Duygu, could you tell us about yourself?
I graduated from Koc University with a degree in Business Administration. When I was in the first grade, I worked in a hotel and when I was in the second grade, I started working in the world of Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) and I did an internship in Fritolaj. Then I got into Coca-Cola, I did an internship there for a certain period. And I got a job there after I graduated. I had to try to find out everything on my own because there was nobody with a corporate background in my family, which taught me the empirical approach unwittingly to get to the point I wanted in my future. I worked in corporate for about 8 years. I feel like if I had worked for 5 more years in corporate, I would have learned much more. There is a line between entrepreneurship and corporate in terms of working life. As soon as you leave corporate life and enter the world of entrepreneurship, you are on your own. You can’t say “Let me take a break”, because now every action you take comes back to you as an advantage or disadvantage. You get nervous before you sleep. Corporate life is a world where you can take your jacket and leave at the end of the day when you encounter a situation you don’t want, but entrepreneurship is not like that. There is no place where you can take your jacket and leave but your own world. So, working for 8 years in corporate is a good experience for me. If I didn’t have this experience, DeneBunu wouldn’t be at this point today. That’s why the vast majority of the team consists of experienced people having worked in the sectors of fast-moving consumer goods or cosmetics. For me, a person with experience in corporate life is worth five people who have no experience or have worked in different sectors, because our customers are corporate brands. So, it’s so important to talk like they do.
Let’s get back to the main point. How was the idea of DeneBunu born? What did you experience and feel at the starting point, while convincing people, most importantly, while convincing yourself?
I was working in brand management at Huggies, the last company I worked and getting the product tested was very important at Huggies. It’s not easy to gain customers from a rival firm without getting the diaper tested. Indeed, it’s like this for all consumer goods. Unfortunately, getting the products tested and receiving feedback were inefficient at Huggies. Sample distribution in Turkey is still carried out by people distributing products with brochures in their hands. Fifty years ago, advertising of a product would be done via television or the press. You would get market share and that would come from either TV or magazine. The evaluation was not that clear.
Evaluation got into our lives with digitalization. Since the digital world could tell us how many people the money we spend can reach, television and press have been used for different purposes. So, all the items in the marketing budget of a marketer had to be digitally transformed. Unfortunately, sample distribution was still carried out by traditional methods. In 2015, we were still distributing samples through staff on the streets and getting them tested, that’s all. As the brand manager, I don’t know whether these people tested the products or not. I can’t prove whether that person buys that product from X brand just because I give the sample. At the end of each year, the most controversial issue in meetings about the budget between the marketing and sales departments is whether the budget we spend on sample distribution is a waste or not? We don’t know that at the end of the day. And because we can’t prove it, the first item omitted when there is a budgetary cut is sample distribution. But on the other hand, it is an item that a brand can’t give up because you can’t tell the benefits of the product without getting it tested. So, when I was working at Huggies, we added a “request sample” button to the website, and we started to see there were more demanding customers instead of those we just tell to try it. We were paying high costs such as that for shipping while sending products throughout Turkey. Since I had different duties as an assistant brand manager, I had to try not to think “We get these products tested, but I wish we could receive feedback”.
Then I said, “People demand it, but it costs a lot. And the expectant mothers also have hair, so why don’t we send a box with the products of the brands’ shampoo or food in it and get consumers’ ideas in exchange for testing every free product in the box?
And because consumers regard giving feedback as complaints, there is nowhere that they can declare positive ideas. If they make it visible on social media, it becomes as visible as PR agencies can notice. There was not a serious forum platform in Turkey. Everything was going on via advice rather than analyzing a product and its features. So, I believed that I had to do it. I clarified the idea like this: I wish there were a platform and its members, and we knew the members’ features on the platform and when the brands told us the features of the people they wanted to reach, we could show those members to the brands and consumers could demand the product if they wanted to try. That’s how the story emerged, and I did some research. I couldn’t find anything like this in Turkey, and I could find exactly what I wanted in the world. I said if nobody did it, they should know something that I don’t. I put this idea aside. My career was in progress and my salary was not low at the corporate, I was thinking I had a future there, so I postponed this idea 8 or 9 months. Then, while discussing how come there wasn’t something like that, I did research again and I found “Pinch Me”. Pinch Me is an equivalent of my idea of the free box model in the U.S.A and Australia, and when I saw it when I realized someone was doing the thing like what I wanted, I got a very interesting fear, which was being afraid that someone would do it, I had to do it before anyone would do. Then the part in which I talked to my family started. Although I had a salary incorporate, I was like a company run by itself. I was spending what I earned, I did not have any savings, and my biggest fear was to leave my comfort zone because I was worrying that how I would make both ends meet if I left my comfort zone. Then I got a little support of ₺ 50,000 from my family, and there was my 8-month salary, I put half of my salary aside. But it lasted longer than 8 months, it became 12 months because the software part lasted longer and so on. At the same time, it wasn’t easy to convince the brands. By the way, we were spending my savings until then. My father had a heart attack at that time. from that moment on, I decided not to get any economical support from my family. I came across it with my partner and we started working together. Four months passed and things were going better than I had expected. This time, we had problems in cash flows because the brands we worked with would be run longer than we would be since we were a small company. We started to search for investment. We thought it wasn’t the right time to apply to angel investors. Although many start-ups got the investment at that stage, I wanted to wait. I didn’t want to spend a long time in the investment process where I needed to run fast, and in that period, we got the first investment of $ 80,000 from our circle of friends and family.
