While COVID-19 has hindered some local businesses, another new frontier is thriving: social media.
The percentage of online sales in retail rose from 11% in 2019 to 14% in 2020, according to a report released last May by UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Globally, the share of online sales in retail went from 16% to 19% in that same period.
That reality is reflected in Gainesville, with first-time business owners turning to the Internet to start their endeavors. With the extended time at home in early 2020, people like Kaitlin Bernabe, owner of Baked by Kaitlin, have been able to turn their hobbies and crafts into small businesses that live entirely on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. Bernabe said she enjoyed baking for a while, but got to practice a lot during the lockdown stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. When it was a little safer, she started her business.
“I always just loved baking,” Bernabe said, “And I just started selling it for fun. I have really enjoyed it.”
At least two other Gainesville women used the same strategy, turning their passions into successful businesses. The owners of GNV Breakable Hearts and uRokBox have been able to make social media work for them, reaching their intended audiences by knowing the platform well and developing a relationship with the community around them.
Shannon Haas, developer of uRokBox, began her business on Instagram when she dropped her oldest child off at college and realized that she, along with many other parents in University of Florida parent groups on Facebook, would not be able to find an affordable special treat to send their children for support while they were away from home. Haas said even after owning a successful brick and mortar shop before the pandemic, she wanted to find joy in work again and turned to making personalized gift baskets with Instagram as her main platform.
“Government and industry-specific regulations paired with a hesitant and reduced workforce created hassles that began to outweigh the joy and return on investment of my time and energy,” said Haas. “I knew it was time to change direction to rediscover the joy in my work.”
GNV Breakable Hearts founder and operator Juliana Talamo was similarly inspired. She makes the large chocolate hearts in gift boxes that come with customized messaging on the chocolate and are filled other goodies.
“Throughout quarantine I saw a lot of people post really cute videos of their small businesses and one of them was breakable hearts,” Talamo said of the product described as “edible pinatas.” “I realized it was really hard to find someone who makes them and that there was a demand, so I first started making them in Key Largo for Father’s Day this year and then picked them back up in Gainesville when classes started.”
Talamo said social media-based businesses like hers can be tricky, however, especially when trying to reach certain demographics of customers.
“It’s not easy to reach all demographics,” she said. “I can reach students easily but not parents. That’s a little harder.”
Social media savvy
Bernabe said part of her journey with a business that lives entirely on social media has been learning which sites her customer base uses more and trying to integrate that into the way she runs her business. She said many of her customers use Instagram’s parent site, Facebook, and that she had to learn to cater her content more towards her customers’ preferred method of getting information.
“A lot of the time, they want to see more engagement on my Facebook page, and my engagement is mostly on my Instagram page,” she said.
Bernabe’s customer base is mostly parents of UF students, and she said it has been a learning process trying to balance her social media methods and the wants of her customers.
Bernabe said that the short form content utilized in making Instagram Reels has helped her grow her Instagram client base. Haas said being aware of the different facets of social media engagement can be tricky but is essential to growing a social media based business like hers.
“The key is understanding the rules, which may change overnight, as well as algorithms, content creation and ways to connect with your followers,” Haas said.
Haas said social media can be a large task in and of itself, and matching content to Instagram’s algorithm can be particularly tricky. Bernabe echoed this. She said she has had to learn the different tricks of Instagram content to reach her intended followers and business clientele.
“Sometimes it’s really hard,” she said, “and I think some of the most effective ways are making Reels or making Stories, and usually you get a lot of engagement from those kinds of posts.”
Satisfying customer interaction
All three women cited social media as a unique way to interact with customers and other small businesses. Haas said this is a part of her business that she considers a unique perk.
“You can connect with people from all over the world,” she said, “ and you can cross-promote and network with others who have complementary businesses.”
Bernabe said this is part of why getting to turn a hobby into a business has been very rewarding for her. Haas agreed. She said it has brought more joy to her work life.
“It doesn’t feel like work,” she said. “I get unique and specific colors, themes and gift requests, and I love the thrill of the hunt to find those perfect items.”
Despite the novel hardships that come with growing a business and an online presence at the same time, none of the three businesses have future plans to move to a store front. Bernabe said she likes where her business is right now and will see what the future holds when she gets there.
“It is so new, and I’m open to anything going forward,” she said, “but I don’t want to jump the gun.”
Talamo said she also enjoys having her business live on social media.
“Social media suits me,” she said. “It’s easy, super effective, and free.”
Haas said she wants to stay on social media and continue her meaningful engagements with her customers.
“The direct messages and texts I get from grateful and happy parents make it all incredibly rewarding,” she said, “and as a college parent who misses their adult ‘baby’ terribly, I totally relate to my customers.”