How TikTok is helping local entrepreneurs take small businesses from Fort Wayne to worldwide

At the genesis of any business, the founder is tasked with getting the word out about their product or service. The way in which a company is marketed can make or break a new business. 

This can be especially taxing for local entrepreneurs who are running the show alone. Jumping into branding and marketing can be scary; to some, it might even feel like a waste of time to compete with big name brands online.

According to a 2022 Forbes article, with more than 270 million active social media users, social media platforms can provide ample opportunities for small businesses to grow online brand awareness, increase website traffic, and sell products.

For those brave enough to make the decision to put their businesses online, sometimes because of careful research, other times because of luck, it can pay off, taking their customer base from Northeast Indiana to worldwide.

Kyle Sommer, owner of Sommer Letter Co.Kyle Sommer of Fort Wayne is one of those brave business owners, who has seen the payoff of social media firsthand. She owns Sommer Letter Co. and has more than 166,000 followers and 2 million likes on TikTok. Videos on the Sommer Letter Co. page have anywhere from a few thousand to 3.9 million views. On Instagram, the business has more than seven thousand followers.

Sommer describes her start in the stationary business as typical. She created her wedding invitations, and soon after friends started asking her to make theirs. She was a high school Spanish teacher, but at the time she was going through a mental health crisis and decided it was best for her to leave teaching and pursue her art. 

@sommerletterco my 7 year small business journey #smallbusinesscheck #smallbusinessjourney #stationerybusiness #artistsoftiktok ♬ Home - Edith Whiskers
In 2015, setting up a studio in the basement of her mom’s house, she began Sommer Letter Co. Looking back, Sommer describes this leap of faith with a lot of gratitude. She says it wouldn’t have been possible without her husband, whose support and patience gave her the opportunity her take time to learn about entrepreneurship and launch a stationery business.

Products designed by Sommer Letter Co.Sommer Letter Co.’s first products were greeting cards, phone cases, and notebooks, which she sold at farmers markets and pop-up shops in Fort Wayne and Chicago. While she found the Fort Wayne community to be supportive and encouraging of her business, she was losing money at these events.

“I do genuinely feel a lot of support from Fort Wayne,” she says. “Honestly, the reasons I struggled had more to do with my lack of business knowledge and my lack of understanding of marketing and how to reach my customers.”

In 2020, COVID-19 shut down a lot of the events Sommer would typically travel to, forcing her to rethink how she connects with potential customers. 

A notebook from Sommer Letter Co.Forbes suggests small businesses often don’t have the financial resources to pay for marketing, so for Sommer, whose small business was already on a tight budget, the solution wasn’t as simple as paying for marketing to reach new customers.

While exploring how to market her business, Sommer noticed a friend and fellow stationery business owner, Betsy Garcia of Bloomwolf Studio in Florida, gain 10,000 followers in a month on TikTok. After talking to Betsy about using TikTok as a way to market products, Sommer felt it was time to give the video app a shot.

She decided to give herself 60 days to test TikTok as a marketing tactic. At the end of the 60 days, she would evaluate. Is this making a difference in my bottom line? Is this worth my time? Have I liked learning the app? Do I understand the culture? Have I given it a fair shot?

@sommerletterco A little about WHY I make greeting cards. #mentalhealthmatters #greetingcard #depressionanxiety #artistsoftiktok ♬ original sound - Sommer Letter Co.
The trial period wasn’t easy, and she found there was a learning curve to using the app.

“I felt like an old woman walking into a very loud arcade,” says Sommer. “There were a lot of flashing things on the screen and the noises and the trends. I was not into the culture. I didn't use TikTok, so I felt very inadequate. But if I've learned anything as an entrepreneur, it's that you have to learn through experimenting and through failure.”

The weekend after posting her second video on TikTok, with only 12 followers at the time, Sommer managed to get more than 10,000 views. The video wasn’t focused on her company or her products, it was a tool recommendation for other artists, she knew instantly that TikTok was going to work for her business.

@sommerletterco did I mention this lamp is made by a small, family owned business? they’re the nicest ppl everrrrrr #artistsoftiktok #smallbusinesstiktok #artisttok ♬ original sound - Sommer Letter Co.
“I don't wanna say it was easy, because it wasn't easy to be successful there, but it happened so quickly,” Sommer says. “Partly because at that point I had developed five years of business knowledge and marketing knowledge so that when I walked into TikTok, I was super well equipped to just run with it.”

And she did. Sommer found a unique way to show her audience her products and let them in on the behind-the-scenes of being a small business owner and artist. Less than a year into using TikTok, she went viral for her planners and sold a year's worth of inventory in less than 24 hours.

