Like everyone else during the pandemic, creator and model Ilianna Ayala used her sudden influx of free time to take up a new hobby. A few months and one Cricut machine later, and she was running a successful Etsy selling customized tumblers, bottles, and more. 

Influencer, model, and Etsy shop owner may seem like a lot of descriptors, but Ayala has never put herself in a box. The 28-year-old New Yorker got her start around 2015 in the natural haircare space, but now has over 50,000 Instagram followers interested in every aspect of her journey: beauty, plus-size fashion, couple content with her fiancé, and being an Afro-Latina working with brands like Fenty, Footlocker, and Ulta.

Here Ayala reflects on her past five years in the industry and shares what she learned from mistakes she’s made striking deals with brands, talking with other creators, and building an engaged community that has companies like Dove, Malibu Rum, and Halo Top in her inbox.

Learn from experience

My first brand deal was actually with Carol's Daughter and it was, at that time, the biggest payment that I had had. I gave them my rate [and] they actually were like, “No, we have this rate,” and it was way higher. So then I was like, “Oh, so this is what I should be charging.”

I remember messing up another brand deal. I did not know how to rate myself. I think I gave them like, “Oh, I would do this for 25 cents per view.” And now I'm like, “What was I thinking?”

I learned the most from speaking to other influencers, especially influencers that were doing the same thing that I was. I'm thankful for the influencers that share that information. From then on, I knew, This is a base rate that I should be charging. Over the years, I learned so much more and I also realized that what I was charging then, I should've been charging more. It's just a learning process.

Working for free hurts more than just yourself 

I know everyone is eager to work with brands, but I feel like the most common mistake is working for free because not only does it affect your pockets, but it will later affect other people's pockets. If [a brand] can get an influencer that probably has the same following as me to do something for free, when I give them my rates, they can easily go, “Well, this girl did it for free so why should I pay you this?” It hurts your peers. I think that's one of the biggest mistakes. And I also know it's an honest mistake, because there's no rule book.

Mix up your content

I think [brands value] the mixture that I have. I have my natural hair girls that follow me. And then I have my big girls that follow me as well. Also I have my Latinos that follow me. I love them and they're so supportive even at brand events. They will come and they will show love. 

I do everything. I do makeup. I do fashion. The community that we have, they are very vocal. And I really like that. 

I'm trying to build my following [on TikTok]. And I'm noticing that my content with my fiancé has been going crazy over there, which actually gained a lot of my followers. So we've been playing with the idea of creating more couple content on TikTok since it's been so successful.

Brands want you to be yourself

Brands are using more micro influencers and they're more inclusive. Of course there's definitely room for improvement, but I have noticed more inclusivity in brands and them using all ages, all sexes, all races, sizes. I started off a natural hair influencer and then became a plus-size model and it felt like it happened overnight. Because of social media, everything was in the eyes of all my supporters. With Instagram, people just post what they want to show, but I really showed them that, “Hey, I”m not really feeling pretty right now. I'm not feeling myself right now and it's absolutely normal.” And they see that and they're like, “Okay, she's not just the pretty picture, but she also is a woman that goes through her insecurities."