Under the Influence

Photo of Jenn and Morgan by Julia Dags; Elizabeth Ariola by Carter Fish; others, contributed
Sidebars by DIANE SEMBROT

What do these ladies have in common? They’re smart, stylish, savvy, and they’ve transformed their passions into professions. Very successful ones at that. They’re also called influencers, which means that—via their blogs and social media outlets—they have the clout to impact the decision making, and often purchasing power, of their followers and beyond.

We sat down with this particular group of women, not only because they each represent a different town in Connecticut, but also because we find them aspirational and inspirational…and we hang on to their every word (and gorgeous photo!).

 

Elizabeth Ariola
NEW CANAAN

Her name is Liz Ariola, but online, she calls herself Mrs. Nipple.

Born and raised in Ridgefield, now mom to two boys (Charlie, three, and Ford, two), the former pharmaceutical executive and medical sales representative for Johnson + Johnson started her blog in November 2018, while spending countless hours registering online for her first born.

“I thought I was going crazy. I was over-analyzing strollers and car seats, even changing pads,” she laughs. “Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that during your motherhood journey, you really can’t control much.”

Still, as she continued to dig around the internet for the best of everything child-related, she recognized that there was no personal connection behind most of the websites she landed on. This realization was her impetus to launch Mrs. Nipple, in order to provide other moms with resources accompanied by the human touch she felt was missing. “I envisioned a space where women could come, not only to find answers, but to stay. That’s why I created a community made up of mothers from all around the world. A community where moms can share their own stories and journeys, where they can chat about questions they might have at two o’clock in the morning, when the rest of the world is sleeping, and, ultimately, just not feel alone.”

Photo of Elizabeth by Julia Dags

While Liz’s goal has always been to help women emotionally and mentally survive pregnancy and motherhood, and it was never her plan to become an influencer per se, she does wear the title well, as she encourages her followers to push through those tough periods of time when they don’t know how they can face another round of bad news, another stomach bug or another dirty diaper. She understands that not all women have a solid support system or even a close friend to experience life alongside them.

“My husband used to call me out for trying to mispronounce our last name, because I was embarrassed by the new identity,” she muses. “So when I decided to dive headfirst into the motherhood space with Mrs. Nipple as my brand, he loved that I was finally embracing our name. He always encourages me to stick with it.” That’s a good thing, because Liz considers her job full time and has no plans to slow down.

She says her greatest blogging achievement has been building a group that is so supportive and open, it’s drastically changed her own outlook on motherhood. “My second born, Ford, was a very uncomfortable baby. I knew something was up, but it seemed no one could nail down what it was until a mom in the Mrs. Nipple community diagnosed him with a lip and tongue tie. All of the specialists we’d seen had missed it, but this mother on Instagram caught it,” Liz recalls.

“After an early morning visit to our doctor, he said she was correct. A short and relatively easy laser procedure later, my baby—who was always in pain—was suddenly healthy and happy. I will be forever grateful to my community for taking the time to join in these important discussions.”


TIPS

BUILDING A COMMUNITY WITH A STRONG PERSONAL IDENTITY
Understanding who you are in the big vast world of bloggers and people on Instagram is going to help attract followers to you. Here’s what Elizabeth shared about her focus.

“Pick a niche theme for your brand. Mine is motherhood. The more niche the better.”

“Be true to your brand and yourself, nothing is worth quick money.”

“Invite your community to join you in the spotlight.”

“Vulnerability is always a good thing.”

“Don’t take yourself too seriously.”


IN THE CRISIS WORDS TO LIVE BY

When things are tough, Elizabeth does what wise moms do: She helps her family productively focus on the big wonders and simple joys in life and plan for the good times to come.

I WAS TORN ABOUT LEAVING MY FULL-TIME JOB. I went back and forth for a year, not knowing what the right decision was. My husband was supportive of the decision to focus on Mrs. Nipple. That sticks with me every day.


