Eat this, tech purists: Aunty Binnaz reads fortunes from coffee cups, makes a killing
May 15, 2012 by Terence LEE
Technology startups are today’s entrepreneurial rockstars. Not a week goes by without an announcement of a new location-based app, niche social network, or online travel discovery service.
But like many hard-luck musicians, these startups burn bright at the beginning, relying on the quick fix of seed or venture funding, only to fade later on.
That’s because they are still searching for a business model, and until then, they can’t be legitimately called a sustainable business.
In the midst of this fever, Aunty Binnaz is an online service that stands out for modernizing an un-sexy industry — fortune-telling. Yes, I’m talking about psychic reading of the tarot-card, astrology sort.
Except in this case, Aunty Binnaz’s main product is coffee-cup reading, a popular form of fortune telling in Turkey.
Started in January 2011, the business is on track to generate an annual revenue of US$1M by doing “hundreds” of readings a day, says Turkish entrepreneur Sertac (pronounced sir-tarsh) Tasdelen, who’s also an Ernst & Young business consultant, fashion photographer, and part-time model.
Aunty Binnaz’s business model is straightforward. It is a Turkish and English website that enables users to upload pictures of their empty coffee cups to any of the 30 carefully selected and listed fortune-tellers.
Customers pay a US$6 fee per reading, which can be received either via text or voice recording. Aunty Binnaz (which is actually branded after Sertac’s mum) keeps a share of the revenue.
The company, registered in Singapore, recently added Tarot card and Astrology readers to their ranks, and has just launched an iPhone app in Turkish. 90 percent of customers are from his native country, and that market is their focus for now.
Like me, you may be skeptical about the fortune-telling business, or even the ethics of it.
But it makes a lot of business sense. Psychic reading is a money-spinning endeavor. A study suggests that one in seven Americans have consulted a psychic. In Asian countries like Japan and Taiwan, fortune-telling is huge too. That goes without saying: The Chinese are a superstitious lot.
“We grew organically. That’s the key in any startup.”
While the most rational among us might question the legitimacy of these oracles, Sertac claims he is a true believer.
“There are some people with the sixth sense,” he says, and his mum is one of them. He recounts an incident where she did a reading for his CTO Kaya and friends. Kaya is a non-believer.
Upon receiving the voice recording in America, he pressed the play button on his iPhone while he and his friends are having dinner together. His wife was serving soup.
Sertac’s mum says: “I can smell the soup, next time please put it for me also.” The recording was made beforehand.
While fortune-tellers tout their ability to predict the future, Sertac says they serve a more practical purpose too.
“In Turkey, coffee cup reading is a way of communicating problems.”
When customers share their problems with a fortune teller, they forge a bond. Clairvoyants themselves may have psychological or social problems which can be cured when they know about other people’s issues. Customers benefit too, as talking about a problem to a listening ear can be therapeutic.
“Fortune tellers have an effect for us. They don’t make things happen, but these people have a tendency to see something that you and I don’t,” he says, “we also believe in general you can really predict the future by changing yourself.”
Regardless of whether you believe in the practice or not, Aunty Binnaz’s growth is not the result of some hocus-pocus. Attribute it to sound business principles.
Sertac initially started the site as a way to keep his mum occupied. Costs were minimal, and the only marketing expense was a one-dollar daily Facebook ad. But the demand kept up, and they soon had to hire more and more psychics.
“We grew organically. That’s the key in any startup. A startup is not something you invest a lot of cash, bring all those people together, and say: Let’s go. You need a unique idea, good execution, and organic growth to a certain stage where a company can stand on its two feet without too much intervention.”
Quality control is paramount at Aunty Binnaz. They have a stringent selection process, based on a secret formula, like KFC’s secret herbs and spices. Also, psychic readers are cut if they don’t hit a benchmark of 90 percent. They are scored by customers.
Fortune-tellers are given a set of guidelines to adhere to. They cover the use of language, tone, and the introduction, body, and conclusion of their readings. While everything is customized for the customer, the product contains the essence of the company’s values.
They don’t shy away from saying negative things too, although they present it in the most acceptable way possible.
“We don’t say, ‘you’re going to die tomorrow, but something like, ‘please be careful’.”
Aunty Binnaz isn’t just about revenue, but also social impact. Many of the fortune-tellers are hired from outside the existing job market, who may not be working for personal or circumstantial reasons.
Sertac treats all his staff like family, sending personal letters addressing them as such and keeping up to date with their lives. He has a bonus scheme for fortune tellers that stay long-term. Overall, he claims that his staff can earn up to double a normal government-related job, and it comes with flexible hours and the ability to work from home too.
“Starting a business is a childhood dream of mine. I believe that sometimes, you don’t push things, they catch you if you have a open heart.”
As a result, he has been able to keep turnover rates low.
“We want to create a bigger impact in Turkey; not just earn 100 million dollars in revenue. The social impact is what makes me proud and go to bed satisfied.”
What’s interesting about the business is the diversity of fortune tellers on the site. They include an ex-banker who just quit corporate life, a social study expert, a psychologist, an artist, and even an engineer. Some do it full-time, others part-time as a hobby.
The people who seek their services are diverse too, ranging from high-level corporate executives to housewives. A loyal customer even gets multiple readings a day from different fortune tellers, just so she could cross-check their prognosis.
While Turkey is its key market, Aunty Binnaz is keeping an eye on the world. The fact that Sertac operates from Singapore reflects the company’s outlook, although good infrastructure and transparent business and taxation rules factor in as well.
The Asian market is particularly enticing, since forms of fortune-telling like palmistry, astrology, and Feng Shui have continued to flourish. The company could potentially create localized sites with local ‘aunties’ for each market, and is open to engaging strategic partners, investors, and even franchisees to take the business further.
But in the near-term, he plans to expand the pie in Turkey first. He’s also quitting his job as a business consultant to work on his startup full-time.
“Starting a business is a childhood dream of mine. I believe that sometimes, you don’t push things, they catch you if you have a open heart. This project found me,” he says.
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About The Author
Terence LEE - Editor
Terence writes mainly about technology trends and startups in Asia. He believes in crafting smart content: Not just a regurgitation of text, but well thought-out pieces that serve the reader using a combination of data, design, narratives, analysis, and visual impact. His articles have been published on Venturebeat, Yahoo!, Straits Times, Today, and The Online Citizen. He also co-founded NewNation.sg, a satirical news site covering Singapore affairs. Engage him on LinkedIn and Twitter.Read other posts by Terence LEE