before-and after-photos that Itsines’s business is renowned for on Instagram and Facebook, she also posts photos of herself – but rarely of her face.
Itsines’s business philosophy isn’t about putting one name or one face to an industry which is meant to motivate an entire population.
“If people can’t relate they come unmotivated. I want people to think of the Kayla Itsines program as a program that motivates everyone and that it’s not all about me,” she said.
“I can’t simply inspire someone myself because I’m only me, I live in Adelaide, I eat these foods, some people can’t relate to that. But when they see others from all over the world with different body types, that’s when you start getting motivated and relating.”
When it comes to her social media prowess, Itsines has listened to the needs of her followers to gauge what and where she posts her content.
“My followers always give me awesome ideas,” she says, explaining that they were the ones who first request the eBook which has become the backbone of her business.
“The eBook is everything. That’s what started everything. All the transformations from the last year and the half have come from that.
“The people I upload, the food that I upload, are people that are doing my guides.”
When it comes posting content on the different platforms, Itsines says it’s about taking time and care to get it right.
“You don’t want to upload the same thing on everything. You don’t want to have the photos on Instagram, and the same photos of Facebook, and same photos on Pinterest,” she said.
“You want to be original and I guess it’s just a slow process.
“And although we go slowly, it grows fast. The more care and the more effort you put into it, the more people are interested. It’s growing fast because we’re putting thought into it and taking care.”
While Itsines says she has taken great joy out of growing her business and helping people reach their goals, she says it hasn’t always been fun and games.
In fact she almost quit – not something you’d expect from a motivation sensation.
But facing constant, daily bullying and criticism from online trolls, it was almost too much for her.
“I openly admit that I threw in the towel a year and a bit ago. I said: ‘I give up, I can’t tell with this, I’m sick of people bullying me’. And the things they were saying about me… It freaked me out,” she reflected.
“You can’t [filter it], it’s social. You can block them and you can delete the comment but they come back again.
“I used to cry, I honestly used to be so upset about it. It was bullying but on a huge scale.”
While it took some time – and self-belief – Itsines eventually accepted that some people make fake accounts to try to bring you down but it is your attitude and reaction to the trolling that matters most.
“I guess you just have to know who you are and know what you believe in,” she said.
“Be confident in yourself and what you say, and just know that what people say about you isn’t true. Don’t let it affect you. You have to remember it’s just one person.”
Despite the steep learning curve early on and the online trolls, Kayla says the whole process has been worth it.
“I would do nothing differently. I enjoyed the stuff-ups, I enjoyed crying my eyes out because… everything worked out perfectly and if I had changed something then I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she says.
“I wouldn’t want it to be handed to me and for everything to be easy, and I always say that, I enjoy learning from my mistakes.”
Since her success, Itsines has made a habit of chatting with other local businesses and entrepreneurs about the pros and cons of running an online business, sharing her advice, stories and wisdom.
“I’d say be organised, have goals, think about what you’re doing before you do it and where you want to be,” she says.
“If you want to climb a mountain, make sure you have another goal set for when you get to the top so that you don’t lose motivation. Stay on top of it, and double check everything.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and build your resources and relationship.
“Be positive and have a tough skin.”