Julia Dzafic
WESTPORT

When Julia Dzafic first started blogging in 2010, Instagram didn’t exist, and the modern incarnation of the word influencer had yet to be born. Julia was working in marketing at the time and launched her blog on Facebook as a side hustle because she wanted to share healthy recipes and cute outfits with her friends. “I never expected it to turn into a real business,” says the New Hampshire native. But then something unforeseen happened. Her friends sent the posts to their friends, who also sent them to their friends and brands started to take notice.

At first, Julia’s mission was to stick to recipes and fashion, to keep things simple and inexpensive. “My husband, Anel, a personal trainer, and I were dating when I started Lemon Stripes, then called Lemons & Loafers. He’s been my number one supporter from day one. For the first five years, he even took all of my photos.”

Although Julia soon realized that the blog had a life of its own, and was growing with her, she admits it took about two full years to even begin to turn her hobby into a profitable entity. Her first real break came in 2012 when clothing and accessories brand C.Wonder paid her to do a blog post and then promoted it for her. Julia couldn’t believe all the publicity she received or that she was able to monetize what she’d previously considered a little project.

Fast-forward to 2015, when Julia made the decision to quit her steady job and pursue her blog exclusively. They knew that Anel would have to take on the financial burden of their household, which he did with no complaints. (Anel loves what Julia does, but sometimes feels weird when people come up to him in public and say they recognize him from her Instagram account.)

Julia also knew that she had reached a turning point and was ready to open up to her followers about much more personal moments. In fact, it was a post she wrote about enduring a miscarriage that she considers her greatest achievement to date. The post went viral and, to this day, she receives emails and messages from women all over the world telling her that she helped them get through their own miscarriages. “The fact that I’m helping so many people makes all the hard work worth it,” Julia says.

Now, five years later, she covers topics that matter to her most, like motherhood, sustainability and mental health, in addition to recipes, fashion and her absolutely awesome holiday gift guides.

The mom to daughter Amalia (almost three)—the light of her life—and a fur baby, a pit-mix named Boots, spends forty to fifty hours each week on her blog and Instagram account. Julia loves the flexibility that her career of choice offers, noting that she’s able to spend quality time with Amalia without having to answer to anyone. Often, she wakes up early and works late so she can have some fun during the day. “Two of my favorite activities are hiking and running on the beach with my dog. Taking thirty minutes each day to be outside in nature makes me feel like a different person.”


TIPS

BALANCE
Plan ahead to find time for work and family.

“Blogging full time looks fun and care-free, but there are many factors to keep in mind if you’re considering a jump.”

“I had my blog for six years before I made enough money to quit my job and focus on Lemon Stripes.”

“Hustle day in and day out. While it’s fun, sometimes the fuzzy line between work and life can feel overwhelming.”

“Put systems in place so that you’re able to be present with friends and family while also sharing daily content.”

“Time-blocking helps me stay on track and lets me focus on my husband and daughter at night.”


IN THE CRISIS WORDS TO LIVE BY

Finding the silver lining in the quarantine, Julia made the most of mommy-and-daughter time, including playing, learning about makeup and styling and cooking at home.

My husband, Anel, has been my biggest supporter from day one, before blogging was even a thing. HE WOULD TAKE MY PHOTOS ALL OVER THE STREETS OF MANHATTAN AND WHEN PEOPLE MADE FUN OF WHAT I DID, HE STUCK UP FOR ME AND BELIEVED IN ME. To this day, he gets excited about every partnership and campaign I take on and cheers me on from the sidelines. I couldn’t do it without him.


Jenn Falik
WESTPORT

“My husband thinks I’m nuts, but he lets me do it,” divulges lifelong Westporter Jenn Falik about her often frenetic vocation as an influencer. “Brian is very private and doesn’t always love the overshare moments that I’m prone to,” she adds, “but he’s smart and gets the business. As such, he tries to be good humored about the shenanigans I partake in.”

