Updated: Aug 20
Last week, I celebrated a huge milestone for Modi Toys: we turned 1! Did you know that nearly 30% of businesses don’t make it to their second year though? Which is why I’m especially grateful for the support and encouragement we’ve received over the past year, because without it, the title of this blog may have been very (VERY!) different (“Why our business failed after just one year”).
The past year has been full of firsts – rightfully so considering it was our first year. We sold out for the first time, we shipped to over 13 countries for the first time, Baby Ganesh rubbed shoulders with celebrities for the first time (Sonam Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Priyanka Chopra, and Chef Marcela), we started selling at Patel Brothers for the first time, we hosted almost half a dozen charity events through Modi Joy for the first time… just to name a few things.
Don’t be fooled though. We haven’t perfected our business model, nor have we cracked the code to growing our Instagram following. If we had done those things, perhaps the title of this blog would have been “How we grew our startup to be a million-dollar business in the first year!” But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned some valuable lessons that I can share. Maybe they’ll seem eye-opening. Maybe they’ll seem obvious. Either way, I wanted to take the time to reflect on what I’ve learned over the past year and hope it helps as you scale your business. I’ll focus primarily on the marketing side of the business since that’s what I manage, whereas my brother manages the supply chain side of things.
Since Instagram has been an instrumental factor in our growth, the focus of this post is going on to be on this channel. Everyone cares about number of followers. Let’s just all be real. And there’s nothing wrong in admitting you care. We’re all here on Instagram to feel acknowledged for our efforts, aren’t we? Whether it’s that recipe we perfected over many failed attempts, or the time we spent meticulously creating a step-by-step guide on how to edit photos, or the time we spent answering all those questions during a night of “ask me anything,” or the elaborate giveaway you concocted in partnership with five other brands. That said, here are some do’s and don’ts that I’ve learned the hard way:
1. Don’t post anything you want to hide from someone because there’s no hiding on Instagram.
AWKWARD! I had posted a Instastory (well, more of a rant) about a brand (which I respectfully kept anonymous). It took the brand less than 30 minutes to see my Instastory and call me out on it. It took me over a year to build that relationship – burned in a matter of minutes over an impulse act of emotional rant. While a part of me regrets it, another part of me feels proud for standing up for myself. Don’t let a big brand push you around just because they have hundreds of thousands of followers. While it may take you longer to reach your goals, sometimes you have to protect your ego for your own sanity.
2. There’s no such thing as a free lunch!
If you’re sending free products to bloggers/influencers/celebrities, try to manage expectations before you send the item on your intended outcome: "If you truly love my [product name], I would really appreciate it if you could please share it in your feed/story/blog! A shout out from someone like you goes a long way for building trust fo small brand like mine." Keep track of who does what. Those who take without giving earn a coveted spot on my Shit List. And yes, I update that list regularly. For every influencer that shares an incredible and thorough unboxing story/post, there are at least a few that barely acknowledge the gift they have received. If you are fortunate enough to receive a gift, but genuinely don’t love it and don’t feel comfortable reviewing it, then request a return label from the sender. No hard feelings.
3. If you can’t reach a big influencer directly, try others connected to them.
I tried getting a hold of Deepica for months before I finally heard from her. But instead of asking me to send the package to her, she asked me to send it to her mom, Mama Pandu. Why didn’t I think of that? Duh! Her mom is obviously active on social media, and far more religious and involved in cultural events than her younger daughter. Sometimes creating a sphere of influence has a far greater impact on your brand’s perception than sending your product to a single person. See who the influencer is best friends with; perhaps they would prefer or appreciate your product even more so than the influencer. Now imagine how much more powerful your product will be perceived if the influencer hears rave reviews about your product from her own best friends.
4. Although this should go without saying: Have a product that’s truly unique and elicits an emotional reaction.
People don’t make purchases because they need things. At their core, people make purchases because of how they want to feel. Where do you think the term “retail therapy” came from? I buy a dress because I want to feel hot/confident/trendy in it – not because I need an outfit for a party. Believe me, this applies for every product type and every price point; I recently bought a Bento lunch box for my daughter because I wanted be like one of those Pinterest moms who make the cute lunches with their carrot sticks, sandwiches, cookies and feel like I'm winning at life. The fact that I needed a trusted vessel to pack her lunch was a secondary, utility benefit. Some of this is a part of how you market your business, and some of it is truly a nature of your product.
