Justin Schuble who set up DCFoodPorn, and dining app TidBit, started his half-million strong account when he was at university
Social media influencer Justin Schuble, 24, is the founder and creative director of DCFoodPorn. The account has more than 500,000 followers on Instagram. Schuble is also the co-founder of TidBit, a new dining decisions app. He spoke about managing expectations, and the pressures of being an influencer.
The interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
So, how does somebody become an influencer?
I think it depends. Like, today, now that influencers are a thing, there are people that will start a blog and try to become an influencer. But for me, that was definitely not the case; I totally fell into it. I was a freshman at Georgetown [University, in Washington DC] in the spring of 2014, and Instagram was pretty new.
Or at least I was new to it. So there was really no such thing as a social media influencer – people being paid to travel or getting free meals – none of that existed. I really just loved food and needed a creative outlet – and a reason to get off campus and explore DC. So I started going out between classes and trying out restaurants and started snapping photos on my iPhone and sharing them to my personal Instagram account.
At one point, it was all food on my Instagram and nothing else, and I was like, “Maybe I should start a food Instagram.” It was originally called @Freshman_Foodie. I changed the name to @dcfoodporn because I wanted something a little more risqué, a little more eye-catching.
Was “food porn” a term already?
Food porn was a very new term. So, like, older people would be like, “That sounds inappropriate.” Whereas today I think it is a lot more common. But I kind of wanted to take that risk and be bold. So I changed the name, bought a camera, and I started to post every day. But I still didn’t see it as a business just yet.
Once I got to, like, 5,000 followers, which back then was a lot, it kind of hit me that, “Oh, this actually could be something big.” And at that point, a few brands started to reach out. [Casual restaurant chain] Sweetgreen was one of the very first brands. So I was like 18, 19 years old meeting with people working at important companies and PR brands and all of that.
Some of them would be surprised by how young I was, so it was an interesting dynamic. But I was able to learn a lot early on. And I think if I started this later in my life, I don’t know if I would have had the guts to pursue it as a job.
What is the business model? How do people make money?
For the most part, brands reach out when they have campaigns and they want to promote things. And based on your following, and based on your content and how much value they see in you, brands will pay for marketing, essentially.
It’s kind of like a radio ad except that we have to create the content. So we’re providing the audience and the content. The key is to be top of mind without annoying people. And it’s a fine line.
So how do you keep your integrity and loyalty to your followers balanced with the pressure to present your sponsors well?
For me, the biggest thing has been to manage all expectations upfront. So I try to do as much research and figure everything out before I agree to do anything, so that I don’t end up at the end of a campaign or a project or a meal feeling like I have to post but I really don’t want to.
I’m not going to say it’s never happened, but I think I’ve figured out how to avoid those situations as often as I can. And sometimes I’ll just pop in a place and try it. Like, sometimes it’s worth it to me to pay and not have them know who I am to have an authentic experience.
And I never post anything negative. If I enjoy myself, I’m going to post, and if I don’t, I won’t. But I’m not going to, like, trash you to half a million people. That’s not my personality.
There’s the charge that social media presents this curated version of the world that isn’t authentic and creates all kinds of unhealthy pressures for people.
In that light, how do you see your work?
A: Luckily, I think what I do is different than some Instagram models and fashion people that people really look up to and [are] kind of insecure about themselves when they see. I think food is definitely less like that.
But I do agree: I make it seem like I’m eating doughnuts and chocolate cake and cheese bread [laughs] for every meal, and that’s not the case. Like, I eat salads, and I eat plenty of healthy food. I think it’s important to balance curation and being authentic. And I try to do a little bit of both. But I don’t think you can be 100 per cent, like, no filter ever, no editing. Like, “Here’s this ugly salad I ate today.” People wouldn’t want to follow that.
I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me, like, “I love what you do. You’ve inspired me to start my own food Instagram.” But I always try and manage expectations and show that it’s not all just sitting and eating food.
Like, I show when I’m in meetings and I’m doing work on my laptop. I’m like: Just know that if this is successful, you’re going to end up doing this every day. So you have to really just be passionate about the content for its own sake, and if growth and other things come with that, that’s great. But you can’t expect it or know that it’s going to happen.
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