Shenanigans aside, one might say Jenn’s career began in kindergarten, when she schooled her classmates on the merits of Bonne Bell lip balm (she attended Coleytown Elementary and Middle, graduating from Staples), but, instead, Jenn credits her ten-year stint as a publicist at Alison Brod Marketing & Communications in New York City, where she developed strategies for major beauty and lifestyle brands. Before work in the morning, she would appear on local and national television shows, sharing her favorite finds and trends with viewers. She recalls, “I had an excuse to get my hair blown out by a pro and could still be at my desk by nine.”

Jenn soon realized that she was one of the only on-air experts not tied to a magazine and wanted a “home base” online where producers could find her for bookings and viewers could follow up on things she’d covered during segments. That’s when she launched her blog out of her apartment in Madison Square Park, which—over the last decade—has transformed in lock step with her life. She explains, “I write about the things I’m shopping for/worrying about/curious to learn.” In 2009, before kids (she’s mom to Alexa French, nine, and Goldie Nora, five) it was a lot of hot-pink heels and lip glosses. Soon it evolved to maternity style, then when she had Alexa in 2011, baby gear entered the equation. Parenting insecurities and discoveries, a move to suburbia, and everything that came along with that, and now she says, “I’m so excited when I discover a sleek looking stand to hold my Dyson cordless!”

Falik family time means being equal parts silly and fabulous.
Photo by Jen Goldberg Photography

As far as being labeled an influencer, this self-proclaimed SoulCycle junkie isn’t reluctant, but the term definitely didn’t exist when she was starting out. Her goal, she says, has always been to have an excuse to ask questions, find things, try things and share things. And share she does via her “Better Basics” Today Show spots, and her blog and Instagram account.

Most recently, Jenn launched her Ultimate Edit newsletter, featuring her top must-have items, which she identifies as one of her greatest achievements to date. “It’s an evolution of the blog that I feel really speaks to where my audience is right now. They’re busy, busy, busy! They don’t necessarily have the time to sort through all the ‘swipe ups’ and content overload on a daily basis, so I simplify it for them by delivering five truly amazing finds to their in-box in the form of a succinct, shoppable editorial email every Thursday,” she outlines. “Honestly, I can’t believe how quickly it’s grown.”

Of course, success doesn’t materialize overnight. Jenn is typically at her desk (or the Westport Library) five hours a day, five days a week, solely focused on creating blog concepts, shooting social content and studying things like SEO and how to enhance the functionality and UX of her site. She confesses she’s still figuring out how to work smarter, not harder.

But there are a couple of things that make it all worth it: “When I hear from followers and readers that they are madly in love with a product I recommended or related to a venting post I wrote, which I was likely scared to press ‘publish.’ Also, I truly appreciate having a reason to spend time making thoughtful purchase decisions for myself and my family all in the name of ‘work.’”


TIPS

WORKING WITH BRANDS

“Make sure you work with brands you truly love and, ideally, brands that you have used organically many times on your social platforms. This makes the content creation piece of a partnership easier, and your audience will be more receptive to the sponsored messaging. No dollar amount is worth jeopardizing the years I spent building trust with my readers and followers.”

“Being professional and easy to work with will go a long way. My follower count is not massive, especially compared to many of the influencers in my space, but my extensive background in public relations is such an advantage when it comes to brand collaborations. I really know what the brands want on the other side of the conference call. I go above and beyond to deliver it, without unnecessary back-and-forth emails or diva-like requests. It can be as valuable as followers.”

“A rate card—make it in Canva—lays out the basic ways in which you can work with a brand. Don’t get into the details, because when it comes down to it, most programs end up being customized based on what the brand wants to achieve and what they want to spend to achieve it. Having a rate card sets the tone.”


IN THE CRISIS WORDS TO LIVE BY

In one of those “Only Jenn” moments, during the hoarding emergency of shelter-in-place, Jenn hauled out a bunch of pretty bamboo toilet paper that she had hoped to promote.

Brian is great at coming up with clever caption ideas for my photos. TECHNICALLY, I AM THE WRITER IN THE FAMILY, BUT HE HAS A WAY OF CONCISELY GETTING A POINT ACROSS WITH A TOUCH OF WITTY HUMOR. Also, he has a knack for coaching me on how to pose for ‘impromptu’ photo ops. I sometimes just want him to snap the shot, but when I see the final image, I am grateful!


