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Small businesses are seeing organic success on TikTok

“This was just something to do on the side when I was at school, and it ended up being my entire job,” said Hayden Rankin, co-founder of Nice Shirt. Thanks!
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Francis Scialabba, Photos: TikTok/@thenitrobar

· 4 min read

All it takes is one moment—or video—for a small business to make it big.

In November 2020, Hayden Rankin and Mason Manning posted a TikTok about their business idea: Customers write a prompt for a shirt design and pay to have it made and sent to them, sight unseen. The video got more than 1.5 million views and almost 370,000 likes.

Nearly two years later, Nice Shirt. Thanks! has more than 440,000 TikTok followers, 400 contracted designers, and a backlog of 6,500 requested designs, which could range from ghosts eating mac ‘n’ cheese to cats as instruments. Rankin said they plan to sell at least 50,000 shirts by the end of the year.

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“It’s just continued to grow,” Rankin told us, adding that “at its infancy, we were hoping to sell maybe one or two shirts a day. This was just something to do on the side when I was at school, and it ended up being my entire job.”

According to Rankin, revenue generated by Nice Shirt. Thanks! has a “pretty direct correlation to views on TikTok.” And it’s not the only one seeing returns. According to a report by small-business support platform Hello Alice, 59% of established SMBs surveyed said TikTok has helped them grow revenue.

Nice Shirt. Thanks! as well as other small businesses like clothing brand Sani and coffee shop The Nitro Bar, told us that to date, their marketing, both on the platform and off, has been entirely organic.

Free publicity

Becca Sawyer, TikTok’s global head of small business solutions, told us that the low barrier to entry, the ability to reach non-followers on the For You page, and the growing popularity of the app have contributed to small businesses’ success on the platform.

There’s also the type of content they’re posting: “I think what’s made small-business content really powerful is just the authenticity of it,” she said, adding that people have “really loved and connected” with day-to-day posts that allow viewers to go behind the scenes of a business.

Sisters Niki and Ritika Shamdasani debuted their Indian wedding-apparel brand, Sani, on Rent the Runway in early 2020. When the pandemic hit, Niki suggested joining TikTok. Had they not, Ritika told us, “our brand may have not existed.”

Sani’s sixth video—which focused on the inspiration behind one of their designs—was their first to go viral and now has nearly 3 million views and more than 415,000 likes. Niki said the brand awareness from the platform helped keep them afloat until weddings picked up again.

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They now have nearly 150,000 followers on TikTok, compared to around 32,000 on Instagram—a number that Ritika said has grown as a result of their TikTok following.

To date, Ritika said that that video, as well as their “things I would wear to an Indian wedding” series, have translated into the highest sales volume. When they post a certain outfit and see an uptick in purchases, they attribute sales of that item to TikTok for the next 15–30 days. She said TikTok accounts for about 50% of their organic revenue.

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Compared to Instagram, Niki said TikTok has allowed them to be more personal with customers. “Instagram, you wouldn’t even know we were the founders…TikTok became a lot more about telling people about us and our values,” she said.

They also crowdsource in the comment section, which Niki said they’ve done when deciding to host an online sample sale and picking cities for pop-up events.

“We’re based in North Carolina, so we go where we can easily drive to, but we use TikTok to figure out where we should go next because then we know we can actually drive an audience to an event,” she said.

Flexibility is another reason why Sawyer believes small businesses are doing well on TikTok: “Small businesses have an advantage because they are very nimble and agile and willing to test,” she said. “It doesn’t require a big marketing budget or a professional marketing team.”

For The Nitro Bar, which grew from a coffee cart to a coffee-shop chain in Rhode Island, marketing lead Jackie Tantimonaco told us that aesthetically pleasing pour videos (like this one) resonate best on TikTok, where they have nearly 80,000 followers after one year on the platform.

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The Nitro Bar also has seen drink orders spike after posting them: “We just launched a strawberry matcha and we sold out of that in like a day,” co-founder Audrey Finocchiaro told us.

She said TikTok has given them brand awareness and national reach, from merch sales to foot traffic. “We’ve had a ton of people that have said, ‘I’m coming to Rhode Island just to go to this coffee shop.’ And the employees at the shop will get that all the time,” Tantimonaco said.

Finocchiaro said they’re looking for a fourth coffee shop location. Asked whether that would have been possible without their social media success? “Definitely not,” she said.

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