For 42-year-old Shalmoli Chatterjee from West Bengal, the year 2020 was not very different from any of us – a deadly virus, being locked down, household chores and wondering when the pandemic will end. However, it was also the year when she decided to take a leap of faith and start her own retail business — a childhood dream that had been suppressed by years of domestic responsibilities.
In May 2020, Shalmoli’s husband lost his job due to the pandemic. The couple from Kolkata knew that the upcoming months would be tough, but neither lost hope. Shalmoli gathered whatever little she had managed to save over a decade and decided to start her own venture. “I had always been interested in handicrafts and the lives of the artisans who make them. Inspired by them, I’d make my own jewellery and each time I wore them, I had been praised. I realised that it was ‘now or never’. I had a few jewellery pieces that I had made during the lockdown to pass the time. I quickly clicked a few photos on my husband’s phone and forwarded them to multiple groups on WhatsApp. Very soon, I was flooded with queries,” she said.
This, however, was not an easy task. In the peak months of lockdown, Shalmoli was running out of equipment she needed to make jewellery and there was no way she could go to the nearby market to buy more. With time, however, the situation got better. Shalmoli explained that while she started out by selling jewellery, her primary interest was showcasing the work of underprivileged weavers of Bengal who suffered insurmountable losses during the lockdown.
“It didn’t take long for me to reach them. I Googled and made some cold calls. Once the lockdown eased, I set out to the outskirts in order to coordinate with weavers,” she said. These weavers, she said, make sarees of different types and hues and sens them to her by post. She then passes on images of the products to her 400+ contacts. She also shares the profits with the weavers.
“WhatsApp has been a blessing for me. It is free, easy and so convenient. I can take videos, photos and even edit them. I don’t need any other social media platform. WhatsApp is more personal and I get more replies here,” she said.
Shalmoli is not the only entrepreneur to have used social media extensively to expand their business. In fact, over the last few years, there has been a paradigm shift in the way people run their businesses — particularly when it comes to women entrepreneurs. Much of this can be credited to the advent of social media.
For women, starting a business comes with added burdens — gaining access to capital, getting the support of those around her, moving past naysayers and in India, where women remain the primary caregivers in the family, she has to juggle domestic responsibilities and her passion. But social media makes it easier for women to come into the spotlight with their home-grown businesses.
It is simple, free and allows you to work remotely.
For women like Shalmoli who are returning to work after having children, the work-from-model is perfect. Because of social media, traditional brick-and-mortar establishments are nearly becoming obsolete. For instance, in the middle of a pandemic, while shops remain shut, social media kept going.
Moreover, studies have shown that women use social media more than their male counterparts. This worldwide data report by Statista shows that more women use platforms like SnapChat or Instagram as compared to men. This report also cites similar data. It says that Indian women, in particular, rely more on social media to expand their businesses. 63% of all such businesses use Facebook and Instagram for promotion.
For Madhurima Bhattacharya, who has her own label, social media platform Instagram can offer “exponential growth” for any brand.
“You can go viral anytime. Instagram is a great platform to not only showcase your product but also educate your audience about little features of your product,” said Madhurima.
Madhurima frequently uses the Reels section of Instagram where she uploads 15-second videos on how to pair different clothing items and style tips. She says that the Indian urban janta is on Instagram, and that’s where entrepreneurs such as herself need to be. “My target audience is mainly women between the ages of 25 and 35. And this age group is always on Instagram. I think Instagram has made fashion more democratic, more accessible. Plus, stats show that video as a medium is gaining momentum now,” she added.
Madhurima is right. Instagram is the hub for fashion, style, design and anything that’s aesthetically pleasing. While the app was predominantly focused on photos, it has now expanded to stories, reels and IGTV videos — all the more options to make the most out of if you’re planning to sell something online.
Avid Instagram users will know that the app will suggest accounts to follow and videos or photos to see based on your previous searches or interests. This is a great way for sellers like Madhurima who rely on the app to reach their target audience. According to this report, Instagram’s user base is predominantly female — under the age of 34. Since Madhurima too is communicating with a majority of female followers, she says that trolling and hate comments have been negligible.
Delhi’s Sanjukta Saha turned to social media during the coronavirus lockdown when she wanted to purchase aesthetic planters for her home. To her surprise, she did not find any. She looked on e-commerce websites as well but did not get good reviews.
She decided to explore the market and her novel venture, MyGreeenhome, was the result. Sanjukta and her husband started the company together. Their planters and plants are locally sourced. “I am an extremely active person on social media. I wanted to make our social media feed all about the customer,” she said.
According to Sanjukta, the biggest advantage of social media marketing is word-of-mouth advertising. She explained that every time she successfully delivers a cute plant to her customers, they generally share it on their social media platforms tagging the company’s official handle. This increases their online presence because contacts of her satisfied customers then reach out to her to place an order. “It’s like a cycle,” she said.
Promotional activities, as Sanjkuta said, do become extremely easy and convenient on social media. Each story, each customer testimonial, each reel helps in promoting the business.
However, the usage of social media to promote business is still largely an urban phenomenon. Many women entrepreneurs in rural areas still do not have access to a stable internet, or even a phone — two essentials for running a business online. Nonetheless, reports show that internet connectivity has penetrated rural lives as well. Particularly in 2020, when the world had no choice but to move online, rural India too underwent a digital revolution of sorts with more people turning to social media to stay connected or express themselves. Perhaps, it is only a matter of time before aspiring women entrepreneurs in rural parts of India too discover the infinite possibilities of internet and social media.