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Mississauga-based entrepreneur Carmen Kossakowski launched her jewelry business when she was 15, finding an audience through videos posted on TikTok.TIJANA MARTIN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Although TikTok is known for its viral dance trends, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a wealth of small businesses run by the social network’s biggest user base: Gen Z women.

These women in their teens and early 20s aren’t influencers; they’re entrepreneurs. They have followings that range from a few hundred people to millions of users around the world. They sell products such as cosmetics, hoodies, scrunchies and jewelry, items they typically produce and package in their own homes. And they’re often doing it in between essays and exams.

Mississauga-based Carmen Kossakowski started her jewelry business Ruby Aqua Accessories in January 2020 when she was just 15.

“I could never find ethical high-quality jewelry, so I started making charm necklace prototypes in class,” Ms. Kossakowski says. “My friends started noticing and asking where I got them so they could wear them, too. I realized there was a market for my designs.”

Her big break came when she posted a video to TikTok introducing herself as a young business owner doing a “hustle check.” It quickly gained over 100,000 views.

Soon, COVID-19 forced people into lockdown, meaning people were spending even more time on social media. Ms. Kossakowski’s account gained traction and orders ballooned into the thousands. To keep up with the demand – and school – she hired three employees while working out of her parents’ house.

In her first year of business, Ms. Kossakowski made over US$35,000, shipping more than 4,000 orders to 120 countries and growing her following to 140,000 TikTok users.

She recalls another experience that provided motivation for her to start Ruby Aqua. As a model UN member at her high school, she was one of very few girls alongside countless boys.

“I noticed that whenever I would speak, [the boys] didn’t really care what I had to say, they’d talk over me or put me down,” Ms. Kossakowski says. “It was a defining moment where I realized they just saw me as a prop, but I was there to compete. Their judgment ended up being my motivation, and building my own business has been a lot about proving myself.”

She adds, “I think that’s common for a lot of women; we rise to the occasion.”

An audience of like-minded consumers

Numbers-wise, TikTok is a no brainer for entrepreneurs looking to market their products to young target demos. It became the world’s most downloaded app in 2020, climbing to a whopping one billion users this year. The average American user spends about an hour on the app per day, and according to eMarketer, TikTok may surpass Instagram in total U.S. Gen Z users by the end of this year.

But there’s more to it than just audience. For many of these young women, marketing on TikTok is simpler and cheaper than the alternatives. Many of them don’t have high-quality product images or websites, much less anyone to run their marketing.

Instead, through TikTok, they show how they make their products and package them in ASMR-like videos. (Otherwise known as autonomous sensory meridian response, ASMR incorporates pleasing sounds such as clicks, crinkles and taps that produce positive feelings in the viewer.) Entrepreneurs share behind the scenes details of how much their inventory costs and how many orders they need to fill while juggling school and part-time jobs, bringing customers on board with their relatability and candour.

Taking notice of these trends, TikTok announced plans earlier this year for a new e-commerce and advertising base, including in-app catalogues and affiliate links, not unlike Instagram and Facebook. According to a recent IRI survey of U.S. women aged 17 to 23, 39 per cent said they discover new products through TikTok because they prefer “less ‘manufactured’ engagement and more ‘real people’ organic content.”

Vicki Saunders is a business mentor and founder of Toronto’s SheEO, which is an organization dedicated to supporting female entrepreneurs. She says authenticity is the reason Gen Z businesses are connecting with their customers in a way most others don’t.

“The more that you own what you’re amazing at and what is uniquely you, the more successful and authentic you will be,” Ms. Saunders says. “That’s not safe or easy, but those who are doing it are showing the path forward. It’s exciting the way these tools are creating more diversity and more inclusion.”

Transparency and connection

In her first year of business, Ms. Kossakowski shipped more than 4,000 orders to 120 countries, growing her following to 140,000 TikTok users.TIJANA MARTIN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Like Ms. Kossakowski, Vancouver-based Michelle Apostol also began her TikTok business during the pandemic. During that time of isolation she began questioning her chosen career – health sciences – and making art became her daily stress-reliever.

“One night, out of boredom, I decided to download TikTok,” she says. “As I scrolled through my feed, I stumbled across artists showing how they turned their art into a living, which inspired me to do the same.”

So, in October 2020, Ms. Apostol launched shopchyumi, where she sells stickers and stationary. She says TikTok was a major catalyst in helping her company grow.

“I started this business hand-cutting in my bedroom and now I have an office with printers, cutting machines, sticker supplies and packaging. I never thought that I would have the platform I have today. All it took was one video, and now I’ve found my niche and a strong, supportive community.”

The beauty of the TikTok model is that you can jump in at any age or stage and get instantaneous feedback from your target market, says Ms. Saunders of SheEO.

“It makes me wish I was 16 years old again,” she says. “In the past, you’d have to establish your product, get it manufactured, get it to market, get it on someone’s shelves; there were countless barriers. Now there’s a transparency and a connection to others and it’s global, which also makes it easier to find your audience.”

Business experience at an early age means many of these TikTok entrepreneurs are well-positioned to continue that success into their second (and third, and fourth) acts. Ms. Kossakowski has her eye on business school and plans to continue growing Ruby Aqua to pay for her tuition. Ms. Apostol, meanwhile, has gained the confidence to pursue her new dream and has returned to school to study media and design.

“Since launching the shop, I learned many valuable skills and lessons, the most important being to pursue your goals, no matter how unachievable or silly you might think they are,” she says. “It isn’t easy, but if you push through, there is always someone who can relate and will connect.”

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