Instagram: The Emerging Market of Venezuelan Entrepreneurs

With the brick and mortar stores out of reach and the disintegration of the commercial network, many people are launching small businesses and the picture-sharing network is their marketplace

Embracing technology with inspiring results.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

What Hugo Chávez used to call “socialism of the 21st century” has forced Venezuelans to stay one step ahead of other countries in the region when it comes to technological tools. They’ve managed to dodge hyperinflation using platforms like Zelle and Airtm to receive, and pay, in dollars, and VPNs have allowed them to access blocked media. Now Instagram, which in other countries is used to post photographs or publicity, is giving them the opportunity to make public their business ventures and create digital marketing networks.

One of these Venezuelans who have turned Instagram into his personal online store is Mohamed, a 29 year old who in 2019 opened an account through which he offers men’s sporting apparel, with a monthly income of up to $3,000.

Mohamed says that at the end of 2017 he moved to China because his brother was already living there and he didn’t want to stay by himself in Venezuela, since his father had passed away earlier that year. At the start of 2019, while adapting to his new country, he found out from friends and acquaintances about Zelle in Venezuela, and how he could sell and receive dollars quickly if he began an online store. “The next step was to open an Instagram account and I chose sports clothes because Venezuelans really like that, but only for men, since the female clothing business is already overflowing with goods from Colombia.”

The businessman says that he used a door-to-door shipping company to deliver the first 100 items from China, which had cost him $5, and he sold them for $30. The goods were delivered to a friend’s house, and after confirming the orders, shipping to different parts of the country was organized on Tuesdays and Thursdays, through Tealca, a Venezuelan shipping service. “I sold everything in under a month. It was wonderful.”

Mohamed became interested in Instagram (where the potential advertising reach is 849.3 million users) instead of other digital tools because, according to him, Venezuelans don’t use online stores out of fear of being scammed. “I think that it comes down to taking the risk and Instagram really helps; however, you really have to tend to customers on a personal level. I also had publicity on Facebook Ads, since publicity for Venezuela is really cheap because nobody wants to pay for it. I invested $45 in ads and saw the results.”

“I sold everything in under a month. It was wonderful.”

The young entrepreneur’s last investment was $10,000, and while he’s afraid of not selling the items quickly because of the fuel scarcity all over the country, he hopes he’ll be able to sell in the end, since people keep asking him when he’ll bring in new clothes.

Mohamed, who only sells for Venezuela, doesn’t run his Instagram account on his own anymore, because of the increase of followers, and of people asking for prices. He says that he hired a young woman recently for this task and he pays her $20 a month. He explains that, to generate impact on the net, he has used online courses about Facebook Ads, marketing, and design. “The truth is that Instagram is a great window. You don’t need much, just some starting money, having clear ideas, and just going for it,” he says.

Roxana Araque, a 25 year old journalist, is on the same path after starting El Fogón in May, a startup company focused on desserts, offering brownies, lemon and passion fruit pie, and chocolate marquesa in their menu.

Roxana used to work in a media outlet that was shut down in 2019 after being raided by Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia (SEBIN) agents. After being fired, the young woman depended on her boyfriend, also a journalist, but he was also let go at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were both unemployed and without a source of income.

“Quarantine has forced us to reinvent ourselves,” she says. “I had bills to pay and I literally took some of the money for that and bought ingredients for 12 brownies. I opened up an Instagram account and, with the help of some friends, I sold all of them in one day. With the earnings, I bought ingredients to make more brownies and marquesas, and I sold them really quick, too. A week later I had the money to buy ingredients in bulk.”

She leans in this direction because it’s her “strong suit,” since for special occasions she used to make cakes and marquesas, and her family and friends used to tell her that she should sell them. However, she never listened until her financial situation changed.

On average, more than 200 million Instagrammers check a business profile daily, and Roxana sure can tell; her social media followers have grown and they don’t stop requesting her desserts. She and her boyfriend managed to pay the bills in the first weeks and her average monthly income comes at around $200. As the startup grew, her boyfriend found a new job and they’re back on solid ground.

Roxana’s El Fogón is the couple’s startup more than just hers. She makes desserts, but they both make deliveries with their vehicles and charge in foreign currency in cash, or the equivalent in bolivars through transfers. Their current concern is the fuel scarcity, since they don’t charge for deliveries and they have no problems in going to low income areas of Caracas like Petare, Catia or Las Adjuntas.

Three Friends and One French Dish

María Carmela Hernández, Gloria Viera, and Gaby Ocque are three friends who didn’t know much about social media. Today, that’s their window for sales. 

All three of them, and one of their mother-in-laws, used to get together every once in a while and prepare a quiche, a traditional French dish to which they added different fillings and made their family members happy. By the end of 2019, they decided to set up their “Tres Quiches” startup, with a menu offering different fillings, ranging from leek and onion to Spanish sausage and Manchego cheese, and more exotic options like figs and goat cheese.

As the startup grew, her boyfriend found a new job and they’re back on solid ground.

It was María Carmela’s husband who made the startup go public, after suggesting they open up an Instagram account and start campaigns to gain followers. One of their methods was sending different flavoured quiches to some influencers, and their sales went up.

Currently, their prices range from $5, for the smallest quiche, to $40 for the family-sized one. María Carmela says they sell 130 quiches every two weeks on average, and most of their clients contact them through Instagram.

These entrepreneurs have found two ways to deliver their quiches: home deliveries with delivery men they trust, and with three stores in Caracas, to whom they distribute frozen quiches to.

The Rebirth of a Bookstore

Ignacio Alvarado, is the 60 year old owner of the Libroria bookstore. In mid-2019, hyperinflation in Venezuela forced him to close his store in Las Mercedes, the place where he used to sell new and used books and fill hundreds of caraqueños with knowledge and adventures.

After closing down, Ignacio continued selling books through Amazon, but the online store became more demanding and closed down his account, so he was left with no choice but to go after the local target once more. “My option was to open up an Instagram account (@libroria_) and, with the help of my daughters, I’ve managed to go public. We’re starting out. We created it two months ago and we already have 1,000 followers, but we can see some results already,” Ignacio comments.

Ignacio says that it’s hard work to find new books in Venezuela; currently he sells what he has in stock and what he manages to get his hands on through friends and street vendors in the Fuerzas Armadas Avenue, a popular spot in Caracas for book lovers. He explains that the most sought after books are novelties and best sellers, but he can’t find them all.

When a potential customer contacts him, he takes it upon himself to deliver the books, most of them costing between $10 and $30.

Perhaps when seen from a context of economic stability, some of these startups aren’t that impressive, but in a land of complete monetary anarchy, where the “criminal dollar” is accepted as the de facto currency by the all of the population nationwide, a little can go a long way, particularly with the financial woes of the global pandemic. Taking advantage of a platform like Instagram, where ad revenue reported $20 billion just in 2019, these Venezuelans show that adapting is the name of the game when you just refuse to be devoured by the crisis.

Daisy Galaviz

Journalist for El Pitazo and Monitor de Víctimas (Runrunes). Writes for Cosecha Roja, El Espectador, Revista Semana and Historias que laten.