Liz Joy
FAIRFIELD

It’s been over a decade since Liz Joy launched her blog Pure Joy Home, in 2009, while working in human resources. She loved the “people aspect” of her job but not the corporate setting. She was desperate for a creative outlet and knew she would be happier pursuing other interests. “I was dreaming about beach homes from within the glass windows of my office,” she says, “so I decided to start writing about them.”

It wasn’t until four years later that her focus turned from beach houses to being a new stay-at-home mom, when her first son, Brian Jr. (now six), was born. She started writing about things she was cooking, clothing she was finding, how she was decorating on a budget and all things motherhood. At that time, she says there wasn’t really any money involved with blogging, so she leveraged her graphic-design skills to design wedding invitations until Pure Joy Home became a solid source of income.

It was her goal to become an influencer, even though it’s a term she’s still getting used to. “I decided that if I could choose to do one thing on top of being a full-time mother to a baby and a toddler (daughter Grace, now four), it would be the blog,” she explains. “There were no real deadlines, and I could share as much as I was able to. It was also forgiving to my life as a mom and, eventually, I figured out more and more of a balance.”

Liz regularly shares beautiful family shots with her followers

Liz says her big career break came when she was accepted into the rewardStyle network, citing that you had to prove the success of your business, even if your revenue was minute. Regardless, it sparked a fire in her that convinced her she could make it in the “crazy online world.”

Flash-forward to the present. Not only can the Stamford native support her family financially, but also her husband, Brian, has joined her team. (He was a VP of sales for iHeartMedia in NYC.) “We’ve always dreamed of a freer lifestyle, and I’m proud to say that after years of hustle and building this brand from the ground up, we were able to make that dream a reality. He helps me with absolutely everything, and having more time together as a family is life-changing.”

The couple, who’s expecting their third child any day, have watched their IG account attract more attention than the blog. Liz says that her audience prefers to consume quick snippets of content when they can, and Instagram gives them that immediate fix. “I love my blog and value its importance for longer-form content, but for getting the everyday moments and random thoughts out, IG is king,” Liz details. “I would say we spend about six hours a day between the two. That doesn’t include the backend work, so we’re looking at a total of about eight solid hours. I message with probably fifty to 100 of my readers daily. The best part is that I can spread everything out according to our family’s schedules.”

When they’re not caught up in the regular grind, Liz and Brian love to travel as a family and take complete advantage of school vacations. Their top spots are Block Island, Charleston, and joining Liz’s parents in Florida. “This summer we’re excited to visit Nantucket, but we may slow down a bit in 2020 with our new addition.”


TIPS

THE POWER OF INSTAGRAM AND BLOGGING TO CONNECT

Ask Questions
For example, Liz posed: “What do you say I up the ‘home’ content around here?” Then ask followers to tell her what they want.

Cross Promote
Liz shared new outfits and told followers that she would post them on her blog.

Make Mentions
She shared that she loves strawberry smoothies, then dropped in a dairy-industry website link.

Share Moments
Liz posted on Instagram about her blog post on seeing “quarantine as a gift for family time.”

Be Real
Liz shares vulnerable moments of her pregnancy. Moms relate to it.


IN THE CRISIS WORDS TO LIVE BY

Under quarantine, Liz was pregnant. Her posts asked for people to take the reality of the situation to heart and to think of the responsibility they had to not only themselves, but also to others. She implored people to just stay home.

This is the guy I met at a bar in 2007. I knew from that night he was someone special, WE STAYED UP TALKING IN MY PARENTS’ KITCHEN UNTIL 4:30 IN THE MORNING!!! #WHOAMI He took me out to dinner the next night, and we’ve literally been inseparable since. Sometimes I wonder what if I didn’t go out that night? So funny how life works.


