How to Succeed in Business: Sell Lemons. Literally.

A crash course in entrepreneurship from an 11-year-old Turkish boy

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No kid wants to work in the summer. But while my friends were out riding bikes, my childhood holidays were spent in Turkey selling lemons door-to-door. Put your violins away. There’s no heart-wrenching story here about how I had to do this to survive. The truth is I was forced into it by my grandfather, a tireless and imaginative entrepreneur and a firm believer in tough love. The lemon business was his gift to me — though it sure didn’t feel that way at the time. Two decades later, I am still benefiting from the crash course in entrepreneurship I got from selling citrus door-to-door.

On Sundays, Grandpa and I would walk 2 miles in sweltering heat to the city market, where we’d negotiate a bulk rate on lemons. I’d carry them home, package them in reusable tissue paper (my loss leader) and then distribute them around my neighborhood by cart. In Turkey, lemon is a staple ingredient in almost every meal, so folks always needed to have fresh ones on hand. Sure, anyone could have taken the trip to town for their own supply, but here I was delivering right to their door, with a better price and nicer packaging. I quickly developed a loyal clientele who would wait for me to arrive.

Lesson One: Your first investment should be in your reputation

The success of any business is built upon two things: your product/service, and your reputation. My lemon customers taught me the vital importance of keeping your word. Over time, I became an integral part of my neighbors’ domestic rituals. Yeah, they relied on my lemon services but I also became known as a responsible, diligent and hard-working kid. I wore that reputation like a badge of honor. If I was late, my customers would be upset. If I didn’t arrive, they would worry about me. All this taught me the most important lesson of all: when people rely on you, you better be there.

It may sound obvious, but this commitment to unwavering dependability and follow-through has paid off in dividends in my later ventures. Previous behavior and relationships may play into your future success more than you think. When I raised funds to launch Payfirma, I was fortunate to receive significant investment in the form of personal cheques. These came in from investors who cited my history and reputation as their reason for taking a chance on me. In business, your reputation will always precede you. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. Start this practice from day one with everybody you engage with. Invest in your reputation early because it’s the most valuable stock you own.

Lesson Two: Know your customer and when to say “no”

Towards the end of the sale week, some customers knew I would have to start cleaning out stock to avoid profit loss due to spoilage. The gamble was to sell at liquidation prices or keep my lemons and risk a drop in quality. Knowing my clientele would inform my decision: if a certain neighbor was around who didn’t mind day olds, I might hold off. By engaging me in the lemon business, my grandfather was teaching me about people and by proxy, the art of negotiation. The point was not necessarily to turn a profit (although I did), but to learn how to negotiate with all kinds of people. Knowing what a person wants, their values, their expectations, is essential to success in negotiation.

You must also know what your breaking point is, when it is better to leave a deal on the table rather than undercut your own business. It’s hard to say no- especially as a startup. But I learned to do it with lemons, and it’s a crucial lesson for any entrepreneur. In my current business we’ve clearly identified our target market, but we still get approached by prospective customers who don’t fit in that model. I hate telling people to go to a different provider. But if we know that our services and their needs don’t match up, we don’t want to make a deal that won’t work for either party.

Lesson Three: Work ethic trumps all

These days everybody is launching a startup. The difference between entrepreneurs and the annoying guy emptily hyping the next big idea is execution. We know that 9 out of 10 startups fail. The key to success is knowing that failure is an opportunity to be better. In the dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian Entrepreneurship, survival of the fittest isn’t just about funding and influential friends, it’s about good old fashioned work ethic and tenacity. These less-than-glamorous qualities get lost in the media frenzy around a disruptive new product or the lifestyles of the rich and famous CEO. Techcrunch never covers the ulcer you get waiting for funding to come through and Forbes isn’t interested in a report comparing fluctuations in your blood pressure with your stock price. That doesn’t change the fact that behind every success story there’s probably a person who shed blood, sweat and tears to get there. Somebody who knows that “possessing an entrepreneurial spirit” is a fluffy way of saying “gets s**t done”.

I learned the value of work ethic early on by selling lemons in heat stroke-inducing weather with an unrelenting mentor cracking the proverbial “never give up” whip behind me. It may sound cliche, but the resentment I felt from missing out on playtime was soon replaced by the satisfaction of being a part of a successful venture. I never lost sight of that feeling and the intensity it takes to get there. It’s the reason why after being ousted from my first company, I started working on my next startup the morning after. My grandfather called it the honor of work, some know it aswork ethic. Whatever you call it, it’s vitally important to determine what hard work and success look like to you, what it takes to get there, and how it feels when you do.

If mentorship is the act of leaving a legacy, I’m happy to impart my Grandpa’s advice on young entrepreneurs: dependability, doing your research and relentless hard work are the cornerstones to crushing it in business. That, and remembering that just when you think of throwing in the towel, behind every seemingly successful CEO there’s probably a sweaty, little 11-year-old with a cart full of lemons.

About the author:

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Michael Gokturk is the Founder and CEO of Payfirma, a multichannel payment processing company and cloud-based payment platform. A thought leader and relentless entrepreneur, Michael has grown Payfirma from the first company to deploy mobile payments in Canada into a scalable solution for debit and credit card payments online, in-store and mobile. Prior to Payfirma, Michael founded VersaPay, one of Canada’s fastest growing companies which he took public on the TSX. With over a decade of experience as a game changer in payments, Michael has appeared on the cover of Profit Magazine and been honored with numerous awards including Best Business Person of 2012 and membership in the Top 40 under 40. Michael is also an active angel investor, mentor and advisor in the startup community.

Comments

    • says

      Couldn’t agree more, James. As a business, your obligation is to yourself and your customers, not the whole world. A lot of companies chase the impossible dream of pleasing everyone. Others have such a narrow focus that they alienate much of what could be a strong and loyal customer base. Finding a balance is the tough part, as you said.

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