Likes and livelihoods: Instagram an invaluable tool for savvy entrepreneurs


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As of June, more than 500 million people worldwide are using Instagram. More than three million of them use it every day, sharing beautifully composed snapshots of their #bestlife and then riding high on the dopamine jolt offered by each and every "like." It’s not hard to understand the appeal of the free mobile photo-sharing app. It’s addictive by design.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/08/2016 (2187 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As of June, more than 500 million people worldwide are using Instagram. More than three million of them use it every day, sharing beautifully composed snapshots of their #bestlife and then riding high on the dopamine jolt offered by each and every "like." It’s not hard to understand the appeal of the free mobile photo-sharing app. It’s addictive by design.

In the six years since Instagram debuted, it’s become much more than a vehicle for filtered selfies and sumptuous brunch photos. For most users, it’s a place for connection, inspiration, instant gratification and, of course, validation.

But for many social-media savvy young Winnipeg entrepreneurs, Instagram has become an invaluable marketing tool. In fact, it’s their only marketing tool. For them, those "likes" are a big part of their livelihoods.

Put another way: “Likes directly translate to sales,” says Tom Jansen, 25, co-owner of Coal and Canary Candle Company.

“Instagram, I believe, is the reason why Coal and Canary is as big as it is and why we were able to quit our full-time jobs,” adds co-owner Amanda Buhse, 31.

A little backstory on Coal and Canary: it started in 2014 as a hobby/creative outlet for Jansen, who had a passion for candle-making, and Buhse, who has a design background. But it wasn’t to be a hobby for long; Jansen and Buhse are go-big-or-go-home types, so they drafted a business plan and, with some research and some hustle, got Coal and Canary Candles into the swag bags at both the Grammys and Oscars in 2015.

Danika Bock uses Instagram to promote her business Tiny Feast.

Now, their candles are in 150 retail locations across the country, and 80 per cent of their current wholesale clients found them via Instagram. They have a team now, too, and a brand-new workshop on Sanford Street.

Their candles are high-quality, small-batch and hand-poured — the artisanal trifecta, if you will — but they are charming, too. Fun is a big part of the Coal and Canary brand, right down to its cheeky candle names; Big Hair & Fresh Air and Great Complexion & No Reception are two of their woodsy scents. Jansen and Buhse know exactly who the Coal and Canary girl is, and she is on Instagram.

Coal and Canary (@coalandcanary) has 15,700 followers on Instagram. Its feed is a mix of expertly styled product shots and behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

“We can post photos of our team pouring candles on a Monday and talk about how we’re feeling and what we’re doing,” Buhse says. “It’s all that personal human touch and interaction people crave nowadays, and it makes them feel like they are part of our brand.

“From Day 1, that’s been our mandate. We want to be best friends with every single Coal and Canary customer, and we want them to feel like they’re best friends with us.”

Make no mistake: this takes hours of work. In the world of Instagram, it’s all about curation, curation, curation. Every business owner I spoke to for this story talked about deleting off-brand photos or retaking photos that don’t quite fit within the aesthetic of their feed. Filters are passé; it’s all about crisp shots taken with professional cameras and then uploaded to Instagram. The product styling is at a level usually reserved for glossy magazines. Business owners take webinars to bolster their social-media literacy. They are staying up on photography and styling trends while figuring out how to stay fresh and relevant.

This is what it takes to run a successful business in 2016.

“(Instagram) became a full-time job in and of itself. We have a social media co-ordinator that runs our social media for us,” Jansen says.

“It’s a science nowadays,” Buhse adds.

Jansen notes when someone buys a Coal and Canary candle, they’re not just buying a candle. They’re buying into a certain kind of lifestyle.

“It kind of became this thing, as soon as you buy a Coal and Canary Candle, you take a photo of it and put it on Instagram,” he says.


There’s a lot to be said for the power of a pretty picture. On a Thursday morning, bright and early, Jenna Rae Cakes posted a detailed photo of a gold-sequinned wedding cake on Instagram. Within an hour, it had more than 700 likes. By the end of the day, it will have thousands.

Tom Jansen and Amanda Buhse are co-founders of the now-ubiquitous Coal & Canary Candle Co., a local business who has leveraged Instagram in a big way. They just opened a new office/production house on Sanford Street to meet demand.

The Academy Road bakery is co-owned by identical twin sisters Jenna and Ashley Illchuk, 27. Jenna is a self-taught cake designer, and Ashley is a graphic designer/photo stylist. If you’ve attended a wedding in town in the last several years, chances are you’ve seen — and tasted — Jenna Rae Cakes’ work.

When Jenna decided to open a storefront in 2014 after years of overnighting in community kitchens, she imagined it would “just be her stocking the cooler with a few treats to pay rent, and then working on cakes in the back — a one-woman show,” her sister says.

“We realized within a week that wasn’t the case.”

While their stylized custom cakes are certainly still a focus, demand has grown for their everyday bakery treats — driven, in large part, by Instagram. It’s not uncommon to see lineups winding out the door, people in pursuit of the bakery’s now-famous macarons — with ever-inventive flavours, such as mojito and fuzzy peach.

Ashely figures she spends two to three hours a day taking and styling photos. She schedules four posts a day, down from the eight to 12 she used to do, prioritizing quality over quantity.

“It’s a lot of work,” she acknowledges. “It’s easy to fall into a rut. Like, sometimes I’ll look back and think, ‘OK, I’ve posted the same kind of cupcake photo fives times this month — I need to switch it up.’ You have to keep researching and staying on top of what’s happening.”

