This episode is the 1st of 3 with Stephen Cummins chatting to Hande Cilingir, CEO & Co-founder of Insider, a growth management platform for digital marketers. She’s talk about her humble background in Turkey, the influence of her parents, her education, and China – some of the foundations for her success as an entrepreneur. Insider has grown as a rapid pace since interviewing Hande a few months ago and now has almost 500 employees, with 21 offices on 3 continents. It is currently, at the time I am recording this, the outright leader on the very competitive G2 grid for Mobile Marketing software. Her international experiences helped her to become more resilient as a professional. Hande had a successful exit prior to founding Insider, and Crunchbase has ranked her as one of the top three women CEOs outside of the US
Hande Cilingir: [00:00:00] I believe that being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean to establish your own startup always. You can become an entrepreneur by writing a blog sometimes, or you can become an entrepreneur by changing something between a bigger organisation … because I believe that real entrepreneurship is all about creating an impact. So anywhere you can create an impact is a point at which you can become an entrepreneur. For example, to me you are an entrepreneur by making these podcasts because you help other entrepreneurs to learn from the others … other CEOs are co-founders. It’s a big contribution. We had this kind of big passion to move on with establishing a startup in digital marketing. So this is why we decided to sell our shares and have an exit. And then we started Insider.
Stephen Cummins: [00:00:50] Welcome to 14 minutes of SaaS, where we’re still in RISE, Hong Kong … where I interviewed Hande Cilingir, CEO and co-founder of Insider, which hails from Istanbul in Turkey. It’s a growth management platform for digital marketers. In this first episode of 3, she talks about her humble background, the influence of her parents, her education and her many international experiences, especially China … some of the foundations for success as an entrepreneur. Insider has grown at a rapid pace since interviewing Hande a few months ago, and now has almost 500 employees in 21 offices on 3 continents. It’s currently, at this time of recording, the outright leader in the very competitive G2 grid for mobile marketing software. [00:01:41] Welcome to 14 Minutes of SaaS, the show where you can listen to the stories and opinions of founders of the world’s most remarkable SaaS scale-ups. [00:01:59] So today we have Hande Cilingir, who is the CEO and co-founder of Insider here in 14 minutes of SaaS, and we’re at Rise, Hong Kong. Great to see you .
Hande Cilingir: [00:02:11] Thank you very much. How are you today?
Stephen Cummins: [00:02:16] I’m doing grand. It’s been good. I really enjoyed introducing you to the stage today. Amazing panel. Congratulations.
Hande Cilingir: [00:02:19] That was a nice intro. So thank you.
Stephen Cummins: [00:02:22] Thanks a million. So I’m honoured to be interviewing for the first time somebody from the great nation of Turkey. It’s the first time I’ve interviewed a founder from there. And I’m very interested to know about your and your youth and what it was like up until … let’s say you went into the work …
Hande Cilingir: [00:02:41] Yeah, sure. Of course. So we are 6 co-founders, and all of those co-founders are coming from very humble backgrounds. Just like myself. I’m the daughter of a housewife, and also an electrician who used to work in the ships. And I became an entrepreneur. To me by the way, it’s a bit difficult because when other people ask my mother ‘What is Hande doing?’, it’s a little difficult for her to explain what I am doing for sure. But I think my child is very important for me because it was, I think, one of the triggers that actually helped me to become an entrepreneur. Because my father, an electrician, was a very hardworking man. In order to provide the resources for my sisters and my education, after the retirement he started to, you know, go to the houses to repair anything in the house. So this is how he was actually making money. And I remember the times it was, you know, a very rainy day or an evening, sometimes snowy day … he was having his bicycle and going to the people’s houses to make money and also repair their stuff. So until the age of 68, he used to work. So this is why I can say that I think the mentality of being a hard worker and the mentality of always putting effort into life or to, you know, change something comes from the mentality of my father. [00:04:17] And he wasn’t a complainer. And, you know, in most organisations not being a complainer, being an achiever is pretty much important. And on my side of, you know, not being a complainer and focusing on the human achievement side is also, I think, coming from my father. So he was a very, very big influence in my childhood. I was a very happy kid. Again, a hardworking kid. It’s thanks to my Mum, because I was studying a lot. And after university … which was, you know, the London School of Economics, I am a graduate of the London School of Economics – economics and management department.
Stephen Cummins: LSE, very famous.
Hande Cilingir: LSE … yeah very famous school, especially in social sciences. I think maybe the best school in the world in social sciences.
