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“Zero to a billion dollars in five years” – With that statement alone, Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and president of Chobani yoghurt, needed little fanfare for his PSFK 2013 talk. With no slides, no pictures or audio accompaniment necessary, Ulukaya became one of the highlights of this year’s conference, illustrating how his gut instinct led him to take on a new venture that has since had a meteoric rise to success and amassed a solid social media following in the process.
When Ulukaya talks you can almost imagine exactly what it was like when he first walked into the defunct Kraft yoghurt factory in 2005 and how those steps he took began the journey that would see his little idea become a billion-dollar enterprise and, in turn, an inspiring story to share with the rest of the world.
Born in Turkey and an accomplished feta-cheese-maker, Ulukaya tells the story of how he had been living in Upstate New York when he found a classified ad for a yoghurt plant, at the time recently closed down by Kraft, which he initially disregarded and threw away. But, listening to his gut, he fished it out of the rubbish bin, and went to go see the place. He decided to buy the plant, despite friends telling him otherwise, and hired 5 people from the 55 that Kraft had let go.
With no plan, and nothing more than the idea to make Greek yoghurt for people to enjoy beyond the boutique supermarkets it had currently been stocked in, Ulukaya wasn’t sure where to go next. So he began by painting the walls.
“It was through that simple act of painting the walls that we began to see what we wanted to do with the yoghurt and how it should all work,” says Ulukaya. “None of us did this before. None of us had a business degree, but during this journey, we found out what we were made of.” He hired a yoghurt master, and it took a year and a half to make what he calls the perfect cup of yoghurt. From there, they put their sales strategy together, focussing on big chains, and launching the product we know in 2007.
“We toured the country with our CHOmobile, handing out free cups of Chobani to consumers at family-friendly events. Once people took a taste, it was love at first bite. We established our presence on platforms like Facebook and Twitter very early on, and engaged with our consumers to build brand loyalty. We cultivated early connections with Chobani-acs to help them spread word of mouth recommendation within their own networks,” he says. That Chobani gets social media is hardly a secret. We’ve previously highlighted its strong Pinterest strategy for instance.
It worked — tremendously. Ulukaya proves that believing in your gut instinct and going ahead with the first step, even if you aren’t sure of the exact plan ahead, are two crucial aspects to a successful story that inspires even those non-yoghurt lovers among us.