Best Advice I Ever Got: It's Not About You, It's About Your Customer
Evrim Oralkan is the founder and CEO of Travertine Mart, a boutique online flooring company specializing in premium-grade travertine pavers, tiles, and pool coping. Until Travertine Mart's founding in 2007, travertine could only be found in brick-and-mortar shops. Travertine Mart has provided a cost-effective solution that brings high-quality travertine straight to your door. Travertine Mart was named to the Inc. 5000 list in 2012 and 2013 and was a nominee for the 2013 Edison Award.
Sometimes, our "aha" moments happen in the most unlikely places--like on a trip to Turkey to visit family, in my case.
I was managing a luxury hotel in the U.S. at the time, quite happy with my career, when I discovered travertine, a heat-resistant natural stone that's not as slippery as other stone when wet. It's been a paving material for centuries in Europe, but I began to wonder whether homeowners in the U.S. knew about it. It seemed like the ideal product for pool decks.
I discovered that there was no national brand of travertine, and most people didn't know it existed. I decided to quit the field I'd prepared for in college to create an online business marketing this material directly to the public.
Nobody had done it before, which taught me one of the most important lessons I've ever learned:
1. If your idea isn't absurd, there's no hope for it.
Industry "experts" told me it would be impossible to establish a strong flooring brand and sell it online. I didn't take their word for it, and I'm glad I didn't.
It wasn't easy. I had no capital and no experience in the industry. I had to encourage people to buy a heavy and expensive product online. And I was up against much larger companies with established reputations and supply chains.
But if you want to build something extraordinary, you have to believe in your ability to create something that others think is crazy. If you can do that, the rewards will be great.
We became pioneers in a niche market, and we knew others would eventually follow. So we focused on the second most important thing I've learned:
2. It's always about the customer.
It's not about the product, and it's not about you. If you don't lay a foundation of customer service that goes above and beyond, your competitors will steal your disgruntled customers.
To set ourselves apart, we worked hard to be a trustworthy company. We created unique technical tools and information resources for our buyers. We wanted to become the go-to place online for anything related to travertine.
Because of my background in the hospitality business, attention to customers came naturally to me. So did my ability to expect the unexpected--you can imagine the bizarre things that happen in a hotel!
This was the third most important lesson I've learned:
3. Mise en place, mise en place, mise en place.
"Mise en place" is a French expression I learned in college that means "put in place."
In professional kitchens, it refers to setting out and arranging all the ingredients the chef will need to prepare menu items during a shift. In the hospitality business--as in every business--you have to set up everything you might need before you need it. You have to anticipate challenges before they turn into problems.
At our company, we try not to depend on a single channel of business. While we focus on online retail sales, we have also established an aggressive wholesale strategy to cushion fluctuations in retail. This diversification has helped my company grow remarkably fast.
"Mise en place" is our philosophy. From the beginning, our goal has been to streamline the process of ordering premium-quality travertine and delivering it straight to the customer's door. This means continually preparing for the next phase. We built technologies, systems, customer service and a strong sales infrastructure at a fraction of what larger corporations spend because we were prepared.
If you start with a very clear vision of where you're going, the decisions you make in the early stages are more likely to continue working as your business matures. Otherwise, you'll need to tear systems down and create new ones with each new cycle, which can be costly. Plus, if your team is constantly forced to adapt, your employees may start questioning your ability to achieve your company's goals. Preparation is everything.
The next time you're dining at a well-managed restaurant, pay attention to the workflow of the staff. You can't surprise them.Ask yourself whether you're equally prepared to face your business' inevitable challenges--and whether your idea is absurd enough to work.