Stephen Cummins: Probably.
Hande Cilingir: So after the actual graduation … I mean, before the graduation, I was working in different, you know, corporate companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo. And I could see that working in that kind of organisation is a little bit difficult for me, because I cannot see the impact of what I’m doing. Or if I would like to change something … if I would like to create a more efficient process, or if I would like to, you know, execute something that can change the scope of the work in a very positive way, … it takes ages to do so. [00:05:34] And you are not being given huge responsibility. So that’s why I decided that I should become an entrepreneur. By the way, I believe that being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean to establish your own startup always. You can become an entrepreneur by writing a blog sometimes, or you can become an entrepreneur by changing something between a bigger organisation … because I believe that real entrepreneurship is all about creating an impact. So anywhere you can create an impact is a point at which you can become an entrepreneur. For example, to me you are an entrepreneur by making these podcasts because you help other entrepreneurs to learn from the others … other CEOs are co-founders. It’s a big contribution to business ecosystems.
Stephen Cummins: Thank you so much.
Hande Cilingir: This is how ecosystems develop. So, after I discovered that I should become an entrepreneur, I decided to actually start my first business with Serhat. Serhat is also one of the co-founders of Insider [Serhat Soyuerel, VP of Growth in Insider]. He’s also an LSE graduate, one of my classmates from university. But you know in order to start your business, it’s very important to me for it to be the right time, with the right people. And, you know, in the right place … which wasn’t the case for us at the time. So after the graduation, we decided to pursue our careers in different countries while learning new languages. And also discovering new people. And we decided that after a couple of years, we need to come back again and get together and start our first business.
Stephen Cummins: [00:07:05] And what languages do you speak?
Hande Cilingir: I speak English. I speak Chinese. And I speak a little German.
Stephen Cummins: Wow! You speak Chinese. That’s very impressive.
Hande Cilingir: Yeah. After that the graduation, I had decided to go to China. Stay there for two and a half years. In my first year, I was a student in Shanghai Normal University … because I believe that the best way of doing business in some countries is all about learning more about the culture and of course, language.
Stephen Cummins: I agree.
Hande Cilingir: Yeah. So this is why I have studied a masters program in Shanghai, in International Chinese and Culture. And meanwhile, I started to work because I had a scholarship for going to China for my masters degree, and also for my dormitory. And other expenses. Well it finished early, because I was travelling a lot inside of China … because it’s a very big geography, very different, very important [to travel and experience]. So this is why … also because of having more experience … I started to work in a Chinese company. It was very difficult for me to adapt to Chinese culture. And, you know, even if Shanghai is a very global city or a very metropolitan city, it was very difficult to adapt … because as you know, half of the city doesn’t have a heating system. But you know … the food, the challenges, the people, heating systems, et cetera …all of them came together actually … created a kind of person from me who can get adapted to, you know, less resources easily – and instead of complaining, I know that I need to survive. So it was a very important experience for me. And after that, Serhat was in Russia learning Russian and, you know, working as an investment banker. So after 2 1/2 years, we came together and started to establish our first startup, which is a language school in the southwest part of Turkey. There is a town called Fethiye. There are more than 7000 British people living in Fethiye. They have emigrated to Fethiye after retirement. So this is why we have decided to start a language school there – where we can have students from all around the world. And, you know, putting them to stay with English host families. And this will be a great impact for them. This will be a great impact for Fethiye, and a great impact for, you know, Turkey. Of course, it was very difficult to bring the students there. Because everyone thought that in Turkey mainly people speak Turkish. Which is the case by the way. But they didn’t think there’s a little English town town, where they can learn English. And also, by the way, it’s a very beautiful destination where you can have a great holiday. So it’s just like education through a tourism thing. By travelling across 30 to 40 countries and talking with about Fethiye, and even inviting them to come here, stay with English host families, just introduce them … just in 2 years, we managed to bring more than 3000 students from all over the world to Fethiye.
Stephen Cummins: That’s amazing!
Hande Cilingir: Yeah it is. Stephen Cummins: What’s the population of Fethiye? I know there’s 7,000 English speakers. What’s the population overall?
Hande Cilingir: It’s small. It’s about twenty thousand.
Stephen Cummins: [00:10:18] So she brought 15 percent of their population over in a couple years to visit them!
