Lockdown Economy Turkey in Strategic Design Consultancy with Gulay Ozkan
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Tapasya Das
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview, we meet Gulay Ozkan, Founder of GEDS, Strategic Design consultancy in Istanbul, Turkey. Companies like GEDS help their clients improve their customer experience by using design tools and concept strategies in a novel way. Since the lockdown began, many were struggling to cope with the crisis of the pandemic, however, Gulay with an entrepreneur mindset recognized it was a time to remain calm and focused. GEDS has been focusing on three specific dimensions; its impact on wellbeing, employee’s experiences, and how to sustain the business and customers. The period has been a great time to explore things; instead of projections, the talented team was motivated to look at the problems from a different perspective and come up with solutions. Over the past few years, GEDS has been discussing changes, social changes needed, and efficient working. They are like laboratories of the business world. One of these innovating models was to understand alternative remote business models for different people. During the lockdown, a lot of work was on digital space, thus the business wasn’t affected heavily like traditional companies.
What do you do as a business? How did you get these recognitions? Tell us about your company.
Gulay: First of all thank you for inviting me to this interview. GEDS is a Strategic Design Consultancy. Strategic Design is based on human data, which means data on human expectations, desires and problems. Strategic Design means, designing products, services and even concept strategies based on this data. It’s fairly a new domain of design. But it has been quite popular lately. You might have heard the terms like Design Thinking, Service Design, User Experience, UX, Design Management. All of these are the terminologies of our field. For example, we are leading the design of a large-scale technology project in nine countries in Europe. There we are designing smart products for older people. For this project, we did a user research in nine countries to understand the lives, expectations and problems of older people. Then based on that data, we designed the three type of smart products. 2020 has been quite an interesting year for us. We have received so many international recognitions. So all those awards that you listed in the beginning, we actually received them during the last month.
So how long have you been doing the business? And was it the same when you started?
Gulay: The company is twelve years old and it hasn’t been like this always. But even when I started the company, my target and mission were the same. We just wanted to create a human-centric impact on the economy by using design and these exponential technologies. But of course, in years we have changed our methods, our approach and even our network. Our impact has also scaled. So of course, it has been different.
Are you working alone or do you have employees?
Gulay: I have always had employees from different countries, since the beginning. We have been working remotely for so many years. I have had employees who I haven’t met in person. So I’m quite used to working with people from different countries.
So that is a really interesting concept. Did you, however, miss the physical contact at work or does it change anything from your model, in general?
Gulay: In general, I think this is more about the mindset and about “How you define the normal”. For me, working with people who I don’t meet in person is normal. And it has been like this for many years. So I don’t really miss physical contact. Of course, I can’t deny that the meeting-in-person brings a different connection. It is a different context but at the same time, working remotely is fairly easy to manage sometimes.
I was discussing this with you that you have clients not only based in Turkey and Istanbul but also in Europe. So how many clients do you have normally?
Gulay: The number of clients changes from time to time. It depends completely on the scale of the project. For example, in 2018, we couldn’t accept any more projects because of the large-scale project that we were running in the nine countries in Europe. It was quite a large-scale operation. So it isn’t quite the numbers but actually the size of the projects.
So when the lockdown forced itself upon us, we were faced with a new concept and abnormality to live with. Did this affect your business?
Gulay: Yes or No! Mentally, we were ready for the discussions that they have right now. As entrepreneurs, we need to be ahead of the discussions and the time. So in the last three-four years, we have been talking about these changes, the other social changes needed and also about more efficient working maybe. We are also thinking of remote work and working with people in different models. So these are the things that we have been experiencing. We are like a laboratory in the business world. So that’s why it didn’t affect us very much just because we have been working remotely lately. But at the same time, since we work on the digital space, maybe more than the traditional companies, our work has slightly increased.
Has your work also changed when we are talking about your approach for attracting customers or your way of stimulating the business? Do you have different digital help in this part?
Gulay: If we look at the beginning of the pandemic, there wasn’t much time to stimulate the business or attract customers. It was time to help and support each other. I set three different strategies or priorities during that time. The first and the most important one was about my health, my employees, my family and all the people around us including our clients and their families. Supporting them sincerely, was our priority. This is what we focussed on in the beginning for quite a long time. We also tried to contribute to the efforts which were going on. The second thing is that we were aware of the huge pandemic that was approaching. On February 24th I was aware of it based on some articles that I read. On March 4th, I realised that this is going to be a strong problem. It might trigger a strong, global, economic crisis. Also, I don’t expect things to get normal until 2023. So this is kind of a long run. So we need to be really careful about our psychology and how we approach these things. So these were the things that we focused on in the beginning. So it wasn’t really our initial intention to estimate the business. But now since everybody is more knowledgeable about the pandemic and about how to protect ourselves, our families and our loved ones, we are focussing more on how to sustain the business and how to help our customers.
Speaking about that, since we are talking about sustaining the business, survival mode or finding new strategies to cope, can you tell me what worked and what didn’t work from your point of view?
