Alex Shannon: “You’re going to work harder than you ever thought you would”

Just ask! I used to be so reluctant to ask for what I wanted out of fear that people would think I was greedy or being difficult, but I very quickly realized that if you never ask for exactly what you want, you’ll never get the results you want. What you see as being picky, […]

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Just ask! I used to be so reluctant to ask for what I wanted out of fear that people would think I was greedy or being difficult, but I very quickly realized that if you never ask for exactly what you want, you’ll never get the results you want. What you see as being picky, can often make life easier for others because they know exactly what you want and need instead of having to guess.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing…Alex Shannon, better known as @followthenap on Instagram. The 35-year-old content creator recently received extensive international press coverage for being the first person to create a viable career and lucrative income out of sleeping. Nicknamed “The World’s First Sleep Influencer,” Alex has created his dream job and amassed a devoted following of over 26,000 from napping in the most luxurious locations around the world. Since noticing a gap in the influencer market and dreaming up his concept in 2018, Alex has napped in and reviewed luxurious destinations including The Presidential Suite at the Armani Hotel Dubai, The Parisian Apartment at Mandarin Oriental Paris, the Veranda Suite at Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles and The Azure Suite at the Versace Mansion Miami. Through awe-inspiring photography and tongue-in-cheek captions, Alex embraces — and provides commentary on — society’s permanent state of exhaustion and fulfills the seemingly impossible fantasy of turning laziness into a lucrative lifestyle. Alex currently lives in Los Angeles.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up just outside London, England and was a very creative kid from day one — always drawing, writing and making things. I’ve also always had a very unique relationship with sleep. I was a lucid dreamer from a young age but also suffered from sleep paralysis, which made sleep something wonderful and very scary at the same time. Once I grew out of the sleep paralysis (for the most part) and was able to get great quality sleep, it was a really transformative experience that has stayed in my mind to this day.

I was also lucky enough to have a mum and family who were so supportive of every creative endeavor I undertook (however absurd) and truly instilled in me that anything I could dream was possible. Without that, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to see creative expression — in whatever form — as a viable career path.

I originally came to the US to study at UCLA School of Theater, Film and TV with a focus on screenwriting, so I’ve always been an avid storyteller. That progressed into a 10-year career in editorial and social media for companies in LA, which I think planted a lot of the seeds in my mind for @followthenap.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?

I don’t know that I had one single “ah-ha” moment, it’s been more like a series of happy surprises where I realized that (1) I’d found a significant gap in the market, (2) that people are genuinely interested and engaged with my concept and (3) that it can be significantly monetized because it’s an under-served area on social media. It’s been an incredible journey and has shown me that you can really push the limits of what you believe to be possible.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

Honestly, trial and error, putting myself out there and taking chances. I started @followthenap as a fun side project and couldn’t have imagined just 1.5 years ago that it could be a viable source of income or allow me to travel the world and experience such incredible things. I just had to learn by doing — I had no idea how to work directly with photographers, edit imagery or pitch hotels and brands, but I started and consistently tried to learn and course correct. I was incredibly reluctant to put myself out there at first — concerned that people or companies would realize that I was inexperienced and/or that my idea was stupid — but once I started doing it and getting such incredibly positive responses, that fear melted away.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

I would love to say that you should make sure that it’s realistic to turn that particular hobby into a career, but I don’t think anyone (even myself) would think that you could create a career out of sleep, so I can’t really say that! I’d suggest to build things up as much as you can while you still have a day job (if that’s feasible). There’s a little less risk that way and you’re able to make the mistakes that are necessary to learn and grow. Also, this might sound counter-intuitive but don’t listen to everyone else’s opinions. Obviously, other viewpoints can be very valuable, but at some point you have to have faith in your own idea and move forward despite other people’s concerns.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

Whatever area you’re working in (however fun it may seem), there are always areas that will be challenging, difficult, frustrating and annoying. That said, I think reminding yourself why you loved what you’re doing in the first place is so important. Before it became a business, what was it that made you want to spend your time, energy and money on it? Also, when something is your own business, you can make the rules to a certain extent. If there’s part of it that’s become something you dread, see if there’s a way that you can change it.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I love the level of creative control I have over every aspect of my work. The vision is 100% mine (for better or worse) and I’m able to pick and choose who I collaborate with and what types of content I put out there. That’s also the most challenging part; it’s a one-person mission, so you have to handle the things that you’re not as skilled at as well as the things you love. It can definitely feel overwhelming at times but I try to remind myself that not everything can be accomplished overnight and that there’s always going to be more to learn, areas to improve and new ways to grow.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I think the level of work and just how time-consuming creating content can be is something that I was unaware of and that I think most people don’t even consider. There’s an immense amount of behind-the-scenes planning, communicating and pitching that goes into every single shot. There’s also so much time spent educating yourself on developments in social media, photography, editing, etc. that I couldn’t necessarily have foreseen. That said, I’ve learned so much in the past 1.5 years that I look back at my original content and cringe a little.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

