Your product is the feta on the salad

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Operators live in their business. It’s nights, weekends, holidays, birthday parties, and vacations. 

Customers don’t care. 

To a customer, a business is just mustard on a sandwich. Nice, but not their life. To a customer, life is nights, weekends, holidays, birthday parties, and vacations. 

Hamdi Ulukaya immigrated to the United States when he was twenty-two years old. He signed up for an English class – Hamdi spoke Kurdish and Turkish – and was assigned a ‘how to’ paper. Hamdi grew up shepherding sheep in the Turkish hills, so he wrote his paper about making cheese. 

His teacher loved it. Not for Hamdi’s encouraging English, but for the content. She owned a farm upstate and needed help making cheese. Hamdi agreed to help. 

It paid enough to get by and continue his studies. Hamdi’s cheese was good, it was “old world”. Americanized cheeses, like feta, didn’t taste like the cheeses of his youth. After working on the farm, Hamdi opened a cheese factory with his brother. 

People liked their cheese, it was good, but the restauranters didn’t care. Pricey but good feta from a regional supplier wasn’t what operators wanted. It was just a salad component. Restaurant operators ordered from the major manufacturers because the price was low and the quality was consistent. That’s all they needed. 

Hamdi worked nights, weekends, holidays, and birthday parties, and didn’t take vacations. Hamdi lived cheese. He was a shepherd, a farmer, and a manufacturer. There was no one in the world better equipped to run a feta cheese business. 

But it was just ‘mustard’ to his customers. To Hamdi, it was his life. With a lot of hard work, he grew the business to be a regional success. 

In 2005 Hamdi got a letter about an adjacent business for sale. It was in Ithaca New York and the last owner couldn’t make it work. Let me take a look, Hamdi thought and he called a friend to tag along. Are you crazy, his friend marveled when they arrived, this factory was owned by Kraft and they couldn’t make it work! What makes you think you can? 

Hamdi thought he could, this time with yogurt. Like with feta, he made a great product. Unlike feta, people cared. His first distribution deal was with ShopRite. After two weeks, his contact said, “I don’t know what you put in this yogurt and I don’t want to know – but I cannot keep it on the shelf.” This new, thicker yogurt was a hit. Within five years Hamdi’s yogurt company, Chobani, passed one billion dollars in sales and was the leading American yogurt company. 

Businesses service customers and fit in their lives. No one cares as much about your business as you do. Customers want to live their lives with their mustard, cheese, or their Chobani yogurt. Entrepreneurs live the mustard, cheese, and Chobani yogurt.

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