In 2021, when you think of how best to serve people beyond physical borders, the internet comes to mind.
Building a business on the internet could play out in two different ways. Your business can either deal with offering physical products for sale online or providing a service online. The former would be tangible while the latter would have no physical form whatsoever.
Tolu Michael chose to provide a service – a digital product – where she guides people on how to establish personal reputation using the internet. She’s helping them gain visibility online. I had an interesting chat with her on what it’s like creating services and selling to tens of thousands of people online from the comfort of her home in Lagos, Nigeria. But before we dive in, let’s take a stroll through her career journey.
A digital entrepreneur with an engineering background
After studying mechanical engineering in Nigeria- something she did because of her love for cars – she took a detour into the world of investment banking. This happened after she interned at a Toyota after-sales franchise for a while and realised she didn’t want to deal with the smell of petrol and engine oil every day.
Somewhere in her career journey, marriage happened and she had to move cities but during that process, she lost her job so she had to rethink her career path. As a woman, changing jobs alongside starting a new family came with startling challenges.
Michaels’ initial obstacle being a newly wedded woman is not exactly a peculiar one. In a lot of family situations, prioritizing family over work is the number one barrier to a woman’s career. This study by Harvard Business School says more than half of Gen X and Baby Boomer men expected that their careers would take priority over their partners. In the study, “73 percent of men and 85 percent of women agreed that prioritizing family over work is the most difficult career decision women face.
For Michaels, being newly married came with lots of “specific rejections,” where employers assume she might get carried away with building a family and leave her job to suffer. At this point, searching for new job opportunities proved abortive so she figured she could try out something on her own and that just happened to be digital entrepreneurship.
“Initially, I started to ask myself, what do I have to offer people, especially beyond borders, because I couldn’t do something physical. I didn’t have the capital to sell physical products so I needed something I could provide people in whatever location I am,” she tells me on our Google Meet call.
Leveraging knowledge commerce
Digital products are basically online products that can’t be held, touched, or tasted. They could be music, videos, ebooks, online courses or even this article you are reading. They are only created and delivered electronically.
To generate revenue, a digital entrepreneur builds their platform through personal branding, this is particularly pertinent to gain visibility and influence more sales
Personal branding is all about positioning, Michaels tells me. “You don’t even need to have a very large audience, all you need is to position yourself as a valuable expert and leader. This will allow the right people and the right opportunities to be attracted to you.”
In the initial stage of her digital career, Michaels picked up new skills including a degree on Disruptive Strategy from Harvard Business school. She had also helped a few friends build their personal brands so it was about time to enlarge her area of reach.
First, she buffed up her social media presence, which she says is a major part of “positioning.” Social media is free to use but to gain followers or reach a larger audience, one needs to put in the work. She got her “first-ever client from outside her circle of friends” from Instagram. One would think LinkedIn could have been at the forefront of this process but, she says, in selling digital products, entrepreneurs should have their profiles on all social media platforms and utilise each platform fully.
From getting her first international client to building a personal platform that has trained over 20,000 people in over 12 countries of the world, what Michaels really does is teach modern entrepreneurs how “to build purposeful and profitable personal brands, so that they can stand out of the crowd and sell impactful products.”
She does this through branding, online courses, consultations, podcasting and through her book, Show Up. For her, work revolves around helping people get the clarity and confidence to show up online, communicate their values, and create a bigger impact with their work. How she sells is mostly by referrals from people she’s worked with in the past.
For some digital entrepreneurs, online sales only provide supplementary income in addition to their main jobs but for people like her, it is a full-time job that is earning her a living.
When Michaels made her first 1000 dollars just from putting her thoughts together and selling to her audience, she became an ardent digital product creator. What is even more important to her is positioning herself not as someone whose products are for an African audience alone but for an untapped global market.
As one who speaks candidly about juggling motherhood, selling digital products is not just helping her create impact and make money while at it, it is also enabling her to work mostly from the comfort of her home, close to her daughter.