Right now, I still work as an Editorial Director at an amazing company called Barefoot Scientist who completely support my other career as a content creator. For a while, I was freelancing while working on @followthenap and there were definitely moments during that time that I craved the stability and routine of a full-time position. The opportunity at Barefoot Scientist came at the ideal time and now I feel very fulfilled in both my careers have a great mix of stability and entrepreneurship. Every situation is so unique but this one works really well for me.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There have been (and continue to be) so many mistakes I’ve made! One of the funnier moments was trying to shoot in the Dubai desert. In-between getting sand in my eyes, mouth (and everywhere else) and being terrified of every single insect and animal that came close to me, it was a hilarious experience. I learned that even with all the planning in the world, unexpected and bizarre things will happen. Succeeding just means finding a way to make the best of them!

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

I don’t know if I can call myself a leader but what inspires me to be a great creator are all the unrealized ideas I still have in my head — and those are endless! Also, there are so many other incredibly talented creatives out there in every arena that push me to continually improve and think bigger.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I don’t know that I’ve made the world a better place just yet! But I do know that I’ve had an impact on a smaller scale with individuals who’ve messaged me to say that my content really makes them happy, makes them laugh and makes them feel less guilty about prioritizing self-care. As I continue to infuse more content directly related to sleep health, I hope that will continue to have a positive impact.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You’re going to work harder than you ever thought you would. On the surface, creating imagery for social media doesn’t seem like it would be that difficult, but it’s incredibly deceptive. In order to be successful, there’s a huge amount of work that goes into it. I can honestly say I’ve had the more fun but also worked harder on @followthenap than any other project.
  2. Just ask! I used to be so reluctant to ask for what I wanted out of fear that people would think I was greedy or being difficult, but I very quickly realized that if you never ask for exactly what you want, you’ll never get the results you want. What you see as being picky, can often make life easier for others because they know exactly what you want and need instead of having to guess.
  3. It’s important to understand the value you’re creating. Saying that I sleep for a living is a great headline to grab attention, but what I’m actually doing is niche marketing. I found an area that was underserved on social media and then was able to be the only person talking about it. That provides a large amount of value to brands and properties. In addition, I ensure that my content is super high quality so that whoever I’m working with gets access to those images and videos that would often cost them a lot more to create themselves.
  4. Enjoy the journey. I’m very goal-oriented and can often pursue something so intently that I don’t allow myself to sit back and enjoy the ride. You can always do better and grow more, so make sure you celebrate every small victory and take the time to fully experience everything you’re doing.
  5. See adversity as an opportunity. I can honestly say that some of the best opportunities have occurred when I made mistakes or when things didn’t go the way I expected. I think it’s very human to want to avoid “failure” but without it, you really can’t learn or grow. There have been so many setbacks and disappointments as I’ve been trying to grow, but each of them has taught me something, even if it’s just “wow, well I won’t be doing that again!”

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Just continuing to educate on and destigmatize mental health. I think there’s a great number of people who only think of “diet and exercise” when you talk about “taking care of yourself” but it goes so, so far beyond that. Being able to understand what you need to be mentally healthy is so important, but it’s still seen as selfish or self-indulgent to an extent. I think if everyone was a little more in tune with their mental health and a little more understanding of others, the world would be a much better place.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.” — Jack Kerouac

This feels incredibly relevant to me on many levels. In a literal sense because the idea for @followthenap came to me in a dream, but also because what unites us all is the desire to dream. I think part of what made my content resonate with people is that it’s the articulation of many people’s dreams; it’s an aspirational world where dreams of traveling the world, taking the time to unwind and prioritizing self-care become a reality.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Arianna Huffington. I think what she’s done to educate people on the importance of quality sleep and rest is so important and inspiring. The way we live right now, especially in the US, rewards this constant, relentless work ethic that’s completely unreasonable. You can’t perform at your best if you aren’t taking care of your own physical and mental health. I think the fact that such a highly successful individual is being vocal about how vital quality sleep is to her represents a pretty big shift in the way we look at quality of life. I’d also love to meet and talk to Kanye West. I think he’s one of the most amazing visionaries of our time and have heard that he’s a big fan of sleep and naps!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Thank YOU!

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