Australian designer and founder of Moana Bikini, Karina Irby is one of the rising stars and entrepreneurs of Instagram. With nearly half a million followers on her business’ Instagram page and 650,000 followers on her personal account, Karina has effectively leveraged Instagram to grow her company and personal brand, standing out in the midst of the influencer frenzy.
In contrast typical to Instagram influencer accounts, Karina emphasizes the less-than-perfect realities of being a girl with a non-photoshopped body, and her level of authenticity has contributed greatly to her brand. Learn about how Karina has built her message on social and how she approaches branding on Instagram in our exclusive interview.
1. How did you start your business? What differentiates Moana Bikini from other swimwear brands?
Oh gosh, designing bikinis… even designing other products or clothing… was never really a locked in plan for me… it just, kind of, happened! First and foremost, I just love bikinis. I have always lived, traveled to, and wanted to be at the beach. Bikinis are my favorite item of clothing!
I moved away from home (Port Macquarie on New South Wales’ Mid-North Coast) when I was 19 by myself. I was surf instructing in Coolangatta, and at night I was working in a surf retail store, all while studying at University. Living the young-adult rite-of-passage life basically.
It came as a shock one day when my surf store boss called me on the phone and said I was fired – wrongfully I might add! Because we played around at work so much, I thought he was joking! He said he had been told by a reliable source that I’d been sending customers to other stores. I was embarrassed I got fired. I knew the person I was: I was really nice, good at my job. I thought those people were my friends.
So, at that point, I had finished Uni and was unemployed, living away with no income. Throughout my teenage years, I always had a huge interest in cheekier-cut swimwear, and especially those with bold, unique designs.
Unfortunately, there weren’t many brands producing the styles I wanted, or my friends wanted, or at least not in Australia at that point in time. I would be endlessly hunting, either online or in retail outlets, trying to find the perfect cut bikini with the perfect pattern.
So, I thought, screw it. Everyone had always said to me I should create my own bikini line, so that’s what I decided to do.
Armed with an $800 loan from Dad, I entered the swimwear industry with 20 pairs of bikinis I sourced from overseas in a wholesaling arrangement. That agreement didn’t last long as I wanted to create my own designs and leave my own mark on the swimwear world. And now, seven years on, I guess it wasn’t a one-off thing! Dad has only just let me pay him back three months ago.
That agreement didn’t last long as I wanted to create my own designs and leave my own mark on the swimwear world. And now, seven years on, I guess it wasn’t a one-off thing! Dad has only just let me pay him back three months ago.
While it was a combination of weird and random occurrences that led to me starting Moana, looking back it all, it does seem like it was meant to be.
There are SO many competing swimwear brands out there nowadays, aren’t there!? Plain, neutral colors and simple, skimpy cuts are all the rage and are what the majority of the newer brands sell.
Unfortunately, a lot of these new brands don’t realize this, and haven’t done the research – they’re selling almost exactly the same product as each other, just under a different label. In many cases, the wholesaler or manufacturer are purchasing previously (fraudulently) copied prints and patterns from other well-known brands (ourselves included!).
Moana has always, and will always, design prints and patterns from scratch. We have a very hard-working and dedicated design team, and an independent, respected manufacturer and materials supplier. This ensures that our designs are uniquely Moana. Our customers can wear them with this knowledge and pride.
And that’s just the physical product element! We’re constantly reviewing and refining our marketing activities to stay ahead of the curve and effectively connect with our beloved Moana Babes in the best way possible. We consistently test new marketing channels, and refine those we see value in, from social media editorial and advertising, to email marketing, to retargeting, to print and digital editorial, and more… all of which are powered by our constant and continued development of high-quality imagery and video content. We don’t rest until it’s all working and working well.
We consistently test new marketing channels, and refine those we see value in, from social media editorial and advertising, to email marketing, to retargeting, to print and digital editorial, and more… all of which are powered by our constant and continued development of high-quality imagery and video content. We don’t rest until it’s all working and working well.
Moana is truly different. We feel that we represent far more than any, single, product category. We create products that allow girls to feel comfortable, confident and carefree in their own skin. Our “Moana Babes” support and empower each other and are part of a global community. By buying a Moana Bikini, they’re not just buying a product, they’re joining our “Moana Army”, a community of girls that smile, laugh, and live life to the fullest!
It’s that differentiation between Moana and the rest of the market that has truly helped Moana reach the position it is now.
2. What role has social media played in the growth of your business?
Moana’s launch coincided with the adoption and growth of social media amongst our target demographic, and the business grew alongside our social media channels. This allowed us to foster and build an online community of like-minded Moana Babes. Social media is an amazing tool and, to be honest, I wouldn’t have the successes my businesses are experiencing today without it!
