BLOG: Digital entrepreneurialism takes off in Turkey

BLOG: Digital entrepreneurialism takes off in Turkey

Selina Bieber
Entrepreneur. Quite a sexy, savvy word, one which evokes ideas of a high power businessman, American usually, talking a lot about his own area of expertise and success… Perhaps it is an image of Anthony Robins or Richard Quest I had stuck in my head. Cliché, but true.

My conceptualisation of this word changed quite significantly over the past few years. In place of suited white collar man, I began conjuring up images of hoodie clad university graduates and slightly shy fashion conscious females, the occasionally suited youngster stepping in front of a panel of investors ready to pitch his or her latest idea. Yes, I don’t think I understood the true meaning of the word entrepreneur until I moved to Turkey, nor their courage.

Recently, I came across a few articles in the local media highlighting that the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) had opened up a new office in Turkey, making it a part of 131 chapters worldwide in 40 different countries. This alone, is a sign of the way in which entrepreneurialism has become a somewhat significant phenomenon in the country, so much so that the calls for further support and incentives to drive innovation and business ventures appear to have been answered. Heading the office, Ayşe Can Bayraktar, is reported to have emphasized that she believes entrepreneurialism should be a lesson taught at school and made a call for further support for.

Over the past decade, Turkey has enjoyed relative prosperity in terms of economic growth, posting 9.2% and 8.8% GDP in 2010 and 2011 respectively according to World Bank data. The uncertain crisis ridden economic environment existent in the early 2000s making businesses act with more caution faded to make way for a boom which largely put Turkey on the global map, not only as an economy, but as a country with business leaders and innovative minds, who are hidden treasures for foreign investors. Parallel to this, the access to capital has also improved and many venture capital funds now exist to support the growing industry of entrepreneurship. Even the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Organization (KOSGEB) supporting Turkish SMBs, has launched an entrepreneur support program offering up to 70,000 TL in support with no payback requirement in addition to its R&D, Innovation and Industrial Application Support Programme. This reflects GEM’s 2013 report classifying Turkey as being in a transition phase between an “Efficiency Driver” and “Innovation Driven” economy with EU counterparts such as Croatia, Estonia, Hungary and Latvia. While 99.9% of Turkey’s economy consists of SMBs, the level of innovation driving the entrepreneurialism trend is still extremely young and has been largely led by the country’s embrace of digital.

The rising trend towards digital in Turkey has arguably had a huge influence on the development of the e-commerce industry and over the past five years, the digital realm once led by the likes of Webrazzi, has now spread to include organizations specifically focusing on start up development and the entrepreneurial eco-system such as Start-Up Fit Factory and E-Tohum, while creativity across digital platforms has become the key word for the marketing world. In addition to  government sponsored events, even university’s such as Boğaziçi University and Sabancı University have entrepreneurship focused events to which key names from the e-commerce and investor realms are invited to talk with students. As a recent Boğaziçi graduate I was notified of BÜMED’s (alumni) Tech Talks series, a 6 week cycle of seminars discussing the way the digital age has affected business from different angles open to everyone – for free.

In the same report mentioned above, GEM highlights several factors which shape entrepreneurial perceptions and attitudes, some of the major factors being:

-   Good career choice
-    Status given to successful entrepreneurs
-    Media attention for entrepreneurship
-    Perceived opportunities
-    Perceived capabilities
-    Entrepreneurial intentions
-    Fear of failure

Each of these can be evaluated within a Turkish context and many are connected, even dependent on one another.  The increasing attention given to entrepreneurialism in Turkey, whether this be through events, through a building of awareness in educational institutions or the activities of organisations such as the Start-Up Fit Factory or E-Tohum means that not only is entrepreneurialism becoming a good career choice, its status as a profession and that given to successful entrepreneurs is increasingly making them role models for quick thinking innovative youths. With an array of Turkish success stories such as Peak Games, the largest and fastest growing gaming company in the MENA region receiving significant investment from Earlybird Venture Capital, Hummingbird Ventures and Endeavor Catalyst, ever growing, receiving a reported half million Euro investment followed by a second round of 2.5 million from Pond Ventures to make it Turkey’s leading online source for tips on dining out and major e-commerce websites such as Trendyol and Markafoni, putting respective founders Demet Mutlu and Sinan Afra on the marketing and business development map, there is no lack of example for those entrepreneurially minded.

In fact, the proximity between these successful industry names and potential entrepreneurs ensures that the profession is also accessible to people - a perception influencer which is perhaps even more important - as it gives people the belief that they too can achieve the same thing. This is supported by the mentoring offered by these renowned entrepreneurs and the general sector, which is geared towards educating and increasing the level of success of new ventures – thanks to Start-Up Fit Factory, entrepreneurs in the digital realm have direct access to financing opportunities offered by TEB and the ability to pitch to potential investors and mentors, while E-Tohum brings entrepreneurs together with these renowned names to support them in developing their ventures during the business founding phase.  In such an environment, there is little room to doubt one’s own capabilities and much of the advice I have come across focuses on picking the right team to enhance the business’ overall capabilities.

Parallel to the bustle within the sector, the media appears to be catching on largely following the rhetoric of key political and business figures. Around the 2011 elections, I remember reading articles quoting Minister Ali Babacan as stating “there is a Turkish entrepreneur on every plane.” While this may be a slightly skewed comment rolled up in wider political messaging, it does boost the image of the profession and gain attention through the media. Online and specialized media already have a inclination to write about the developments in the entrepreneurial eco-system, however, growing attention paid by the mainstream media highlights that this may be an area to watch as the sector grows and more success stories emerge.

On the final factor, there is no doubt Turkey is ahead. One of the phrases I hear most often, repeatedly from key “role model” entrepreneurs is “don’t be afraid to fail – you learn from your mistakes” and this seems to be shaping the golden rule for the upcoming generation. Blessed with self-confidence, greater access to investors, know-how and support, the greatest gift that the Turkish youth possess today is time. With so many success stories paving the way, there are more reasons to give it a go rather than not, because ultimately, the new generation has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

* Selina Bieber is an Australian currently living and working in Istanbul. With a background in politics, media and communications, Selina offers a perspective of life in Turkey and beyond.