“I’ve always baked,” says Alisha Akheel, who runs the Instagram page Alchemy 180°. “Once when I agreed to bake a Game of Thrones cake for a friend’s birthday, my mates suggested that I start taking orders too.” That was in July 2016. The 22-year-old fifth-year architecture student is now running a successful baking business, with 20 to 25 orders in a month for customised and themed cakes.
All it took to start the business was an internet connection and an Instagram account. And Hyderabad-based Alisha isn’t the only one – across Instagram, many people operate their business either purely or partly on the platform. Without the requirement for a physical space or setting up a website, many have used it to build thriving businesses.
TNM spoke to three entrepreneurs in their 20s to find out how it has worked out for them.
Easy to set up, tough to establish
Chennai-based Tina Jain started her fashion jewellery business on Instagram less than three years ago. Both she and Alisha say that that was a time when Instagram as a platform was booming, but it wasn’t saturated with businesses. While that meant an increased market scope, it also proved to be a challenge in terms to establishing themselves, and earning credibility.
“I started the business in November 2016 when I was in second year of college. At the time, it was just a way for me to earn some pocket money,” says Tina, who runs the Instagram page 'Daivik' which sells fashion jewellery.
“I had to figure everything out on my own – I had to find a good supplier, manage packaging, find a reliable courier service… I had to think about how I was going to reach a wider audience. I was doing every single thing that would have been the job of a team,” the 21-year-old tells TNM.
However, Tina managed to figure it out and has now turned Daivik into a full-time business. With almost 32,000 followers on Instagram now, business is steady with anywhere between 200 to 500 orders in a month.
Over time, she was able to collaborate with a few celebrities like actors Yashika Anand and Shivani Narayanan, which helped Daivik’s reach grow. “Word of mouth helped a lot too. People realised that my quality and service were good and kept coming back for more, and sharing their experience,” Tina says.
Criticism and competition
As with most platforms, Instagram has also come to have plenty of competition. While Tina found the competition cutthroat, especially with other Instagram jewellery brands offering lower prices, Alisha had a different experience.
When she started out, she still considered baking a hobby. Things changed when the business took off, though it was challenging. “I don’t sleep now,” she laughs, referring to her booming business. “I come back from college, get some baking done and then 24 hours seem too less in a day.”
“There was competition, but I think it’s healthy. I was afraid initially. But now, I have made many friends in the online baking community. I have complimented their work and why shouldn’t I? If there is competition, we should go and see what makes them popular and appreciate them. How else will I grow?” Alisha argues.
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That being said, competitors being available at the click of a button can also mean that leads are lost quickly. “There have been times when someone has messaged on Instagram for an order, but I was not able to respond immediately. When I do, they say that they have reached out to someone else already,” Alisha explains.
Social media can also be a mean place. And while Alisha has not faced online hate, barring some constructive criticism that customers have given her directly, Tina has had to face some negative reviews. “There were times when deliveries got delayed due to unforeseeable circumstances, and some people were mean and hateful. But at the end of the day, I think I learnt from these experiences and refined my services,” Tina says.
Expanding business beyond physical boundaries
The good thing about the internet is that it allows entrepreneurs to reach audiences and customers beyond their physical boundaries. For S Loganathan, the owner of Chennai-based Teeskart, a menswear and accessories store, Instagram became a way to expand his reach beyond the city.
He set up the physical store in 2017 when he was 29, and started the Instagram page a few months later. “We started getting a lot more enquiries on Instagram, and were able to start shipping all over India because of this,” he tells TNM.
Usually when someone messages them on Instagram, if they are in the vicinity the admins encourage them to come and visit the store. Even then, they get 2-3 orders for shipping outside Chennai and across India in a day. “Instagram has also helped us reach a younger crowd, understand clothing trends, and arrive at a balance between stocking what sells and what's trendy,” Loganathan says.
Tina has had a similar experience – she has been able to expand her reach to pan-India and abroad, and now provides national and international shipping.
Is Instagram different from other social media?
For these three entrepreneurs, the answer is 'yes.' “Take Facebook for instance. There is a lot of clutter there – text, video, write up and so on. On Instagram, there’s one photo, one caption - what you see is what you get,” Alisha explains.
The visual format is what seems to be the platform’s strength. “On other platforms, you may have to get into a group, be part of a community perhaps. On Instagram, you just have to press follow and every product is there for you to see. That’s what works,” Loganathan shares.
However, the touch and feel factor not being there can be a challenge too. For instance, Tina gets many queries from people sending her screenshots of products from other sites or pages saying that they are offering it at a lower price as compared to her. “But they do not understand that there is a difference in quality. There’s first copy, second copy and that affects the longevity of the product. It’s difficult to make the customer understand this without them being able to touch and feel the product,” Tina says.
But despite its pros and cons, the entrepreneurs are keen on continuing to harness the platform. While Alisha plans to set up a studio for herself with her savings from her Instagram business where she can bake (not a shop or bakery), Tina says she does not feel the need to change anything. “I don’t think I need to get any help as of now. I love what I do, and will continue doing this full-time,” she says.