9 Kasım 2015

Ilker Ustuner at Work


For me, the work life is not just an income source. It’s one of the major parts of my life where I try to enjoy it. Therefore instead of focusing on work-life balance, I focus on life at work.

It doesn’t mean I’m a workaholic or like to spend long hours at work. It means I strive for challenge, development, and success through motivation, efficiency, effectiveness, and teamwork.

Here are some of the key milestones of my work life:

First full-time job and joining Citibank

In 1999, I’ve graduated from Bogazici University (Turkey) with B.Sc. degree in Computer Engineering. I was already sure that software is more interesting for me than hardware. While I could do software programming all my life, I decided not to work as a software developer so that my hobby would never be demotivated by work stress or job issues.

Just after graduation, I started working in Citibank.

My first position was in Technology department but not as a software developer as I decided before.

I was Regional Systems Administrator. This was the opportunity to learn more about Unix and Windows NT network administration and network security.

If all systems were working properly, my work days were not much overloaded. That’s why even it was out of my job area, I started helping (and learning meanwhile) PC Support and Local Software Development teams.

In 2000, to learn ASP programming language I wrote a web-based application in my spare time to help Call Center agents to easily browse an FAQ database.

As I thought that web-based applications are the future, I showed Local Development Team how to write online/Intranet applications. Until that time, all local Intranet applications were being written by Lotus Notes. Software team was amazed and they started to migrate apps to .NET platform and online web based apps became a standard for future development.

It’s great to see that those software developers I’ve showed how to write online application in 2000 are now CEO of their own successful software or tech companies.

Meeting the world of Analytics

2 years after working in Technology Department, I was offered a position in Strategic Analytics Unit.

I even did not know the existence of such a department. It was the department which manages all internal MIS reporting, cross-sell campaigns and strategical analysis. Importance and value of the department were clear as it was reporting directly to the CEO.

When I heard about job description I was surprised as well as excited.

It was the description of my dream job.

Working on databases, analyzing data to find out useful information and create campaigns based on this information were all I wanted. Most of all, I would have the chance to increase the profit of the company.

After a tough statistical exam, I was accepted to the department and started working as Retail Banking MIS Analyst by 2001.

Thanks a lot to my manager Cihan Tunçbilek for his personal contribution, coaching to me to learn analytics. He is the master of analytics for me!

Challenge accepted: Moving to Russia

By 2003, I just finished MBA on E-business program and decided to continue my career abroad to get international experience.

When I shared this wish with my managers, they agreed to support with one condition: “train a backup/replacement to hand over my current responsibilities”.

Luckily, I found my replacement guy, recruited and trained. 3 months later I stood again in front of our CEO, Rajeev Kakar and said: “I’m ready”.

Just 2 months after that, I was offered a position in Moscow, Russia.

I have not been in Russia before, no idea about the culture, language or environment.

I called my friend Taylan Turan, who has moved to Russia about 6 months ago and asked him about the company. He told me that it’s very challenging environment, the bank has just started consumer business and the credit cards product was about to launch. Everything was at early stages and we would have the chance to lead and grow it like a startup.

I was very much excited. I would have a chance to build things from scratch.

It took me only 2 days to talk to my family and make my final decision. Although I had no experience about the position (Financial Controller) or the product (Credit Cards) earlier, the challenge and opportunities convinced me immediately.

I waited for another month to get my business visa and by October 2003, I flew to Moscow with my one single luggage and started working in Finance department reporting to CFO (Kirill Kuzyakov).

Back to Analytics and starting Team Management

It was summer 2004, I was doing well as a financial controller, but it was not my dream job.

For me, financial control was an operational process where I cannot use my analytical skills and contribute much. It was not much different than a regular accounting job.

Meanwhile, we have launched credit cards product and the portfolio had reached a certain size.

Our CEO, Nandan Mer called me one day and told that:

“We now have a sizable credit cards portfolio and it’s time to have closer control on it and make cross-sell and deepening campaigns to improve profitability. You are the expert of analytics, it is the job you were doing in Turkey, so would you build the same unit here?”.