Morgan Matkovic
GREENWICH

Before Lilies and Lambs was even a glimmer of a thought, Morgan Matkovic worked in retail for several years post-grad—everything from buying, to managing and styling. After that, her career took a turn toward substitute teaching, while she pursued her master’s degree in education. But, ultimately, she pushed the pause button on that to face her battle with infertility and to undergo IVF after roughly a year of fertility treatments.

During that time, from 2010–2012, she dabbled in writing a blog that never really took off and eventually dissolved. Still, she missed it as a creative outlet. So, in early 2015, halfway through her pregnancy with her first daughter, Morgan, she decided to launch Lilies and Lambs with the intention of sharing her life as a new mom: cute baby clothes, recipes and décor inspiration. Then a funny thing happened. What she had envisioned as a lifestyle blog ended up as a very therapeutic space for her. “Between my struggles with infertility and a bout with post-partum anxiety, entry into new motherhood was not easy for me,” Morgan explains. “I found it so cathartic to tell my story with all of its gritty, raw and real musings and to bond with others that felt the same way through both social media and my blog.”

That said, one thing she is clear about is that her goal was never to become an influencer. In fact, she doesn’t even refer to herself that way. “I can’t believe the direction this journey has taken me in. I never, ever thought it would become a lucrative business that I could do as a stay-at-home mom,” she reveals. “In many ways, I feel like the ‘Accidental Influencer.’ I’m so lucky that what I have to say has resonated with people and that they want to be a part of it. There are so many ‘pinch me’ moments.”

Photo of Morgan by Julia Dags

Some of those moments have come from partnerships with major brands, such as Olay and Pampers, and a long list of mompreneurs. She also fairly points out that there are a lot of people who take for granted how much work goes into her job, especially with a husband, two young kids (Madeline, almost five, and Lila, not even one yet), and two crazy dogs running around. “This year, I’ll do biweekly photo shoots, IG stories throughout the day and blog during the kids’ naptime or when they’re asleep at night,” she outlines. “Furthermore, if there’s one thing I’ve learned through my experience with social media, it’s that in order to succeed you must, in fact, be social. With that, comes hours of interacting with other accounts, businesses, readers and so on, both virtually on social-media platforms and in person through events and meetings.”

She believes that her passion for writing is what led her to this career and what feeds her soul. However, if the industry changed tomorrow, and there was no more money to be made as an “influencer,” she says little would change for Lilies and Lambs. You would still find her posting photos of her family and providing the same content with the hope that just one person out there would read and connect with her words.

Morgan isn’t all work and no play. For pleasure, she and her husband (they both grew up in Greenwich but didn’t cross paths until she moved back in 2012) love to travel as a family, go out to dinner and have their friends over for BBQs and pizza night. She’s also a huge fan of SoulCycle, her Peloton Tread, and watching Bravo. “Give me all the Bravo!”


TIPS

STARTING PARTNERSHIPS WITH BRANDS

“Create a media kit and really familiarize yourself with your audience. Who are they? What partnerships will resonate with them?”

“Reach out to brands that make sense for your readership.”

“Be social and seek to forge long-term relationships.”

“Create meaningful, authentic content that benefits both your audience and your brand partners.”

“Know your worth as a creative person, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.”


IN THE CRISIS WORDS TO LIVE BY

During shelter-in-place, Morgan shared on Lilies and Lambs the way she was supporting her children, from comfy clothes and familiar camp activities to good food and a drive around town to enjoy the scenery. She highlighted her family’s uncomplicated, happy moments.

My husband is definitely Lilies and Lambs’ longest and biggest fan. Without his support, I’m quite certain my readership wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is today. HE’S BEEN BEYOND SUPPORTIVE AND IS THE CONSUMMATE COACH. He encourages me to step outside my comfort zone, motivates me to continue to write and ALWAYS, ALWAYS MAKES ME LAUGH UNTIL I GET THAT PERFECT SHOT FOR INSTAGRAM.


Stephanie Trotta
DARIEN

In fall of 2010, Stephanie Trotta was so inspired by her fashion career at Ralph Lauren that she started a blog, The Girl Guide, so she could share her own voice via a unique creative outlet.