When did you have the difficulties most? Have you ever wanted to give up?
I have never wanted to give up, it is something you have to do in order to live, breathe. The most difficult part was the beginning. Getting the first customer was quite difficult. I was a person who left the corporate, and our customers are corporate, as you can see. My story was strong: “I left there to do something that makes me slave over it, this is the thing why I left, I left my career behind. Do not waste your money, let’s carry out a distribution in an evaluable context.” No matter how well I told this story, after going from somewhere to another with the laptop in my hand, there was always this question at the end of every meeting; “Whom did you work with?” I will confess that one day I cried a lot, not because I was sad, but because I was so angry and wanted to pour out my feelings. The most challenging part was to convince the brands. When it came to taking the budget, taking people’s money became so difficult, it was like this for everything. And finally, I went nuts, then I said, “Let’s work for free with four brands. Since the consumers do not pay anything to us, we get access charges from the brands. I said, “But if you will like it and want to continue, I will ask for the cost of this later.” So, these four brands trusted us and gave us their products; because even though we work for free, it also requires trust to give us these products, so it’s very important. They gave us their products and the project was put into practice. First, the consumers were surprised wondering how this box was free, they thought there was something tricky about it, they did not believe it, but they demanded. When the boxes arrived, the consumers began to test them and announce to one another. While DeneBunu was spreading among consumers incredibly quickly, this was what happened among the brands: these 4 brands’ rival firms I met before started to evaluate DeneBunu for the next month right away, so that’s how we overcame the most difficult part. And if you think that each of these 4 brands has 5 rival firms at least, your universe extends gradually and that’s how we are working with more than 200 brands today. DeneBunu has worked with more than 200 different brands in 2 years. You can think of it as 200 different teams. Let me give an example of advertising agencies. Let’s say that there are at most 10 brands that an advertising agency works with with an average monthly fee. The fact that DeneBunu has worked with 200 brands means that it communicates with about 30 brands every month. In this sense, these 200 brands are 10% of all the brands in Turkey. With this investment, we want to contact DeneBunu with other brands that we couldn’t even enter through their doors but have great opportunities.
Let’s talk about entrepreneurship in Turkey, what does Turkey contribute to an entrepreneur, a prospective entrepreneur? Did the challenges of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Turkey make you more disciplined or more though?
Turkey is not easy to place for operation, this is the first thing that came to my mind. But I regard it like this; if I go to a country that has different features, I feel like I can be more durable in the competition there. I mean, think about it like this: it’s like someone living in a cold country thinks it’s a summer holiday when s/he comes to the southern part of Turkey in winter. A logistical operation that is more difficult than here in terms of my job can’t be anywhere else. This country has taught me how to handle a difficult operation.
Besides this, when we look at the entrepreneurship ecosystem, I think there is a promising situation here. And I think the best example of this is DeneBunu. We came out with remarkable numbers in such a troubled, difficult, and unstable period in terms of economy. This shows that there are investors who believe in entrepreneurs, rather than in the country. I mean we live in a place where there are people who invest in Turkey by believing in individuals regardless of circumstances. Entrepreneurs here need to trust themselves, no matter that you are in the wrong market or there is a better ecosystem you can go to, you can be still successful if you are here now. I think Turkey is a good place to learn, try, and make mistakes. I experience it rather than thinking about it.
How did you form your network and your team at the stage where you were founding DeneBunu? Did you have any strategies or were you lucky?
I think someone creates his or her chance and network. I am an enterprising person. Even today, when I want to contact someone, without thinking, even if they won’t return my call, which is there or not a fault, they just might be busy, while asking for their precious time even if I know how important it is, but by remembering myself how important it is for me as well, I don’t hesitate to ask for it.
