This is the golden age of entrepreneurship. With the power of social media and the right strategy, you can bootstrap any kind of brand or business.
So many entrepreneurs find themselves in the same position: they have a rock-solid business plan, an agile and eager team, and maybe even a slick product proof. They have, basically, everything they need to make their dream business a reality.
Everything except money.
If you find yourself in this position, I have good news. The days of being dead in the water without a wealthy uncle or a war chest of startup capital are over. With the power of social media and the right strategy, you actually need next to nothing to launch a profitable company.
That’s exactly what we did with BeneFIT Medical Apparel. My two co-founders and I started BeneFIT in 2014 to scratch our own itch. We had just transitioned into the medical industry from the Air Force and were surprised to find that virtually every medical professional—some of the smartest, most highly trained, and most highly paid workers in the world—all wore the same ugly, ill-fitting scrubs.
We decided that we were going to change that, and BeneFIT was born. Our mission was to offer athletically engineered scrubs that were form-fitting and stylish, and, more broadly, help medical professionals live their healthiest, most fulfilling lives. Medical professionals are on their feet all day, so why did their uniforms resemble cheap pillowcases?
We developed our proofs (a sample for the manufacturer) fast and painlessly. The only issue was, all three of us founders were pretty young guys with growing families. And, as I mentioned, none of us had a wealthy uncle kicking around.
Fast forward to May of 2016. We had just pulled the trigger on our first order of $30,000 worth of BeneFIT scrubs. We had customers waiting in the wings to snatch up our first production run.
All this, and we had spent less than $5,000 of our own money (and basically all of that went to legal fees). And—here’s the crazy part—we had completely self-financed the whole operation. We were the sole owners of our soon-to-be-profitable company.
How’d we pull it off?
The short answer: we used social media to build a loyal following of people interested in our scrubs, then executed a killer pre-sale.
Still sound impossible? Let’s dig into the details. Here are the 5 steps we used to launch our brand with almost nothing in startup capital.
The 5 Steps to Launching a Product on Instagram (Without Startup Funding)
Step 1: Hustle and Grind on Social Media
Businesses still think of social media as some kind of enigma. They see it as a space where they’re not really welcome and need some crafty disguise to fit in.
I’m here to tell you that it’s not a riddle. Yes, you can dive deep into analytics and creative strategy, and you should. But you shouldn’t let that hold you back.
The secret to social media is hard work.
At BeneFIT, we decided early on that Instagram was going to be our bread and butter. It’s where our target demographic (millennial women in the medical profession) spent most of their time. Once you know where your customers live, then it’s time to get busy.
We followed hashtags relevant to our audience (like #scrublife) and used these to find people who fit our customer profile. Then, we liked and commented on their pictures. Like I said, social media isn’t a riddle. The only thing is, you have to do this a lot.
I personally spent 2-3 hours a day double-tapping photos and copy and pasting comments for several months. I literally scrolled and tapped and smashed those little hearts until my thumbs hurt and Instagram warned me that I would be flagged as a bot if I didn’t stop.
“But what did you say to people in their comments without sounding like a business?”
Here’s the thing: we didn’t pretend not to be a business. At the same time, we just talked to people on social like we would in person. “Hey, you look great. We’re launching a new scrub line, come check us out.”
It sounds like grunt work, and it is. You might use a bot to start, but I would highly recommend ditching it as soon as possible. The best way to get results on social media is to actually be social. People really value that little red heart and feel a certain sense of reciprocity. Every picture we liked meant there was one more person out there to follow us or buy our scrubs.
And while it can be pretty tedious, this process does have a silver lining. Not only can you gain followers and potential customers, but you can also meet a bunch of cool people. That’s how I connected with Jon Haws, the founder of NRSNG, a learning platform for nurses and nursing students—a connection that has been extremely valuable for us.
Step 2: Ramp Up Content & Outreach
At the same time as our like-and-comment blitz, we were creating original content.
The type of content that you create depends on your audience and their values. We understood that our target audience, millennial women in the medical profession, liked to engage with content that was funny and resonated with their active lifestyles.
So, naturally, we started wearing scrubs to the gym.
You could say that the “scrubs in the gym” videos were full of personality. Honestly, they were downright goofy, and people loved it. People got to know us, the faces behind the company.
At the same time, those videos made two very important points: 1) your typical scrubs are not made for active people, and 2) ours were.
We also created memes and jokes that would appeal to medical professionals. These were very important to our content strategy because they allowed us to network.
You see, while we were making funny videos and spreading the love on Instagram, we were keenly aware that there were existing accounts with hundreds of thousands of our potential customers. For example, nursing joke and meme accounts.
We sent out our original jokes and memes (before we posted them, obviously) to these influencer accounts free of charge and simply asked for a shout out. Because they’re constantly looking for new content, this was a win-win.
We also sent direct messages to 10 to 20 companies a day, explaining that we had a product we knew their customers/followers would love. While we usually only heard back from 10% of these, every connection helped get us closer to our goal.
So how did our strategy work?
Between the likes and comments, original content, and shout outs from influencers and companies in our space, we had an audience of about 10,000 in just 4 months.
