It happened almost completely by mistake, but at some point in 2016, Lubna Akhtar realised that the hobby Facebook page she was running was making her money – and more money than the grueling human resources (HR) job that was keeping her occupied for most of her day.
What had started out as quite the little joke was suddenly offering the possibility of profit. The first paycheque that Lubna received via her Facebook page was a trifling Rs75,000, but it was enough to make her think of what could be.
A Facebook page may not exactly be big business or even an up and coming entrepreneurial venture, but it was definitely offering very real, very cold, very hard cash. A lot of it for a passing hobby, especially considering it was more than what Lubna was getting for a month’s hard sweat and toil.
The Facebook page in question is the now entrenched Khabees Orat, which uses still images of women from vintage American advertising along with biting Urdu text that serves as a subversive commentary on society, politics, and the trivialities of everyday life.
The page has over a million followers – much more than Profit’s own presence on Facebook, and unnervingly close to the following of the magazine’s parent publication, Pakistan Today. What is even more impressive than Khabees Orat’s host of followers is that it is a significantly engaged following – something social media experts and marketers start salivating at.
In recent times, a social media slowdown and Lubna’s shifting interests and attentions have meant that the page is not making anything anymore for all intents and purposes. But the reality is that it was once upon a time, and while it might not have been the definition of raking it in, it was also enough to beg the question, can you quit your job to admin a Facebook page full time?
How exactly do you take home a neat little cheque from a Facebook page every 40 to 60 days, and manage to quit your job while you are at it? How does a small-scale Facebook business work, and is it something anyone can feasibly do? Profit sat down with Lubna to get the story of the catchy phrases, biting jokes, and how Khabees Orat rose to fame, made money, and then stopped making money, all the while disregarding countless social conventions.
When she was studying at the National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Lubna and her friend Mehwish were the class clowns. Their constant stream of sharp wit and unapologetic roasts made at the expense of their friends was when they were first lovingly dubbed ‘Khabees’ by said stung friends.
Back then, there had been a Facebook page called ‘Bitchy Urdu Cards,’ the precursor to Khabees Orat. Much as Lubna does now, Bitchy Urdu Cards used images of women and families from vintage ads from the 1950s with Urdu text to create sharp social commentary.
The idea was just something that clicked. Vintage ads from the 1950s and 60s are from the first age of advertising – from the post-World War II economic boom in the United States that gave birth to the creative executive and real-life Don Drapers and the Mad Men, named after New York’s Madison Avenue, where many of the biggest ad agencies were then headquartered.
Today, these early mass marketing campaigns are relegated to Buzzfeed lists about sexist ads from the era. Using the images from the very same sexist ads and adding to them Urdu text commenting on societal issues from the perspective of women turned the simple act of meme-ing into a subversive act – one turning sexism on its head in this small Facebook pocket.
As a carefree, undergraduate student with a smart retort for everything, Lubna began sending in content to Bitchy Urdu Cards, just for fun. The page would then post these images created by Lubna, crediting her along the way. But at some point, the owners of this original page either ran out of ideas or simply lost interest. They eventually stopped posting regularly, not just Lubna’s contributions, but altogether. What did Lubna do? Make Khabees Orat of course.
In these early days, the page was simply a creative outlet, a sarcastic venting board to make observations and social criticism. Even though Bitchy Urdu Cards had been where it first started, and where Khabees Orat’s unique template comes from, the inspiration for the larger exercise came from a wider source, most of them from other Facebook pages – Aunty Acid is an example. She said that what attracted her the most in such pages was the boldness that their posts exude.
“I probably chose this as a way out for all my anger and aggression regarding whatever is happening around us. I am a quiet and reserved person in real life by nature so taking it all out through a character felt good,” said Lubna.
Khabees Orat has even taken on issues such as honor killing, political correctness, raising children, and other social stereotypes prevalent in Pakistani society. As a result, Lubna has received a lot of hate mail and several threatening messages too, but all that has ended up making the page get bolder and ‘bitchier’ and along with it more popular.
How it happened
It was also a matter of convenience that just fit well with her overall aims from the page. “The page where I started, bitchy Urdu cards used the same images – English characters and Urdu language. I realize that pages evolve and change their characters and memes. But I kept the basic character because of several reasons. One, the pictures are easily available online. Two, I am not good with Photoshop etc. And Three, I can focus primarily on lines instead of the images. So, keeping the same character means I get easy access to the images I require. Then, considering the fact that the page got its traction primarily for the same character, so why risk it all? And finally, I am still in love with the images myself, so I don’t have any reason to change it.”
While she might have been at the receiving end of her posts being stolen, she has steered clear of falling into the same trap. “The images I use are being used by many other people and pages, sometimes fans also send me images, so the basic characters I use are not exactly claimed by anyone as copyrighted and I have never received any complaint either. Sometimes I also use local images of local celebrities and twice it happened that I used images which belonged to a photographer. Both times I got calls from them, one told me to credit him and the other said to take off the photo and I did that.”
