A major life change is always a gamble.
But for Caleb Ulku, it has definitely payed off.
After switching cities and careers, he now works from his Gulfport home and his company, Ulku Logistics, has taken off nationally and internationally.
It was even listed this month in a Huffington Post article “11 Companies That Are Going to Revolutionize 2018.”
“In June, we hit a monthly revenue figure that will put us on track to do $500,000 in annualized revenue,” he said. “Our first paying client was in October 2016, so we’re very excited about this growth rate.”
His one regret is that he held onto the idea of being a business consulting and didn’t switch directions sooner.
Ulku, 35, and his wife, Leena Pande, a radiologist at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, were tired of the long commute in Houston. They moved in 2015 to be closer to her family and so their lives wouldn’t revolve so much around work, he said.
His wife grew up in Biloxi and they wanted to return to raise their son and their daughter — who was born at Memorial just weeks after they moved.
His career plan didn’t go as smoothly as the move. Ulku (pronounced Ul-koo) has the education — an MBA in Strategic and Operations Management from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — and the experience — 10 years working at ExxonMobil.
“Like most ExxonMobil employees, being an entrepreneur wasn’t something I thought of doing initially,” he said. But he started Ulku Logistics and set out leveraging what he learned at the major corporation to help small businesses owners in South Mississippi realize opportunities for improvement.
“That didn’t pan out very well,” he said.
He would attend chamber of commerce and Rotary events, he said, and people would ask if he did Facebook marketing and SEO, or search engine optimization, which is what companies use to get their website listed higher when people search the internet for a business or term.
“Yes, I do that also,” he said about SEO, which he studied to position his own company at the top of internet searches. But he told them he didn’t do Facebook marketing.
“I don’t do that anymore,” he said. “It’s not hard to learn, just takes time and consistency, which is something most small biz owners don’t have.”
The tipping point came when he started to land paying clients, he said. In his consulting business he had meetings, discussions and proposals, but no paid clients yet.
Within a month or two of landing his first client for SEO, he signed up a second and said that was the push he needed to change his website, his online business profile and his career goal.
“It was a hard decision,” he said. He worried about how he would be perceived when he told everyone he had changed his plans.
“My wife has always been very supportive,” he said.
Most of his family wasn’t aware how much he was struggling with his original plans. By the time he told them, he said, it was already a successful SEO company.
How it works
Ulku said his personality is to get obsessed with things that interest him. Experiencing the total solar eclipse was so amazing, he said, he’s already looking to witness the 2019 and 2024 eclipse.
He’s poured that intensity into learning about SEO. It ended up being very technical, he said, like solving a puzzle, “but a highly competitive puzzle.”
Only 10 websites are listed on the first page search engines like Google, he said, while there could be 100s of websites that want to be on that landing page
“None of it is secret,” he said. He and his partners, Elliot Berard and Destynnie Hall, have a process, a system and specific order to getting websites to the top. Just when they think they have what will be the “secret sauce,” he said, it’s not long before one of their competitors will post that same idea on their blogs.
Their solution has to be changed frequently, because he said Google is always changing its algorithm.
“YouTube is the second most popular search engine in the world,” he said, which Google owns. Bing is third and Bing’s search engine operates differently than Google.
One of his two business partners does split testing of websites just to see what’s working and what isn’t.
“A lot of business owners don’t have time and energy to keep up with that while they have a business to run,” he said.
The company now has eight employees plus many freelancers who work for them and a combination of local, national and international clients. Most of the companies have annual revenue of more than $10 million and are located in New York City, India, Switzerland and other locales, he said.
He and his two business partners met in a group learning about search engine optimization.
“We realized we actually work well together,” said Ulku, the majority partner. The two partners stayed in Gulfport for a couple months to help set up the business before going back home to Rhode Island.
They don’t understand part of their job, since one of their customers is a company in Switzerland with a German language website.
“None of us speak German,” Ulku said. “The client has people working for him that do speak English, so we communicate that way.”
The client’s staff also writes the German content that is needed on the website, he said.
Most of their customers contact him when they find his website or LinkedIn profile, Ulku said. They start the conversation about the basics of SEO, how it works and how Ulku Logistics is different from its competitors.
“We have a lot of competitors and a lot of them are less expensive than we are,” he said. The difference is Ulku Logistics does its own research and testing, he said, and strives for much deeper technical knowledge to put their customers at the top.
“We do quality and speed,” he said.
They have a few local clients, and Ulku said he meets with them in person.
“Most of it is not done in person,” he said but by email and phone calls.
SEO is a fast-changing technology, and he said clients can put up a lot of challenges that need creative solutions.
As an employee, “All I really had to worry about was doing a good job,” he said. As an entrepreneur, he said, the key to success is finding people willing to pay you to do a good job.
It isn’t always easy, he said. He and his partner were in conversations with one of their largest clients, who wanted very high-quality content for the company website and kept rejecting what Ulku Logistics provided.
“At the end of it our ability to produce very high quality is much higher now because we went through it,” he said.
His advice to others considering a career change is to try something for awhile and if it’s just not working, it’s time to reevaluate.
“It's not switching so fast don't give the primary idea a chance,” he said, but neither is it trying something for four years and getting no results.
“Timing is everything,” he said.
About this series
Changing Course takes a look at people on the Mississippi Coast who have successfully transformed their careers by taking a leap in a new direction.