10,000 followers is very respectable, but it might not blow your mind. Here’s the thing, though—those 10,000 were actual followers. They knew us, liked us, and wanted to hear what we had to say. More importantly, they wanted our product.
And 10,000 people who want your product is infinitely more valuable than 1M bots and trolls. 10,000 people who want your product is enough to start a real company.
Step 3: Tell Your Story
As you create content, grow your following, and expand your social media presence, you need to consider the story that you’re telling your potential customers. Essentially, you need to be developing your brand.
The way we like to think about our brand is through the lens of the story. Everything that we do is part of a story—each piece of content, the messaging on our website, even our product itself.
And the hero of that story is the customer.
Our customers begin their journey in boxy, uncomfortable scrubs. But the scrubs are just a part of the real problem, which is an industry acts like its employees (medical professionals) don’t need or deserve an active, healthy lifestyle themselves. Our content helps them realize this (aha! a turning point).
When they reach the conclusion of their journey, they not only have a new set of stylish, high-performance scrubs, they also have a new outlook on their jobs and their lives. What’s more, they have found a community (that’s us, BeneFIT) that really cares and supports them as this journey continues.
To make the customer the hero of your story, every piece of content and messaging has to be focused on them. That doesn’t mean you can’t take selfies as the founder of the company (or, in our case, goofy workout videos). But everything should circle back around to them.
Your job, as the guide, is to give your customers value, whether that’s entertaining, informational, or motivational. But the most important value of all is connective. BeneFIT really has become a community meant to support medical professionals in pursuit of a healthy active lifestyle. Our scrubs are just one part of that.
We designed our brand to foster this kind of a tribe. And, the thing is, when customers feel like they are a part of the story, they get really, really excited.
When 10,000 people on Instagram are talking about your product, there’s going to be a lot of buzz.
Step 4: Pre-Sale & First Production Run
Steps 1 through 3 happen more or less simultaneously. As you gain traction, your focus will naturally shift from 1 to 2, but you never really give up on any part of that strategy.
Once you have a respectable following (I would recommend 10,000), it’s time to run the pre-sale.
This is where the magic happens, and your hard work starts to pay off.
Essentially, you are going to tell your followers that you are ready to start production and that they have an exclusive opportunity to be the first to own one of your products. The goal is for enough people to order your products ahead of time to cover the costs of your first production run.
You’ll want to build some anticipation around the Pre-Sale before you actually start taking orders. Your followers should be well aware of your product, anyway, and ready to pounce. But announcing your Pre-Sale a few weeks (or even a month or two) ahead of time will ensure that every potential customer is aware.
When it comes to the Pre-Sale itself, the faster, the better. It might help you to set a target or limit the size of your production run, in order to create scarcity. At BeneFIT, we pretty quickly racked up about 400 orders.
Now here’s the clever part—we reinvested all of our profits from those first 400 orders into the first production run, so we actually ordered 1,000 units. Not only did the larger product run keep our cost-per-unit down, but those extra 600 scrubs also became backstock for our website.
Remember, we did this all with only a couple of grand of upfront investment that was used almost exclusively for legal fees (incorporating, patents, etc.).
Step 5 – Riding The First Production Run
So, there you have it! That’s all you need to know to build a social following and execute a successful Pre-Sale… Right?
Not quite. Now, it’s time to make this launch count!
Because we had an engaged following, an excellent product, and we had taken the time to build excitement, everybody who bought our scrubs took pics and posted them across their social platforms. This is the best kind of free marketing there is.
Right away, we started engaging with those posts and reposting people who were using our products, something along the lines of, “Big shout out to so-and-so for wearing our scrubs!”
People love being featured by a brand they respect. So they instantly became evangelists.
This is another reason why the Pre-Sale formula is so key. Remember that 30-40% of our first production run got out into the wild immediately. That’s hundreds of thrilled customers, all posting on social at about the same time.
Here’s the other thing—we had 400 pre-sales, but we had just as many customers who were ready and waiting to buy, they were just a little skeptical of a pre-sale. Once our inventory went live on the site, we sold out in nearly a month.
From here on out, we could now begin to operate like a typical eCommerce apparel company. And all the marketing, advertising, and production had been free.
What Do You Want to Sell?
I like to say that we live in the golden age of entrepreneurship.
Even just fifteen years ago, you would have to hire a whole team of people and take out a hefty bank loan to do what you can with a few sharp minds and free digital tools.
Social media is at the heart of this revolution. It has democratized the ability to market, advertise, and sell. And it can be used to sell anything.
The formula we used for BeneFIT is the same you could use to sell a hat, or a training course, or a firetruck.
And when you invest in social media, you’re not just selling a product. You’re building a community. There is so much more power in connecting with people than simply the financial gains of trading your product for their dollars.
By investing in a real community, you’re creating a group of raving fans who will promote your product or business far better than any paid advertisements. You’re creating a space for new product ideas and innovation. And you’re actually helping people help each other in a meaningful way.
The only question is, what do you plan on selling? Let me know in the comments below!