ask an influencer | Jul 12, 2023 |
Zachary Wheeler is pulling back the curtain on the design industry—for better or worse

In Ask an Influencer, Business of Home explores the creator economy. This week, we spoke with Zachary Wheeler, the interior architect and designer behind the eponymous Instagram account Zachary Luke Designs.

When he landed his first major design project, Zachary Wheeler thought he had finally hit it big. He’d worked various jobs in trade furniture showrooms throughout Charlotte after graduating with his degree in interior architecture in his home state of Michigan, all while taking on smaller design gigs on the side.

Then, The Morehead Inn came along. The century-old bed and breakfast was a local favorite, and in securing the renovation project, Wheeler decided it was the perfect moment to embark full-time on his design business. It even pushed him to launch a new Instagram account to document his progress—choosing his middle name, Luke, in place of his last name in order to separate his social life and business.

Once the project wrapped up, Wheeler’s luck took a turn—his project pipeline slowed to a trickle, forcing him to take a temporary showroom job as he waited out the lull. Still, he’d acquired a knack for creating content and decided to turn his attention to the showroom itself, producing weekly video series to capture new clientele. Not only was the series a hit, but the audience outlived his brief stint at the showroom, following him to his own personal page—currently home to an audience of 95,000 followers, who tune in as he provides an inside look at the industry through partnerships with industry organizations ranging from the Coverings show to High Point Market.

Ahead, Wheeler shares how partnering with industry organizations has raised his profile online, what he learned after hiring a Gen Z brand manager, and why the thornier sides of interior design still have a place on social media.

How would you describe your content when you first started out, and how has it evolved?
They always say your first year is the hardest, and it definitely was. During that two-month [period] working at the showroom, I was like, “Let’s make this place more fun. I’ll start doing a video called Tip Tuesday every week.” It would be a tip about lamps or art or furniture pieces, just to put a bit extra out there and drive traffic to the showroom. The boss was OK with it as long as it didn’t take away from me helping customers that walked in. I started posting them on my own business Instagram, too.

Zachary Wheeler is pulling back the curtain on the design industry—for better or worse
The bright blue fireplace is the centerpiece of this living room by WheelerTiffany Ringwald

When I went back out on my own, full-time in June 2018, I couldn’t stop [the videos] because people were in love and commenting, “We love your ‘Tip Tuesdays,’ we love to see what you’re going to say next,” so I had to keep that going. I basically have kept it going until now, five years later. I also tried “Thursday Thoughts,” featuring other designers from businesses here in Charlotte and highlighting them to help drive their business. Those were longer, more in-depth videos about their business or where they’re from. The concept was nice, but people aren’t going on social media to watch a video that’s three, five, eight minutes long—and they ended up turning into 10 or 13 minutes long. I was like, ‘I’m spending all this time with people, which is nice, but they’re not getting views; people aren’t engaging.’ [Viewers’] attention spans are a minute or less. And people weren’t really reaching out about filming new ones. So I took a pause on that, and then I started just doing “Tip Tuesdays,” featuring myself and design-related things.

Last year, I came up with the idea for Frustrating Friday. I did a little thinking, bouncing the idea off of other design colleagues—I was like, “What do you think about this [concept], where I just tell it like it is to people in a matter-of-fact video, just to be real about things behind the scenes in interior design?” People were like, “We love that idea—we need someone to tell people how it is, and if it’s going to be anyone, it’s you.” But the videos have evolved into other things, too, and now I’ve even done a couple “Frustrating Fridays” for Market—about [the overuse of] boucle and skirts. Some of those from Market are funny, and other ones I’ve done are like, “Listen, this is how it is, and I’m kind of mad about this, and this is why.” I want people to know that I’m not just this happy-go-lucky person, because I’m not, and no one is. People think they have to put on this persona for social media that everything’s always fine, but I’m actually showing my actual, real personality—I’m a very blunt, matter-of-fact person.

When did you start approaching social media with a strategy?
I had a brand manager for a couple months, and she was a big help with all of these recent videos—like the How to Not Make Your House Look So Shitty video, which is continuing to get followers and grow and gain engagement, reaching [people] across Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. It’s my most viewed, commented and liked video ever.

