Roys Gureli is the founder and CEO of Annelutfen, a Turkish online retailer specializing in items for babies such as diapers, formula, strollers, car seats, and bouncy chairs, as well as bubble bath and feeding bottles. Based in Istanbul, Annelutfen competes with other Turkish sites modeled after BabiesRUs and Amazon.com. In the big cities, items such as diapers, wipes, and formula are Annelutfen’s biggest sellers, as it is hard to get around town while carrying giant boxes of diapers. Outside of the cities, customers tend to buy name-brand strollers, which are hard to find in rural markets. Gureli received her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2011. The idea for Annelutfen, which roughly translates to “Mom, please,” began as a class project at Stanford. Noticing that Turkish women did not have many of the same conveniences as American mothers, Gureli decided to build her business in Istanbul, where she was raised. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?
Empowering women by delivering baby products to their homes in Turkey.
Growth potential of e-commerce in Turkey is huge. Today Turkey has just 1% e-commerce penetration compared to 10% in the U.S. and 8% in Europe. Until recently, people did not want to give their credit card information online. Today, 90% of online sales come from credit cards. Many people still pay at the door when their items are delivered or send bank wires.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A mentor of mine, Mehmet Akgün, who was a former Amazon employee, told me to “decide fast.” People are scared to make mistakes by making the wrong decisions. I tell my employees their time is valuable and I encourage them to make mistakes.
What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?
Never attempt to establish a business without a cofounder. As a first-time entrepreneur, I thought I could do everything myself. It took me much longer to do things than it would have if I’d had a cofounder. Moreover, starting up in Turkey was difficult because the culture is very different than in Silicon Valley. Here, no one is looking to help. People are very secretive and do not share information. I prayed for mentors to educate me. After a year of starting the company, I found a great group of mentors, who helped me with different topics throughout this amazing journey.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?
What matters most is having a support system around you: cofounder, team, mentors.
Having a network of mentors and people you can brainstorm with is very important. It’s better to build that network early on rather than later — ideally before you even start the business. It’s even better to have someone who knows about law, management, and whatever business specifics are related to your endeavor. For example, if you are building a marketplace, find someone who knows about marketplaces.
If there was one thing that has enabled you to be successful as an entrepreneur, what would it be?
I studied industrial engineering in college at Northwestern University. It really taught me how to solve problems. So much of entrepreneurship comes down to basic problem solving. My training gave me the perspective of looking at everything with data. I always encourage my employees to bring their data to meetings.
What is your greatest achievement?
Starting this company was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. It is growing day by day and people really like it. It didn’t come easy; it has tears and blood in it.
What values are important to you in business?
One of our missions is to empower women. At networking events I met other women who are passionate about the same topics. Together we facilitate educational women’s meetings as a gift to our community. For example, we hosted one event where we invited female bloggers to attend. We invited the head of marketing for education at Google to speak to the women about how to improve their brands by using tools such as YouTube, Google+, and AdWords. These women bloggers are trying to work from home and make a living. This month we invited a coach who is passionate about women’s issues. She is going to give a class to our community about how to handle the feelings of guilt about being a working mom. We invite customers, bloggers, and other people from the community to these events.
What impact would you like to have on the world?
I want to empower women in Turkey. There are many underprivileged women here who are abused at home, brainwashed, and not allowed to go to school. There are glass ceilings in politics and business. I really want to be a role model.
Why are you an entrepreneur?
Changing things is really exciting. I love that you can see the result of your actions immediately.
What is the best business book you have read?
Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh. There are great lessons in there, especially for an e-commerce entrepreneur. I got the book for everyone in the company, and we discuss it to develop strategies for the business.
What businessperson do you most admire?
I admire Sheryl Sandberg for encouraging women all around to world to take on leadership roles and advance in their careers while maintaining a family.
What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?
The people. It was a mind-blowing experience to spend so much time with so many really high-quality people. I learned great things from them.
What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?
Mobile. Penetration is 90% in Turkey, and smartphone penetration is growing. Currently 45% of our traffic comes from mobile. That is up from 30% just last year.