When you put yourself out there as Mary Lawless Lee does, you have to be comfortable with whatever comes back. Fortunately, for the influencer it’s been a lot of success. Fueled by her love for fashion blogs, Lee started Happily Grey as a hobby in 2013. Today, her creative outlet, once solely fueled by passion, is now a very profitable business. Lee, whose fan-base is largely in the US and UK, collaborates with luxury and high fashion brands from around the world. While her style is spontaneous and dictated by her mood, there is nothing frivolous about how Lee scaled her concept. Smart, ambitious, and a self-learner, the former nurse clocked in her hours in between shifts. Her desire to have creative control behind her brand has resulted in top-notch brand partnerships, a 900-K Instagram following, and envy-worthy LIKEtoKNOW.it paychecks. Lee proves that one needn’t much expertise or experience in order to excel at their dream profession.
I would love to know about what your life was like before all of the success.
MLL: I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and grew up in Marshall, Texas, a tiny town in northeast Texas. I lived there until the end of high school and then went to UT Austin where I studied nursing. My main interests were always care taking, especially when it came to little kids and newborns, and anything related to fashion, photography, and design.
What was it like to be secretly passionate about art and then go into a professional career path?
MLL: I always envisioned fashion and photography as something that I could pursue alongside nursing. You work three days a week so I had enough time off to pursue my creative outlets. When I started Happily Grey, there weren’t a lot of style bloggers in the South so I got really lucky in terms of being on the cutting edge.
When did the mental conversation first begin percolating around your blog?
MLL: Six years ago, I started to realize that a lot of the people in my life wanted to know how I put my style together. My initial thought was to take photos of my outfits, with or without me in the imagery, and post them online. I asked my friend to throw together a website and only told a few of my close friends about it. Not too long after, my photos were picked up on Pinterest, which created buzz around my blog. The photos which got the most attention were the ones in which I was the model so I did more of that. When I first started, my website was receiving 30 visitors a day.
Now your following is almost in the millions.
MLL: (Laughs) Exactly. But it organically grew over time.
What was it like for you to learn the game of the blogging and social media?
MLL: I’m not super technology savvy so I just learned as I went. I worked nights as a nurse and after returning home at 7AM, I would work for the next four hours on my blog. Then I’d sleep for a few hours and do it all over again. Six months in, I started working with affiliate links, which is when I saw that I could have a real impact on the industry. I saved my first three paychecks in order to buy myself a camera. From there, I taught myself Photoshop because I realized that captivating imagery was critical to the success of my brand and business.
I can imagine understanding your world from a 360-degree angle an asset.
MLL: Absolutely. Right now, I am about to launch a Youtube channel and am teaching myself how to do video editing, which is time consuming and tedious. A lot of influencers will hand the work off. However, I believe learning that the entire picture gives me greater perspective and stronger voice behind my brand.
If we were strangers, how would you define in your own words what you do?
MLL: I am a media influencer with a focus on street and lifestyle. A lot of people might think I just take pretty pictures all day but it’s been a huge learning curve developing a business, guiding my team, and writing a strategy around my brand. Day-to-day, I fluctuate between conference calls, shooting new content, selecting imagery, engaging on social media, styling, and reading through contracts. While I loved nursing, I didn’t like operating under a hospital’s parameters.
And where did the name Happily Grey come from?
MLL: I grew up in a very black and white environment. While I appreciate the morals and values that were instilled in me, throughout my twenties I grew to appreciate the grey area. That space is where I felt the most creative because it symbolizes freedom, which I ultimately seek in every area of my life. Variety is fuels my spirit.
The most interesting things in life often lie in that middle ground.
MLL: Exactly. Even if it feels slightly uncomfortable, those are also the moments that expand you as an individual. I actually wish I had known about that more growing up.
What is your secret sauce for Happily Grey?
MLL: Now everyone is a blogger however, when I first started, hardly anyone was doing it. So timing was definitely key. Initially when I began, my feed was more sporadic and less intentional. Finally I sat down one day and asked myself, “What is my brand DNA ?” I wanted people to look at my imagery and know, because of the aesthetic, that they were Happily Grey photos.
What kind of time goes into shooting and curating your looks?
MLL: We shoot around 800-photos on average per look. That will allot us seven or eight to post. The imperfection and imprecision of the shot is what makes them unique, which is why I love street style. It captures candid moments and shows the outfit in action. I am not a super chatty person by nature so it feels very natural to let my photos speak for themselves.
What do you love about the fashion industry?
MLL: Most recently, I am excited about designing my own product line. It is thrilling to know that one day I will be able to market my own designs and see others wearing them. As cliche as it sounds, our style tells a story and speaks to who we are. Design is about taking Happily Grey to the next level. From there, I hope to extend my brand into a book or home ware line.
Why do you think people are so attracted to influencers—aka someone in their backyard wearing beautiful clothing?
MLL: Whether it’s because of someone’s personality or their style, I think influencers connect with their readers in a way that celebrities cannot. Every viewer finds a different element to attach to and therefore, be inspired by. Some people follow me just because of my dogs. (Laughs) I have a warm, honest relationship with my readers because there isn’t a barrier.
Have there been any struggles in terms of developing Happily Grey?
MLL: From the beginning, I struggled with this being perceived as a vanity project. I wanted Happily Grey to be all about the clothes, which is why I would often look away from the camera or wear sunglasses. However, I learned that in order to engage my readers it was wise to tie my face to the brand. Letting my guard down is my biggest challenge.
What advice do you have for other female entrepreneurs?
MLL: There is nothing more powerful than being authentic, real, and at peace in your own skin. While things are always changing, confidence is everything. My mother instilled a strong work ethic in me as well as the ability to go after what I want. She never let anyone tell her “no,” which is why I’ve always known that if there is a will there is a way.
Any other lessons?
MLL: While it’s great to do your research, sometimes you have to just pull the trigger and trust that things will work out. I try not to get too wrapped up in the planning stage.
What is your favorite thing about what you do?
MLL: Because I live behind a computer most of the time, getting to meet someone who follows my work is an amazing gift. That real life interaction breathes new life into what I do.