How these women entrepreneurs leveraged the Facebook family of apps to sustain their businesses during the pandemic

Archana Vohra, Director – Small and Medium Businesses, Facebook India, speaks to HerStory on how the platform has helped women-led businesses like Wingreens, Square Yards, and Studio Shreshtha navigate challenges during the pandemic. The entrepreneurs tell us their ‘growth’ stories.
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The rapid spread of COVID-19 and the consequent lockdowns caused massive disruptions for many businesses in the country.

Archana Vohra

A Facebook Future of Business study, conducted with the World Bank and the OECD, showed that women-owned small-medium businesses (SMBs) were more likely to report closed due to COVID-19, even when considering the business size, sector, and geography.

The study also that women are disproportionately bearing the burden of domestic responsibilities. Access to finance has also been a critical challenge for the MSME sector, and the same report revealed that almost a third of small businesses in India expect cash flow to be a challenge in the coming months.

At the same time, the studies also found that women business leaders showed a greater degree of flexibility in their business models in response to COVID-19 and were more likely to make more than 50 percent of sales through digital channels.

Keeping these studies in mind, Facebook sprang into action and enhanced its focus on business skilling initiatives during this period.

Leveraging social media

In an interview with HerStory, Archana Vohra, Director – Small and Medium Businesses, Facebook India, outlined the different programmes initiated to help businesses cope and sustain during this period.

She explains, "Our Managed Partners Program helps mid-tier businesses scale and grow through account management support from our third-party partners. This is available free of cost to customers, and we have enabled 16X more businesses since March 2020.

"Another flagship programme, the Advertiser Bootcamp, offers deep business learning support through masterclasses and custom content in Hindi and English, and has reached out to 15 million customers on the platform. Our VC Brand Incubator Program, which works with venture capital funds to scale young brands, just finished two years during which time it has tied up with nine VC funds and scaled more than 200 early funded businesses." 

Archana says the inability to secure timely credit has been a massive impediment to the growth of small businesses.

"The pandemic has been challenging for small businesses, especially women-owned ones. At the same time, insights from our apps indicated that women were showing tremendous resilience, leadership, and optimism during these times. In 2020, women created twice as many fundraisers on Facebook as men did and made twice as many donations, with 64 percent of total funds raised from women.

“Women have also led the way in growing communities and rallying resources, creating 2.7X more COVID-19-related groups than men, with four times more members. And most importantly, despite challenges and uncertainties, women continued to start their businesses – 20 percent of Instagram Business profiles created since November 2020 have the words ‘female/women owned'," she adds.

Increasing sales and building communities

Kanika Gupta Shori of Square Yards, Vasavi Polimer of Studio Shreshtha, and Anju Srivastava of Wingreens Farms

Women entrepreneurs did not have it easy, but found different ways to pivot, increase sales, build a strong community of users on Instagram and Facebook, and find new customers.

Anju Srivastava, Founder, Wingreens Farms, a brand that offers sauces, mayo, chips, herbs and seasonings and other products, saw the focus shift from sampling in stores to utilising social media to have a direct line of communication with customers.

Anju explains that the product mix needed to be diversified to empower consumers to cook gourmet meals at home. "Since the pandemic struck, Wingreens has launched over 30 new products spanning five different categories. All of these products/categories have been curated keeping in mind not only 'taste' but also 'easy gourmet cooking at home’."

"Facebook and Instagram became our primary channels for brand awareness. These platforms not only allowed us to keep in touch with our customers and generate awareness for our new products but to create a tight-knit community in which the entire Wingreens family can share and grow together," she adds.

Kanika Gupta Shori, Co-founder and COO of real estate and mortgage platform Square Yards, explains that the first step was to immediately utilise their energies and tech capacities to build an integrated online platform to enable a home buyer to search, view selected projects, and even book and make payments for the desired unit from the comfort of their homes.

"Within days of the lockdown, we were able to pull off a digital platform and evolve our business model in a way that the April to June 2020 quarter ended on a high. As opposed to an expected slump in business, Square Yards ended up capturing 20 percent of the total market share during the quarter, making it one of the best quarterly performances to date," she says.  