All of my recent TikTok videos with good engagement were because of that manager. She is a 24-year-old Gen Z, and I’m a 33-year-old millennial, so we connected, but she knew more about TikTok. I can do some basic stuff on there, but she knows how to do all things. She was researching ideas, and we were getting together once every couple weeks and doing a block of videos so we had things to push for the next two weeks. She’s on the USA national field hockey team, and she had her own Instagram and TikTok following, so that’s why I hired her. I was like, “OK, this girl knows what she’s doing with her sports branding, let’s see how she does with my interior design branding.”

It was a learning experience for both of us—great on the social media side of things, not great on what I actually wanted to do for my business. My main reason for hiring her was to start my Pinterest and eventually start my blog, and then do TikTok, but it turned into a majority of the time focusing on TikTok. But she gave me a lot of ideas and ways to make my videos more fun and engaging, instead of just me sitting down or standing next to something and talking, because that’s kind of what I was doing before—which people loved, but I need to be able to engage everyone, not just a certain group. Especially not just other design colleagues, as they’re not the ones who are going to be getting me jobs. I need to draw in customers, or other brand deals, since I don’t use social media to get [interior design] projects. I do videos because they’re fun and they inform people, and to hopefully get influencing or brand partnership deals.

What role does social media play in your business today?
It puts my work and my personality out there. My pattern is: a post of me in a picture or video, and then [alternating that with] a post of a project or something else. I’m always in front of the camera, so it’s all about people knowing who I am, what my personality is like. Especially when it comes to clients, I tell people, “Go to my Instagram before we meet, and from there you’ll know who I am.” This year, I started actually being paid to do influencing opportunities, and I also had a media company reach out that wants me to start doing TikTok videos from brands, which I won’t post on my page, and they’re going to pay me a certain amount of money per video.

I just did the High Point influencer tour, too—we had to apply for that, and they chose 12 of us to be the ones on the tour this spring—and the Coverings show in Orlando before that in April, and then a side thing for Ceramics of Italy, which paid me to post a couple videos for them on my socials.

Especially since I reached over 90,000 followers and got verified, there have been a lot more people wanting to collaborate or involve me in things, so it’s really stepped up my game. [Getting verified] was a two-year process—when I started, I had around 50,000 followers. There’s a whole application process through Instagram; you have to scan your driver’s license or your passport to verify it’s actually you, and you have to put at least three examples of proof of why you should be verified within your industry. I would always link my magazine articles or appearances on local TV. I didn’t do it every month—you can reapply every 30 days if you’re not approved—but I would apply, forget about it, and come back a few months later like, “Let me try again.” I reapplied again in March when I reached 90,000 followers, and I got a blue check mark. But what I think helped was me showing off that I was doing influencing for the Coverings show and High Point Market; I had been named Charlotte’s second-best interior designer; and I had a local magazine article come out—all back-back-to-back. I posted about all of that, so I think they took that into account.

How do you choose which brands you want to work with?
I like to stick to brands that have to do with interior design—maybe a little fashion, but mostly interior design. I turn down a lot because I don’t want to start being that person who partners with whomever and have it end up totally messing with my design page. It still needs to connect to interior design in some way or another. A recent one that gave me free products was a cookware company, and all they asked me to do was a cool video of me using three of their products cooking a meal. That’s fine, because I can do that in my kitchen, which shows off some of my interior design. Plus, I could make it a Tip Tuesday, but it could be a cooking Tip Tuesday—it could still work into my brand and into my page.

Zachary Wheeler is pulling back the curtain on the design industry—for better or worse
In this kitchen, a pop of color from the blue tile adds excitementTiffany Ringwald

How much of your personal life makes it on to your social media?
Little tidbits here and there. [Followers] even asked me recently if me and my boyfriend are still together because he’s been in a couple posts, but he’s not on all of my posts—because that’s my personal life. That’s my boyfriend; he has nothing to do with my design business. Recently, I did one that was like, “Three facts new followers might not know about me.” It was like, “I’m from Michigan, but now I live in Charlotte; I’m a modern traditional designer; and I live in a 1953 ranch that I’ve renovated.” It’s basic things like that—not too in-depth, and I don’t share stuff like that all the time.