5. Don’t just talk about your product.
Let’s break that sentence down a bit: 1) Don’t just talk about YOUR products; highlight other products too, from time to time, that you admire either as a mom, an entrepreneur, a woman or one of the myriad of hats you wear. Feature other businesses that complement your business or your personal profile. I do this regularly through my giveaway and series (ie: for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, National Doctor’s Day, etc.) 2) Don’t just talk about your PRODUCTS; talk about the inspiration behind it, or what it takes to bring it from idea to fruition, or how it can have multiple use cases. Despite the fact I sell toys, I’ve seen countless people gift our product to adults of all ages. 3) Don’t just TALK about your product; show how it impacted a customer’s life in a profound way. Take screenshots of messages you receive from your customers. Some of my proudest moments are seeing videos of children, as young as two years old, reciting the Ganesh mantra they learned playing with Baby Ganesh.
6. Don’t be afraid to try something unexpected.
I distinctly remember looking at the calendar to plan my content for the upcoming weeks. I panicked when I realized International Women’s Day was coming up in less than three weeks. Sure, I could have acknowledged it with a simple photo and a verbose caption, but I’ve always been the one to want to stand out. I was never much of an athlete but marketing is my competitive sport. It didn’t take me long to brainstorm an idea but executing it involved me gaining consent from five incredibly busy women, and coordinating each of their schedules to allow me to video shoot them all in a single day. I honestly think the stars must have aligned because everything worked out exactly as I had envisioned three weeks prior to me launching my series of International Women’s Day videos.
7. Keep a separate personal IG account.
Listen, I get it. Our families, our day to day lives, our rants are what make us human -- and yourself more relatable to your followers. But when you're a brand (this obviously doesn't apply to bloggers), you really have to strike the right balance between all the "on brand" content and personal content you share. I see brands (intentionally) blurring the lines between the two constantly. And perhaps this matters less once you become a really big brand, but there is a right and a wrong way of sprinkling in a dose of your personal life without making it a primary part of your content.
8. Be thoughtful and strategic when doing giveaways.
"Hey would you like to collaborate for a giveaway?"
"We should totally do a giveaway!"
"Hi! We are trying to launch a new line of products that are focused on the Desi market. We are looking for people to support us and we know you have a lot of experience and knowledge in this space. Our goal is to get at least 1,000 followers before we launch our products so..."
I receive messages like these pretty regularly. And I've copied these for verbatim. There's no greeting, no justification for the ask, no attempt to sell me on what's-in-it-for-me. I don't know why people forget basic manners when talking to others online. Would you ever go up to a complete stranger IRL and ask to go out to dinner with them, without even introducing yourself? So why does it seem appropriate to jump the gun online?
I've partnered with all types of brands and bloggers for giveaways in the past; some are new accounts with barely any followers, while some are far more established with a much stronger following than my account. Ultimately, here's how I weigh the pros and cons:
What's in it for me vs. the other participating partner(s)?
Does the collaboration make sense? Is there a theme around the giveaway, or do the brands share a similar audience or customer base?
Are these products that people (including myself) would truly want, or content that people would truly benefit from (if a blogger)?
What is the quality of the partner's content? Are they being thoughtful and consistent in what/how they post?
Sure, giveaways are a great, quick way to grow your following and many will argue that it's been their single biggest growth hack. But once you get people through the door, the only thing that will make them stay and linger is the quality of your content (and products, if they ever end up becoming customers).
I could keep going – and maybe I will – at another time. Like I said, I don’t claim to be an expert on anything (other than maybe making a really great grilled cheese sandwich), so please follow these tips at your own discretion. Ultimately, every business/product is different but if you’re able to successfully apply any of these ideas, then let me know and maybe I’ll do a Part 2.