BTU #191 - Army Veteran to Instagram Influencer (Roberto Portales)

I remember Christmas of 2015, I hit 10,000 followers. And then every month since then, that number has grown by 12-15 thousand followers. It’s been a nice progression and I’ve done it by being me and sharing my everyday life.
— Roberto Portales

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Roberto is a Client Executive for Healthcare and Life Sciences at NTT. He is a social media influencer, with over 315k followers on Instagram, where he goes by @rjportales. We talk about technology, fitness, travel, lifestyle, meal preparation and more. He started out at West Point, after which he served for five years as a Counterintelligence Officer. 

Why Listen: 
As a side project, Roberto has grown his Instagram audience to over 315,000 followers. This has afforded him not only a creative outlet, but has led him to star in commercials, be sponsored by companies, as well as meet a lot of great people. In this interview we talk about the world of social media influencers, and what every Veteran can learn from Roberto's experience.

Our Sponsor: 

  • StoryBox- People trust each other more than advertising. StoryBoxprovides the tools and supports businesses need to take the best things customers say about them, and use them to drive more sales and referrals. StoryBoxoffers a 10% discount to companies employing veterans of the US Armed Forces.
  • Audible is offering one FREE audio book to Beyond the Uniform listeners. You can claim this offer here, and see a list of books recommended by my guests at

Selected Resources: 

Show Notes


Joining me today from Los Angeles is Roberto Portales. Roberto is a client executive for Health Care and Life Sciences at NTT. He is also a social media influencer and has over 300,000 followers on Instagram. He talks with us about travel, lifestyle, meal preparation, and more. He started off at West Point and then went on to serve as a Counterintelligence Officer for five years in the Army. One quick side note - for 8 years, I ran a startup called StoryBox. We did a lot of work with Instagram marketing. Our pricing for companies with less than 50,000 followers was $300 a month. The moment a company had over 50,000 followers, the price jumped to $3000 a month. So when I see that Roberto has over 300,000 followers on Instagram, I find it really impressive. 


What is a social media influencer?

I didn’t set out to be a social media influencer. I didn’t get an Instagram profile until a few years ago. An influencer is someone with a good amount of followers on social media and has a social media page which has a particular theme or brand. Influencers have their own original content and then also partner with various other companies. 


What lead you to get into this?

I started Instagram as a normal user. I didn’t have the intent on becoming an influencer. I think what made the jump for me was that I was in the Counterintelligence field and I was stationed in Arizona and there wasn’t a lot going on there. I decided to get into physique bodybuilding. I went through a three month transformation. I competed and I did well. I noticed as I was sharing my bodybuilding experiences on Instagram, my number of followers really started to increase. Other pages were tagging me in their photos and sharing my posts. There were some celebrities that were following me and liking my photos. 

I remember Christmas of 2015, I hit 10,000 followers. And then every month since then, that number has grown by 12-15 thousand followers. It’s been a nice progression and I’ve done it by being me and sharing my everyday life. I like to travel a lot so it’s a lot of photos from that. And then it’s a lot of bodybuilding and exercise related things that I like to share. I’ve dealt with not being in the best shape and trying to change that. So I think that my posts show that a physical transformation like that isn’t impossible.


Were athletics a big part of your experience at West Point?

I tore my ACL sophomore year and went through 6 months of recovery and then I tore a meniscus so I had to go through more rehab. I also wasn’t in a great mental space my junior and senior years. So I was probably eating and drinking too much. I wasn’t failing my PT tests but I also wasn’t in the physical shape you would expect someone at West Point to be in. 

As as a junior officer, I remember I was told three months ahead of time that I would take over a platoon in Afghanistan. That was the catalyst for me to make a change. I lost 40 pounds in 3 months and then went to take over the platoon. I came back from Afghanistan as a completely different person. 


How much time to you spend on Instagram in a typical day, cultivating your account?

Some people can get sucked into a social media obsession. I find myself falling into that once in a while but I try not to. If there’s something interesting going on in my day, I might snap a photo or video. I also like to do short videos of meal prep. Whenever I’m in a new or different situation, I take a few photos. I don’t try to obsess over getting everything perfect. I’m more focused on being able to share the experience. 


How does what you do on Instagram relate to your day job?

It doesn’t relate at all except that I do travel for work so that gives me the opportunity to take pictures in some different places. But other than that, it’s completely separate. I make sure that I’m not doing social media while I’m doing my normal day-to-day job. But it’s doable for someone to be a social media influencer and also have a day job. I actually think that’s what makes my Instagram a little bit more attractive to people because they see that I’m a corporate America guy that still finds the time to work out and stay in shape. So people identify with that. 


It sounds like your growth in followers has been very consistent over a long period of time rather than all at once. Is that accurate?

With the different algorithm changes, it’s been a little bit slower more recently  than at the beginning. That’s primarily because Instagram wants you to pay to reach a larger audience and I never wanted to do that. 

However, because of Instagram, I was able to book a Truth campaign commercial and have been fished around for different television appearances. If one of those takes off, that will help grow my followership. Really those two go hand-in-hand. If you want to be a TV personality, you need to have a social media presence. 


I imagine your Instagram page provides an outlet for your creativity and passions that might not be met by your day-to-day job. 

Absolutely. And it’s also given me the opportunity to meet a lot of great people as well. 


What drew you to Instagram over other social media platforms?