As the popularity of their image increased, businesses also started taking interest. And this is where Khabees Orat the hobby started becoming Khabees Orat the small-scale online business. It all started with Kaghaz, another Facebook page that produces paper products. An interesting nugget here – Lubna is now married to the owner of Kaghaz, Ozair.
“Someone asked them to produce notebooks with my designs so they approached me for permission. Then I also started with the owners of ‘Notebook’, another similar startup. Then another company “Muggay” also contacted me for permission for the designs and to work with them. Many other pages also approached me but it was mostly them coming to me instead of me looking for producers,” recalls Lubna.
However, the union with other Facebook pages and merchandise dealers has not all been smooth sailing for Khabees Orat. “There are some issues which I neither knew nor anticipated, but as I started working with different startups, I realized them. Also, while many pages and businesses approached me, there were also many pages who were using my designs even without my knowledge. In the beginning I fought back, complained and asked such pages to stop using my designs without my permission.”
The business model of such an initiative is quite interesting, in the sense that there is indeed zero investment in monetary terms, little financial risk, and decent profits. For all intents and purposes, Lubna is a creative agent for hire with a unique brand of her own.
Lubna’s designs were used by these different businesses, and the merchandise came directly to her with a certain price tag. Then, it was up to her to decide how much margin she wants to keep on top and sell those products through her popular page. There are, of course, some negotiations, but ultimately, as the owner of the distribution channel, it was Lubna who had the authority to decide the price.
This is the general norm of how Facebook pages that also produce merchandise work. You might have come across several such businesses producing hoodies and mugs with university logos, or for instance taking the popular posters from Aurat March and so on. Another benefit for such a creative page is that the job of production, advertisement, and taking and delivering orders is all done by the producers of the merchandise, and the owners of the designs get their margins comfortably without having to handle the sales process.
“The producers already have big sales and they already have an established market so they produce a said product and quote the price that they are offering,” she said. For more popular products, and if they are also cheaply produced higher margins can be added. In Khabees Orat’s case that would be kitchen magnets. But there are also some products that just needed to be kept in the collection despite lower sales, because it fits the overall portfolio of designs. “For me that would be cushions, they don’t sell much so I keep lower margins there, but they are still available”.
Since the manufacturers are responsible for marketing and order management, they also get to be the ones who decide the primary target market for such products. However, the designers and creative content creators play a major role thereby positioning their content in a certain way.
“For my page the demography is mostly female, approximately 70%, and usually 18 to 28 years old. So, I know that it’s the same group that will also become buyers of the products with my designs and therefore composition of customers of merchandize is also pretty much the same. But sometimes certain products gather a specific demography as well, for example kitchen magnets are bought by housewives mostly.”
Lubna said, “When I started working with Muggay in 2016, I was already doing a proper job as an HR professional with an IT company and I was earning well. My first payment [from Khabees Orat designs] was Rs75,000 that was higher than my salary and I was amazed. That’s when I realized the potential of earning but soon after that some problems with Muggay led me to stop working with them. One of their ex-employees contacted me and told me that at that time more than 70% of Muggay’s business was coming from my designs. That also encouraged me to pursue this hobby as a money-making venture. But even until now I haven’t had the chance to completely utilize merchandise as an earning opportunity.”
However, once you have reached a certain number of followers on a social media platform, some other doors also open for generating money. One of them is promoting brands and product placement. That too, comes with its own challenges.
“I promote brands and I earn well from it. Sometimes though these brands ask me to promote the posts with their products and that negatively impacts my organic reach.” She also said that when she focuses on the monetary side, the creative side suffers, and that harms the overall performance of the page and thereby the financial side too in the long-run.
All of this is done without Lubna having to spend a single penny, not on the products and not towards social media platforms, like Facebook. “I have not had to pay Facebook or any other platform. In fact, it is one of the major reasons I have stepped back from direct ad promotions. Because that’s where you have to spend money on the posts because brands ask you to boost it and that seriously disturbs your organic reach and it disturbs the overall following as well”.
She is not worried about the competition although she does feel “envious” in her own words, at times when she sees something really creative. “If I see another page that is really creative and really popular, I do feel that I have to keep up with competition. But the content that I create is quite specialized and different so I have never had the experience of losing out my followers or customers of merchandize etc.”
For now, Khabees Orat continues to periodically share content or even sometimes create it, but remains largely inactive. The inactivity also means that no cash is really coming in, and the simple explanation for that is that Lubna has moved on to other things. Happily married, Lubna has moved to Karachi and is at the moment put her little accidental venture on hold while she traverses a new city. But it is something she wishes to come back to at some point, and with its following and content, it might just be as fertile as it was at its height.
“I hope to have a store some day with a myriad of products all featuring Khabees Orat designs. Once I understood that there is so much potential in this, I also planned ahead to realize that potential. But it will take a while” Lubna explains.
With the nature of online businesses and the ever expanding and ever mysterious world of Facebook, perhaps the most ironic thing is that such a shop would probably drown. The Facebook business, however, is still thriving at a stable pace.