Istanbul Explores its Entrepreneurial Future at Global Entrepreneurship Week
The organizers of the 10th Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Istanbul in 2018 want to draw 10,000 people to participate, which would make it the largest to date.
This attendance ambition befits Istanbul—the city is enormous. Words like immense and sprawling barely do it justice. In my roughly 56 hours there, I saw several different parts of the city and couldn’t quite believe its size.
I visited Istanbul for the official launch of the GEC18 campaign and for early Global Entrepreneurship Week events organized by Endeavor Turkiye. Just over two days is not nearly enough time to get a sense of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in a place, but I had the chance to talk to many different people, including several entrepreneurs, and get their perspectives.
Turkey has appeared frequently in the headlines this year, not always for good reasons. Its political situation is still tenuous and uncertain since the attempted coup in July. In the two days I was there, the press was filled with stories about the government shutting down NGOs and the switch to a stronger presidential system—and the press itself is fearful of more shutdowns.
Beyond the political situation (which matters a great deal for entrepreneurs), there is a very strong entrepreneurial heritage in the country. Some of the first real human settlements, such as Çatalhöyük, were also some of the first places where dedicated commercial exchange took place. Today, there are world-renowned Turkish entrepreneurs, including Hamdi Ulukaya (Chobani) and Hüsnü Özyegin (finance, known as well for founding Ozyegin University). And several people I met had spent time in Silicon Valley doing their own startups or working for others.
According to various data sources, Turkey doesn’t fare badly when it comes to comparative rankings, although there is certainly room for improvement. In the latest Global Entrepreneurship Index, released this week, Turkey ranks 36th overall and 22nd in Europe. In the World Bank Doing Business rankings (which only capture Istanbul, not the entire country), Turkey ranks 69th, and made notable improvements in the ease of starting a business and the ease of paying taxes. But, its new business density, not particularly high to begin with, has fallen sharply in recent years.
The GEI highlights “risk capital” as Turkey’s strongest area, yet this was a consistent theme of my conversations with people in Istanbul. Some people said Turkey needed more early-stage financing, although the government has put a lot of effort lately into increasing the size of the angel investor pool. Other people claimed that what was missing was more venture capital, especially from outside the country. The government has started a fund of funds to match public money with private VC in the hope that this will galvanize a domestic VC industry and attract more participation from abroad.
Additionally, the Borsa Istanbul—where we rang the opening bell on Friday—is establishing a private market to provide more liquidity to private investors in entrepreneurial companies.
Other people I spoke to, while acknowledging the need for more angel and VC funding, contended that the deal flow of investable companies just wasn’t there yet to justify more capital.
Another persistent theme was the predominance of well-salaried jobs at giant conglomerates. A “good salary is like drugs,” said one entrepreneur—many young people and mid-career workers are unwilling to give up these jobs to start or join a startup.
Related to that, many people blamed the education system for not preparing people well enough for entrepreneurship. They said the Turkish education system is geared too much toward taking exams and does not adequately foster creativity.
Still, the entrepreneurs I had the good fortune to meet were, not surprisingly, incredibly impressive. On a panel at the Borsa Istanbul, each talked about their entrepreneurial journey—in most cases, leaving a salaried job—the difficulties involved, and the rewards. These are serious companies addressing serious issues. Endeavor, in particular, has clearly played a catalytic role in the ecosystem (several specifically mentioned its selection process as the biggest benefit), as has the Global Entrepreneurship Network in bringing people together.
The 2018 GEC in Istanbul provides an excellent focal point for those involved in helping Turkish entrepreneurs. By then, we should know whether the government’s efforts to stimulate more entrepreneurial finance have borne fruit. We will know what direction the political system has gone and what effect it has had on entrepreneurs. Turkey clearly has a lot to work with, and there are many reasons to believe that its entrepreneurial future is brighter than its past.
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