I accepted in a second and founded Strategic Analytics Unit, reporting to CEO directly and also I was promoted to Resident Vice President.

I had my first team member (Svetlena Sergeenko) from internal transfer and had to recruit all the rest. In a year, my team grew to 14 analysts and we were able to do reporting, analytics, cross campaigns and P&L analysis for all segments and products.

In 2 years, we’ve beaten all cross-sell penetration scores in the EMEA region and increased per customer spending 10 times.

Building a wonderful team from scratch was one of the best experiences I had in my professional career.

It was not just a technical challenge.

Yes, I designed and created the data warehouse by opening each and every single database table and field, from SQL queries to data transformation system and to excel macros I did a lot of hands-on work besides team management.

But most importantly I’m proud of the team I’ve formed. All the people I’ve recruited were great. They moved up in their careers fast and now they all are at very senior positions in Citibank or in other leading companies.

With this opportunity, I would like to thank my team again. Thank you so much!

Combining Analytics with Finance

When I moved to Russia, the company was around 250 employees. In 2005, we were already more than 1000 employees. As the number of direct reports of CEO increased as well, I started reporting to COO (Kumar Ramachandran), staying in country Leadership Team.

By the end of 2006, I received a new offer from our recently appointed CEO Joel Kornreich:

“We have Business Planning & Analysis department in Finance, but the unit manager has left, the team is demotivated and about to collapse, we are also not sure about the integrity of budget just done. In addition to current responsibilities would you also take over BP&A department and fix it?”.

Again, I said “Yes” 🙂 With 2 units, my team grew to 30 people and I became Vice President reporting to CFO (Allan Levy).

I remember very well. It was almost my first month when all the company was at 10-days new year public holiday and I was at the office with key team members re-working on the annual budget.

Outside temperature was below -10 Celcius (yeah, Moscow winter) and office heating was off. I was wearing my winter coat in the office and it was not easy to type on keyboards with gloves on hand.

When everybody was back from holiday I presented the reworked budget to the CEO. It had a big gap from the originally approved by region one so we had to take serious actions immediately to close the gap. We did so and we closed the year within the budget successfully.

It was a real break-through and as a personal reward I fully enjoyed my summer vacations 🙂

Closing Russia Chapter

6 years were over in Moscow. Meanwhile, I’ve married Olga (of course with a Russian) and my first daughter Emel was born.

As a family, we were thinking about moving back to Istanbul but it was not a good time to find a senior position in a bank.

The effects of 2008 global financial crisis were still around. At the same time, my company was making pressure for my relocation as the number of expats in Russia was much more than it should be. More than 80% of the leadership team was foreigners.

I had couple options: Try to stay longer in Russia, look for an expat position in another Citibank country like UK or UAE, accept a lower level position at a bank in Turkey or do my own business.

I chose the last one. The main reason was; doing own business was in my “try before die” bucket list.

Together with Russia, I closed Citibank chapter, too. I had great memories in Citibank, full of energy, action, friendship and experience. Having promoted 6 times in my first 7 years of work life, worked in 2 countries and 4 different functions, reported directly to either CEO or CxO for 8 years of my 10 years Citibank career brought me great experience and fun.

By summer 2009, I’ve moved to Istanbul and started my own Internet business.

Welcome to Internet Startup world

Frankly, I had no idea about how to be self-employed.

What I can say now is, it is many times harder and stressful than being employed, at least until you start earning huge amounts of money 🙂

Nobody told me that before. Maybe it was better so. Otherwise, I could choose not to try.

My first project in 2009 was RandevuAl.com, an online appointment system for doctors and dentists. ZocDoc in the US was getting USD 100 million+ investment and ramping up fast. As my father is a doctor and I see health market is a promising market (at least not affected by the financial crisis) I choose to focus on online health.

I will write a detailed post about the project but to keep it short; after a year RandevuAl.com reached a stage where 500+ doctors were subscribed to the system.

