Dorry Kordahi: Common sense is uncommon
Joining BRW’s Young Rich list at 36, with a company that turns over $10 million a year, and a book published with another coming along – Dorry Kordahi sounds like your usual business tycoon who grew up with a silver spoon and was schooled at some fancy Ivy League college. But, for an Aussie bloke who built his company from scratch, and having only read one book in his life, Kordahi tells Belle Charlene Kwan that, to succeed, you don’t need education and you don’t need money – you just need common sense.
Quick riddle – who lives in a harbour-side house with one of the largest private docks in Sydney, spends $15,000 on a shopping trip in the US and lists collecting luxury Swiss watches as one of his hobbies?
No, it’s not Russell Crowe, nor is it some haughty offspring of a local media mogul. The man in question, in fact, was working out of his parents’ backyard just 10 years ago.
Meet Dorry Kordahi – high school failure, former hairdresser, basketballer wannabe. And one of Australia’s richest men under 40. His tale from rags to riches sounds almost like a Hollywood tale, almost clichéd. But, sure enough, the man who enters the lobby of the Westin in Melbourne with an eye-catching Louis Vuitton messenger bag and a huge grin is the same man who, at 26, decided to set up his first business in a shed.
A self-confessed high school ‘failure’ from Croydon in New South Wales, Kordahi spent the early years of his adult life as an unfulfilled apprentice hairdresser. “My dad was doing it and it was just a natural progression that I followed in his footsteps. Besides, back then I didn’t really have a direction other than playing basketball.
“I was actually pretty good at hairdressing – I learned all the techniques and received all my certificates, but I just didn’t like it. I always felt there were bigger things for me and I wanted to succeed at something.”
At 21, Kordahi was offered a sales job in his cousin’s t-shirt wholesaling business and, from the first day, he knew that it was his calling. For five years, Kordahi worked under his older brother and two cousins but, being the youngest, he felt that he was not performing at his full capacity. “I was always left behind and never quite had the support from them. They ran the ship and did things their way, and at times I did not quite agree with them,” he explains. At 26, Kordahi walked away. “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life – taking that first step, leaving the family business, starting out on my own.”
Without a high school certificate, without a university education and without any academic training in business, Kordahi felt that his lack of qualification was one of the biggest hurdles he had to overcome. “With no experience other than my own self-belief, I was going to go out there to prove people wrong and show them how to run a business. I was putting my balls on the line!”
Kordahi’s gamble certainly paid off, because today, he, along with his elder brother Danny Kordahi, are owners and CEOs of DKM Blue, a BRW Fast Starter listed company, specialising in promotional merchandise, corporate marketing and uniforms. With clients like Mercedes-Benz. Microsoft Xbox, Aldi and Merrill Lynch under its belt, DKM Blue has offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Shanghai and a growing presence in Europe,
Before this interview, Kordahi highlights that he isn’t one to speak in marketing jargon or spout business theories. Instead, he aims to inspire with his own journey to riches. Kordahi attributes his key to success to two things: Richard Branson and calculated risks.
BK: Let’s start from the beginning – you must have had some sort of money to start a business; otherwise, how could you afford even the products you were trying to sell?
DK: Honestly, I didn’t have much money at all. I was fresh off a six-month European trip. All I had was a computer, a table and free rent in my parents’ garage shed. Thankfully, my business was based around product selling, so in the marketing world, we provide products and, therefore, we are second tier. So, any time I would buy a product, it would have been pre-sold to a client, so realistically, everything that I was doing did not require cash from my pockets.
BK: So, you didn’t need much start-up capital, but not all businesses can run on pre-selling either. What then?
DK: I speak to a lot of entrepreneurs that want to go out there and start their own company and are insisting that they need a half-a-million-dollar capital injection. Why? Because they need 15 staff, need this and that. They need to realise that you don’t land on a mountain, you climb a mountain and you’ve got to really take the small steps first. By being unrealistic, you’re exposing yourself to a lot of risk.
It’s all about minimising risk and increasing profitability, and that’s something that I looked at from the start. I always measure a business not on what you turn over, but on what you make. It’s irrelevant what you turn over, it’s what your profitability is, and that’s what makes a successful business. A lot of people tend to neglect that.
BK: Someone must have taught you these business ways. People spend years at university studying this.
DK: It’s just common sense to me, and my belief in business. Working with my cousins prior to opening my company, I felt that a lot of things they were doing were wrong in my opinion. In their eyes, it was right; in my eyes, I thought it was wrong.
