In February, a small US Latina-owned business that specializes in scented lip glosses and scrubs went viral on TikTok for an audio clip that began, "I live in a country where if you put Gorilla Glue in your hair, you get millions of views, but if you work hard on a small business, you barely get a thousand views." The original video — and its creator's subsequent apology — are no longer up. But, if you look through the hundreds of videos under that audio, you could imagine what the original looked like: an acrylic-nailed hand pumping some scented hand-sanitiser, sparkling lip glosses being fetched from vats containing hundreds of others, colourful sachet gift bags stuffed with paper confetti, stickers, and a hand-written thank you card; throw in a free scrunchie to the pile, then stuff it all into a shiny shipping envelope, and you've got yourself the epitome of TikTok's small business community. As the videos all kindly ask, #supportsmallbusinesses. But what does it really mean?
What once started as a way for TikTokers to boost their small brands has now turned into a more demanding plea for attention — and money. The guilt-tripping small business videos all seem to say the same thing: "No matter what you're currently doing, it can't possibly be nobler than running a small business in the great US-of-A, so the least you can do is support mine." The message is that, unlike TikTok personalities who gain popularity for dancing or jokes or other trivial reasons, small business owners are respectable, virtuous, and therefore more — the real key — deserving of money than viral stars or any other kind of internet ephemera, even if that includes a Black woman in distress.
This is Gen Z's continuation of Rise and Grind Twitter and Girlboss Instagram — hustling is a goal in itself. If this sounds like a very 2015 concept, know that the reason there's only a vague memory left of that video mocking the woman who put Gorilla Glue in her hair is that it was overtaken by videos making fun of it and all of Small Business TikTok — specifically, the genre's fondness for guilt-tripping customers. A handful of audio tracks house one of TikTok's most vicious Small Business haters — people making fun of the now-archetypical chocolate-dipped strawberry, lip gloss, or false eyelash small businesses that once found a home on the platform. Some of these spoof videos do such a good job of imitating these businesses that they're mistaken for the real thing, while some other videos that are promoting real businesses are mistaken for parodies.
But 19-year-old Joyce Pan, the entrepreneur behind a 600k-follower small business account on TikTok, says she didn't always care what drew people to her account — views mean orders. She's been making polymer clay charms for three years now, and she started growing her following (and customer base) on TikTok as a recipient of the platform's Creator Fund. She explains that when other people use these audios, even as a joke, it surfaces small business videos (and products) to more people. Meanwhile, comments — good or bad — help boost it even further. "But, there is always a balance between being annoying and getting the views," she says, admitting "Now because of the negativity, I stopped making those kinds of videos." She's since aligned with small business critics by dueting an audio track that begins, "POV you're being guilt-tripped by a small business."
Guilt-trip videos are only a small fraction of what small businesses bring to social media, where their main goal is to promote their products and earn new customers. One way they've done this is through packaging videos, which have been a staple in the ASMR genre and are so popular across Instagram and TikTok that they've been turned into countless viral YouTube compilations. These videos show creators pumping glittery goo into squeeze tubes, swirling strawberries into dyed and melted chocolate, sprinkling themed confetti into a cellophane bag, and creasing paper around the end of a homemade candle. And wherever there is paper — be it a wrapper or a thank you card — there is hot wax to seal it. These videos are equal parts Get Ready with Me, Day in the Life, Rise and Grind inspo, ASMR, and DYI, which means they cast a wide net meant to rake in as many customers as possible. When their creators throw in a free applicator, stickers, or scrunchies with a two-lipgloss order, the eager consumer in all of us asks if it might be worth placing an order after all — if only to feel like we're receiving a care package from a friend with extravagant crafting supplies.
In addition to the ASMR, some small business owners also create content aimed at helping other people start their own businesses, while others teach tutorials for their specific craft. And yet, it's the whiny guilt-trip video that has come to define Small Business TikTok. Before jumping to the conclusion that TikTok hates small businesses because the platform is ruled by green-haired communists under the age of 25, and so of course they're hostile to any pro-business bootstrapping content, it's worth noting that the small businesses of TikTok are also run by young creators. It turns out, some young people still dream of being a boss and running a successful business; it's not all about sourdough and frogs, after all.
In Pan's experience, people are generally more interested in learning about small businesses and relying on them for their goods, even if it means paying more and waiting longer for things to ship, "because you have a more direct impact on someone's life, I feel like it's been a trend to help out small businesses."
But not all small businesses are alike. Today's young consumer tirelessly and (often spiralling-ly) looks for the most ethical alternative for absolutely everything. So when someone uses fancy branding to increase the sales price of repackaged Aliexpress products and then exalts these questionably made items as being virtuous by the mere fact that they're being sold by a small business, and then goes even further by shaming anyone that dares ignore them — well, it naturally elicits some hostility. Many people love supporting small businesses — and bragging about it — but being shamed into buying something just because it comes from a small business is weird.
While the rage under these viral audio tracks makes sense, it's not necessarily going to solve the larger problems we face. No singular or even collective purchasing decision can rid the world of Amazon. No small business, however scammy, is solely responsible for the evils of capitalism, and assigning small business owners an Elon Musk-level of villainy is misguided, even if it feels satisfying.
For marginalized communities, especially communities of colour, the small business is a means of carving out some sort of financial autonomy. Small businesses, in this case, look like teachers who also sell jewellery on the side or hairdressers who hand out business cards for their birthday cake company to their clients. It's people like Pan, who are full-time students and wake up at 5:45 a.m. to fulfill orders. It's women bottling their own personal hair oil recipes for people who have similar hair to them, the kind of people who are largely ignored by big-name brands. Small businesses like this create community, then, both between owners and customers, but also amongst themselves.
"Personally, I don't feel competitive against any other small business owner because I feel like every business is unique," Pan explains. "I don't mind if people use my ideas, it's important that we help each other grow." She is extra-attentive of her DMs and makes sure she always answers any questions about her supplies, equipment, or tips to grow a social media presence. "Especially because I started out small and those bigger accounts helped me and gave me advice, and you gotta give back."