How I Overcame Life's Roadblocks And Started A $500K Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Merhaba! (that’s hello in Turkish). My name is Zeynep and along with my brother Yusuf, we run Galen Leather from our workshop in Istanbul. Combining our love for stationery items and skills in leather-making, we design and handcraft our own line of handmade leather travel journals, notebook covers, personal accessories and now, so much more!
We started out selling locally and from there, created an Etsy store to gain a more broader, worldwide customer base. Over the years, our business has evolved and on the cusp of a huge growth spurt, we decided to launch our own e-commerce store.
In the last year, we’ve broken sales records, experiencing a 138% increase in revenue to hit an average of around $40,000 in sales each month. Most of our products are made to order, and as a small team of four, we believe what we’ve been able to achieve so far is no small feat!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The idea for our business came out of a serious personal setback. It wasn’t a, ‘let’s sit down and brainstorm new ideas because I hate my job’ scenario. I loved my job at the time. I didn’t want to pursue anything else. But when life deals you an unfavorable set of cards, you just have to find a way to work with them.
I was diagnosed with a rare type of head and neck cancer. Doctors warned the cancer treatment might leave me incapable of speech. This forced me to consider alternatives to my burgeoning career in sales.
In 2012, I was diagnosed with a rare type of head and neck cancer (Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma). Doctors warned the cancer treatment might leave me incapable of speech. This forced me to consider alternatives to my burgeoning career in sales. I had to undergo a painful four months of treatment and was heartbroken when their prognosis became reality. That’s right, I lost my ability to speak. It completely turned my family's life upside down.
Without being capable of speech, I was no longer able to communicate directly with customers and make sales as my job at the time required. My career was over.
I was, however, motivated to not let this setback defeat me as I wanted to provide a brighter future for my son and show him that life is full of surprises, whether for good or bad, but even the bad can be turned into something good. Although it was hard to see at the time, but such obstacles are also blessings in disguise because they’re opportunities for new beginnings and creative problem solving. This forced me to look for a new job model that would allow me to work without speech.
So I came up with the idea of selling locally produced leather goods and vintage kilims online. Both are readily available here in Turkey, and obviously, something we’re quite well known for.
The best part of operating an e-commerce business for me at the time was that it enabled me to communicate with my customers solely via email! I made a name for myself and sold through my Etsy and eBay stores which also exposed me to an international audience.
Fortunately, after a year, my speech returned but by this point, I was already steadfast on this new entrepreneurial path. There was no turning back. But I also knew the business needed something more to succeed and grow.
At this time, my brother Yusuf graduated and was looking for a job. He wasn’t interested in pursuing a traditional 9-5 job. He had a real eye for photography so he jumped on board and started out taking beautiful photos of our products.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
While I started out the business sourcing products from other local manufacturers, we faced a roadblock which again, made us reconsider our business model.
During the 2013 Christmas season, we experienced an unexpected spike in orders. Contrary to what you might think, this actually threatened to end our entire company. Our vendor was not able to meet the demand and we were unsure if we would be able to keep going.
By a miracle, we got through this period by a very thin thread. There is such a thing as growing too fast if you don’t have the proper business systems in place to meet demand. We were very lucky to be able to keep our customers happy and get through that experience.
Not long after this, my husband requested a leather journal for his Moleskine notebook and iPad. When I put forth his request to our vendor, he was not interested in helping. It was then that I knew we had to make some changes and so we employed some more creative thinking and problem solving.
Yusuf and I decided to start producing our own leather goods. We weren’t schooled in leather-making so we started taking classes to learn the craft, learning from some of the best leather crafters in the area, as well as from YouTube videos. We follow a couple makers on YouTube but one of our favorites is Ian Atkinson.
It took several tries to create exactly what my husband had been looking for but we finally managed it, much to his satisfaction (and ours!). This Moleskine Cover remains one of our original signature products. It was then that we knew we were onto something.
We source our cowhide leather locally where it goes through a natural vegetable dying process. This ensures our products are of the highest quality and will last the test of time and travel.
From here, we hand stitch and make our products by hand in our own workshop. We have full control over the quality and end result of our products. Each one passes through our own hands. This kind of quality control is very rare in our industry.
A lot of people ask us about why we don’t have distributors, wholesalers or physical stores. I explain how we prefer to reach our customers directly who love to know they are buying from us firsthand.
This enables us to offer affordable prices, more options and customizations. In return, we receive quick feedback about product improvements and have more control over our brand to maintain integrity within the community. It's a formula that's worked well for us. Naturally, after many years of practice, we’ve become quite skilled in our craft.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Once we had started designing our own line of products, we rebranded to Galen Leather. But we were still selling via eBay and Etsy. Here comes another roadblock!
In 2016, PayPal stopped its services in Turkey. This forced us to look for alternative sales channels that didn't rely on this one payment gateway. Hence, we turned to Shopify to create our own online store.
This proved to be a big learning curve as we were now responsible for all parts of our business. Talk about a growth opportunity though (in business and personally)!
It wasn’t until Christmas of 2017 when our business really took off. We designed a wooden writing box which sold over 1000 pieces which came about thanks to fantastic exposure and interest on Instagram.
This really spurred us to start taking this whole e-commerce thing more seriously. We were attracting new and repeat customers from all over the world.
