How to “make it:” on business pitches, lotus leaves, and Kickstarting Balyolu
I am staring at a boardroom of strangers. I don’t know who they are, but they include corporate leaders of many businesses including Kiva, Bing, House of Genius, TravelShark, and more. My face is hot, and a rush of deep emotion feels like a fiery liquid – starting in my stomach and moving through all my veins into my face. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry I repeat in my head. But before I know it, I am covering my scrunched up face with a sheet of paper. Scribbled at the bottom of that paper is one phrase: “you’re going to make it.”
I am presenting at something called House of Genius, started by my mentor Tim Williams. It is a program for community entrepreneurs to present about their work and receive impartial feedback from a room of strangers. That’s right, everyone who is invited to give feedback can only give their first name – no position, no title, no background information – and often they are some of the top business leaders out there.
My quick presentation was smooth. The Balyolu program has made leaps and strides in the last five months and I have now presented the program to hundreds of people. We have applied for every social business competition I could find and we’ve advanced or even won every major award for which we have applied. I have slept an average of three hours a night for the last two months, on a never-ending Turkey/US time-zone, full of meetings and strategy. The “I” that started Balyolu has become a substantial “we” as now some of the most skilled and incredible people I have ever met in my life are my business partners, and fellow dreamers, strategizers, mentors, implementors, critics, and believers. We are now a global/local force, and rather than being a lone dreamer with sweaty palms, I am now a leader of a “we,” and it is a “we” with which I would trust my life.
So I was ready to talk about Balyolu: the first honey tasting walking tour of it’s kind, led and inspired by rural women in Turkey. Half of the people I have surrounded myself with are some of the finest critics and pessimists I know, and I was prepared here in this room of experienced entrepreneurs to weather the worst. Over the last year, I liken Balyolu the business to a lotus leaf. Lotus leaves have superhydrophobic micronanostructured surfaces, meaning that they have a contact angle of 170 degrees, meaning that when a drop of water touches their surface, the water rolls off taking away all of the dirt without getting the leaves wet (also known as the Lotus Effect). This same principle is applied to Teflon surfaces to make them self-cleaning. Well, criticism for us has become like water to a lotus leaf. We welcome it, to clean off the fungus, the dirt, and the particles of our idea, but we don’t let it wet our core. Like water, criticism rolls over our idea, cleaning it of all the pieces that don’t work without hurting the things that do.
So I was ready for criticism, even expecting it. After my presentation, I waited, ready for our ideas to be thoroughly cleaned.
The feedback began: “why don’t you call the business the Honey Road instead of Balyolu, it’s easier for English speakers to remember?” (we had already bought thehoneyroad.com as an alternative name for our website and are working on analytics to become the top hit for any search regarding “the honey road.” We are Balyolu: the honey road, to teach everyone we work with about a new language and culture while also embracing the cross-cultural roots of our origin). “Why don’t you import/export the honey?” (we had explored this rigorously and did a cost/benefit analysis based on international honey laws, the production rate of high-end organic honey, and the local experience that we want to make. Based on our thorough research we had clear data as to why honey tasting tours would be much more beneficial for our local communities). “Why don’t you already own balyolu the twitter name” (shoot! he’s right, we need to claim that one now!)
As the criticism continued, I realized that we had explored most of the points that people had brought up, and what I what’s more, the feedback they were giving was actually dominated by encouragement and enthusiasm for the project.
The final comment was something along the lines of, “this project is so well thought out and so good, you should be able to get a corporate backer to help support you put on the first tours. You’re going to make it”
When it came to my turn to respond, I could only crinkle up my face and cry.
I hated myself for it, for being so tired, for being so vulnerable, for playing into these clichés around being a sensitive woman.
But there was also a part of me that was so glad that I was this passionate, this devoted, and this grateful. My tears were ones of gratitude – for the strangers in the room, but even more so, for the guides, friends, and geniuses who had helped the idea get this far.
I thought of Claire Bangser – one of my now closest friends and creative soul mate who worked with me tirelessly for weeks, sending hundreds of emails and skype calls back and forth to make our video – the essence of everything that is Balyolu – a living, breathing being.
I thought of my team – Sertac, Deniz, Burcu, Alex, and our communities in Kars – a force of nature and the true visionaries.
I thought of our partners, role models, and guides – KuzeyDoga, Cagan, Mona, Roshan, Eric, Tim, Zeynep, Ilhan, Ihsan, Onder, Joy, Tara, Iman, Irfan, Muammet, Husayin, Joan, Esref, Onur, Demet, Sandy, family, friends…
I thought of all the lives we want and believe we can make better, with more choices and skills to access new opportunities. I thought that this thing that we have all be working for so hard, that we all believe in so deeply, that this thing is going to be real, and people who could care nothing about whether or not we succeed – they believe so too.
And this liquid emotion that had at this point surged through every last vein in my body overflowed, and I broke down in tears. In that moment, I realized three big lessons I have learned as a young businesswoman:
1. Persistence is genius. Even when/if you feel like you have absolutely nothing, if you believe in your solution, and you take the bold step put in everything you have into your vision, if there is a glimmer that this is actually a good idea, others will too. First and foremost, people will believe in you more than anything else, but you better give them a very good reason to.
2. Ask for help, be gracious, and make it in people’s interest to work with you. Ask for mentors, ask for advice, ask for feedback, ask for ideas, ask for partners, ask for collaboration… but be ready to be specific in your asks, to be able to follow-up quickly, to be gracious of people’s time, and to make it in their personal interest to help you.
3. Start a movement. Through this blog, I like to think I have planted the seeds for a movement – a movement towards thoughtful living, a love for the connection of people to the environment, a drive to make the world we all live in a better place.
I wiped away my tears, I sat down, and I began thinking in my head, it’s time to ignite the movement.
So I am formally announcing here (albeit a bit delayed).
Balyolu is real, and it’s starting now. You can book a trip to join me and my team and our community in Turkey for 7 days and 7 nights all-inclusive in the price ($2,100). More than 70% of the funds go directly back to the community in supporting beekeeping, trainings, yurts, and tourism infrastructure to increase economic livelihoods. We have some other sweet gifts too and a lot of other ways to support if you can’t make the trip..
Together, we’re making it.
Here are some* photos behind the production and work of our campaign.
* more to come!
Posted on February 8, 2012, in Art, Business, Culture, Environment, Food, History, Hospitality, Inspired!, Pop Culture, The Bal and the Bees, Travel, Women, youth and tagged Balyolu, Business, Honey Road, kars, kickstarter, pitch, travel, Turkey, vision. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.