An inevitable consequence of launching a small business or, sorry to use this phrase, side hustle is the need to, eventually, do a bit of shameless self-promotion. Yuck!!! Even within the solipsistic confines of social media, where selfies thrive and personal news is praised, announcing the launch of a new venture can feel vulnerable and a little gross or unnerving. What if people hate it? What if, in hating this new thing you’re doing, people decide they hate you?
To help offer some guidance, whether you’re just announcing a new venture or are struggling to cope with continued self-promo, we spoke with three small business owners from across the U.S. who’ve already mastered the delicate act of posting enough to drive followings to their businesses, even amid the past year of the pandemic. Here’s what they have to say about bleeding peoples’ feeds, successful promo tactics, and the weird feelings that come with finally launching.
When and why did you start your small business?
Avery Williamson, a is for avery clay earrings: I’d worked with polymer clay since I was a kid, but picked it back up in January 2018, playing around with different shapes and making earrings, experimenting with how I wanted them to look.
Arden Frank, Let’s Be Frank face masks: March 2020, when masks were hard to come across and were still a new concept. There was a shortage, so I started collecting different bedsheets and textiles from around the Atlanta community and started sewing masks.
Tiffany Taylor, Sun Stori bracelets and mask chains: My daughter started making the bracelets in January 2020, and we initially made the Etsy in July to use as a platform to make it easier to sell bracelets to friends and family.
How did you launch? How did it feel to announce your biz?
Williamson: I started by just giving my earrings to my friends and asking them what they thought about them, what styles they liked. And then I kind of just started posting them on my Instagram stories. People started to reach out and say, ‘Oh, can I buy these?’ So at first I was just selling through my personal Instagram, a few pairs here and there, and once that got a little bit too complicated, I opened up an Etsy shop. That was later in 2018.
Frank: My business Instagram was actually my personal account prior to launching. It was always called @_lets_be_frank, just the content I was posting shifted. I really just took people on the journey to launching with me. I wouldn’t say launching felt weird or anything, but I really wanted to make sure that people knew my masks weren’t medical grade or anything, and I couldn’t guarantee their safety, but could help them feel protected. That’s something I had to navigate very gingerly, especially according to Instagram marketing guidelines. I ended up doing more business in the first three weeks than I have since because the market wasn’t saturated yet. So I was just happy to help people feel better and safer.
Taylor: I shared the Etsy page on my own social media and the Sun Stori Instagram, and then the Etsy page really grew when we started making face mask chains. Every time someone would buy, they’d leave a review, and I think that really got things going. Now we’re at nearly 3,000 sales.
What advice do you have for people who are nervous about announcing a small business to friends and followers?
Williamson: I think it’s good to see what people respond to and what parts of your own practices and ideas are reasoning with other people. If your goal is to sell things, like, what sells? What are they most interested in? I think sometimes people get too in their heads about what they can control and how it will be received, and get too far from the creating and joy in the work. So I would say, give yourself a lot of wiggle room and grace to figure out what it is you’re bringing into the world creatively, give yourself space to let it evolve, and be open to feedback. I’d also say to look to other people online that are promoting their work or projects in ways that feel good to you. Take notes on what feels good about their approach and figure out how to find a version of that for yourself.
Frank: I had so much fun documenting and sharing my process—what it takes to sew a mask, what it takes to really put the whole thing together. The more you document what you're doing on a day-to-day basis, I think the more proud you will be of yourself, the more confident you'll be, the more positive energy you’ll radiate, and the more people you'll attract.
Taylor: Also, when we initially launched, we thought we were just making an Etsy page for family, so everything was created with grandma in mind. But at the same time, we wanted the quality of everything we posted to be such that we could just as easily share the link with Michelle Obama or Oprah.
How do you maintain a balance between personal posts and small biz posts?
Williamson: I eventually set up a separate account—my wearables account—because I wanted to have an archive of all the earrings that I make, because most are small batch or one of a kind. I haven’t led people to follow the wearables account with a lot of seriousness. I still post mostly to my main account. Occasionally I’ll crosspost in my stories or tag the wearables account so that folks who are interested in looking at the catalog of earrings can go get some more earring content. On both accounts, I post mostly art projects and studio work, and not so much about my life anymore. My regular life is kind of boring. I try to keep a balance of sharing things about the creative process that aren’t necessarily about asking people to buy anything, but are more just like, encouragement for people to develop and nurture their creative practices. I try to keep a balance of stuff that isn’t about purchasing, and then every once in a while, I‘ll share new products.
Frank: I think striking a balance is really subjective, because it’s going to depend on you, your audience, and what product you’re making. Personally, I think there’s no such thing as too much information. The more you can inform people, the more they’re going to be able to relate to your product.
Do you ever worry about bleeding people’s feeds and sharing too much? If so, how do you cope with that concern?
Williamson: I think not spamming people is a delicate balance, but also, you never know what people are really there for. Some people follow me for my drawing or for my textiles. I kind of just have to trust that people who are looking for certain things will hold out for the moment.
Frank: No. Personally, I’m like, if you don’t like what I’m posting, you can go ahead and unfollow me. If people don’t want to hang around, they’re not going to hang around, no matter how much or how little you’re posting.
What’s been your most successful promotion tactic so far? What drives the most sales?
Frank: New things and editorial concepts. Like always what does the best is the launch of a new mask collection with a really strong cover photo. One of my capsules that did the best was this collection we shot in a tennis theme last summer; we got really cool shots on the court of people in the new masks. It also helps when I post good PR. People love to see that other people love your product. So I’ll post when people message me to say they like the product, like I post good reviews, and those posts get good engagement because it’s valuable information.
Taylor: This happened organically for us, but we were featured by Etsy in their holiday gift guide, and then we’ve had several bloggers with really big followings feature us. Any time I’ve seen a lot of sales on one item in a short period of time, it’s because a blogger has featured us and talked about how much she likes the product. Also, I think the fact that we give back a portion of sales is attractive to customers. Fifteen percent of our sales are always donated to organizations that support justice and equality. We change who we donate to every month or so; right now, we’re working on donations for a program that supports teen moms and their children.
Any other advice you can give about getting comfortable with shameless self-promotion online?
Williamson: It sometimes feels weird. I think it’s nice to frame what you’re working on as an experiment. Sometimes even posing a question or being really candid with where you’re at in your creative journey is a good invitation to people, and makes things feel conversational. Also, think about how you share and promote other people’s work. Sharing work from other people who are doing similar things fosters a sense of community, and I think people will often reciprocate. Think about the internet as a place to build relationships.
Taylor: If you’re passionate about something, it’s going to come through in the quality of your product and the way you interact with potential customers. We also love to show people the behind the scenes of how our products are created, and I think that can help with marketing, too.
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