RandevuAl (which means “get an appointment” in Turkish) became a strong brand, but the revenue stream was not enough to cover sales, marketing, and operational costs.

Moreover, the upward trend was not promising enough. If I would see that the project needs only 1-2 more years to pay back, I would definitely continue focusing but I did not see that coming.

It was not the right time for the local market and culture. The concept needed more than 5 years to get attention and generate meaningful revenue.

Today, I see that my decision was correct. More than 6 years have passed, a lot more startups with the same concept launched meanwhile, and although it’s seen as an attractive business still nobody is earning sustainable income.

Meeting Daily Deal market

It was September 2010, I already decided to discontinue online health project, but I had no idea what to do next.

I realized that I did not write any software for a long time. I designed front-end interface and database of the online health system, but I had a programmer to do all ASP.NET programming.

In order to learn ASP.NET enough to be able to do required future modifications myself and satisfy my “software development” hobby hunger, I decided to write an online application.

But, what would it be about?

I saw that daily deal / Groupon concept was booming. There were already 20+ Groupon clones around.

Internet was full of ready scripts to launch a daily deal site and I also could write one from scratch. Instead of writing another Groupon clone, I decided to write something more useful for the users, a daily deal aggregator.

Instead of a user visiting 10+ deal sites every day or opening 10+ e-mails from different sites every morning I could provide one single feed to include all the deals from all the deal sites.

15 days after my decision, my site and application were both live. I launched FirsatOn.com, a daily deal aggregator.

I had no connection with daily deal sites so I wrote a crawler application using VB.NET to visit target sites regularly and collect the deals automatically.

More than 6 years have passed and I see that the crawler I’ve written back then still works perfectly without any manual intervention.

As I have got in touch with daily deal site owners I started to get most of the data through XML or JSON feeds to speed up processing.

Over time, I did lots of improvements including algorithms for automatic categorization of the deals, integration with mailing system and social profiles, responsive design etc.

But most of all, I made a bug-free application which works stable by itself. I don’t need to check the server more than once a month for a few minutes.

Discovering opportunities from raw data

I was happy about the application I’ve created. It was going well and the number of visitors was increasing day by day.

I had competitors, but I did not care much because I did not have any income expectation from my aggregator project. It was my hobby. I was fulfilling my software development desire and at the same time producing something useful for visitors.

Just 2 months later, one day while browsing the deal details I’ve collected, I recognized something:

Based on the concept, the deals were supposed to be available for 1-2 days max, but daily deal sites were keeping them available for much longer periods. I saw many deals stay alive more than 2-3 weeks.

I thought that the sites may have difficulty to find fresh deals and that’s why they keep the old ones available. Based on this theory, the sites would be interested if I propose to bring them new merchants and deals.

I checked my theory with few daily deal sites. I called them and did an offer:

“If I provide you new merchants and deals regularly, would you agree to share the revenue you get from the deals I provided?”.

The answer was “Yes” from all of my contacts. I immediately diverted my 1-person sales team to deal market.

I said: “Now, instead of visiting doctors and dentists, I need you to visit hotels, restaurants, beauty saloons etc. to find attractive daily deals”.

She was excited as well and in a few days she started to come with very good deals. Meanwhile, I asked my software developer to write a back office system to manage all these deals and coordination with daily deal sites.

A unique concept in daily deal market: B2B Sales Outsourcing

My business setup was clear:

I was providing outsource sales support to daily deal sites.

For me, it was much easier to convince a merchant than a daily deal site because I was approaching as:

“I’m your agency who will coordinate all your deal activity across 10+ daily deal sites. You don’t need to fill papers for each of them separately. You don’t need to manage activity overlaps between them. You don’t need to think about any process. And, I don’t take any commission from you for all these. You just focus on creating good deals and satisfy incoming new customers.”.

By this “free agency” method, I was able to convert almost every merchant. Daily deal sites I made agreement were all happy.

