Gen Z grew up on social media — we’ve been building our list of friends and followers since we were young. So, for college students who want to try their hand at launching a business, they have a ready-made customer base and marketing platform at their fingertips.
Social media platforms recognize that potential and have been rolling out commerce tools. Pinterest and Facebook were among the earliest to launch shopping/marketplace features and Instagram followed a few years later, giving small businesses the opportunity to reach millions — and in some cases billions — of users. This has been a game-changer for start-ups.
In August, TikTok announced a partnership with Shopify, where Shopify merchants who have a TikTok for Business account are able to add a shopping tab to their profiles. Reality star Kylie Jenner was among the first users to try the new TikTok shopping feature, using it to market her Kylie Cosmetics beauty products to her 37 million followers.
Kylie Jenner attends the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City.
Dia Dipasupil | WireImage | Getty Images
“I built my business on social media; it’s where my fans go first to look for what’s next from Kylie Cosmetics,” Jenner said in a statement.
And that goes for college students, too: Your friends already follow you on social media to keep up with what’s new with you, so if you’re launching a business, they’re right there waiting to hear about it. That makes it so much easier — and cheaper — to start a business. You don’t have to create a marketing plan or come up with thousands for advertising.
And, when you think about how Facebook has nearly 3 billion monthly users, TikTok and Instagram each have 1 billion, and Pinterest has 444 million users the potential growth for your business is huge.
Instagram currently has more than 200 million business accounts on its app. And, nearly half of Instagram users surveyed (44%) said they use features like shopping tags and the Shop Tab Instagram to shop every week.
Kerisa Mason, a Freshman at Baruch College, started a custom-made art business on Instagram. She launched the business during the pandemic.
All of her business comes from social media. Mason likes the addition of Instagram Reels (short video clips) and the ability to post time-lapses of her art on Instagram.
Kerisa Mason holding her painting of “Girl on Fire” from her custom-made art business.
Source: Kerisa Mason
“Instagram is a way that I can share my art with friends and strangers while working with the algorithm to expand my business,” she said. “I was inspired to do it mostly by TikTok and my friends encouraging me.”
Alexis Larreategui, a recent graduate from SUNY Plattsburgh launched her vegan skincare business on Instagram. A few years ago, she found that she could not pronounce some of the ingredients in her skincare products. After doing research and discovering how harmful it was for her skin, Larreategui looked into more organic remedies. Having started the business in college, she also understands the struggles that students may face when they shop for products.
“My whole mission was to give people the accessibility and affordability. If they’re like me, they were in college, and they’re looking for an alternative from mainstream brands — that they have something that was reasonably priced,” she explained.
Alexis Larreategui wearing a chocolate face mask from her vegan skin care brand.
Source: Alexis Larreategui
Beyond reaching your own friends on social media, these platforms also help other followers and businesses discover you and your products.
Instagram recently introduced new tools that will support content creators and brands to make it easier for them to be discovered and collaborate with other brands. Among the new features that will roll out, the most important one may be the ability to find the best creators for brand campaigns using unique filters. Collaborating with other brands can help businesses to gain more followers and make the brand’s name known.
“Instagram helps me obtain a wider audience. It’s an easy platform to communicate with customers and collaborators,” Larreategui said. “I’ve collaborated with 5-10 brands and it wasn’t anything big but doing giveaways where our products were featured or promoting each other on our page.”
87% of people surveyed said that they took action after seeing product information on Instagram, such as following a brand or making a purchase online.
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College students used Instagram to sell face masks and other products during the pandemic
When college students launch a business in college, where the business goes after graduation is important; whether it becomes a side hustle or the main source of income.
Pricing varies but Mason can make as much as $45 for one of her pieces. She considers her business a side hustle and will keep it going after she graduates.
“I feel like my business will become a second source of income,” Mason said. “I want to have my career and then my business is something that I would do for fun, but it also makes me money.”
Larreategui also considers her business a side hustle but wants to see it grow and network more with other brands. Each month is different but she has made as much as $300 in one month.
Interested in starting your own business?
“One thing I would say is just start,” said Chantel Richardson, who runs a consulting business and uses multiple social apps. “Go out there and learn [because] we are in a generation where everything is easily accessible, so I feel like if you want it, go out there and get it.”
Mukund Iyengar, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology who also runs several programs focused on launching student start-ups, says college is the perfect place to think outside of the box and create fresh and strange ideas.
“College is the time to be the most ambitious you can ever be in your life because you really have nothing to lose,” Iyengar said.
Have a value proposition.
Melinda Emerson, an author, small business expert and marketing consultant known as SmallBizLady, says the key to starting a business is to have what’s called a value proposition.
“You have to have something about your business that is not easily duplicatable by your competitor,” Emerson said. “Figure out something that is unique — something that makes your customers feel special because it is about creating an amazing customer experience.”
Do competitive research.
Larreategui suggests searching on YouTube to look up “how-to” videos and see what other people have done. Learn what other products are out there, how those creators are marketing them and what platforms theyr’e using.
“When I was deciding how to set up my brand, I was struggling, but after I searched [for] videos, people showed me that I should create a certain aesthetic and follow a color scheme,” she said.
Take a business class in college.
Mason thinks that taking a class will equip students with more knowledge about aspects of running a business.
“If you have an idea for a business, it would be good to have the educational side to maximize the reach that [you have],” she said.
Do product testing and get feedback.
Emerson knows that there are different reasons why people buy and testing is crucial.
“The first time you put something out there, people might not like it, so you might have to remix it and put it back out there,” she said. “Get feedback from strangers, and social media is an easy way to do that.”
Choose one platform first.
Mike Allton, head of strategic partnerships at Agorapulse, which makes social media management tools, says businesses should focus on one platform at first.
“My advice is to pick one platform and go all-in on that one platform until you see success,” Allton said. “Once you’ve seen success — and you have to know what that means [for you]; once you get to that point, then as soon as you can, expand to other platforms and diversify your platform.”
Find a mentor.
Allton thinks that it is important to talk to someone about the project that is about to start.
“They’re not going to be an expert in everything, so identify who’s going to give you their time and expertise, and identify what their strengths are,” he said.
Richardson believes that it’s important to follow your dreams and put in the effort to do so.
“We are in a generation where everything is easily accessible so if you want it, go out there and get it,” she explained.
But don’t just go for your dreams blindly.
“Dream with your eyes open,” Iyengar said. “Folks that dream with their eyes open tend to do something about [the problem].”
CNBC’s “College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Leanna Wells is an undergraduate student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an intern for CNBC’s talent development department. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.