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Boring, mundane businesses have an exhilarating, viral life on TikTok

Boring, mundane businesses have an exhilarating, viral life on TikTok


Landscaping gone viral

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Illustration by Claudia Chinyere Akole

In a minute’s time, you can see a beekeeper remove tens of thousands of bees from a compost bin with her bare hands. Watch a man cut open a tree with a chainsaw, water spewing out of it like a gaping wound. Or see a bare patch of desert transformed into a luxury oasis dotted with waterfalls and palm trees in the snap of a finger.

These normally humdrum tasks have become fodder for viral videos on TikTok, where clips of seemingly dull jobs like landscaping, car detailing, and power washing regularly rack up millions of views. The app has turned sometimes-hidden jobs or dirty behind-the-scenes necessities into soothing, thrilling, or otherwise intriguing videos.

It’s also presented an opportunity for enthusiastic business owners, letting them use the platform’s viral mechanics as a means for advertising, and for reaching an international audience far beyond the region they’d normally serve.

“People on the other side of the world are seeing my videos,” said Kelita Butler, who’s had videos go viral that show her filling tubes of lip gloss for her Fairborn, Ohio-based company TopSecret Bundles. “I got an order in Finland, an order in Ireland. People that I probably will never even meet face to face are seeing my products and what I’m doing.”

TikTok has been such a successful platform for Danny Wang, the founder of a luxury pool landscaping company in Orange County, California, that it’s become pretty much his entire job. Wang regularly posts videos of the homes and yards his company transforms from bland, blank spaces into what look like million-dollar resorts. He’d gotten some traction posting before-and-after photos on Instagram. But it wasn’t until he applied the format to video and put it on TikTok that his work started going viral.

A typical clip will show a blank backyard covered in dirt, a caption promising something good is about to come — “Client: can you make my pockets hurt?” — followed by a glamorous reveal after the beat drops. Wang always includes a genie emoji, like he’s simply poofing these dreamy projects into existence.

“Our projects are very out there so that alone draws a lot of attention,” Wang said. “It’s different. It’s just interesting. It replaces the television.”

TikTok’s much-discussed algorithm is the big reason these videos have succeeded. Whereas on Instagram or YouTube, you might have to seek these videos out — I certainly have never searched for cool logging videos — TikTok is built around serving up anything its algorithm deems addictive to viewers at large. Butler and Wang both use YouTube and Facebook too, but neither has seen the kind of wild, out-of-nowhere success that TikTok gifted them. The platform’s short time limit also demands that videos are simple and focused, encouraging creators to make clips that are catchy up front, easy to follow along with, and that cut out before you lose interest.

The best small business videos capture your attention with something new and unexpected, like a sawed-off wedge of wood falling out of a huge tree or bright pink lip gloss flowing from a stark white machine. They take you behind the scenes of a small world you’d otherwise know nothing about — and may not have even known you could seek out.

“I didn’t realize that people might not know what I do exists,” said Erika Thompson, who operates the Austin-based Texas Beeworks. A recent video shows Thompson in jeans and a tank top — “the veil, suit, and gloves cause you to lose a lot of dexterity” — taking a tree branch covered in a thick swarm of bees and banging it against a box, toppling the bees into the hive-like storage structure below. “Bees have pretty tough exoskeletons, so the short drop doesn’t harm them at all,” Thompson says in the video.

At the same time, business owners have found clear patterns to what their audiences like, and they may have to stick to them to keep blowing up. Butler said she’ll film herself filling up lip gloss bottles she doesn’t even need yet, just because that’s what her fans like to see. Thompson said viewers respond strongest to her bee removal videos, which show her scooping thousands of bees out of strange spaces like a water meter box or a patio chair, then relocating them into transportable frames.

For the TikTok account of R&A Tree Service in Enumclaw, Washington, the winning formula has been “big trees.” The company’s videos show owner Ryland Popke and colleagues slicing into and toppling over trees they’re paid to remove.

“It sounds stupid, but I’ve posted a lot of videos on TikTok where it was a small tree, but I thought it was a badass video and all the timing was right, and it turns out it doesn’t do nearly as good as some of the other ones,” Popke said.

The exposure has been helpful for their businesses. Wang said he’s able to provide design services internationally, expanding his reach far beyond the 30-mile radius his company initially operated in. Popke has seen demand from “all over the country” for hats he sells. Butler’s business operates online, so she’s seen a surge in sales.

Thompson says the viral videos have helped her business too, but she’s more excited about the education she’s been able to offer people. She received an email from a woman saying her niece now wanted to be a beekeeper; another person said their child had been reenacting her video in their playroom, wearing a toy astronaut’s helmet as a makeshift beekeeping veil.

She’s also gotten some criticism from people who fear the videos will encourage amateurs to start scooping up bees on their own. Thompson doesn’t buy it. “I can’t stop watching guys in wind suits,” she said. “But I’m not gonna buy a wind suit and jump off a cliff.”