Jenna Rae Cakes (@jennaraecakes) has 152,000 followers. And while many of those followers are locals who regularly patronize the physical bakery, others simply take pleasure in a photo of a pretty treat well-styled, effusively commenting with strings of heart-eyed or crying face emojis. As Ashley says, “Just because you can’t necessarily get your hands on it doesn’t mean you don’t want have it (in your feed) as an eye-candy pick-me-up every day.”


Just down the street from the bakery is another brick-and-mortar shop that’s been able to sustain itself thanks to social media. When Nicola Loewen opened her women’s clothing boutique Mad About Style in March 2010, she was just 21.

“It was a huge risk,” she says, “but it’s been the most amazing six years.” In fact, the location has grown, expanding into the former Romolo Fracassi Clothier space next door.

Loewen is a student of fashion and retails trendy pieces for young professional women. She acknowledged many of her clients couldn’t always make it into the shop during boutique hours, so she allowed them to request holds on items on Facebook. It was a big hit.


A photo posted by Mad About Style (@madaboutstyle) on Aug 13, 2016 at 11:01am PDT

“It was an amazing way to get product out there — we could be in your face if you wanted us to be,” she says.

As Facebook fell out of fashion, Mad About Style (@madaboutstyle) began focusing on Instagram. The boutique has 10,000 followers, and their clients engage a lot — asking about sizes and availability. She says more than 50 per cent of holds turn into purchases, either of that item or something else they’ve found in the store.

“We’re on it all day long,” she says of Instagram. “We’re responding to hold requests, suggestions of sizing, or going back to a wait list. It’s a team effort.” As well, she’s on the ‘Gram looking for inspiration for her own photo styling. “My phone is in my face for a good portion of my day.”

Mad About Style’s clients also help Loewen gauge interest in certain trends. “We love to post something we’ve found that we’re just dying for, and we hope it’s something the clients will die for as well,” she says. “If a dress gets 500 likes, we’ll update the quantities. We want to stock clothes that you want to have in your closet.”


When married couple Danika Bock and Drex Serduletz opened their stationery/gift store Tiny Feast in the Exchange District in 2013, they were social-media novices. They had just spent a few months living in Berlin with decidedly un-smartphones, so Instagram was fairly new to them. “I felt like an old lady,” says Bock, who is 27.

They used the app to tease the store’s opening, photographing the paper-covered windows and the address plate on the curb.

“Looking back, it seems like we were generating buzz, but honestly we were just figuring out what we were doing," she says.

Sammy, their adorable rescue dog, makes frequent appearances on the Tiny Feast feed. He also has his own Instagram account.

Jenna Rae Cakes, a hot local bakery run by twin sisters Jenna,right, and Ashley Illchuk.

Tiny Feast retails modern paper goods and, as such, is an incredibly visual shop. Bock’s background is in graphic design, so Instagram appeals to her. “I remember reaching 300 followers, that was a huge milestone,” she says. Now, Tiny Feast (@tinyfeast) has 23,500 followers.

“I was interested in how that would translate to real life,” she says. “I definitely noticed people would come in, Instagram things and then leave,” she says with a laugh. “They wouldn’t buy anything, which made me think, ‘Am I wasting my time?’” Happily, that’s changed. “Sometimes we’ll have a product for a month, but then I’ll Instagram it and it’ll sell out.”

Bock loves seeing Tiny Feast products photographed in the wild. “That’s very exciting for me,” she says. “We’re sincerely interested in these products, so if someone has posted a photo saying, ‘I’m getting organized’ or ‘this notebook inspired me to do my homework’, that’s actually just want we want. It’s nice to see being shared through the lens of Instagram.”

Sharing — of photos but also of experiences — is precisely what makes Instagram such a powerful tool, says Fang Wan, a marketing professor at the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba. “It’s really not about selling, it’s about sharing,” she says. “It’s not even advertising anymore. It’s about business becoming part of the social ecosystem.”

Wan says Instagram, despite all of its careful curation, lends itself well to credibility and authenticity because it allows business owners to have a two-way dialogue with real people.


A photo posted by Tiny Feast (@tinyfeast) on Jun 24, 2016 at 8:20am PDT

“Not only are businesses sharing (their posts), the customers endorse you online by following or sharing photos of them consuming the product or service. It’s like old-style testimonials, but even more powerful because it’s so credible. Traditional advertising is really one way. It’s a message controlled by the company, and they use all these different control mechanisms to deliver that message. But when you’re talking about sharing and when you can have followers, people can make comments, they can post their own things. You turn it into a community.”

Still, it’s not a perfect tool — and it is just that, a tool. Earlier this year, Instagram changed its feed so users were no longer seeing posts chronologically. Ashley Illchuk of Jenna Rae Cakes has noticed likes have dropped as a result, and she’s not the only one; the Internet has raged about this as well. “Posts are getting missed,” she says.

But in a community of 500 million users, there’s also intense pressure to stand out — especially since that same level of meticulous curation can also be found in personal user accounts thanks to the advent of the “personal brand.”

“I think you can blow up on Instagram, but that’s only one side,” Wan says.

“I think you can build a glamorous social-media interface and have great stuff going on, but you also build up very high expectations. The explosive attention, a lot of novelty — it’s a double-edged sword. It helps you temporarily, but sustaining and maintaining the level of quality, the level of novelty, the level of innovation, your products and services to keep drawing the crowd, while also meeting the expectation that is set — I think that’s a challenge.”

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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