As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ridvan Tatargil. Ridvan is the founder and owner of Eastern Accents, a luxury bedding and home décor company that manufactures in Chicago and exhibits at High Point Market in Greensboro-High Point, North Carolina.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am the co-founder and co-owner (with my wife Siw) of Eastern Accents. We manufacture high-end bedding and other soft home décor, such as draperies, upholstered furniture, decorative pillows, throws, basically any home goods made from fabric. We took the long road here — Siw and I started out selling oriental carpets out of a van in the 80s. Sometimes, if a rug had ripped, we’d cut around the damage and use the scraps to make throw pillows. This eventually led to us purchasing Eastern Accents, a cut-and-sew pillow studio in Chicago, in 1989. Today, we’re known in our industry for producing luxury bedding, though we specialize in other home textiles too.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When Siw and I first started selling carpets, there was a while when we were actually living in the carpet van. What can I say: we were in our early 20s, and I guess we thought it was exciting and romantic. Anyway, one day we pull up to a store to make our pitch. We roll this heavy carpet out on the showroom floor and some of our laundry falls out. It was mortifying.
Honestly, I think the biggest take-away that anybody should have from that is the importance of presentation and marketing. If you’re selling to someone who doesn’t know your product as well as you do (and that’s everybody) you need them to want to invest in you by way of your brand, its image, and its values. If a customer trusts you, they will trust your product. They’re not going to trust the kids who keep their laundry in the carpets.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
This is a pretty recent publication, so it wouldn’t have influenced me when we were starting out. But I got a lot out of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and I find myself referencing it often. Most of your job as a business owner is making decisions, so it’s important to understand how your decision-making faculties can be flawed, subjective, or biased. You don’t want to be too self-conscious or self-doubting, but it is helpful to have a voice at the back of your head saying, “Am I doing this for the right reasons? Am I seeing the full picture?”
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our business has taken a few different forms, if you count from our carpet-selling days. But looking specifically at Eastern Accents, we have always focused on crafting very high-quality, trend-leading bedding for a discerning audience. That is partly because it is satisfying to be proud that we have this really superior product. It’s also partly because we know that we cannot compete with the big guys in mass-producing bargain product — we wouldn’t stand a chance. But by the same token, the big guys can’t compete with us in making-to-order or providing an individualized service. Even as trends and product types have changed, we have maintained our focus on high quality and personalized service.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
To be flexible. I am never just content with what we have right now; there is always something that can be improved, always a new avenue to be explored. There are “side-projects” that I worked on 15 years ago that were superfluous at the time, but today they’re essential parts of our business. Equally, many, many “side-projects” just go nowhere. My wife and I are a perfect pair — I am good at coming up with new ideas and processes, but she is excellent at implementing and executing projects. I wouldn’t be able to do that part; without her, nothing would happen.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our first grandchild had just turned seven months old when the lockdown happened. We went from seeing him every day to not seeing him at all for almost two months. We missed so many milestones: in those two months he started crawling, standing up, babbling, eating solid food, being more social… Now that the weather has improved, we have started having ‘social distancing walks’ or seeing them in our backyard, which has helped a lot, but I can’t wait to hold him again.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you have done to address those challenges?
The lockdown meant that we had to close our offices and shut down production. For a company that makes product to order, that is pretty devastating. But with a little bit of planning, we thankfully have been able to make it so far. We saw the lockdown coming a few weeks ahead of time. To prepare, we ramped up overtime and production of all open orders, basically trying to get everything out fast, and we started over-producing all of our most popular products. So when we were allowed to start shipping orders again, we at least had some product on the shelf, and when our production team gets back to the factory we will have put a small dent in the backlog.
The other thing we were able to plan ahead of time was the production of cloth facemasks. This started as a workplace safety measure; we started making facemasks in early March to distribute around the factory for our own workers. When the lockdown happened, we were able to recruit a small team to come in and continue making masks to donate to healthcare workers. When those proved overwhelmingly popular, we made them available to purchase with profits going towards donations and our running costs. We’ve donated masks to first responders across the country, including those in our manufacturing base of Chicago and in Greensboro-High Point, North Carolina where we have close ties to the textile manufacturing industry through High Point Market and where I own a local boutique inn, Pandora’s Manor.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Get outside — it can be hard to do this responsibly in the city (in my neighborhood people have even started walking in the street to aid social distancing) but it is so important for physical and emotional well-being. Siw and I have a German shepherd, Olga, who is very good at getting us outside and active! And keep in touch; we have been video-calling our kids frequently to stay updated with each others’ lives. Maybe you or someone you know is feeling isolated during this quarantine; we can all do it with a phone-call. They’re simple things, but in these times even the simplest things become really important.
Obviously, we can’t know or certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post COVID-19 economy?
For our business specifically, we are hoping that all the increased home time may cause people to want to update their home decor. Potentially decreased social activity at bars and restaurants may mean increased social activity at home, which we excel at making beautiful and comfortable. Ideally we would have preferred for none of this to have happened, but our hope is that being at home inspires people to purchase more home goods. That being said, we are also anticipating overwhelmed shipping routes, supply chain disruptions, and a possible deep recession as a result of economic shutdowns. But because Eastern Accents is an extremely integrated domestic manufacturer, I don’t think these issues will be a big problem for us. In fact, I think we will have an advantage over foreign manufacturers as a result.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think (at least for the next few years) people will become more careful about protecting themselves against infectious diseases, whether in the form of wearing facemasks or avoiding really high-density events. I also think working from home and online shopping will become more popular, though I hope that isn’t the case. I live in a city, and I would really miss the local flavor that comes from small brick-and-mortar businesses, and personally I love going into the office and having that daily social interaction outside the home.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID economy?
We intend to offer all our furloughed workers their positions back while also maintaining social distancing and expanding our workplace by acquiring more industrial space, if possible. We may require an increased workforce depending on the demand for masks in the post-COVID economy. The need for masks amongst essential workers, nursing homes, and patients may continue well after shutdowns are lifted, and if that’s the case we will continue to donate masks to them.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Don’t be satisfied with “going back to normal.” The lockdown has been disruptive for everyone, but it is also an opportunity to rethink and look critically at the way we do things. If there’s something about your business (or any other aspect of your life, actually) that isn’t working or you’re not happy with, this upcoming “fresh start” will be the best time to make your changes happen. Start putting down the groundwork for those changes now: we won’t get an opportunity like this again.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In Turkish we have a saying, “One bad experience is worth a thousand warnings.” It’s so true. I’m definitely not perfect, but everything I do now was learned through years of trial and error. Don’t expect yourself to know everything in the beginning, just try to get things done and you will learn along the way.
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