By Herb Fineburg
Steve Voudouris the the founding shareholder and president of Turn5, Inc. Turn5 operates two retail sites, AmericanMuscle.com and ExtremeTerrain.com, that specialize in the sale of aftermarket auto parts. Steve founded the company’s forebear, Xoxide, in 2001 with his brother Andrew; eight years later, after spinning the operation into multiple successful e-commerce sites, they sold the Xoxide to focus on Turn5. The company has won numerous industry recognitions, such as Entrepreneur Magazine‘s “Hot 500 Award,” Inc. Magazine‘s “Top 100 Retail Companies,” and Bizrate.com’s Platinum Award for Customer Service Excellence.” In 2009, Steve and Andrew also received the Small Business Administration’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Steve spoke with Offit Kurman managing partner Herb Fineburg for this interview.
HERB FINEBURG: What initially motivated you to start Turn5?
STEVE VOUDOURIS: The business was started by myself, a friend of mine, and my brother when we were in high school. I drove back then a 2001 V6 Mustang. It wasn’t the fastest car by any means, but it was what I could afford at the time. I was out trying to buy parts for it and realized that there just wasn’t much online. There weren’t places to shop. You had to buy out of catalogs like JC Whitney, and they put out a nice catalog but it just wasn’t a great experience. It took four to six weeks to get parts, and particularly for Mustangs it was a difficult shopping experience. We set out to improve upon it.
Q. Can you give us a brief overview of how the business operates?
A. Turn5 is made up of two separate retail sites. We run AmericanMuscle.com, which is all Ford Performance parts: cold air intakes, exhaust kits, superchargers—anything to make your car go faster if you’re hitting a drag strip on the weekends. We also run ExtremeTerrain.com. Extreme Terrain sells cheap Wrangler aftermarket parts: lift kits—if you want to lift your Jeep 6 inches in the air—we sell wheels and tires—anything to get ready to get out on the trail and offroad your Jeep.
Q. Did opportunity come easily when you first started?
A. Yeah, we saw a lot of opportunity. Like I said, the shopping experience for automotive parts was largely catalogs, and a lot of time you’re looking at, you know, a tiny black and white picture of the part. We set out to leverage technology and just make it a much better experience.
Q. You were very young when the company began. What gave you the confidence you needed back then?
A. I think in a lot of ways we were a bit naïve, we just thought we could do it better. I don’t know that at that time we thought, in our heads, that we were improving the shopping experience; we just knew it was difficult for us to do this, and we thought we could do it better and make it better for other people. I don’t think we were sophisticated enough to know we were improving the shopping experience, but we knew we were making the experience better.
Q. Who was on the founding team?
A. So, there was me, my brother, and like I said, a partner. We were all techie guys, so starting a website wasn’t a huge deal for us. We knew what to do and we got into paid search and search engine marketing early on, which was a big help for us. It’s where a lot of our marketing dollars were spent. We put the team together and went to work.
Q. Do you consider the early days a learning experience, or the start of the story?
A. It’s more of a story of lack of funding. [Laughs] There were times early on where we couldn’t buy inventory quick enough. We were operating the business out of my parents’ basement and we couldn’t buy inventory quick enough to satisfy demand. So, what we did is we walked into banks and we walked in with sales charts, and said, “Hey, we have all this demand. People want to buy stuff, but we don’t have money.” And they laughed us out of the bank. We didn’t really determine that we wanted to bootstrap the business—we had to bootstrap the business. But in the long run, I think it was better because I think it did create a discipline for us. We could only grow based on what our profits allowed us to grow, and that made us be more strategic about every dollar that we spent, and I think it created a discipline that is still with us today. We have banking relationships now. Banks are actually very excited to work with us. But we still have that discipline from when we didn’t have any access to capital.
Q. What’s your take on the local entrepreneurial scene?
A. There’s a lot to learn from some of the bigger guys, even smaller guys too. I’ve done a fair amount of networking in the Philly area, and there’s a surprising number of entrepreneurs and people that have had a lot of success here. It’s great to be able to have a network of people you can count on to get ideas and grow the business.
Q. When would you say you became an entrepreneur?
A. We started the business in high school, and I didn’t have a very traditional high school experience. It was a bit wild at certain times. I remember I went to Marple Newtown High School, and we actually had a work release program at high school. The program was intended for students that might have already known what profession they wanted to get into, and it enabled them to leave school about halfway through the day and go and work and actually get school credits for working. There were a bunch of requirements that the employer needed to fill in order for students to be part of the work experience program. They needed to fill out quarterly reports about the performance, how the student was doing in their job, weekly attendance reports to make sure they weren’t just leaving school and going home—that they were actually going to work. I remember I realized after reading through all the documentation that it didn’t say anywhere in the documentation that the student couldn’t also be the employer, so I saw this as sort of a loophole and filled out my application: you know, “I want to work for Turn 5, I’m Steve Voudouris,” and turned it into the guidance counselor who did not find this amusing at all, but didn’t have any real ground to stand on and say that it couldn’t be done. For my senior year in high school, I actually left every day halfway through the day and was starting the business. I would fill out my own performance evaluations, I would fill out my own attendance reports, but like I said it was definitely not a very traditional high school experience and I think that’s something. When I do meet with entrepreneurs, that thinking outside the box, going against the grain, is something that I think is very important to have in starting a business and something that I see consistent amongst a lot of entrepreneurs.
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