It was also a solid model for me because I was not dealing with the end customer. I was getting my commission from the deal site as they sell the deals.

When I started B2B Sales Outsourcing with revenue share model at the beginning of 2011, I checked a lot but could not find any similar business in the world, including the home of Groupon. Over the years, I saw that some (but not many) companies with this approach popped up and started to offer deals to daily deal sites.

Everything was great until the daily deal market started to collapse.

I was providing the merchants and deals, but the deal sites were not able to sell as they were before. They cut the advertising budgets and since they did not have a loyal customer base, sales stopped immediately when they stop advertising. When the deal sites wouldn’t earn money I was also unable to earn.

So, together with all those deal sites, my concept was also going down. It was pity and inevitable at the same time. Since I was working very closely with many of them and personally know the owners, I realized that the end of the deal market for mid and small players is not far.

I shared my thoughts on daily deal market during an interview for Oxford Business Group 2012 Annual Report for Turkey.

Oxford Business Group Türkiye 2012 Raporu

Oxford Business Group 2012 Turkey Report

In 2012 first small daily sites shut down, maybe 20-30 in 6 months period. Then the medium ones. And finally even Groupon shut down their Turkey business in August 2015.

Internet entrepreneurship without E-commerce? Of course not!

By summer 2011, B2B sales for daily deal sites were almost dead. I was looking for new opportunities.

One of my friends living in the USA forwarded an e-mail to me introducing the Birchbox model founded by 2 Harvard graduate women. The model was fancy:

You subscribe for $10/monthly and every month you receive a surprise cosmetics box full of samples, testers or even full sizes of high-end brands.

Birchbox has reached over 70k subscribers in less than a year and was growing rapidly. The concept seemed exciting and I discussed it in detail with my friend Onur, who was running his own business as door-to-door and digital distribution agency, distributing samples of big FMCG brands including P&G and Henkel.

During my previous startups, I realized that I need a co-founder to share the executive functions. A startup needs attention and heavy work on so many areas that single founder can hardly handle. Being CEO, CTO, CMO, COO, CFO etc. at the same time is not possible if you want to fulfill each function properly and grow fast.

Together with Onur we started to evaluate the concept. We visited almost all of the high-end cosmetics brands and made promising meetings with their marketing teams.

They were excited about the model as much as we were. The promotional samples would go very targeted and results would be measurable.  Meanwhile, we talked to a few investors and received positive intention to invest. We would like to start with a seed investment.

We also visited cosmetics importers and distributors to check the availability of supply, not only samples or testers and also full-size high-end brands. Upon 2 months of heavy field research our report to potential investors was:

“Although the Birchbox model looks very exciting and fancy, it is not sustainable and scalable in Turkey. There is not enough supply of samples being imported and all of the incoming supply was distributed to retail shops. Although some companies intended to import additional samples for this project it is not enough to catch the scale. E.g. for 10k subscribers we need 50k units every month to provide 4-5 different samples in the box. Turkish cosmetics market can supply max 10k samples a month excluding any competitor effect.

On the other hand, there is an opportunity in cosmetics e-commerce. Despite many e-commerce areas, cosmetics did not have a chance to grow in Turkey due to Hong Kong-based strawberry.net shipping all kinds of cosmetics to Turkey at very affordable prices. While it was in operation, there was no chance to compete in price. With the recent changes in customs regulation, strawberry.net’s operation to Turkey stopped as a result of the introduction of customs fees related to cosmetics. It is now time to start local cosmetics e-commerce business and there is no issue in sourcing the high-end brand cosmetics.

Considering the supply constraint for sample box model and opportunity in e-commerce our proposal is:

A high-end cosmetics e-commerce brand with a limited number of monthly sample box available for loyal customers and bloggers for PR purposes.”

As a result, by November 2011, we have founded luxury cosmetics e-commerce site, LuxyBox together with my friend Onur as co-founder responsible from sales, marketing, and operations, my existing team I was working since 2009 and seed investors.