Two years later, she decided to take a break. “I do wonder where I’d be today if I’d stuck with it back then,” says the striking blond, born and bred in Ossining, New York, and mom to Luke, five, and Harrison (Harry), three. “I believe the universe had a different plan and I trust that. I know now that I still needed time to grow and to experience.”

When she revisited The Girl Guide in 2016, Stephanie was a different person. She’d transformed into a woman—she was a wife and a full-time working (and nursing) mother with seemingly zero free time for an inspirational side project. Yet she needed that—it was her happy place. “I’ll never forget driving home from the hospital after giving birth to my second son, Harrison, and thinking, This is it. I’m going off on my own to make a career out of this. I wanted to be my own boss. Thirteen months later I quit my job.”

Originally, The Girl Guide was almost 100 percent fashion. Then she partnered with one of her good friends, a chef in San Francisco, who created and photographed recipes for Stephanie to feature and the blog started to evolve into the lifestyle arena, including topics such as music, travel and her personal favorites, whether a new coffee shop, a boutique or a lip balm she loved. “My dream is to inspire my readers to look their best, but even more important feel their best. That is my hope when someone reads my posts or watches my stories,” says Stephanie, who spends about thirty-five hours a week on her blog and IG combined, in addition to extra time on emails and interacting with clients.

Photo of Stephanie by Julia Dags

Despite her success, the term influencer doesn’t resonate with her. Instead, she refers to herself as a stylist and blogger and says there was never really one big career break for her, more like smaller wins that added up, for which she credits her “slow and steady wins the race” mentality. Like in February 2019 when she was highlighted as a stylist on theeverygirl.com and got to share a week of outfits. She garnered a significant number of new followers and readers from that.

Still, numbers aside, what really moves her is being a resource for women. For example, when she receives a message from a fellow mom saying that Stephanie encouraged a trip to a farm with her kids and they had the best time or that Stephanie helped her look and feel good going back to work after having her first child. That, she says, is incredibly special.

What else does she appreciate about her job? “The first thing that comes to mind is flexibility. After working for a large corporation for the better part of the past ten years, it’s pretty amazing that I get to set my own schedule now. That never gets old. Flexibility means getting to spend time with my boys during the day and be there for them in ways that I wasn’t when I was working full-time.”

With a husband who’s very supportive of her career (he takes her photos on the weekends and when they travel), Stephanie feels like she has the freedom to spread her wings—and to take fifteen minutes a day to sit with a cup of tea (usually loose leaf) and reflect on life.


TIPS

GROWING YOUR BUSINESS BY DOING WHAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU.

Encourage Others
People ask Stephanie if the market is over-saturated or if it’s too late to start blogging or styling. “As long as you have passion, drive and most important a unique voice, it is never too late. There is only one you, and there is enough room in this world for all of us to carve out our own little space and be successful.”

Try New Campaigns
Stephanie launched “The Sunday Section” to share her personalized mix of fashion, beauty, news, cooking and more. “Every week I search the internet for articles, recipes, podcasts and fashion finds, looking for information and inspiration,” she notes. “It is truly a labor of love. As we approach the one year mark (I can’t believe it) ‘The Sunday Section’ has become the thing I never knew I always wanted.”

Trust Your Inner Voice
One day after leaving friends, Stephanie was having what she calls the Sunday scaries. Then she noticed it was beautiful outside. “The sun was just starting to set and I immediately said to Frank, ‘Let’s go down to the beach for a few minutes.’ It always seems to calm me, helps me refocus and shifts my energy.”


IN THE CRISIS WORDS TO LIVE BY

During the national crisis, Stephanie noticed a personal shift. With fewer emails to return, fewer meetings and other demands on her time, she learned how to slow down.

These extra days, hours and minutes we get to spend together—I will not take them for granted…I try to remind myself that I have them with me, and I know how lucky I am. We can only do our best for our children. They could never understand what is happening in the world and they won’t remember all of this…maybe only the way that they felt…so I’m doing everything in my power to make it love.

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