Career Advice From Instagram’s Most Unlikely Star

He’s been featured in Frankie, on the BBC and Huffington Post, as well as on Channel 7’s Sunrise, and his crocheted creations are currently on loan to various galleries in Paris. Meet Phil Ferguson, the 23-year-old whiz behind Instagram account ChiliPhilly, which has garnered over 139K fans in just a year and a half.

If you haven’t seen these giant crocheted foodstuffs before, you need to start following, now. We’re talking quirky headgear in the form of burgers, pancake stacks, meat pies and eggplants, so deliciously made they’ll have you drooling.

Phil started ChiliPhilly back in August 2014 to meet like-minded creatives. “I’d just moved over from Perth to Melbourne with my roommate on a whim. After settling down, I realised that I didn’t know enough people. So I decided the best way to meet people was to use my Instagram account to actively network.”

Enter the hats. “It’s very visual. My account isn’t just me, it’s stuff I’ve made. By people being interested in what I do, I know we have common interests.” He laughs. “My Instagram is a reflection of how I respond to things. I was telling my friends back in Perth about it, they were like ‘that is such a Phil way to respond to the situation of friends’.”

Going viral

A photo posted by Phil Ferguson (@chiliphilly) on

The first time he went viral was in December 2014. Frankie magazine had contacted him for a feature and once the magazine hit the shelves, his number of Instagram followers shot up meteorically. The second time was in mid 2015, on the tail of some press activity. “The first time was just ‘this guy makes cool hats’. But the second time was because I did an interview for BBC, and the main point was that I used my account as a friend-making tool. And that was when Instagram featured me, and I started being on TV and everything started picking up again from there.”

The formula for success

Phil didn’t actively pursue publicity; the media contacted him. For him, the secret to success is “to make sure that you develop your idea, know what you’re doing and do it well.” He knew that if he stuck to that tenet, sooner or later, the recognition would come. “I had the confidence to know it was going to go viral, because I really thought about it well and it was an idea that developed over time. It didn’t happen by chance. At the end of the day you have to make sure that it’s the best you can make it. Otherwise no one’s going to respond to it.”

“I really thought about it well and it was an idea that developed over time. It didn’t happen by chance.”

It’s also good to start a project with some clear goals in mind. He says, “when I first started my Instagram account, I had three mental goals in my head. One was to be in Frankie, the second one was to be on Sunrise and then the third one was to be in this gay magazine.” Within two months, Frankie magazine had contacted him to do a spread. And a year later, he was being filmed lived on Sunrise.

He attributes his success to being able to trust his instinct; “I really kind of taught myself to go with my gut over things.” In Melbourne, Phil quit his day job when his star was rising because he knew he wasn’t maximising his time. For him, quitting was a judgment call, and not one he could have made without that gut instinct. He’s the first to admit that being a social media sensation isn’t in itself a lucrative career. “You can make a living out of it, but unless you’re doing other things you can’t actually save.”

Do it for love not money

A photo posted by Phil Ferguson (@chiliphilly) on

Money was never the motivation behind ChiliPhilly though. “From a young age, art was the only thing I was interested in as a career. It’s the thing that drives me in life.” He adds, “I was always ‘that boy who did art’ in primary school.”

He studied Fine Art at university but acknowledges that often creating art isn’t seen as a viable career choice, recounting the story of a woman he met at an exhibition. “She came up to me and said, ‘but you have a job, don’t you?’”

For Phil, there was never an alternative. “I would naturally just want to be doing these things because I enjoy it, I can spend my life doing them, creating art.”

One of the rewards of having such a strong online presence is being able to leverage his public profile for causes he believes in. He’s an ambassador for the Satellite Foundation, which supports children of parents with mental illness. “I’m really lucky that I’ve got an audience. It’s opened up the opportunity to talk about things that I can identify with,” says Phil. When the fires swept through Western Australia last year, close to his family home, he used his Instagram account to raise funds for the firefighting efforts.

Looking to the future

Phil is aware of the pitfalls of internet fame. “One thing I always think about is that you see some people on the internet, and they have their thing and then they disappear. And that’s their 15 minutes up.”

Rather than considering himself a social media sensation, he sees himself as an artist first and foremost, and his Instagram account an ongoing project. “The work I’m doing is based around social media and I’ve got my audience through that, but social media and the hats are just one element of what I’m able to do.”

A photo posted by Phil Ferguson (@chiliphilly) on

He accepts that he’s still young and for the time being is happy to go with the flow. “I want to take it as it comes because you don’t want to plan so far ahead that you’re put under pressure. Something I realised over this period of time is that I’m so young, I still have all this time to sort everything out, and figure out what I want to do overall.”

In the meantime, he has an arts residency in Melbourne and a few collaborations coming up to occupy him. And of course, his hats.