I love the instant connection of like-minded people fostered on social media – especially for business. Gone are the days of spending exorbitant amounts of budget on print, or even digital, ads without any guarantee on their reach and exposure. The instant, measurable nature of social media tells a business what’s working and what isn’t, in real time, which makes it an incredibly valuable tool.
It’s not all about pure business, however.
I love the way in which social media can be a positive change agent. Social media creates virtual communities with people from all around the world who share the same interests, passions, and dreams. To me, this is really cool. Moana and Bikini Body Burn have created global communities of like-minded women who support, motivate and love one another. It helps to make people feel like they’re not alone in their daily struggle, which could never be a bad thing!
3. Where do you find creative inspiration for your designs?
We are constantly being inspired and every single day is considered a part of the design process.
We have some really exciting developments coming in 2018, which we can’t mention just now, but let’s just say they’ve placed even more of a focus on our design process and ensured that the design team is focusing on new prints and patterns on a daily basis.
No idea is too silly or out there and we ensure that a cycle of constant improvement and refinement is in place. As soon as one range is complete, the next is being worked on – sometimes often two or three ranges at once are being tinkered with. It’s a very exciting and inspiring process and we can’t get enough of it!
Obviously, as a swimwear label, we’re very inspired by the ocean and beautiful coastal environments and everything that comes with them. But as our design style has grown and matured, we’ve begun to find inspiration in different areas: abstract geometric designs, flora and fauna, and colour and light. Inspiration truly is everywhere! We can’t wait to show our Moana Babes what 2018 is going to bring!
4. Why did you decide to venture Moana Bikini into the fitness lifestyle category?
Bikini Body Burn (BBB) was a pretty natural progression for myself and Moana.
As Moana Bikini grew, customers became curious about how to get the bikini body they were after; they wanted to be the best version of themselves they could be, so they came to me for advice. While on the outside I might have looked okay, inside I lacked energy and I struggled with my diet. I felt a lot of pressure to look a certain way and I thought that eating less and doing a lot of cardio exercise was the way to get that perfect bikini body.
I was afraid of resistance training in case it made me look too bulky. I was also confused about what to eat. How could I not be with so many fad diets and pills around!? All of this made me feel like I wasn’t knowledgeable enough or ready to pass on advice to these avid Moana babes.
Luckily, early in 2015 I met Simon from Starke Fitness in Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast and started training with him three times a week.
Simon educated me about ‘skinny-fat’ and explained that lifting weights actually helps you burn fat. He taught me about eating the right foods in the right quantities and I found myself getting fitter and really looking forward to each training session. I discussed my concerns with Simon, and after months of planning, Bikini Body Burn was born and we launched our 12 Week Guide to provide some guidance and advice for all the girls that were coming directly to me with questions.
I remember the first time I started noticing positive changes in my health. Everything was paying off. I love helping others achieve good health because I want everyone to experience those positive changes and feel returns on their health and fitness investment. There’s nothing more rewarding than putting in hard work and seeing results, especially when it comes to your own body, both physically and mentally – everyone should be able to feel those natural highs. That, primarily, is why we decided to launch Bikini Body Burn.
5. How has your presence on your personal social media contributed to the success of your business?
Lately, due to the vagaries of the Instagram algorithm, the Moana Business page has begun to slow in its rate of growth, whereas my personal page has continued to grow rapidly.
Obviously, Instagram is pushing businesses to pay for increased reach, which we totally understand, but I also think that the nature of Instagram and its audience behavior made my personal presence become stronger. Instagram is an incredibly personal medium. For instance, users are granted very unique, close and personal access to whomever they wish. Depending on the account/person/business they’re following, they may have access to things that very few other channels will ever provide. I feel that this nature of Instagram helps personal pages to be more successful than business pages.
I definitely try not to push our brands too hard on my personal social media feeds. For a personal channel to remain successful it needs to remain just that. But because I am personally so close to both of our brands, any promotion on my own account always feels very natural.
There are so many ‘Insta-girls’ on social Media these days, with huge followings, but the majority of the content they produce is brand-focused or paid. I think that kind of social media presence is totally transparent and, to be honest, gives their followers little credit or respect.
Basically, my personal social media presence is very helpful and complimentary to the business – and vice versa – but it’s also very considered and carefully curated so as to not bombard with brand-related content.
6. How is vlogging playing a role in your social strategy and growth?
As Moana and BBB have grown, we’ve been lucky enough to bring on new staff to help grow the brands, and also lighten the load on myself after 7+ years of doing, largely, everything myself. This increased efficiency has actually given me, just recently, something that I haven’t had for quite a while… free time!