People kept telling me that starting up a business was hard and complex and that I would need to know about strategies and planning and doing up fancy graphs, and yet it all seemed so easy and so straightforward to me. It baffled me how simple it all seemed to me, so I doubted my methodologies and myself, and then I had an epiphany.
BK: You stumbled upon a pot of gold?
DK: No, but close. I kept complaining to my girlfriend back then that I could do better, I could make a lot of money, but I didn’t actually do anything. So one day, she told me, “I want you to read this book for me” and it was Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity. Now, I never read books, and that was probably one of the only books I’ve read other than my own.
BK: And you were enlightened?
DK: I thought, this guy can build a billion-dollar empire by drawing his business plan on pieces of scribble, and the way he thought about business and the way he applied himself and his thoughts is the way that I think – I’m sure I can build a million-dollar empire too! So I started doing it, applying my beliefs and strategies into my business and realised that I had been right all along, that it really was that easy.
BK: Do you remember your first client?
DK: The first client would have been Suntory, which is an alcohol company that carries brands like Midori, Jagermeister and Frangelico. Having been in the industry for five years prior, I had built relationships with a few friends who were marketing managers. I told them to give me an opportunity, but to buy off me not because I’m a friend, but because I can deliver a service and product that was second to none. So my first order was for something very small, like 200 key rings. But I treated that 200-key ring order like it was a million-dollar order. Because to me, if I got this right, this would open up doors for other things.
Even though my office was my parents’ garden shed, my website was cutting edge and I had nice looking business cards. I didn’t undersell my services, because I had no overheads. I maintained industry standard margins because I knew if I wanted to grow my business, I needed to maintain those margins and growth. And there was no point underselling my services when I knew that I could still maintain the price. One of the key attributes of my success was looking to China as a business alliance when I first started, and starting up an office there.
BK: So you started doing what Alibaba is doing right now years ago by getting in contact with Chinese suppliers?
DK: No, I find that using Alibaba is like playing Russian roulette. I’ve had clients who think that they can go to China directly through Alibaba and find a cheap price. However, you have to pay upfront for the goods without even having seen the product, so you have no idea what you are getting in return. Should the products arrive damaged or produced with mistakes, you are still stuck with the goods. It’s too risky.
I cut out the middle man and set up an office there nine years ago. Back then, China was still relatively new compared to exports coming out of Hong Kong and this gave me the buying power and the capacity to import directly. I have high quality control standards in my office; we have the experience and knowledge in shipping, in logistics and to ensure everything runs smoothly.
BK: You put strong emphasis on maintaining a good website and having professional-looking business cards while still working out of your parents’ backyard. So I imagine that maintaining an image is important to you?
DK: Without a doubt! Branding is probably one of the most important aspects of my business from day one. I don’t have a university degree, but each time I go out to meet people, I’m selling myself. I need to dress smartly, talk well, present myself professionally and this is the same as selling my business. It has to look right and feel like it’s serious. People need to be attracted to you to want to buy your product.
BK: So, do you go into every new business meeting as if it was a first date?
DK: Yes, it’s selling myself and my business. At the end of the day, people are going to agree to buy from you as a person, because you represent your business. It doesn’t matter if you’re the cheapest, if the client hates you, they’re not going to spend any money with you. On the other hand, if the client likes you, even if you’re a little dearer, they still want to do business with you. People tend to neglect that. No matter what industry a business is in, we are all in a service-driven business environment and service is most important quality in a business.
I think that it’s important that all staff are treated equal, from the CEO to the receptionist. I think it’s so ironic that often, the least paid employees are the most crucial because they are the ones your customers come in contact with. I tell all my staff that, just because they are a receptionist, it does not mean they are a shit-kicker. In fact, they are the face of our business. It’s all part of branding and making sure that our client gets a good experience from top to bottom.
BK: Is this the reason why, despite being a joint CEO, you’re still so involved in the business? Why not sit back and let other people do the job?
DK: When I left the family business, my older brother and I fought a lot about who knows better and who is running a business the right way. He told me it was not easy, and I wanted to show him, and my cousins, that I knew how to do it. Six months later, my brother realised that I was doing well, and so he left and started his own company called DK Blue. He went into corporate uniforms and the online, while I went into direct importing, marketing and creativity. Six years ago, we came back together, a lot older and more mature and understanding that we have different strengths and that we could work well together.
I believe that it’s important to always be hands-on. Look at Rupert Murdoch – at 80 he’s still hands-on with his companies. You can never let go of your business. There are times when you want to work on the business, not in the business, but it’s important to go deep into the business and really pick where all the faults are happening, get it back on track and then step back out.
BK: Is this something you picked up from Richard Branson’s book, or is this something you learned along the way from working?
