How to have the first-move advantage and succeed in ecommerce: interview with Sina Afra

markafoni-sina-afraOur valuable guest of today’s interview is Sina Afra –  a famous entrepreneur with amazing experience in ecommerce who is very interesting to listen to. Sina a chief executive officer and cofounder of Markafoni project – very popular online shopping club. Besides, he has become a winner of numerous online entrepreneurial and startup awards in Turkey.

Hi Sina, thank you for joining. Can you please introduce yourself in some more details? What you do, what you are passionate about, what other things you have done make you proud the most?  

Sina: So I am an entrepreneur, and I am a late entrepreneur, so I worked for a very long time cooperate. Before founding Markafoni, I used to work for Ebay for a long time in Europe. Then I saw a fantastic potential in Turkey within online fashion, and we founded with two cofounders Markafoni back in 2008. Then we started also to expand: it was not only Markafoni in Turkey, we also started in Australia, South Korea, Greece, Ukraine and Poland with different brand names. In Poland we used Markafoni name, but in Ukraine we are using the name ModnaKasta. I also founded some other companies in Turkey, the subsidiaries of Markafoni, like Zizigo, and Mispera. So I am really a passionate entrepreneur, big believer that entrepreneurship is a lifestyle. I am also a Business Angel, I am in seventeen investments across the world. So not only in Turkey.

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You mentioned that you used to be a managing director at Ebay. What were your core challenged and duties that time at Ebay?    

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Sina: Well, Ebay is an incredible, well-organized entity and organization. The opportunity for me to join Ebay at the end of 2005 brought me a completely new world, a world of ecommerce. So Ebay was also a school for me. Whatever I have learned in ecommerce, most of the things I learned at Ebay. I was responsible for mergers and acquisitions in Europe and also for strategy for all the Ebay companies in Germany. So there have been so many challenges: how to direct and steel Ebay to an industry across Europe which is very quickly changing. So I have learned to react very quickly on changes and also on execution. I believe still today execution is the key to success, it is much more important than a good idea. This is what Ebay is very good at; I think I benefited from it.

So besides Ebay, among all the jobs you have done and all the learning you have passed, what was the most useful for your development and evolution as an entrepreneur?    

markafoni-660x375Sina: Well, the first one. I think I am a network guy, I am in network, and I know many people in many countries, and I get lots of inspiration from this network. So this is something which definitely helps me as an entrepreneur. Because at the end of today nothing is edged in stone, and everything can change every time in your life. Having a good network enables you to recognize developments of other countries in terms of technology, in terms of management, in terms of team building and many other areas. So I think this is a skill I really cultivated. I still have a big network, especially in Europe, but also Central and Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Turkey, of course, and I benefit from that.

Second thing, as an entrepreneur, I am a big believer, as I said, in execution. So I believe that a good execution is 90% of the work entrepreneur has to do – 10% is an idea and being creative, but 90% is bringing it all together and making it work.

Do you have any books or blogs or maybe personas that are must read or must follow for a young online entrepreneur?   

Sina: Oh yes! I think there are more than 20 blogs I follow very regularly, so one example is the blog of Ben Horowitz in the US, but also blogs like Mashable and Techcrunch, and Webrazzi  just to be informed about the latest developments in the tech world. I even published a list of blogs I am following in my own blog so you will find all the details of all the blogs there. I published it seven months ago. I read everything very-very carefully. I think, I read more blogs than newspapers.

Tell us a little bit more about Markafoni project, what in your opinion was the key to its success?

2014-05-06_14-52_MarkafoniSina: So Markafoni, which by the way means the symphony of brands in Turkish, was founded in 2008. In 2008 it was the time in Turkey with lots of online activity but almost no supply in online fashion.  So we benefited very much being the first one and being realized this advantage very strongly.  I remember that acquiring the first million of members took us 10 months, we didn’t pay anything it was really word of mouth. People invited their friends and friends invited other friends, and so on and so on. So it gave us really a kick star at the very beginning, because if you don’t have to spend money on marketing and people are just running into your site – how great it is! So that was something that really distinguishes Markafoni, and we are still a market leader today after almost 6 years and the main reason is that we have incredible high brand awareness with 75% in Turkey, which is for the company with 5 to 6 years of legacy is incredibly high.


The second thing is we started in 2009 to expand to other countries. The first one was Australia, the company was called BrandsExclusive and then followed by South Korea, Ukraine, Greece and Poland. Every time we expanded into another country, we faced very different challenges, and we learned from those challenges. We took the challenges and learnings back to Turkey and implemented here the changes. We learned a lot of things in South Korea and Australia and then took the good things and good learning back to Turkey which made us very innovative, so we were the face-makers of the Turkish market. My team and I are extremely focused, as well as my cofounders, we are all focused on execution: we talk about the idea a few moments, but we spend a lot of time into execution.