Gulay: This of course is a big crisis. But this is not the first crisis period that I’m going through. So everybody was panicking in the beginning and then indeed I performed better as an entrepreneur in the crisis period. I focussed on staying calm and I managed to do that. So this is the time when I needed to help and support my employees and everyone around me. Especially those people who couldn’t really hand such periods psychologically. So all this has worked the best and I highly recommend everyone to stay calm in this type of periods. It is really helpful. Other than that, really focussing on supporting people around us and our minds as well gave us some really good feedback. I can’t really name anything that didn’t work. However, at the same time, I should mention that we do a lot of work digitally. So effectively, on the contrary, our work has increased.
This is a digital era. Businesses are trying to cope with or ride the wave. Especially since the pandemic has brought a new way of working and accelerated those things which were obstacles in the beginning. You are a true example of how things accelerated since you adapted to the changes as an entrepreneur during your work in GEDS. You worked with new methodologies.
Gulay: Yes this was the era. Like we moved some work that was planned to be in-person, initially, to digital space. We are very familiar with the digital space and the experience there. So we helped a lot of our clients in moving their work to digital space.
So I can say that your business is going as expected following the digital trend? If I’m going to ask you if your business is going in the right track, would you say yes?
Gulay: Yes, indeed it is. In the last twelve months to two months, we have received four international recognitions and important awards. This was of course the outcome of twelve years of dedicated work in the same space. Now, things are going well. But at the same time, I would like to switch to more large-scale work. I have completed my plans that I had set twelve years ago. So currently I’m focussing on building strategic partners in different countries.
Speaking about that, do you know how your customers and competitions are doing?
Gulay: More or less, yes! They have postponed most of their plans to next year. This was very expensive and I was expecting that as well. They are also trying to make sure that their employees’ experience is also well. Because this affects everyone. Then, almost everyone is working from home. It might be easy for companies like us because we are very flexible. But this is not super easy for big corporates. We are trying to help them as well in making this transition, as soon as possible.
I agree that transformation, agility and changing to new practices or new models would take time and wouldn’t be the same. So if you have an outlook of the future, what do you think is coming and what can we expect?
Gulay: At the beginning of the pandemic, one of the things I said to myself was that I wouldn’t make any protections, give any public talks and write any opinion pieces. Because in my opinion, we still need to observe and understand what’s going on, how it impacts the people, their behaviour and their way of life. There are also new problems that might arise. As an entrepreneur, I want to understand the problems as much as possible. So I try not to make any projections. But then my only hypothesise about the future is that maybe we will have the effect of the pandemic till mid-2022. Almost everything may need to be redesigned or modified or revisited or maybe completely down with. We might have to come up with some new perspectives for this era. I need to be really open-minded as much as possible. We should really try to look at the same problems from different perspectives. So for me, I cannot name anything tangible. It’s for sure that the economy is going to be affected. I mean this is already the recession period. Projections have already been made. I am not an economist. This is not my background. So I’m just following the experts. But for my field, which is strategic design, I feel it is going to be more valid. It would be needed more than before. We are also ready for this new era. I mean companies like us. We are absolutely ready. By the way, I don’t have any dark thoughts about the future at all.
Yeah, I can sense this from you. Especially the way you are open to explore new opportunities and encourage others as well, to look at things from a different angle from this period.
Gulay: This period is a great time to explore things. For example, instead of making projections, instead of making biased decisions, what we did was something different. We attended the MIT Hackathons. There were extremely talented people from all around the world. We focussed on the problems. We tried to come up with some solutions. We had really fruitful conversations. I cannot really express how much I appreciated those conversations and lectures. So those were very inspirational. I just want to hang out with people like them. They are open-minded and enthusiastic about solving these problems. This is what my plan for the next one and a half year besides building things.
Can you tell me three things that you might need help with?
Gulay: Of course, we need a lot of help. But I can’t imagine three things easily. I think the first and most important one is that we need marketing support. Mainly because the strategic design is very strong and it can solve many things. Also, it will accelerate the transition to digital space. That is from the traditional way of working to working in digital space. But most companies are not aware of these tools and this way of looking at the problems. So companies like us need to be promoted. So this goes through marketing. So we need marketing support to have better visibility. Secondly, we also need to be in stronger networks. Because for companies like us, taking appointments and trying to reach people is not easy. This takes a lot of efforts. So being in strong networks or being introduced through some platforms would really help us. And thirdly, we also need to increase this impact of the design for a sustainable future. We need to look at things from the sustainability perspective as well, so again to increase our impact into the strategic partnerships with the large-scale businesses, corporations and their platforms. So if I summarise, marketing support, network support and also supporting design impact, maybe strategic partnerships.
That’s right and I like the way you are focussing on your business and on the trend that would take you forward, having an open mind and an open heart.
Gulay: Yes, I’m very excited indeed. Of course, I’m very sorry for the things happening in the world but at the same time, it has been a super exciting period for designers and design companies.
We need to think for a better future and definitely a sustainable one to continue and strive.
Gulay: We can help everyone. I can organise a lot. I can make a lot of design companies and not just one company. But I really believe that the strategic design is very instrumental in the spirit.
About the Guest
Gulay Ozkan, Founder of GEDS Strategic Design consultancy, named to Fast Company’s list of the top 100 companies founded by women, and DMI Design Value Award Winner in 2019. Gulay recently won Microsoft 2020 Woman Leader Making a Difference with New Technologies Award.