As awareness of our products grew thanks to niche blogging communities passionate about our products, Instagram and our own marketing efforts, demand just kept growing.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I know a lot of other entrepreneurs are fearful of hiring experts to help them work on their business. This is warranted because it’s hard to find the right people and a bad experience can mean a catastrophic setback financially.
But as we grew, we were spending more time in our business, we struggled to find the time to work on our business. We weren’t just manufacturing products, we were also managing a whole website.
Because we rely on a highly functional website to make sales, one of the best investments we’ve made is working with a digital marketing strategist to help with our SEO, PR and marketing efforts.
We have worked with other SEO companies in the past who failed to improve organic rankings and sales. They also didn't provide any transparent reports.
This particular agency has helped us to increase our website traffic 114% and sales 129% through SEO in less than one year. Surprisingly, our conversion rate increased at the same time by 31%. That means more quality traffic to our store. I loved the transparency and the most important is the monthly report with exact, clear, readable data.
We operate our store from a non-English speaking country so we had a language barrier on the website, collections, and product descriptions. After on-page SEO work we have a clearer store that ranks higher and converts better. The team are real Shopify experts and were able to mentor us with critical business questions about Shopify.
From our SEO efforts, organic traffic plays a huge role in customer acquisition. We are also big on paid Google campaigns, as well as email newsletter marketing and our most active social media channel, Instagram. Thanks to Like2Haveit, we’re able to easily turn Instagram traffic into sales with the easy shopping feature from a post.
Operating in the competitive online retail environment is challenging in and of itself. But as a small, family-run enterprise, we believe we have our own advantages to the big retailers. So we play to our strengths. We really go out of our way to satisfy our customers.
Whether that means making it a truly personalized experience by allowing little customizations for their orders or being able to make products they demand because we interact with our customers on a daily basis.
Our Traveler’s Notebooks are a great example of this. Customers can personalize it by the leather finish, color, size, engraved initials, adding their choice of leather tag and brass charm, and more. Some of our products, such as our Leather Travel Wallet, has evolved into the product you can buy today thanks to customer feedback over the years helping to improve it. We take our customer requests and feedback very seriously!
This is really paramount to our success. As you’ve seen, we’ve had a number of setbacks from external forces out of our control that could have ruined us, but it was our ability to remain flexible and responsive that have allowed us to survive (and thrive!).
We’ve also become quite well known for our unique and well thought out packaging. Our products make wonderful gifts as they come specially boxed, all ready to go. We sometimes also add little free gifts from Turkey to provide our customers with a real authentic, and more personalized experience and to celebrate the product’s origin.
Each item is beautifully packaged and comes with a maker’s certificate to showcase the authenticity. Customers are always commenting on how impressed they are with the quality!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Since launching on Shopify, we’ve sold over $1 million worth of product. Making this move to take control over our own e-commerce store has clearly, been a very wise move for us. To date, we have over 32.1k Instagram followers and an average overall website CTR of 4.7%. We’re profitable and our business has provided us with a stable income source for our families.
We’ve also started collaborating with some other local producers to expand our product line into woodwork and brass. Each month, we’re able to launch new products, making it a very exciting time for our business and customers.
Our line of office and desk accessories is a great example of this, combining wood, brass and leather craftsmanship to create a line of stylish executive products.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Operating online and being active on social media has really opened up our profit potential. We love engaging with customers through Instagram and our products photograph really well - so it seems they get shared around quite a lot!
We believe we’re very personable and approachable as a brand. So when you send us a private message or receive a reply to a comment on Instagram, it’s our genuine voice.
Rather than focusing on what you think people want to hear, just be real, transparent and not afraid to simply be who are. Your customers will respect you more for that at the end of the day.
For example, we don’t shy away from saying if an order might take longer than usual to be sent out because of a busy period or for some other reason. It’s obviously not optimal but the reality is, we aren’t a large manufacturer.
We’re a small team and pretending to be otherwise to our customers just wouldn’t feel right.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Shopify as our e-commerce platform and we’ve found it to be the best out-of-box solution for our needs and flexible enough to cater for our product variations etc.
We also love the judge.me app on Shopify for customer reviews. Why keep those happy customer responses hidden? They’re worth showing off!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
When we first launched on Shopify, we didn’t know a great deal about operating your own store. So we did our own research to find examples of other businesses doing it well and we’ve learned a lot from them.
We don’t have a great deal of time these days, but we’re always on the lookout for new ways to build our business and stay on top of things. We recently found this guide on Google Shopping for Shopify to be one of the most helpful free resources other Shopify users might find useful and something we want to get better at.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel with this stuff. There are people who live and breathe it, and who’ve made plenty of mistakes before you who you can learn from.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
It’s all too easy as an entrepreneur to want to do everything and be everything in your business and we’ve experienced this ourselves. But there comes a point where if you spread yourself too thin, and it can start negatively impacting your business.
Because we are actively working in our business every day, it’s been crucial for us to bring on some experts to help in terms of the business and marketing side of things. This has enabled us to grow in ways that would have taken us far longer and will a lot more painful learning curves. Also with the cancer, I’ve had to be very conscious of managing my personal health and wellness.
We also attribute our success to focus. We’ve learned from other successful e-commerce stores to narrow our audience down to 2-3 focused communities, like stationary lovers, pen collectors and travellers. In doing so, we’ve been able to better understand their specific needs better and service them directly. For example, many of our new products are coming straight from customer demand.
They want a product and so with some feedback, we then make it. We know these things because we are active members and contributors to community forums and in social networks.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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