@sommerletterco Answer to @katiejinright WHERE MY PLANNER PPL AT ��❤️���� #plannerbusiness #plannertok #shopifystore #smallbusinesstok ♬ original sound - Sommer Letter Co.
Sommer says before using TikTok, her customer base was largely from the region. Now, she has customers around the world. She’s also been able to translate a small portion of her TikTok following into a community on Instagram, where she shares similar content and answers questions or shares part of her workday almost daily on her Instagram Story.

The inside of Sommer Letter Co.'s popular planner.Sommer Letter Co. is one example of a local business braving the internet to find a new audience. While Sommer credits her success to a lot of trial and error, another local company credits its international customer base to good timing and natural growth.

The Urban Hippie is a staple in the Fort Wayne boutique clothing market, now located on The Landing Downtown. On TikTok, the store has over 405,000 followers, with more than 6.3 million likes. Videos on their page regularly reach between 5,000 and hundreds of thousands of people. On Instagram, they have more than 37,000 followers. 

The boutique offers women’s clothing and accessories in a unique mix between retro hippy and trendy, modern bohemian and urban styles, which its Owner Tammy Castleberry says reflects her own personal style. For years, Castleberry says she struggled to find clothing that matched her style in Fort Wayne, so she opted to curate a boutique that filled the gap.

The exterior of The Urban Hippie's new location at 111 W Columbia St Ste 101, Fort Wayne, IN 46802.She got her start in the clothing industry by purchasing closeout items from stores, like Macy’s and Bloomingdales, and then selling them on eBay. Eventually, she rented a small studio space in Downtown Fort Wayne to use, which she decked out with a vintage fridge full of drinks and often had friends hanging out and trying on the clothes she was selling.

She loved the environment, so when it became more complicated to sell on eBay, Castleberry opted to leave the online marketplace. But she didn’t want to leave behind fashion or her studio.

The seating area inside The Urban Hippie's new location on The Landing.“I decided, if I'm going to still do something like this, I'm going to sell things that I want to sell,” says Castleberry. “So I'm going to buy clothing that I've always wanted in Fort Wayne, but could never find.”

While she kept her operation online at first, her friends pointed out that her studio in Downtown Fort Wayne was already set up to hold a store, so she might as well open to the public. She did, and The Urban Hippie quickly became a popular spot with its kitschy vibe and vintage features, like the old bank safe and file cabinets on the walls. A few years later, it expanded to 534 West Berry St. Downtown and continued to grow. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Castleberry says she knew things would be different.

“I knew that store traffic was going to be very iffy,” says Castleberry. “People were very hesitant. I knew that I probably wasn't going to be able to sustain just doing brick and mortar if that was the case. So I decided, we’ll work on social media.”

Since the boutique’s origin, Castleberry had been running The Urban Hippie’s social media, coming up with post ideas on her own and running model calls. She made it a point to feature iconic Fort Wayne places on her social media. She says that even before Downtown was revitalized, people held a fondness for it in their hearts. Places like Coney Island, the Landing, or any of the beautiful church steeples found in the Fort made The Urban Hippie’s backdrops of interest to their followers. 

While Castleberry wasn’t unhappy with the brand’s online presence, she was looking to join TikTok and she knew the online business would be crucial to surviving the pandemic. So The Urban Hippie put out a model call, as they had done many times before, but this time Castleberry connected with Delaney Rilley of Fort Wayne. Rilley had a growing audience on TikTok, and Castleberry had the desire to put her brand on the app. The two struck up a deal. Rilley would take over The Urban Hippie accounts and grow the brand’s presence on TikTok.

In the two years since Rilley took over on social media, they have more than doubled their followers on Instagram and grown a large audience on TikTok, too. 


Del wanted to be sure yall were the first to know��✌��

♬ original sound - Joshua Myburgh
“I'm incredibly lucky that I found her the way I did,” says Castleberry. “It came at a time that was critically important, and the timing could not have been better. The growth could not have been predicted.”

Through Rilley, The Urban Hippie was able to grow its online business, which is bigger than its brick-and-mortar business. Castleberry admits that online isn’t her preferred way to do business, but it has allowed the boutique to continue growing.

In October, the store relocated for the third time to the Landing, bringing the same kitschy vibes created in Castleberry’s first studio. Now, as the first retail store on the Landing, Castleberry recognizes the move is somewhat of a gamble to be among restaurants and breweries. But she hopes the new location will draw in customers and help even out the online-to-in-person business ratio.

Inside The Urban Hippie's new location at 111 W Columbia St Ste 101, Fort Wayne, IN 46802.Castleberry says social media can be a struggle for small businesses. Trying to find your voice and style on everchanging apps can be hard, and it can take big investments of both time and money. But it can pay off.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.