It’s a big week for the Turkish startup scene.
Insider, the world’s first integrated growth management platform, closed a $32 million Series C funding round from a number of global investors — Riverwood Capital, Sequoia Capital, Endeavor Catalyst, and Wamda Capital.
That may be the headline. But for us at 212, it is another highlight in an ongoing tale about a promising technology platform that is transforming retail and marketing, a talented team that is redefining culture and focus, and a startup hub that, despite repeated hiccups, is maturing and solidifying into a serious technology hub.
Yes, that’s big. And big has always been the vision.
You’ve heard me talk about 212’s on the back of a napkin origin story. Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehash it here. What I do want to touch on is what our vision for 212 and, therein, Turkish startups and the Turkish tech scene had been. It was smart growth. That may sound cliché now. In 2011, it was laughable. And indeed, many laughed when they heard that Numan and I were starting a VC fund in Istanbul. Investments were about big bets and big returns. That may have worked in a place like Silicon Valley. In Turkey, which didn’t have a venture capital track record, we focused on building that record. Our initial foray into investments in Istanbul were made carefully and methodically. There was no “moving fast and breaking things.” If you broke something in those early days, there was no way to put it back together again. (The humpty-dumpty model.)
With that in mind, we didn’t think Insider, which at the time was called Sociaplus, was a good match for us.
Hande Cilingir, then 28, pitched her idea for a marketing tech platform to Galata Business Angels in July 2012. Numan and I, who had just started 212, listened to her presentation with interest, but passed on making an investment that day. Why? She was leading a small team that was going after a huge market. Our philosophy was — and still is — test locally with a goal of going global. Sociaplus was focused on generating growth on various social media platforms. We thought that a business dependent upon Silicon Valley giants would be limited in scope; it couldn’t scale beyond Facebook or Twitter.
Sociaplus recognized this limitation. It pivoted from this approach and undertook other changes, including in its name. It eventually became Insider. We stayed in touch with Hande and the Insider team, watching them expand beyond Turkey into Europe — and succeed. By the time they came back to us in 2016, Numan and I were convinced that this was not only a good bet, but the bet.
Insider had expanded its small team and proven its model abroad. It had checked off the boxes that Numan and I had set out four years earlier in launching 212. It also exemplified our investment philosophy: smart growth. We wanted 212 to be a VC that invested smart, into startups that showed promise, had top-tier teams and talent, and were primed to go abroad. For us, returns would only matter when Turkish-based startups could succeed on a global scale. 212 would be the bridge rather than the sparkplug for startups in the region. There were plenty of investors ready to kickstart a promising entrepreneur’s dream and generate returns. Few focused on ensuring his or her global success and scalability.
When 212 invested in Insider in 2016, we didn’t do so immediately. While we were impressed with what Hande and her team had built, we still had concerns about the market and potential of its predictive analytics platform. For each of our concerns, Hande and her team carefully outlined solutions. There wasn’t any aspect of her company that Hande had not thought of. She demonstrated grit and determination.
Numan and I backed Insider in June 2016. A month later, Turkey’s government faced a failed coup attempt. It paralyzed the country. Headlines decried the end of Turkey’s double-digit growth that had taken place in the early aughts. Startup watchers rang the death knell on the country’s nascent tech scene. We ignored all of it. Turkey has never been an easy place to do anything, whether it is launching a business, let alone a venture capital firm. If we were going to prove the notion that nothing stops entrepreneurs, then we forged ahead.
Indeed, a year later, things looked more promising. Life went back to normal in Turkey and I got married. (Maybe love is the answer….) Insider met all its growth targets and looked to stay on track on all its key metrics. The team was working tirelessly on expansion into South East Asia. It had been in talks with a number of investors, including Sequoia Capital. This is what compelled me to make a pit stop into Sequoia’s office in Singapore, as I made my way to my honeymoon. My goal was to lobby for Insider, as an existing investor, and to take note of 212 and Turkish venture capital. It worked. Impressed with how Insider moved into South East Asia, Sequoia backed the company in 2018. It was the first startup they backed in Turkey.
Fast forward to 2020. Insider has +550 team members from 41 different nationalities across 24 international offices. It has become a major leader in digital marketing growth and working on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Now is the time for it to expand further, into the United States.
The first half of 2020 brought in just $50 million into the Turkish tech startup ecosystem, further amplifying the significance of Insider’s $32 million investment round. We, at 212, are realizing our goal of bringing more capital to Turkey and the surrounding region. We are also proving that even in tough times, star entrepreneurs are not deterred. Despite the global slowdown as a result of Covid-19, Insider has been able to sustain momentum. It’s taken action to connect with clients, many of whom have been forced to halt operations, about continuing to connect with customers and work on ways to maintain growth.
Everyone loves the startup success story. What they don’t realize is that there is a lot of sweat that goes into making that happen. Entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart. What Insider has done may look easy. What most people don’t see are the sleepless nights, the multiple planning scenarios drawn up, the endless conference calls, and questions fielded by investors. We scrutinized Insider rigorously, always to be met with calm and detailed answers. For us, $32 million is just a milestone in a trajectory that we know will only go up. Yeah, I’ll get corny and say that we’re super proud — and spare you from any Dad jokes, (which I’ve gotten really good at.)