With Turkey's young and educated work force and cheap operational costs--along with a location that is ideal for ruling the region, as the Ottomans figured out when they conquered Istanbul in 1453--he knew he'd have a huge advantage. Çelebi pays about a third of what he'd pay in Silicon Valley for comparable employees, and about 70 percent less for other costs such as shipping and printing. (Energy is an exception--gas costs $7 a gallon due to taxes.)
From Istanbul, it's a short flight to Kazakhstan, Greece, and Russia, the first international markets AirTies tackled; next up are Egypt, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine. Çelebi's first requirement for a market is high-quality distributors. Using distributors gives him a single ship-to address and means they, rather then he, have to chase down resellers' payments.
Fittingly, his supply chain is international. He uses American-made chips for the manufacturing of his routers in Taiwanese and Chinese factories. But manufacturers want big orders--he can't request a few Kazakh versions of his router and a few Turkish ones. So the manufacturers ship a nearly complete product to Turkey, where a local contractor uses AirTies programs to customize the software's language and telecom configurations for each region, adds country-specific user guides and setup CDs, and ships them off. Couldn't competitors do the same? "If they worked on it, of course they could," Çelebi says. He's applying for patents to protect the technological specifics, but he assumes competitors will focus on big markets, not Bulgaria.
If the supply chain sounds complex, it's hardly been the most difficult part of establishing AirTies. Çelebi knew business was done differently in Turkey. He didn't quite realize how differently.
Cacophonous and young, the AirTies office is populated with girls wearing T-shirts and skirts and guys wearing turtleneck sweaters and slouchy jeans. And then, just when it seems like a San Jose start-up, an apron-clad woman walks by, balancing a tray that holds porcelain teacups and water glasses on doilied saucers. She is the tea lady, whose sole job is to serve and clear drinks. It's a concession to the established way of doing business in Turkey.
It's one of the only such concessions Çelebi has made. Turkish businesses tend to be family-run, with "a big-man, pasha form of organizing," as Jim Stroup, an American with a consulting business in Istanbul, puts it. Employees take direction, not initiative. When Çelebi discussed his plan for AirTies with expat Turks in the U.S., most thought the idea that he could outrun Turkish traditions, along with government regulations, absurd. "We didn't think starting a business in Turkey was a good idea," says Müjdat Pakkan, a Turkish engineer then living in California. "We thought he was crazy."
But Çelebi thought recruiting American-trained Turkish managers could help create an American-style start-up. Turks have long gone to America for postgraduate degrees and jobs. Especially in the late '90s, when U.S. tech jobs were plentiful and the Turkish economy was spiraling into inflation and a massive recession, it seemed the obvious choice. "At the time I graduated, there weren't good job opportunities here. That was the pull of the United States," says Nurettin Atalay, an AirTies engineer who recently moved to Istanbul from Massachusetts. His return, and the return of a dozen other AirTies employees, suggests an interesting trend: Where America was once the destination for these engineers, visa restrictions and growing economies back home have reduced its appeal.
The $300,000 that got AirTies started came from Silicon Valley investors. Even with American funding and American-trained workers, however, the company didn't easily take on an American spirit. The majority of its employees hadn't worked in America, and Çelebi has to remind them to flout that pasha style, take initiative, and set their own deadlines. He found practical skills differed, too. Accountants in Turkey, for example, learn to prepare--and often fake--books for government taxes, rather than traditional P&L accounting. So AirTies trains accountants to prepare two sets of books--one to satisfy the Turkish tax codes and one that tells Çelebi where he's actually making and losing money.
Even seemingly minor things like paperwork encumber him. Here, he's required to sign his name twice on nearly every sheet of every document he submits to the government--he signs once as himself and once as his company's representative (and then, he usually has to get them notarized). He's also had to hire a driver. "I wouldn't think of hiring a driver in a million years in the U.S., but here, there are documents that have to be delivered right, left, and center," he says. "In the U.S., you'd put things in the mail."
By now, though, other than the excessive number of papers he must sign, Çelebi's approaching his job like a U.S. entrepreneur. During a week in early February, he spent Sunday night setting pricing for a contract bid with Turk Telecom. On Monday, he finalized the proposal and sent his staffers to Ankara to submit it. Tuesday he ran the monthly operations meeting, at which each division reviewed how it was doing against goals and what problems had arisen. Tuesday night he had dinner with AirTies' customs brokerage house. By Wednesday, he'd found out his Turk Telecom bid price was only the second lowest, so he pushed suppliers to lower their prices while lining up other potential suppliers. That night, he ate dinner with his Greek distributors. Thursday he had a board meeting and Friday he met with Turk Telecom.
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