Starting a Business in Turkey is Like Finding a Lost Ipod on a Ski Slope


Loving it!

Never in my life have I not fallen asleep on a plane. Until now. For the entire 2 hours from Istanbul to Kars, I peered out of the window, mapping my future over the rippling snow-covered mountain ranges that lead to Kars. I searched for the familiar landmarks I have been crossing now for years, the major highways, lakes, rivers, valleys, and cities – leading me all the way to one of Turkey’s last frontiers and my home for the next nine months.

As we neared Kars, the clouds opened and extraterrestrial white plateaus shimmered with slick melting snow. I exited the plane into my friends’ arms, and as we rejoiced, we laughed how the weather was glorious. I had brought with me the first day of spring, and with it, the great melt. I knew that the clock was ticking on my time left to ski, so within 16 hours, we were awake and headed to Sarklamis, our local Karsian ski resort.

I have to laugh, because Colorado and Kars are so similar, but regarded as so different! In the States, everyone wants to live in CO, the skiing, the outdoor lifestyle, the blissfully wide open spaces. But what we covet about Colorado (wide open spaces, clean air, outdoors) – are some of the same reasons Kars is regarded as backwards, uncivilized, empty. In CO, our ski resorts are massive, luxurious, crowded, institutionalized – one of the top exclusive travel experiences in the US and the world! In Turkey, there is a horse carriage in the parking lot, families barbequing on the side of the ski slope, and stray dogs weaving their way through hoards of sledding children. In CO, for better or for worse we have invested in building an entire industry from our environment and the rush of adrenaline you get in enjoying it. In Kars, you pay per run (about $4) and generally guests spend more time in the two hotels surrounding the ski resort than actually out on the terrain.

Alright, so I was born on a ski slope and raised on some of the best snow on the planet, so according to my birthright I should be the biggest ski snob on earth. Quite the contrary. I think this day skiing was one of the happiest I can remember. The sky was a glowing blue, the kind that makes Coloradans weep with mirth. The snow even better than what I skied in CO this year. There were fresh tracks through the trees (because no one here skis off-piste), jumps over logs, wide open terrain, and Turks swinging pinkies as they danced halay to my favorite Turkish songs. It was the combination of everything I love, and to top it off, in the lift-lines were all my old friends from Kars, full of high fives and smiles.

Then, as I was racing past some ski gates, my brand new ipod-touch (with all of my videos, photos, and notes) slipped out of my pocket and into the expensive toy abyss that is a snowy ski slope. At the bottom of the run, as we were laughing and taking photos, my hand ventured into my pocket, and I felt an empty void. As the panic registered, my Turkish became perfect, “I LOST MY IPOD!”

In the week since this event, I realize now there were many lessons that I learned in searching for this IPOD that are strangely similar to the Balyolu team trying to launch our business right now.

1. BUILD A TEAM. My friends around me, who were revealing in my sheer skiing joy were devastated when they saw my look of horror. Immediately, the rushed to my side, and we formed a plan of how as a group we were going to find my ipod.

2. TELL EVERYONE. We went from person to person to person explaining what we were doing, what we needed, who are we, and what happened. I explained in my politest and most earnest Turkish, and I expressed with my face and emotions that this was important.

3. HARNESS THE POWER OF HEARSAY. Immediately every person at the ski resort was repeating some variation of the story, “this cute girl from America came skiing today, she lost something that looks like a phone but it’s not a phone, it’s like a tiny music playing computer. It has her whole life on it. She is a guest here. Have you seen it?”

4. PERSEVERE BEYOND THE DOUBT. “No way you’ll find it.” “Kids took it.” “It’s lost in the snow.” “No one’s seen it.” “Forget about it.” “How will you find this E-PAD?” Every person I spoke with came up with every reason why we would not be able to find the ipod. Or a story about how they saw some young kids run off with it. Or an account of how someone had stolen it. But we continued searching, asking, and telling people about the missing ipod.

5. CHANCE. I couldn’t believe it, but someone found my ipod. They followed the massive storyline of people talking about my missing ipod, and despite all odds, they returned it to me. And then we all caught a few runs together. For the rest of the day, everyone came up to me and celebrated, yelling questions from the chairlifts and parking lot whether I had found it, and then shouting their congratulations at my response. It was a mountain-wide victory.

By no means is launching a business as simplistic as finding an ipod. But in this town, I am constantly reminded how everything we do is simply boiled down to relationships. Everyone needs to know who you are, what is your history, why are you doing what you are doing, and whether or not they are able and willing to help. No matter how good an idea is, unless you get the buy-in of the people around you, it can’t exist. Often people hear about Balyolu (many of them know of it already) and they think it is a great idea, but some of the logistics, like walking between villages – sometimes at long distances – it’s almost an impossible concept. Building the maps, the routes, sourcing the knowledge and connections, it hasn’t really been done before and a lot of people look at me and think – I don’t really know how you will do it, I will help you if I can… best of luck!

But in the end, if we can make the right connections, get the right things to click, and channel wavelengths of luck, it IS possible. We CAN find an ipod in the snow and even launch a successful business in a faraway town on one of Turkey’s borders.

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About Cat

Catherine de Medici Jaffee is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a Fulbright Scholar, a Luce Fellow, the Founder of Balyolu: the Honey Road, and a lunatic about honey culture in the Caucasus. Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude. Her dedication and passion for animals, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world as a Luce and Fulbright scholar: to raise Aigamo ducks in Japan, to research yak trade caravans in Sikkim, and to study rural women’s migration in Turkey. In particular, Turkey - with its fish hung like laundry from windows, its 9,000 species of flowers, and its delicious honey - continues to lure Cat back to its borders. Cat’s love for Turkey, the mountains, agriculture, and women’s leadership blend together sweetly in her new venture Balyolu and her blog Inspired Beeing. You can most frequently find her jumping on a mountain, running from angry bees, cooking in villages, hitching on dirt roads, or joking with Turkcell about her internet woes. Cat is joined by her partner in crime Claire Bangser, artist, photographer, writer, and globe wanderer who believes in creative storytelling as a way to powerfully connect people across mental and physical borders. From working with small-scale women farmers in Mali, to documenting peoples' lives along a 2,000 mile bike tour in the US, she finds that every person (and bee) has an important story to tell and much wisdom to share (speaking of Wisdom, Claire just published her first book, Ride Somewhere Far. Check it out on our Link Roll). These days, you're most likely to find Claire upside down, yodeling from a mountaintop, making tragic mistakes in Turkish, or eating meat for Cat.

Posted on March 23, 2012, in Business, Culture, Hospitality, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You’re so lucky having somewhere to stay in this beautiful country! I bet the views were fantastic :) great post!

  2. This is great! I have been following your venture for a while, really like it and I hope to be as successful as you promoting ecotourism in Central Asia.

  3. What a great story! Very inspiring! Best of luck with your new ventures!

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