In all honesty, I come up with my own strategies and my own beliefs. I’m not your typical marketer and believe that if you want to be a leader, you have to lead by example and not follow trends.
I do like looking at ads and studying how people market their products and maybe pick up ideas. I launched an industry magazine called Branded eight years ago and distribute over 30,000 copies each issue. I wanted to position myself as one of the market leaders in the industry, and I thought publishing a magazine would be the perfect way to put us at the forefront of our industry. Other than that, I don’t really go out there and read business books. I have not read a single marketing book to date and, aside from reading the papers and keeping up with stocks and world news, I don’t have much of an interest in burying myself in a book.
BK: For someone who doesn’t read books, it seems almost ironic that you’ve released your own book.
Many people today pay good money to see public keynote speakers teach them how to succeed or how to perform as a better marketer, but I believe that if the individual doesn’t have the power within to want to change and progress, then it’s a waste of time and money. A lot of people attend conferences looking for answers, but what they will get there is going to be the same common sense answers that they’re going to get from me or from anyone else down the road. The important thing is not to go back to old habits, but to learn and be willing to implement some type of change.
Another thing that bugs me is a conference speaker who has not achieved anything and yet tries to sell himself as a guru. I am a firm believer that actions speak louder than words and I am glad that university lecturers are now coming from backgrounds where they have actually worked and had experience in the industry. To impart knowledge to others, I believe one needs to speak from experience, because life experience is very different from a textbook.
BK: Have your ideals changed much from 10 years ago when you first started pursuing your own business?
DK: I was 26 when I started and, even though I have changed and developed a lot, I have always stuck to my beliefs in saving overheads, keeping it tight and being creative in business. When I was younger, I always tried to chase the dollar, but never got it. So I shifted my headspace and concentrated on thinking about the business instead and found that money was coming through!
The second, and more difficult, stage was learning how to control myself and how to manage my business. Many people lose the plot once money comes in and they start spending big and making radical business decisions and personal decisions and, before you know it, they’re back at square one.
BK: So is it safe to say that you’re a conservative businessman?
DK: I’m a calculated businessperson. At the start, I was very conservative, because I was scared of failing, so I wanted to save every cent I made. And I’m still conservative now, and make calculated business decisions. I don’t take punts, because taking punts is like gambling. I know businesspeople who have taken massive punts and have succeeded with a massive reward, but it’s too risky. In business, I believe in taking risks that are calculated, where I am not going to lose everything on it. For example, my magazine venture was highly calculated – it generates around $100,000 in revenue per issue and costs us nothing.
BK: Your business deals heavily in direct marketing – in the world of online shopping and social media, do you think that direct marketing is still effective and relevant?
DK: If you look at the way consumers bought in the past, and even until now, people want to touch and feel. The important thing here is knowing how to be different and getting attention. It’s crucial to have a purpose, and to have a strong follow-through. If there’s no follow-through other than to say ‘this is who we are, this is what we do’, then it’s going to be tossed in the bin. To me, it’s always effective to lend a bit of curiosity, a bit of fun, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be a bit left field and creative.
BK: Do you find it hard to push this logic to your clients and convince them to spend a little more to be creative?
DK: People do buy it. Every marketing person has a budget and it’s not a matter of getting the most money out of them but, instead, convincing them that I’m honest and there for their best interests. I show them ways of how to improve their position in the marketplace by getting out a great product.
Also, another key thing I always push is to question them on: why do marketers out there spend millions of dollars on advertising on billboards and national campaigns and yet, within a month, that billboard will be wiped out with another campaign and will be forgotten? When the brand’s got a product that’s going to be in the marketplace for at least two to three years, why would they cut corners and put out a cheaper product when they’re branding it? Why would a brand want to cheapen their image with a cheap product, when it’s going to last a lot longer than any media campaign out there?
BK: Working with both local and multinational companies, have you noticed a difference in their business strategies?
DK: Australian companies are very aggressive in their marketing and the way they look at doing business. While the Americans are still very cutthroat and are certainly market leaders, I don’t think Australia is far behind. We are a country of entrepreneurs and a country of people who want to be bosses and business owners.
A lot of foreign companies love dealing with Australians. In the UK, we are deemed to be hard workers and professional in how we do things. And in America, we’re deemed as laidback, easy-going people with a great personality and great culture. We are definitely a country that gets perceived well overseas and it certainly works in our favour.
Dorry Kordahi’s Power to Act is now available at all major bookstores, and he is currently working on his second book, Wealth Diaries, profiling 12 of Australia’s top entrepreneurs.