I didn’t have a network while I was studying at university, I tried to find the right internships for myself. I used to send an e-mail to someone whom I read his or her career story in the newspaper. Some of them answered me, some of them didn’t, but even if the ones who answered me had given me the answers I wanted or not, I realized something. Whether I get answers or not, I should make them hear me. My choice for my schools was like that too, I studied in an Anatolian high school. And I studied in a private school before that. Studying in a public school after a private one contributed to me a lot. I’ve never lived in a single circle, a single group of friends, a single place. It was like that in my university years. People I know from different places have helped me contact different people. This is about my university choice as well, studying in a public high school taught me the vision of life. It showed me to understand everyone no matter what their opinion, worldview, or religion are. Choosing which university, I would study was up to me. I wanted a world that could offer me opportunities, I could get in there and graduate without doing anything, but I chose to use the opportunities there. I was in the student council; I was interested in the things about my career. Maybe, I could have done better, I don’t know. There is always a better thing. A person creates that circle on their own.
I tried to create an environment and contact people that my family and friends know. At those times, I realized this: the first thing to do is to be brave. Today a man selling lemons on the streets is much more enterprising than a quite entrepreneur is. Because that man shouts to attract your attention. It’s not a shame to ask for something, if you don’t tell them what you ask for, no one will know about it. I experienced this. While I was working in the finance department first, I went to the marketing department and said that I wanted to work there, and no one said, “Come here, dear Duygu, we have been waiting for you.” That was the time when I realized that I have to show something or make them say this in order to make them do what I want. An entrepreneur can’t be quiet.
What I think about hesitating is this. For example, I hesitated when I first made a meeting with Nevzat Aydin. You meet someone that you like his story and make him your idol because of his comments, ideas, point of view and you try to sell your product. He contributes something to you even if he thinks he won’t buy it. Before I went to meet with him, I thought about his version when he was at my age. I have to confess that I really did research online. He might be a utopic person for you if you don’t see these processes, picture him in your mind. In order to write stories as good as his, you shouldn’t forget that those people went through these processes. And these people entrust you with their faith, not their money when they invest. They believe in you.
How do you keep your creativity and mind active? How do you start a day or a process?
Music excites me a lot. It’s a cliché but let me confess something. I have a belief. For example, I will go to the coiffeur when I have a presentation that day, then I start to listen to a certain song, I put my headphone on and imagine as if I managed to do it and everything was done. I even said this in my meeting with Mr. Nevzat. I imagine the first signature I put to globalize. It’s just like when they show the kids a picture of care and tell them to study hard in order to have that car. I imagine it as I set the goal of the next step. I dream. You cannot have a lifeline if you don’t dream. Apart from that, when I’m so nervous, getting a massage relaxes me a lot. So as not to make anyone feel the tension, I hide my energy in a single room because the thing I never tolerate in my workplace is being aggressive. After an hour, I come out with a refreshed mind. Sometimes I relax by doing useless trivia. Not everything we do has to be meaningful. Sometimes, I want to have a time in which I don’t produce anything.
Well, how does a day of yours start? Do you get up too early?
I believe that the times when people can be productive are different. I am like an owl. I am a night bird. I’m not going to say that I start the day at 5 a.m. just to make it look like more of an entrepreneur thing. I work so efficiently at night. When I get back home, I work on the same spot by putting a song in the background. If I wake up early but I have a lot on my mind because instead of suffering for an hour and missing the hours when I can be productive, I get up and brew coffee with pleasure. Apart from that, I spend all my time in the office or meeting with the brands.
What is the most important thing that you learned in this ecosystem?
I’ve learned a lot. I can say that I’ve learned to regard my own business as if it wasn’t mine. Especially in the first four and a half months. It’s like you can’t see things objectively when you are in love with someone. Entrepreneurship teaches you to see things objectively because you have to be able to see it through their eyes to convince the investors. How much could I explain DeneBunu to someone? Or let DeneBunu be a woman, how attractive, how smart she is, how does she look? Yes, she looks beautiful, the numbers are impressive, how smart does she look? Does she provide opportunities in the future?
You cannot impress someone by telling the most beautiful thing with the most boring speaking. Regarding my business as if it has a character and trying to see how it looks like from outside have contributed to me and my business a lot.
Do you have any advice, regrets, or suggestion about entrepreneurship?
People may disagree but I never believe this: “I want to be an entrepreneur.” which makes me get goosebumps when I hear. If someone says this to me, I directly say what I really think at that moment, because I never believe in sayings such as “I want to be an entrepreneur, I’ll have an idea first and do something.” It’s so far-fetched. Some people do some things, it’s nice, people really like to see nice things. But if you dare to put into practice what you really have trouble with, you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve already become an entrepreneur. When you say you want to be the marketing manager, your goal is clear but when you say you want to be an entrepreneur, it’s not, courage is not something that you can have later on. It must be in you. I respect when people say, “I’ve become an entrepreneur.” after they have done something.
