When she first announced she was selling homemade pasta on Instagram, Rachael Cornelius McLeod wasn't sure if anyone would take her business seriously.

Just six months later, she was selling out within minutes of posting.

"I didn't really actually think it was going to get very big," McLeod said. "I was stoked."

McLeod makes and sells an ever-changing array of handmade fresh pasta through Cornelius Pasta Co., a business she started solely through Instagram in 2020. Nearly 10,000 supporters now follow the company on the platform.

"Instagram was my only way to get the word out," McLeod said. "I don't know if the business would have actually started if it wasn't for Instagram."

McLeod is one of many entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities using the visual-based social media platform to promote their products or services. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Instagram as a marketing tool proved indispensable for several local business owners, allowing a direct connection with their customer base. By selling products through the platform, they didn't need a permanent store or restaurant.

Rosalie Morton, senior vice president at Padilla PR firm in Minneapolis, said Instagram can be a key tool for businesses to raise brand awareness.

"It's a very important investment because it is a form of advertising that can humanize your brand," Morton said. "Authenticity is a really important piece. During the pandemic, people had to stay alone, right? So you weren't having these opportunities to create this highly produced content anymore. So it kind of leveled the playing field for what kind of content people expected."

Morton — who has worked in social media marketing for 13 years — said retailers and local businesses are especially suitable for promotion on Instagram.

Time and intention

Minneapolis boutique Cake Plus-Size Resale, with more than 18,000 followers on Instagram, reflects the power of investing consistent effort into Instagram posts and engagement. Shop owner Cat Polivoda delegated Instagram responsibility to employee Paxyshia Yang, who posts photos of new arrivals, how to style clothes and colorful graphics promoting sales and events.

"It takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of intention to make sure that we're sharing a variety of things," Polivoda said. "There's a lot of thought that goes into it for us."

Polivoda has been using social media to sell clothes since 2014, when she first started building a customer base on Facebook and Instagram. Three years later, she opened a brick-and-mortar store.

Local business owners concur it's hard to quantify exactly how much of their success comes from their Instagram presence. But they do know maintaining an online community is still a worthwhile investment of resources regardless.

"I think it's that social media piece that keeps us on people's minds, that allows people to feel connected to us," Polivoda said.

Emily Deutschman, owner of Curly Girl Boutique in Minneapolis, spends hours every week creating social media content and hired a marketing intern to build an Instagram audience for her retail inventory.

"I do think it totally did pay off," Deutschman said. "Especially as a small-business owner, I think people like to make a connection to the owner and see them and their personality."

Deutschman is now selling her Minneapolis boutique and in the purchasing documents has listed the store's Instagram page with 2,000 followers as a line-item asset. She's valued the account at $4,500, reflecting the $2 per follower price a business coach recommended.

Other business owners and home cooks like McLeod who have cottage food licenses — meaning they can sell homemade food products without a commercial-grade kitchen — have thrived on social media, particularly in the height of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

"Instagram was a great starter," said Jenny Huynh, owner of Wildflower Macarons, based in Eden Prairie.

Huynh started selling and posting about her uniquely decorated novelty macarons in 2020, starting with about 20 followers on Instagram and growing to almost 2,000 in three years.

While most restaurants and bakeries had to shut down in-person dining under COVID-19 lockdown guidelines, Huynh posted on Instagram consistently and connected with her growing customer base online to coordinate order pick-ups.

"When I'm on Instagram, I can reach out to more people," Huynh said. "And it's just easier to answer questions. It's faster."

She said almost all of her customers discovered Wildflower Macarons because of the social media platform.

Building a customer base

Taking advantage of Instagram's algorithm to create business growth took trial and error for Linda Cao, co-founder of Saturday Dumpling Co. in Minneapolis. Cao's efforts to create a vibrant and engaging Instagram page have paid off, with the page now at almost 17,000 followers.

Having worked in social media advertising before opening the dumpling business with her husband Peter Bian in 2021, Cao understood the basics of using Instagram to amplify a brand.

"We really went into this not with a business strategy in mind but more so just spreading the news and awareness with just our own personal network of friends and family," Cao said. "And Instagram is kind of where all of them were as well at the time."

Cao said creating social media content can be time-consuming and fall down the list of priorities for business owners. But in the weeks she posts more on Instagram, the dumpling company sees more orders.

"It's really important to stay on it and to be consistent with it," Cao said. "So then we can continue to see people stay interested in our product or to reach new customers that maybe have not heard about us."

McLeod is now able to make a living off of Cornelius Pasta Co. while caring for her two young children. She believes the potential to make money through Instagram is limitless, especially with all the local support in Minneapolis.

"I was really excited to be back in a city that is so cool about supporting small businesses that they'll go on an Instagram page and Venmo someone they've never met money," said McLeod, an Otsego native who returned home to Minnesota five years ago after moving around the country.

"It was fantastic. I was really excited about it. And I thought, 'I'm really glad to be back in Minnesota.'"