You said that then you moved on with Australia, South Korea, Ukraine, Greece and Poland. Why exactly those countries? Why have you chosen them?

Sina: Very simple, back in 2009 we looked at the map and we crossed out all countries where flash sales players like Markafoni have already been active. Then we rated all the countries in terms of GDP per capital, so first one was Australia, then South Korea and so on. So this is why we entered these countries, we wanted to have the first-move advantage. And, you know, we have been successful in some countries and unsuccessful in other countries. So Australia, Ukraine, Greece, Poland are the successful ones. In South Korea we shut down after 6 months, because the market was so competitive of the general ecommerce structure that we couldn’t make it. We learned a lot but we have not been successful.

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In other countries – we exited Australia in 2012, we sold it to Australian media group, and at that time we used to have two hundred and twenty people in Australia together with our cofounders from Australia, Daniel and Rolf. In Ukraine ModnaKasta is doing very well as one of the biggest ecommerce places in Ukraine at the time being. In Markafoni it is still the biggest share although, ModnaKasta.

Among Australia, Ukraine, Greece and Poland, which country shifted your expectations? Or they just alright and just met your expectations?

Sina: The biggest challenge was South Korea. This is very sophisticated and competitive ecommerce market, so we paid our respect to this market in terms of learning. We saw that the dynamics there is completely different from the dynamics we were used to in the countries we are operating in. From Australia we have learned lots of clues about customer satisfaction. Greece, which is very similar to Turkey, we learned about the interaction with media, media is very important there. In Ukraine we faced completely new challenges like logistics and payment infrastructure, which is very different from Turkey, and how to overcome this. But thanks to the great team we have there, I think we did a good job.

So Australia by far is the most sophisticated one, sophisticated in terms of competition, but also sophisticated in terms of user experience. You have to run every marketing channel very differently from Turkey. And Ukraine is also a new challenge for us.  Turkey is a Facebook and Google country, in Ukraine I think there are completely different structures like VK and, Yandex, so it was also a new learning for us.  In Greece we could help very much our team with our learning from Turkey, but when it comes to Yandex and VK, this is a completely new land for us and we learned then from the Ukrainian team.

Have you planned specific entry points for each market? Like, for example, you knew that you need to conquer Yandex for Ukraine to be there. Or was there anything like this?

Sina: In each country we had different entry strategies. So first we tried word of mouth. In Australia it is working pretty nice, in Greece it works great, like Turkey, in Ukraine it doesn’t work. So in Ukraine we started to develop some actions and strategies how to get people from Yandex and VK, so both were very valuable to us. And after you reach a certain critical number of members, then you have enough force how to turn the engine on. This is what we have done in Ukraine: we focused on Yandex and focused on paid search. So we paid for the members to identify them, and when we had a certain number of members, we started with mailing lists and other marketing measures.  But every country was different.

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You mentioned that for Australia word of mouth works very well, how exactly can you fuel word of mouth?  Is it offline marketing or is it via social channels? How is it done?

Sina: I think the biggest difference, first of all, is the culture in the countries.  Turkey is the most viral country among those we are into, and Ukraine is the least viral country. It is really something cultural. I think the Turkish women love to share good opportunities with their friends, Ukrainian women keep it much more for themselves.  So if you are in the viral country like Turkey, it is pretty easy, to get WOM. If you are in Ukraine, we didn’t benefit from WOM. So firstly, we had to pay and then offer some benefits: “invite your friends and get 60 hryvnias if they buy on ModnaKasta” – stuff like this. It is much more structural work.

Thank you and the last question. Can please describe a typical work day? Do you have any personal recipes of time management, ways to set yourself in maximum self-efficiency?  

Sina: I think everybody has different style, but I wake up every morning at 6:40, then 3 times a week I go to the gym at 7 o’clock, and between 8 and 8:30 I am in my office. Usually I try to stay in office; I really believe that having too many outside meetings is distracting for your concentration, so I try to have meeting during the day in my office, if possible. If I have some outside meetings, I try to focus them in one day.  Let’s say, usually Thursday is the day when I visit some other people and the entire day I am on the roads, but then the other days I am sitting in my office and working with the team there on the execution. Execution needs focus and execution needs time, it is not what you can do in between 10 meetings.

Thank you very much!         

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How to have the first-move advantage and succeed in ecommerce: interview with Sina Afra

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