Hande Cilingir: [00:10:23] Exactly. And the good thing is they are living in the same village. It’s like a small English village. So, a one year student coming to Turkey, which a this is relatively easy to access country, they can spend time with the pure, you know, English people. And the good thing is that they’re mostly retired people. They have a lot of time to spend with the students. So this is why I think the business has grown very fast, and we were in more than 20 countries. And at this point, we had kind of, you know, a challenge to understand whether we would like to work for a company like this – which had a great success … but! It’s an offline business. And we were just, you know, in our mind wanting to get into the digital transformation. Digital businesses were really hot, and we had this kind of very big passion to move on with establishing a new startup in digital marketing. So this is why we decided to sell our shares and have an exit. And then we started Insider.
Stephen Cummins: [00:11:32] And did it give you a bit of cash to be able to do Insider? Did you make a bit of money out of it.
Hande Cilingir: [00:11:34] Exactly! We have financed Insider in the first year and a half.
Stephen Cummins: [00:11:41] Very good. And then you’re kind of disciplined too … just because you’re spending your own money, you’re so careful like … it means an awful lot. Everything is everything you invest in.
Hande Cilingir: [00:11:52] Exactly. And this is why we got our funds like, you know, after the first year of Insider. It was a seed round. And after that we got our Series A almost like three or four years ago. And we got our Series B from Sequoia Capital, one of the biggest venture capitalists in the world.
Stephen Cummins: Sequoia … yeah …
Hande Cilingir: It’s a privilege to work with them because they’re there people are sitting in the boards of the biggest tech companies in the world … so they know things.
Stephen Cummins: And how much have you raised at this point?
Hande Cilingir: Eleven million dollars.
Stephen Cummins: [00:12:21] Just tell me and the listeners what Insider is. What you value prop is.
Hande Cilingir: [00:12:26] Yeah I was thinking that I missed to mention what we are doing.
Stephen Cummins: It’s fine!
Hande Cilingir Yeah. The thing is Insider is a commerce optimisation platform for the digital online businesses. We have a one-stop platform where you can get integrated, and based on this you can optimise your conversion rates – operating in different channels and connecting these channels … and you find user data. So this is what Insider does.
Stephen Cummins: How many years now has insider been going? 6 or 7 isn’t it?
Hande Cilingir [00:12:57] I will say six and a half. So from the very first day, we had a perspective of going global. So this is why, you know, in our 9th month we have expanded to Russia – it’s the biggest markets in Europe in terms of volume. After we continue with Poland. Meanwhile MENA. And after MENA we are expanding to APAC which is a great market. Yes, the market is a bit uneducated. So you need to, you know, be kind of a thought leader here … which is also good for us … because while we are educating the market, people understood that ‘OK. Insider knows what they are doing. And they are having real results. They’re also engaged with providing value for the (?) sector.’ So this Asia part started with this story. And after Asia Pacific expansion, we have continued with Australia this year. We have expanded to Australia. So we are gaining good markets. And by the end of quarter four, our new destination will be the US. And by the way we are currently 400 peoples, funded with a little bit more than 18 million dollars.
Stephen Cummins: [00:14:06] Yeah, I was checking in Linked-In, around 400 [people]. I saw that you’ve grown by about … I don’t know … 140 percent or something crazy for the last 2 years.
Hande Cilingir: [00:14:18] For the last three years we have been running more than one hundred and thirty percent. Even maybe, maybe this year 140. I’m not sure.
Stephen Cummins: [00:14:26] Very impressive. And you know, you were saying earlier in 22 countries or something?
Hande Cilingir: [00:14:32] Yeah. It will be. By including the US we are in 22 different countries.
Stephen Cummins: [00:14:42] In the next episode, Hande tells us all about how Insider went about getting product market fit, and how they’ve scaled the company. [00:14:54] You’ve been listening to 14 minutes of SaaS. Thanks to Mike Quill for his creativity and problem solving skills. And to Ketsu for the music. This episode was brought to you by me, Stephen Cummins. If you enjoyed the podcast, please don’t forget to share it with your network, subscribe to the series, and give the show a rating. [00:15:20] This podcast is a labour of love, and I travel all over the world to interview the founders of amazing start-ups. I ask for nothing in return from them, other than their valuable time. And I never play dirty tricks, such as if you get five of your employees to rate the podcast with five stars and send me screenshots, we’ll publish a month earlier. These episodes are so much work to produce and very expensive without the backing of a big tech company. Do your good deed for today by taking a minute now to review on Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts or any of the major podcast platforms. Wherever you’re listening to us.