This is part 2 of 3. In episode 90 of 14 Minutes of SaaS recorded at RISE in HK, Hande Cilingir, Insider CEO & Co-founder, in conversation with Stephen Cummins. In this episode Hande takes us though the evolution of Insider – how they went about getting product market fit, and how they’ve scaled. We get a fascinating perspective on the effect of Turkish history on the present, She also gives us her perspective on work-life balance for founders.
Hande Cilingir: [00:00:00] We would like to be the biggest marketing software company in the world. I don’t mean by, you know, biggest in terms of revenue, biggestin terms of number of people. Biggest means for us having an office in every region, you know, being a market educator, market builder or market maker in those regions. But the most important thing is we would like to do best, not in terms of total revenue, not in terms of the other stuff … but in terms of providing the best value for the online market.
Stephen Cummins: [00:00:27] Now, Istanbul. Is it a good city in your opinion to build a business.
Hande Cilingir: [00:00:35] It is a good city because investment opportunities are growing very fast – and there are not that many very big start-ups in terms of, let’s say, huge potential. And the other thing is we have very big cost advantage compared to the rest of Europe or the US.
Stephen Cummins: [00:01:02] I’m Stephen Cummins, and this is part two of a three part conversation with Hande Cilingir, CEO and co-founder of Insider. She takes us through the evolution of the company, and gives us a bit of a Turkish history lesson. And she gives her perspective on work life balance for founders.
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!
[00:01:40] How did you first get product-market fit with, you know, with insider? How did you find your first buyers, and how do you decide … ‘Ah! That’s what we need to build?’
Hande Cilingir: [00:01:51] Whenever we go to a market, we do three things. The first one is, of course, me seeing some potentially accounts. They should be like a big sales or small sales or, you know, mid-sale. So that’s the first thing. After that, what we are doing is we are working also with other companies who have operated in those regions … and understand the difficulties in the markets. And also we started to also do some sales, or try to get them. And also get the information from the influencers, et cetera. And all of that information is coming together to create our product market fit. And after that, now we have optimised a little bit. Yes, we are also trying to catch this product, product market fit with that research. But the good thing is, after getting all of that information, since it’s a very major and basic needs of the online businesses, we naturally found our product market fit.
Stephen Cummins: [00:02:52] Okay. And, you know, it sounds like whoever your competitors would be are not that big in Eastern Europe or in APAC. It sounds like first mover advantage is very strong in some countries in the region.
Hande Cilingir: [00:03:07] Yes, in some countries, in some regions – yes, we have definitely a first-mover advantage. We are the market educator, we are the market influencers. So we are, you know, we are the the first ones who entered the market.
Stephen Cummins: Who will be your competition in the US?
Hande Cilingir: I think we still have this competition. I would call them the major competitors … you know, like the big guys … Salesforce, Adobe, Oracle and others … but they’re clunky. They are difficult to operate. Difficult to integrate. We have also some competition in the point solution side – like you now… a recommendation engine or only personalisation tools. But I think 3 things are going to help us overcome this form of competition, because they are the things which makes us unique.
First of all, product innovation. Second one is, of course, establishing our own partner success teams locally. And the thing is in the sector, educating the market is important and you can only do it with B2B marketing … where you are going to utilise content marketing. So our local marketing teams, who are really you know in the process with our founders … have these relationships in order to, you know, provide this information. So this is how we shape the things from that manner.
Stephen Cummins: [00:04:23] Now. You grew by about 130 percent over the last three years. So … is your growth accelerating, or is it pretty steady? Steady state?
Hande Cilingir: [00:04:36] I think I can say that for the last three years, it was steady, No, it changed like 5 or 10 percent. But this year, we are again expecting a growth of 140%.
Stephen Cummins: [00:04:50] Wow. So, you know, growing at that rate … because you mentioned that one of your separators is that of product innovation … and yet you’ve got a growth machine in place there.Hande Cilingir: I will give a very romantic answer …
Stephen Cummins: Are Sequoia not putting pressure on you saying ‘Hey, look! You figured it out. You’re growing fast. You’ve done it in some limited geographical areas. You know … do a little bit of innovation … but just go and you know, replicate that growth machine geographically … and where it will make a way to a nice sized company.’ Or are they supporting of you continuing to be innovative? How do you manage the two together?
Hande Cilingir: [00:05:29] I’m going to give a very romantic answer to this. Yes. We are trying to be innovative in terms of the product. Yes, we are trying to also grow up new countries where we can expand easily. We are trying to also be agile for developing new features, which is going to make us a different from the competition and category creation is also very important. However. Those are not the things that makes us very different from others … or just puts our competitive advantage on the side. The most important thing is …. entrepreneurs are very romantic people … they only work with the people they like. They only work with the things they like, or with the people that they like. So this is why I would say that as entrepreneurs are romantics, the reason why we have established Insider was showing the whole world that breakthrough product companies can be also created outside of Silicon Valley.
Stephen Cummins: [00:06:31] So you wrote the intro … you wrote part of the intro that I read today, right?
Hande Cilingir: Yeah. Yeah.
Stephen Cummins: So it was more from Hande Cilinger than perhaps Mada [Seghete] or Anna [Gong] … no?
Hande Cilingir: [00:06:41] Yeah.
Stephen Cummins: Interesting.