But I am very [present] on my own page—every other post is either a video or a picture of me. I think I show off my personality really well in the little captions I write as well. But it’s all about being careful so people don’t know too much about you, or try to get too involved in your life. I do get some odd messages in my DMs sometimes, and I have to cut it off. People can be so weird on social media, especially as you get more well-known, so you’ve got to watch it.

Do you ever deal with trolls or negative attention?
Yes, especially with one of my most recent videos, which blew up on TikTok—people are so triggered by it. If you’ve seen the video, I don’t really have any expression in it, I’m being very sassy, like, “Do this, don’t do that.” This is probably the one video of mine that came up on [the trolls] For You [feed], but if you went to all of my other videos, I’m nice and funny. I’m like, “That’s not my whole personality, go watch my other videos!” But then, other people loved it: “You’re so funny, great advice, great design tips.” It’s so many mixed reactions. For that to be my first video that’s had this many [reactions,] it’s been so funny responding to it. I started responding to all the comments—even the negative ones, just being negative back—and then my brand manager was like, “You should only respond to the nice comments.” So then I deleted all my negative comments. Then, I started responding to them again, because I’m like, “You know what? These random people can’t just come to my page and comment and not get anything back.” It also shows my personality—I’m not just going to sit there. And the more you comment, the more it drives up your engagement. But some of the really negative ones, I just delete them.

Does maintaining a presence on social media ever get overwhelming for you?
It definitely has, and I’ve taken breaks before. Earlier this year, I had to take a whole month off because it was way too much—constantly having to do videos, think of ideas, do the next thing. Over the break, I was like, “Let me think about how I can get back to this and not let myself get like that again, where I’m too overwhelmed with too much on my plate.” It was as simple as doing a Tip Tuesday every other week instead of every week, or doing a Frustrating Friday once a month. It was about keeping up without [overdoing it]—because people don’t need to hear something from me every single week. If I lose followers because of that, it’s fine; it’s for my own mental health.

Also, it helps just keeping it nice and light and fun and fresh, and not being so serious and trying not to have to get this topic in or talk about this or that and fit it into a minute. I can do something super quick—it can be 20 or 30 seconds, and it doesn’t have to be an explanation. Part of it was also [no longer] introducing myself [at the start of every video,] like, “Hey, it’s me, Zachary Luke Designs”—if new people come to my page, they clearly know that’s my name by reading the description. I don’t have to introduce myself in every single video, and that cuts out some time as well. It’s little things like that that make social media posting easier, and that’s helped a lot.

How are you thinking about other platforms?
For TikTok, I was reluctant for a while. I didn’t really get it—it was all dance videos when I first got it, so I was like, “I’m not going to do a dance to an interior design thing.” I didn’t really want to learn a dance or do a song challenge every time, so I started turning to interior-design-related [content on] TikTok. I don’t get a ton of views; I don’t get a ton of comments—it’s just another platform to show off my business. Facebook is for the oldies, Instagram is for Gen X and millennials, and TikTok is for Gen Z and Gen A. It’s all about reaching all of those different audiences.

What’s the biggest challenge for you right now on social media?
One of my goals in starting my own business has always been private-label collections with companies. Getting to be known well-enough that I am a big face in the design industry, being verified, being recognized—that gets you to the next point of being able to strike up brand partnerships with furnishings brands and private-label collections. I have my first one in the works right now, and that’s a big stepping stone for people like me in the industry, to get more involved with that company and then also more involved with other companies—because once other companies see that partnership, they’ll be like, “Oh, maybe we should give him a shot,” or “We want to do a partnership with him too.” My goal is to have a licensed collection with every part of the industry—my own lighting, pillows, furniture, bedding, accessories. I’m starting with a bedding and drapery collection, which is a step in the right direction.

My [social media presence] is about reaching a lot of different people and influencing them. Reaching people in Charlotte is fine, but I don’t really get design projects from social media. I get them from Google, my SEO, Thumbtack and word-of-mouth. On social media, 100,000 followers is my [current] goal, and I’m 5,000 away, so I can do that. And then also, [I want to do] more influencing and brand partnership deals. The ones I’ve done so far this year I had a lot of fun with, and I get paid to do it—I can talk about design constantly, and if I can do it as an influencing thing and show people what I’m seeing at design shows or make videos about it, I love doing that.

Homepage image: Zachary Wheeler | Houston Aaron Ray

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