Early Adopt Or Die: A Q&A with Melih Oztalay

Melih Oztalay has two words for Metro Detroit: early adoption. In the eyes of this downtown Birmingham-based entrepreneur, it's a key phrase that will go a long way towards reinventing the region's economy for the 21st Century

Oztalay started SmartFinds Internet Marketing in the early 1990s as an Internet service provider, getting in on the ground floor of the economic juggernaut that changed the world. His 13-person company specializes in everything from search engine optimization to mobile application advertising. He's kept his firm at the forefront of technology trends, sometimes dragging Metro Detroit's conservative business culture with him.

In the early years of his company, Oztalay couldn't help but fantasize that he'd be retired on a South Pacific island if only he had set up his business in California instead of Michigan. Why? Because the dynamic entrepreneurial culture on the coasts doesn't just make early adoption a priority, it makes it a necessity. Oztalay believes Michigan needs to be bolder, become a trendsetter instead of just waiting on the sidelines to see if something takes off.

"We're just not open to innovation that is outside of our manufacturing space," Oztalay says. He adds that introversion has broader implications than just job creation and profit margin expansion. "It's difficult to change that culture," Oztalay adds. "That goes to the fact that we're not able to retain our next generation here in Michigan. They don't see a future here. They only see what we had."

You have been working in the Internet sector since the early 1990s, convincing businesses they needed an Internet connection, then a website, and then Google AdWords and now social media. How do you convince people to invest in an industry that changes so rapidly, especially in Michigan?

The Internet is definitely an ever-changing environment. Early adoption of technologies is a key factor to fully capturing the marketing potential for a business through the Internet. The book Crossing The Chasm comes to mind, which discusses innovators, early adopters and late adopters. Businesses need to fall into the category of early adoption, particularly in Michigan.

Most Michigan businesses lag in using new marketing technologies compared to businesses in other states around the U.S. It is necessary to have a change in the thinking patterns of Michigan businesses. Plan for an ongoing budget for your website(s) and Internet marketing because the information age is not going away. Plan on accepting new technologies in this process because they are inevitable. For example, when a Michigan business is approaching us in 2010 about search engine optimization (SEO), I cannot help but wonder what they have been doing until now. Most are not entirely sure what they are asking about, since SEO is now different from what they think. It almost raises the question if we should leap frog them to the more current marketing options like geo-marketing, especially if their business is dependent upon their local geography for their revenue.

Smart phones and apps have replaced laptops as the must-have consumer technology. How does moving from website-based marketing to this new platform impact your business and what does it mean for Internet entrepreneurs like yourself?

Mobile marketing has opened a new segment of our business in 2010 for geo-marketing, which encompasses local SEO, geo-listings, mobile marketing, and geo-social marketing.

Geo-Marketing is about reaching the local consumer through web searches and mobile searches. Industry developments certainly show that the next major wave of activity on the Internet will be geo-marketing over the next three-plus years. Geo-marketing is also about managing your geo-listings not just for your marketing materials, but also for consumer comments about your business, products or services. These consumer reviews will have an impact on your business website ranking position in the future, especially if they are negative.

The critical element is to engage now, be an early adopter, and manage this process so that it does not become an urgency that will be difficult to manage in the future.

Another side of your business is Auto Safety Magnets, which sells magnetic bumper stickers that alert motorists that the car may be driven by a student or slow driver. How does someone who makes his living pushing Internet technologies end up running a bumper sticker business? Does it represent a significant percentage of your revenues?

I started it after my oldest son received his driving permit almost six years ago. It became a side community project to help other families that have permit drivers. It was not designed to be a significant profit center, but rather to help families have a clearly identifiable sign on the car so the rest of traffic understands who is behind the wheel.

You have been an entrepreneur for a few decades now. Many local leaders are working to fast track the development of southeast Michigan's entrepreneurial ecosystem. They've started or implemented a number of initiatives to make more seed capital available to start-ups by sweetening angel investment incentives, pumping up venture capital, and starting microloan funds. What's your take on these programs?

If you had asked me this question prior to the global financial meltdown, I would have had a different response to you than I have today. Considering today's economic strain, it opens up the opportunity for private investments to engage in new opportunities. This will be not only for new start-ups, but also for existing businesses that need capital that they cannot secure from financial institutions. Essentially, I see these programs being the primary support mechanism for businesses and entrepreneurs in our current economic situation.

What would you like to see more of or less of when it comes to helping fledgling small businesses?

From the early days of having started my business, the one nagging problem was always the Michigan Small Business Tax. While I am not an accountant, in concept I believe that having a tax that is based upon gross revenue is ludicrous. If this tax was based on net profits that would seem to make sense as that can be translated into cash available to pay the tax. Tax on gross revenue does not translate into available cash to pay the taxes. This is not something that can be eliminated, but would be one item that needs serious revision here in Michigan.

What's one thing an entrepreneur should always have on their person to help them grow their business?

Mobile devices that provide multi-tasking ability are certainly a necessity. The basic cell phones are no longer able to keep up with the needs of an entrepreneur, particularly as you are on the road in meetings. Mobile devices (everything from smart phones like Google's Android to tablet computers like the iPad) are now mini-computers. Over the past five years I have moved from a desktop computer, to a laptop computer, to a mobile device. I no longer use a desktop computer and I'm in transition between a laptop computer and a mobile device for my day-to-day business tool.

I would imagine that more than one person has struggled to get a handle on your name. Any good stories about that?

My name, Melih Oztalay, is of Turkish decent and there is a good story behind both my first and last name. My first name Melih (May-Lee) is a very old name in the Middle East that means "the good one." If you ask my family and those close to me they will tell you that my character follows this definition of my name.

The family name Oztalay is one selected by my grandfather in the early 1900s. Surnames were not widely used in Turkey until that time and social modernizations helped bring surnames into the culture. While my family background is in Turkey, I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and grew up in Germany under the U.S. Department of Defense infrastructure overseas during the Cold War.

Jon Zemke conducted and condensed this Q&A over the phone and email with Melih Oztalay, and it convinced Zemke that buying an early generation tablet computer instead of a new laptop is a legitimate option. Zemke is also the News Editor for Metromode and Concentrate. His previous article was The Young & Entrepreneurial: Jake Sigal.

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All Photos by Dave Lewinski
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