Hande Cilingir: Yeah, exactly. So, yes, I understand the fact that those innovations should be there. However, at the end of the day, we are hungry. Coming from a very, you know, hungry background. And by knowing the fact that for another competitor or a big guy, not being able to close a sale isn’t a very big deal, because it just a sale for them. For us…
Stephen Cummins: It’s life and death!
Hande Cilingir: Yeah, it’s our life depends on this. So we know that we don’t have any other chance other than closing sales. So this is why I think those are the two most important teams …. our dedication level … and being romantics. And you know, the way that we actually see the things makes us a little bit different from the others.
Stephen Cummins: [00:07:32] Now, Istanbul. Is it a good city in which to build a business?
Hande Cilingir: [00:07:40] It is a good city because the investment opportunities are growing very fast – and there are not that many very big start-ups in terms of, let’s say, huge potential. And the other thing is we have very big cost advantages compared to the rest of Europe or the US. In Europe or in the US, you know, the things are much more difficult in terms of the cost advantage, or let’s say disadvantage … which is not the case for Turkey. And it has a potential … and just a limited potential [in one sense] of course, because it’s a small country. So if someone is going to focus on the US market, then it’s a big opportunity of course, but not for what is available in the [local] market.
Stephen Cummins: [00:08:33] Sure. Absolutely. I know you’re in 22 countries. Are the three or four countries where you have a more significant presence than the others? Or is it all evenly … pretty evenly spread?
Hande Cilingir: [00:08:46] Depending on the time when we entered those markets? For some of them we have significant successes because we have entered them earylish. For some countries, they are still, you know, still at the beginning.
Stephen Cummins: [00:08:55] Now. You mentioned you speak German.
Hande Cilingir: Yeah
Stephen Cummins: Ich kann auch ein bißchen Deutsch. So I also speak German. And I’m wondering … I just came back from Tech Open Air [TOA] actually. Last week in Berlin. But yeah … so I like Germany as a country. I love travelling there. I like their values. But one thing that I find slightly disturbing is that they have this ancient law that does that doesn’t permit German citizens that are of Turkish origin to be German. And they can’t get passports. Even second and third generation. How do people in Turkey feel about that? Does that cause a bit of tension between the two nations? Because I can’t quite understand how such an evolved country like Germany has that law still in place .. that kind of dated law. What do you think of that?
Hande Cilingir: [00:09:50] The thing is … what I will say about this is it’s not the case only between Turkey and Germany. I think it’s a case for most of the countries between most of the countries and Turkey.
Stephen Cummins: Oh!?
Hande Cilingir: I mean, not specifically for Turkey, but for some of the other countries like Turkey, maybe some Middle Eastern countries. We all know the fact that Turkey is a very beautiful, but very lonely country. In some ways, I think the history of Israel and history of Turkey looks like each other in some ways. OK. Because we have been through many wars and Ottoman empires.
Stephen Cummins: With Greece and … with everybody …
Hande Cilingir: With everybody, because that was the Ottoman Empire reality. You know. Almost like six hundred and fifty years ago because we were ruling half of the world. Yes. So due to our location, due to our geographic location, due to our … you know … due to being a big country with these four seasons … due to being in a very, very critical position between Asia and Europe. I think Turkey was kind of a, you know, attraction point for most of the countries … in the past, and maybe still. So by looking at this, and by looking at the sum [total of the] past, you know, kind of wars between the countries … this must be the case for some of them. However Germany’s case might be a little bit different because of, you know, Turkish people who went to Germany to work, you know to …
Stephen Cummins: … rebuild the country.
Hande Cilingir: Yeah, exactly. Through the 1960s, 1970s and 80s, They have a dominance there …. and there are also a lot of Turkish people living in Germany. I think the laws or, you know the reactions to people is … mostly about maybe being able to create a more ‘real’ German dominated country, because there are a lot of Turks there. I think the Turkish people in a Germany has done nothing to Germany other than helping them to build the economy.
Stephen Cummins: [00:12:10] Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. No. It’s a strange one.
Hande Cilingir: [00:12:14] So I can’t understand those kinds of things. I’m not very good at answering, because don’t see any reason why Turkish people should face this.
Stephen Cummins: [00:12:23] There’s no reason. I think even most German people that I know feel the same way. So it’s just one of one of those strange things. How do you keep a work life balance? I mean, we were just talking about the travails of being entrepreneurs. You yourself … you were saying to me you don’t sleep as much as you should do, but you accept that gladly. Tell me a little bit about why you why you accept long hours and the toughness gladly.
Hande Cilingir: [00:12:52] Yeah. There is one reality about work-life balance for founders. I was in Saastr in Paris, a couple of weeks ago. I was one of the speakers, and I know Jason Lemkin very closely. He’s a great guy. I will call him the King of SaaS always. And he knows his SaaS very well.
Stephen Cummins: [00:13:11] He’s the Echo-sign man. So I know Tom Gonser – who was the guy who went up against him with DocuSign. Yeah … Jason … to do it again with Saastre, which is a totally different business model, to do it again after EchoSign was pretty impressive.
Hande Cilingir: [00:13:24] Yeah. So I’m learning a lot from him … even from his tweets. This morning .. or a couple of mornings ago … he has sent a tweet saying that ‘Work and life balance is critical, but as a founder, it only gets easier once you truly 100 percent go all in. There’s a conflict there if you are honest!’ So there’s a conflict there.
Stephen Cummins: [00:13:49] In the next, and final part, of this three part interview with Hande Cilingir, she talks about having a clear culture in your company from day one. And finding good people that align with that culture.
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