Looking back – Part I: Trust & Pioneering

Seven years ago, I boarded a plane at JFK bound for Istanbul. In 2010, in the wake of the global financial crisis, moving to Turkey didn’t seem like the wisest decision. Emerging markets, most pundits predicted, would shrink.

Imagine, then, trying to start a venture capital fund. I left many people wincing. “Numan will be back,” a few friends in New York said.

Seven years on, we’re going strong. A few weeks ago, I paused to trace that journey. I re-read some of the things that I’ve shared on this blog. Here are a few points that leapt out at me; points that made all the difference on that journey.

Trust takes on a different dimension in Turkey and the surrounding region. In Silicon Valley, it is straightforward, anchored in “fail fast” and openness. Indeed, entrepreneurship exists only in places where there is the ability to risk, to fail, and to share openly.

In Turkey and the MENA region, trust doesn’t come so easily. Here, history, legacy, and weak institutions make it harder to develop wide spread trust. Instead, trust becomes contained in groups – tribes and clan networks – networks in which individuals determine legitimacy.

Take the Turkish phrase: “Hemşerim” – “he or she’s from my city/town.” In Turkey, groups gravitate towards those from their own hometowns, because establishing credibility is easier. Just ask around about an individual and you can find out a lot. That’s what happens when you have weak rule of law. People have to rely on another system to establish trust.

That’s one lesson the tech pioneers in Bangalore, India mastered. Understanding that trust mattered just as much as good engineering and technology, leaders like Wipro chairman Azim Premji and Infosys founders Nandan Nilekani and N.R. Murthy. They built their respective companies on a culture of transparency and accountability. It was the first step toward building India’s tech ecosystem.

In Turkey, VCs are doing the same. While it is, without question, difficult to operate in this region, we are doing so with trust.

 

Zero to 100: Paving an ecosystem Silicon Valley may have pioneered the current startup craze. Let’s not forget however, that it took 50 years to do so. Fairchild Semiconductor launched in 1957. Intel was founded in 1968. The term “Silicon Valley” didn’t come into being until the last 1970s. Venture capital didn’t hit its stride until the 1990s. Accelerators didn’t gain traction until after 2000s.

Considering this, Turkey’s startup ecosystem has evolved fast. The first “tech” companies may have been e-commerce “copy cats” but they paved the way for more sophisticated startups that are disrupting the global landscape. They also paved the way for investors, customers, accelerators, and incubators. Pioneers such as Melih Ödemiş, Nevzat Aydın, Fatih and Fırat Işbecer, Sina Afra, and Bülent Çelebi, all made it possible and, eventually, necessary, to establish 212, e-tohum, and more.

More importantly, the first Turkish startups made it possible for today’s entrepreneurs to get to the core of entrepreneurship: solving problems.

Turkey and MENA have gone from having only one VC to more than several dozen. Ditto on the ecosystem. It has changed dramatically – at every level. This Startups.Watch‘s graphic points to the changes in Turkey from 2010 till 2016.

All of this has also prompted the governments to take important reforms. Officials in Ankara have taken a page out of the U.S. “Employee Retirement Income Security Act” passed in 1979, which extended requisite pension funds to invest in private equity and venture capital funds.

Next week, I’ll fill you in on the other lessons I’ve gleaned in my look back.

to be continued…