To be honest, vlogging for me, at present, is a purely creative outlet to experiment with now that I have some personal time back on my hands. I had been feeling that I was losing inspiration being so bogged down in some of the more basic or mundane of business tasks. We have some amazing people on deck at Moana and BBB now, working in areas like customer service and order fulfillment, which has allowed me the time and brain space to experiment and be creative more often. Teaching myself filming and editing basics were some of the creative projects I wanted to challenge myself with.
Honestly, my YouTube channel is currently just a personal, creative outlet, but I am definitely enjoying the ability to showcase a new and different side to myself and the businesses. YouTube is more personal and honest side and has more length and depth. I think that vlogging and YouTube are great for that purpose.
A lot of other social media channels are fraught with fake activity and are more focused on image-building. On the other hand, vlogging/YouTube provides a more personal insight and access, and allows a greater connection with your audience and the ability to communicate deeply.
As with a lot of the more “passion” driven aspects of my businesses, there isn’t a ‘plan’. I’m not thinking too much about how this new channel will evolve and grow into a business. I am just going to give it the love and attention it asks of me and enjoy the process. I do know, however, that video content – both professional and personal – will continue to form a large, and growing, aspect of Moana and BBB’s businesses moving forward.
7. What are some best practices for brands to engage with fans on social?
I always find these questions interesting, and at times, a little awkward!
Social media is still such a ‘new’ element of everyone’s personal and business lives. It might seem like it’s been around forever, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s still such a new element in everyone’s lives. So, for people to profess they’re social media ‘experts’ to leverage their entire life and future success off the back of it, is unrealistic.
For me, social is just one aspect of a larger online, digital and physical personal and business presence. I definitely don’t call myself an expert!
I have approached social media very organically and naturally. I very rarely come up with a concerted plan on how to approach it. Along the way, I have appraised what has worked and what hasn’t. I’ve developed my presence and outlook to social media in that way.
So, throughout this process, the ‘best practices’ I have noticed and would recommend would be things like:
8. Lightning Round:
Favorite social media platform?
It’s definitely still Instagram – but YouTube is coming a close second for me right now!
Instagram account everyone should follow?
Place you’d most like to visit?
Italy’s Amalfi Coast – both to shoot Moana Bikini, as well as just relax and enjoy the beautiful location and FOOD! Maybe next year!
Favorite workout move?
Gosh, I don’t know whether I have a ‘favourite’, but squats, in all of their forms and variations, definitely provide me with so many positive results!
9. How do you see your swimwear business and other social platform accounts growing?
Moana Bikini’s 2018 Range is a huge step forward in both pattern and print design. Coupled with amazing modeling talent shot in one of the world’s most beautiful locations, I definitely think that Moana Bikini’s social channels will get a big boost surrounding the launch of our 2018 campaign in late November of this year.
Bikini Body Burn, similarly, will be launching a new guide and some new physical products – all things that our customers have been actively asking for. Surrounding this launch, I also think that BBB will gain a solid boost across our social media platforms.
With all of this in mind, however, I do see a continued trend of purely business social media accounts slowing in terms of organic growth and engagement. I foresee that my personal account(s) will experience continued growth, at a rate that’s higher than our businesses. That’s just the new nature of social media and the built-in algorithms encouraging business to pay for promotion.
It’s silly to get upset about these changes. Moana Bikini and BBB have some strategies to buck this trend, both organic and paid, and both inside and outside of social media APIs – but we have to keep those hush hush 😉
10. What is your advice to any budding entrepreneurs?
This is something that I am asked a lot! And I always have pretty similar advice:
First, do it for yourself.
Don’t do it for profits. Don’t do it for the image. Don’t do it because someone told you to. Don’t do it just because you don’t like working for someone else.
There are going to be incredibly long hours, soul-destroying hurdles, and long periods of time before, or during which, you might not turn a profit. If you aren’t personally and internally motivated, then you won’t make it through these struggles. Find a problem that you, personally, want to solve or a gap in the market that you, personally, have experienced… and go and solve it, for you!
Second, know your customer.
If you don’t truly know your customer, then you can’t effectively market to them and, in turn, you’ll have trouble selling to them, or anyone. Thankfully, in 2017, this has never been easier with real time metrics across all online e-Commerce and marketing platforms. If you don’t know your customer and how their product, marketing or media consumption works, then you’re not doing your job properly.
Third, have fun.
Isn’t that why you wanted to be your own boss in the first place!? Enjoy it and make it your own, and it’s true, you’ll never ‘work’ a day in your life.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.