For Vasavi Polimera, Founder, Studio Shreshtha, an Instagram-based women's ethnic wear label, the business was already doing well online before the pandemic struck.

"While the pandemic brought in challenges, there was also a silver lining. Since physical marketplaces were shut, we were under the impression that this would lead to a manifold increase in online shopping. What we didn't consider was that the pandemic would also affect people's purchasing power, and that would, in turn, affect our business," she explains.

This translated into the business losing sales significantly - the pandemic had started a chain reaction. Vasavi says while some customers wanted to shop occasionally, they were unable to buy from the store, as its Instagram handle could not aid purchases.

"This is where WhatsApp Business came to our rescue. We adopted WhatsApp Business to ensure that if our customers could not reach us, we reached out to them. The catalogue feature ensured the smooth launch of new product offerings and showcased existing clothing lines in a concise display of offerings. This drove traction, further generating sales due to ease of purchase," she adds.

Growth during a pandemic

The shift in marketing and social media strategies seems to have paid off for these entrepreneurs.

"Our overall business has grown beyond what it was during pre-COVID times, and the ecommerce revenue has grown more than 30X of what it was pre-COVID, largely due to advertising on Facebook and Instagram,” Anju says.

According to Kanika, Square Yards' market grew 3-4X. She claims transactions outperformed the industry by 80 percent and the company's global ambitions were on point, with international businesses contributing to almost one-third of the total revenue.

"The complete online re-modelling of our business meant that our traffic on www.squareyards.com jumped 4X+ to 3 million-plus monthly visitors in 2020. At a time when the economy was badly hit, and business in the real estate sector had suffered losses to the tune of 30-40 percent, we recorded double-digit growth with a double-digit EBITDA margin," she says.

Though shopping via online channels was already on the rise, the adoption and onboarding of technology sped up post-pandemic, Vasavi says. "This influenced a rise in revenue for us. As time progressed and the pandemic came under control, it translated the shift in consumer behaviour to sales. Being on WhatsApp Business helped us scale up the brand reach and ease the shopping experience for our customers."

Optimistic about the future

Anju has big dreams and ambitions for Wingreens and on top of the D2C brand's list is product expansion.

"You can come to us for Wingreens dips and sauces, RAW juices, almond milk, and protein shakes, Appitas pita chips and other healthy snacking products, The Impatient Baker ready mixes, Spice Rack international herbs, seasonings and Indian spice mixes, breakfast muesli - we will soon have a full range of organic products under Organic Country, fruit yoghurts, cheese, oat milk, regular milk, bread, tea, coffee…the list is endless!"

Square Yards kicked off FY22 by clocking a 50 percent year-on-year growth in revenue at Rs 100.8 crore, with a positive EBITDA run rate, while its Gross Transactional Value (GTV) was up 80 percent at Rs 2,197 crore, as compared to Q1 FY21. Its property transactions also witnessed an 80 percent on-year jump at 3,916 deals during the quarter ending June.

"Despite continuous investments in ramping up distribution capacity and building blocks of new business segments, corporate profitability for Square Yards also held up strongly at 32 percent with positive EBITDA margins. Most importantly, our marketplace has continued to gain momentum with 4.5 million monthly traffic run rate and 50k+ active agents," Kanika says.

Vasavi is in the process of revamping Studio Shreshta's website to make it easier for customers to shop through its WhatsApp catalogues that can be accessed directly from its website.

Archana emphasises that Facebook is committed to supporting women-led businesses in India.

Apart from its Small Business Loans Initiative, Facebook, in collaboration with The Nudge Centre for Social Innovation, incubates and accelerates early-stage women-led nonprofits. In its second phase, the initiative awards six grants of up to Rs 50 lakh for each non-profit to scale its work.  

Created in 2016, Facebook's #SheMeansBusiness Initiative supports women's economic empowerment through training in digital skills and providing avenues to expand their business connections and networks. 

“Last year, together with the CSC Academy, we upskilled 2.5 lakh rural entrepreneurs on digital tools related to digital marketing and online safety across 25,594 villages in 12 states. At least 70 percent of the people trained were first-time internet users. The average income of women village level entrepreneurs increased by ~20 percent quarterly,” Archana says.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai