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The rise and rise of small online businesses: Tips to consider


The rise of social media has given a boost to small and micro businesses in South Africa. In an emerging economy like South Africa, small and micro businesses form the apex of our economy and many small business owners do what they do to put food on the table. I am not an exception. My family and I would have not survived had it not been for my mother’s small home industry. We were all put through school and tertiary education with biscuits and savouries. Literally.

That is why small businesses hold a special place in my heart. If I hear of a person battling to make ends meet and is selling chevro to get through the month, I will support them. Buying from a small business owner translates in real time upliftment of, sometimes, an entire family.  It is encouraging to see that so many people have grown their businesses rapidly by using social media and by going further than what small business “norms and standards” are.

Further, in an age where many graduates are unemployed or are getting paid a meager salary, small businesses and home industries is a new way to supplement your income. As an ardent supporter of small businesses through social media especially, I have come up with a ways to grow your business and sustain your client base.

  • Your product is the most important factor which determines the success of your business. It goes back to the good old supply and demand. Look at your friends and family and gage what they would and would not buy and use that as a guide. Look at how many other people in your social circle is selling the same item or providing the same service and ask yourself; how am I doing it differently? Am I providing my customer an item they can’t get elsewhere? Would I buy my product? Does it meet quality standards? Am I proud of my product? A friend of mine who recently started a small scarf business (Wrapsody on Instagram) uses this principle: If I won’t wear it, I won’t sell it.
  • In a depressed economy like South Africa, price is king. Would you pay R100 for a small bottle of sweets? No. So don’t push it down people’s throats. There has long been a notion that if you increase your price you tap into an upper middle class market which thrives on an illusion of exclusiveness. I don’t agree with that. Data shows that the wealthy elite in South Africa are a small percentage and to grow your client base you have to appeal to the growing middle class. You can comfortably make a decent profit without charging ridiculous prices. For example, I liked an abaya I saw on Instagram but the woman said it was R2900. I have spent that amount in the past for abayas but the reality is that it did not justify the price. Also, hundreds of thousands of people in our country survive for an entire month on less than what it costs for an abaya. I bought a similar one from another small business which cost me R750.
  • Customer service is everything. I recently followed a page on Instagram (review4you_sa) which seeks to punt honest reviews of South African based online stores and I was blown away. When I purchase something through Instagram or Whatsapp I am constantly worried about being conned. You trust your money to someone who merely posts a picture of an item they are selling- it is a gamble. I try to do decent research before I purchase anything online and often rely on other people’s experiences of a certain business. So if you fail to dispatch an order when required, word goes around and no one cares that your mother needed you at that time. If there is a trust deficit you are sure to lose customers.
  • Customer service begins at the first inquiry. If you use Instagram as a platform to promote your business then be prepared for a flurry of questions on that platform. I often ask why promote a product without giving the price of it. I once saw an abaya promoted on Instagram and inboxed the person selling it who told me to screenshot the picture, send it to her on Whatsapp, she will give me the code of the abaya then I should go on her website and see if they have my size then email the order to her! I never bothered and she lost a genuinely interested client. On the other hand I sent an email inquiry to Nomi Handmade (they make hand made jewelry with Sheshwe fabric) and they responded to me in no time with the complete price and specs of the item I wanted. When I failed to respond she followed up kindly if I was interested. I told her I was but I was waiting for payday (we all wait for pay day to buy luxury goods) and she kindly acknowledged it. I definitely would place an order with her! See the difference between stalking a customer to purchase your product and kindly nudging them to.
  • Be as clear as possible. There is an online store which specialises in modest clothing called Mod_ish that is a prime example of this. Her pictures are clear and a true reflection of the product. I absolutely hate when pictures meant to show case a product are cluttered with props. Let the product speak for itself! Under each picture they post, is the sizes available, price and how to order. It makes ordering an easy process.
  • Don’t let a customer beg you for payment information. Have a draft ready on Whatsapp and email of all your banking information. Nothing annoys me more than repeatedly messaging someone about whether their account is cheque or savings.
  • You cannot exist in the online space if you don’t offer a courier option. No, I can’t go to your mother in law’s cousin’s house to pick up a bottle of chutney. While having a pick up option is great, couriering your products exposes you to so many more potential customers. So don’t make couriering difficult for your customer. It is irrational to offer a courier option that costs almost double a standard order. There are many courier companies in South Africa, do research of which company works best with your product. Small businesses who use Fastway for example have no issues at all- as delivery door-to-door can cost as little as R40.
  • Lastly, getting good brand exposure is not as simple as getting your online followers to tag a picture on Instagram. Sometimes that works but it is becoming more and more irrelevant. The best brand exposure comes from using your own platforms effectively. Be sure to have all your contact details and brand description in your bio. Have a clear logo that is consistent. If you have an online store make sure it is navigable. Do research when you ask influencers to promote your product. Don’t send a bunch of abayas to a fashion blogger to “review” and that fashion blogger models swimsuits. Her followers are not interested in abayas. Because the influencer space is relatively new in South Africa, social media influencers get bombarded with a million free things so your product is not special. If you are an abaya brand in South Africa, you will get more traction by sending, say, Basheera of South African Hijaabi an abaya then sending it to me. However, a publishing company would send a novel to me and not to Basheera. See the difference? In short, have a clearly articulated marketing plan even if you just sell biscuits from home. Know your client base and know what your sale objectives are. Collaborations sound fancy but will it be worth it? Think about it.

I hope this helps! If you a small business doing something right, let me know. If you have any other tips feel free to share!

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