I’d like to highlight this idea again: Money is only a tool for doing something. I don’t believe that anything done with the aim of earning money can make you taste nothing including entrepreneurship. Of course, we all want to have cash at the end of the day, but there should be other stories, I personally don’t believe that someone, who just talks about doing or selling things in the next few years, can be successful. For instance, my greatest motivation was to be applauded. I mean, how did this girl do this, how nice Duygu has become partners with this CTO, DeneBunu has such a beautiful social media account. I have a desire to see that something is different than the others because of who we are, because of each person in my team. Because in the corporate ecosystem, you become part of something, and it still works without you. Of course, it shouldn’t be like this, but it triggered me a lot to see how things could be different just because I do them. Secondly, you don’t have necessarily money to put an idea into practice. The idea is much more important than money. If you believe in yourself a lot, you will find family members, friends, and people who believe in you, so I don’t really believe these sayings like “I don’t have a network, I don’t have courage.” You also find people who appreciate your idea, so don’t let them make excuses in order not to get out of their comfort zones. Don’t let them do it if they are not poisoned enough of their own ideas. It’s like falling in love with someone, you have to fall in love not too much, so if there is something that they think of day and night, don’t wait. And they don’t have to be perfectionists, not at all.
I think quickness is more important than perfection. If someone has done it while you are still trying to do it, you are the one to be talked about, not you. Nothing has to be perfect as long as you take action quickly.
Do you have anything to say to prospective women entrepreneurs? Maybe you can also say something about your future in terms of investing.
First, let me say something for all entrepreneurs. You know there is a norm in our society, maybe it doesn’t exist anymore, but there is this norm; men bring home the bacon.
I am not married now, of course, my family has enough income to take care of me, but I have to prepare myself for the life after that as if there weren’t anyone on earth before except for Duygu Akbudak. That’s why I have this view of life. Of course, it’s a success for women to have a job and work with a standard salary. But why don’t we push our limits? I mean, prepare your tomorrow or 50 years later on your own. Men think that they have to keep it going like this. But my family hasn’t taught me that way. They said, “You are alone in this life, of course, we will be there for you always, all we have is yours but from now on, you will put aside whatever Duygu Akbudak does no matter there are people around you or not.” I’ve understood it better when my father had a heart attack. I mean, if I lost him on that day, I would be all alone. You know everything that happens in life has a reason, that day made me stronger. Maybe women generally do not aim for the sky. Especially about getting in the entrepreneurship world, maybe they don’t at all, but the women around me are not like that. I believe that women should be encouraged in this too. I believe that women are courageous in a world where there isn’t social or employer pressure.
Secondly, there is a saying in entrepreneurship that “A woman like a man”, which I hate. We should look at this situation in a more genderless way. I mean, I can drink tea with Mr. Hüseyin who works in storage and I can also discuss how permanent the mascara is with the brand I work with. You don’t have to have a gender. By the way, there are challenges, I have happened to some as a woman entrepreneur. It happened at the very beginning, regarding woman as a little girl, I mean not by the suppliers or the brands you work with, but for example, printing houses, the people working there take men more seriously, but I believe that this is the person’s fault. I mean, if you show you’re your character clearly and in a genderless way, which I believe I managed to do, they start to respect your effort and personality. If someone says she has had so many troubles because she is a woman, the problem is about her.
Actually, I’ve seen very few women investors. In so many places, my contacts abroad, this kind of associations. I see and know that there are many successful women in Turkey. And some of them inspired me 10 or 15 years ago, but they don’t exist in the investment world. Maybe they exist, but why aren’t they visible? I don’t know why; I am asking them why they don’t exist or there are few of them. I think the thing is, if there is really a problem with women in the entrepreneurship world, there should be more women so that the number of investors and entrepreneurs is equalized. First, we must start from the top and look at the example in the world of investors, where the entrepreneur goes. There weren’t many women in successful start-ups 10 or 20 years ago. They have started to exist recently.
I think it won’t be like this 20 years later. While we improve the ecosystem with the investment and without gender discrimination, and, in fact, if we are aware of the responsibility of this and continue to be successful, there will be more women sitting in these seats 20 years later from now. It’s new, but if it continues like this, it would be dangerous too, it shouldn’t continue like this, it shouldn’t be based solely on women. When we talk in 10 or 20 years, I hope the numbers of men and women sitting in those seats will be more equal. I also don’t like people highlighting that they are women entrepreneurs, it’s not about supporting someone just because she is a woman, as well.
Hande Cilingir (the co-founder and CEO of Insider) is someone that attracts me since I think we have the same characteristics. It’s nice for Insider to be talked about, but there are other different projects in Turkey such as Getir and Scotty. To be honest, I am critical of the fact that a woman is talked more. These might be necessary sometimes for women to be encouraged. There is such a situation too.