I hired a talented software developer (Ahmet) immediately and together with him in 45 days we wrote a complete e-commerce platform from scratch using ASP.NET C#.

Before the new year, we were able to launch and send our first surprise boxes. It was featured in many blogs and even after many years we continue to receive requests for those cosmetics boxes.

Everything looked great, our monthly box was a great hit for PR, loved by bloggers and the media. We had a good upward trend in sales and unlike online health appointment system, I was able to calculate the breakeven and payback periods.

The problem was: financially we were unable to reach that point with the capital we had.

The competition was tough and new financially strong competitors (with 10x of our starting capital) were popping up on a monthly basis.

We needed more capital in order to reach the breakeven point. We searched for it, talked to many investors in Turkey and abroad but could not convince any investor to raise capital.

As a result, we decided to shut down the business. In a year, even our competitors with 10x capital shut down because there were new ones with 30x or 50x capitals with the ability to provide more funds if needed.

I believe the issue was not only the capital amount. It was also the competitors who were using their high capital to kill the competition (by selling even for loss) and focusing only revenue growth but not the profit.

I still believe cosmetics e-commerce is one of the best niche e-commerce areas. Storage is easy and not space-consuming, supply could be stored for a long period (perfumes can be stored for years where skin cosmetics can have 1-2 years of life period). Logistics is fast and cheap and return rates are extremely low (we had almost zero returns). There is no chance of breaking during the shipment (we had no broken item case). The margin is acceptable and average basket value is higher than many other niches.

I’m sad that we had to leave our LuxyBox brand. 🙁 Even after many years, the images of our charming boxes still stays on many beauty bloggers’ web site.

My biggest learning is; A new business needs to be well-capitalized from the beginning. Do not count on promises and potential investors for future incremental investments, be ready to survive with own resources.

Entrepreneurship is not equal to doing own job

I don’t think my entrepreneurship journey started by the time I established my own business.

I always felt and acted as an entrepreneur, even at my position in a big corporate company. I think it was the driver of my success. I believe the term “entrepreneur” is not only the person doing his/her own job. It is much beyond that. It’s a personal attitude.

Therefore, I recognized that to satisfy my entrepreneurship hunger I don’t need to do my own business. I can be employed in a visionary corporate company that values entrepreneurial attitude to fulfill the job requirements and overcome challenges.

Just after I ended up e-commerce startup in 2013, I stepped into Vodafone, which is a company with vision and ambition to be the total telecommunication market leader. I’m happy that my co-founder Onur has also stepped into corporate world by opening the Turkey office of a global indoor environment products and solutions provider.

A new area of expertise: Operations and Customer Service

My first year at Vodafone was about me meeting customer service world. While I was learning call center dynamics and back office metrics operationally, I had the chance to show my people management skills being responsible from a team of 300+ employees.

In my second year, I got Telesales added to my responsibility. Together with partner/vendor management, Telesales has different dynamics than regular operations. Above all, it is about generating revenue which is one of my motivators in a company (to contribute the profit).

Expanding to different outsource operations was also challenging and exciting at the same time. I enjoy using my entrepreneurship skills, analytical and technical backgrounds at my corporate position.

As of my fourth year in Vodafone, I started to manage all inhouse mobile operations, a team of 500+ inhouse employees plus some portion of outsource operations.

What about passion for technology?

Some may ask: “You’re working in an operational function. What about your passion for technology and online?”

Don’t worry. I keep it fresh all the time. It’s an integrated part of me. If my corporate position does not involve it then I utilize my hobbies. I’m still actively coding for fun. I write blog posts about e-commerce, content and digital marketing, sharing my thoughts and experience with more than 20k readers every month.

Work life is a long voyage. I think no need a final destination as long as you enjoy it. Yes, it is a tool to provide a good life for our family but if I wouldn’t enjoy my job I would be exhausted quickly. In the end, we are spending more of our time at work than with family and friends. 

And, enjoying work life is mostly in our hands.

So look at your job again and find out how to enjoy it!