I had MySpace and Facebook before and more recently Instagram which I’ve had for three years. Really Instagram is just the platform that took off for me first. I didn’t start out wanting to be an influencer. It just kind of took off and being the business person that I am, I’ve tried to cultivate that. But I have friends that have way larger followings than I do. I think the social media platform that is best for you is really just the one that best fits your personality. If you like shooting and editing videos, YouTube is probably a good platform for you. But if you’re more of a thought provocateur, Twitter might be better for you. But I think it’s important to be on the platforms. I have Facebook, Twitter, all of those even though I don’t have the following on those that I do on Instagram. 


Do you have any advice for someone that wants to become an influencer

First you have to make sure what you’re posting is appropriate. I mean, I’m really into fitness so I post a lot of shirtless photos. But it’s nothing that I would be embarrassed for my mother to see. And that goes for people in corporate America and other walks of life. Brands also aren’t going to want to work with you if you’re not posting things that are appropriate. I would also say that you need to post consistently. You have to give people a reason to keep following you. And try to switch things up a bit. You don’t want to post the same thing over and over again. I fall into that trap sometimes but I also want to stick to what my brand is which is a former Army officer that is into fitness, meal prep, and technology. It’s also important to interact with other users. I’ve met a couple really close friends on Instagram and we’ve been able to post together and build each other’s followers. 


Do feel like this allows you to keep learning and growing over time?

Absolutely. It keeps me accountable as well. Because if I’m going to talk about fitness, I need to stay in shape. I tried different workout routines and found what was best for me. I also cultivated and shaped different programs. I’m working on an application right now that people will be able to download and get information on various workouts that I do. They will also be able to track their own workouts. So I’m finding another way to connect with people. I get messages everyday and it gets cumbersome to answer those one by one. So that’s why I decided to create this app to give people more information about my workouts. 


Is it possible to be an influencer full-time?

I have a friend that has about six million followers on YouTube and he is able to do that full-time. So if you’re in that category, then you’re definitely about to do it. It can be a good supplemental income but unless you have millions of followers, it’s hard to make it your full-time job. Because of Instagram, I’ve been able to get into other things like book deals and modeling gigs. That revenue isn’t directly seen on social media but it was because of social media that I was able to book those gigs. A lot of brands will approach you with various offers. For me it’s important that you only work with brands that you believe in and personally use. I probably turn down 70% of requests that I get because it’s just not the right fit. So make sure that sponsorship offers that you get relate to your brand and it’s something you believe in. 


How many sponsorship opportunities are you personally pursuing versus how many of those offers come to you?

I’ve never had a brand that I pursued get back to me and make a deal. There’s brands I would love to work with. The funny thing, there’s brands that I’ve reached out to and not heard back and then a couple months later I’ll get offered something with that brand through and agency. So it’s usually the agencies that are reaching out. Once or twice I’ve worked with a brand directly but it’s usually through an agency. 


Is there much negotiation with an agency in that process?

I think it really depends if it’s a PR or a marketing type post. If it’s a PR post, they really just want people to see it. The way they come with prices for that is different from a marketing type post were they want to sell a specific product. Usually I gravitate toward PR type posts. I’ve seen friends get taken advantage of in making a deal with a brand. I know what I charge for a post so if I’m talking to an agency, I know what I’m looking for if it’s a purely commercial transaction. There’s been many times that I’ve ended up turning down offers. 

Sometimes it’s hard to turn down an offer because it’s really easy to just post the photo and take the money that you can get. But word gets around and people then know that you’ll post something for a lot less than you deserve. 


Is there anything that has helped you stay disciplined?

As far as the posting and fitness go, I think it’s that Army mentality of just know what I need to do in a day and get it done. And as far as walking away from sponsorship offers that aren’t the right fit for me, I think it really helps me that I have a full-time job. If I didn’t have that, I would be much more tempted by those offers. 

And it’s also fun for me. I don’t stress out if a post isn’t getting the engagement I thought. Having a job and that source of income takes the pressure off of feeling like every post has to be perfect. 



Do you have any advice for veterans that feel uncomfortable networking and advocating for themselves? 

When I was interviewing for different corporate interviews, I got more comfortable talking about myself because that’s why you’re there. The interviewers want to learn about you. When it comes to Instagram, I get negative comments all the time. But my motto is not to take anything personally from people I don’t know personally. I’m happy with who I am and what I look like. But it hasn’t always been that way. I didn’t always have that confidence in my time at West Point and my first couple years as an officer. When you’ve been through combat or other difficult things, it makes you realize how meaningless some things are. These experiences taught me not to worry about petty little things. 


I love that mindset of not taking things personally.

Absolutely and I’m certainly not a perfect guy. I have friends tell me that sometimes I come across a certain way and I try to correct that. But the negative trolling that is just meant to hurt people really doesn’t bother me. 


Do you have any resources you would recommend to veterans?

I’ve always a big fan of personal finance and investing. A few years ago, I read the book A Random Walk Down Wall Street and it really changed my whole perspective on investing and long term financial planning. Because I’ve invested and saved so much for retirement, it gives me the flexibility to do what I want to do with my life. Maybe in the future, I’ll have a desire to leave corporate America and pursue something in television or entertainment. And because I’ve been smart with my money, it’s given me the flexibility. So I would advise young service members to really get on their retirement savings and invest in a Thrift Savings Plan. 


Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?

I lucked into having a lot of followers on Instagram. I like being able to share my life with lots of people but it’s not the end all and be all. Even if being an influencer isn’t in the cards for you, just being able to share parts of your life with your friends and family is amazing. It doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else because they have more or less followers. I remember someone said that having a lot of followers was like being rich in Monopoly money. That’s not completely true because you can make actual money from having a lot of followers but there’s certainly more to life than just being popular on social media.