Çağlar Karataş, co-founder Gastroclub. Series of interviews with investors in Turkiye n°8.

When you are in for a nice talk with someone with a smooth London accent you need to talk to Çağlar. In French you would say “aimable”. I was wondering how his friends in New York and London read his first name. It took me also some time before I understood how to pronounce in Turkish. “Chalar” is the closest I can imagine to spell it out.

I had already seen him a few times before but we hadn’t had a chance to talk. His presentation for the BIC101 program was a good insight for potential starters. This was again at Kolektif House, Levent, which has become the center of the startup scene in Istanbul. From a coworking space to a startup lifestyle with parties on top. The happy few are all there. It must be said, Ahmet and his partners set the tone, expanding every 6 months I think now.

Habita Coworking was were we met though, as we were organising a Startup Weekend Fintech with PayU. Çağlar was Jury and we had some time to talk before the pitches. There was a good reason to have him as a Jury as his own start up GastroClub also co-owns a fin-tench product called Platinum Masa by GastroClub, the only app for mobile payment in the dining sector.

Caglar was born in Izmir and educated in Turkey, UK and USA. He has 2 Master’s Degrees in Global Finance and Management from NYU and Harvard Business School respectively. He also studied International Management at King’s College, University of London.

In 1999, he did an interview at Lehman Brothers, just for the fun of it, but during the interview, answering the question of ‘Are you hungry for money?’ as ‘No, I am hungry for success” made him start working in Wall Street upon graduation. After the initial training in Chicago, he was placed as a junior trader on the trading floor in New York. In 1999 it was more than ‘cool’ to work for Lehman Brothers. After 9/11 event, Çağlar moved to London in 2001 to continue working on the trading floor for Lehman Brothers. In 2006 he was chosen as one of ‘the top 30 traders under 30’ by Risk Magazine. After the collapse of Lehman Brother in 2008, as you may remember, he moved from trading to broking and continued working as the head broker for Emerging Markets in an American brokerage house. 4 years later, he got headhunted by Tullet Prebon, world’s 2nd largest brokerage house and became the Director of Emerging Markets, covering the financial markets in the entire region of Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, Middle East and Africa.

One morning he woke up and decided “bitti”, or ‘I’m done’. He no longer wanted to be in trading business, targets became impossible, in short. He’d had it. Of course when you are at that level of seniority, you cannot just resign and go, so it took him close to 8 months to settle the turning page for his next life.

Interesting enough he started immediately his own startup together with Gizem Oral, ex Pepsico brand manager. They both used Gourmet Society in the UK and decided this could work in Turkiye too.

GastroClub was born in Turkey with a start investment of 80.000 TL and 18 months later BIC Angels invested an additional 175.000USD. We are in 2013. GastroClub pivoted from B2C towards B2B and B2B2C models. In the meantime Çağlar also started investing in startups in Turkiye and in the UK. In 3 years time he invested close to 1 Milyon TL through Angel Networks in 4 startups in Turkiye with 2 in the pipeline and 4 in London.

Here is an overview of the companies: Doktorderki, Alquity Investment Management, Zero Carbon Food Growing Underground, Temizlikyolda.com, Grind & Co, London Union, Prisync and Hizliceviri.

He prefers rather small investments in many startups instead of 1 or 2 big ones. Spreading the risk. Don’t forget he was a trader! Teams are key, sometimes more important than the idea, he says. His preference goes to London where he sees a higher valuation exists for startups. Also the type of startups is different. In Turkiye, he says, the focus is e-commerce, in the UK Tech startups are leading the pack. He is also happy to finally see FinTech growing in Turkiye.

He finds the Turkish StartUp scene a bit boring. He believes there is huge lack of knowledge in all forms in the ecosystem. Very limited R&D, poor quality teams on many start ups. He also blames the Turkish education system falling behind when compared to the universities abroad in the UK and US. ‘We don’t solve problems’ he says, ‘we’d rather try finding a way to go around them’. He even sees a link between failures of youngest and their parents who’re always there to solve the problems of their kids.

Çağlar is also not very impressed by the networks and the angel investors in general in Turkey. Compared to London, where more than 80% of the angel investors are senior finance executives, in Turkey, he says, he is one of the very few angels with a financial services background. He thinks Turkish angel investment ecosystem is filled with already existed-entrepreneurs, giving wrong ideas and bad advice on how to run a start up in the current ecosystem. He is very happy with the approach of Joachim from BIC Angels though, who handles everything by the book, thorough and with an eye for detail. The German way, so to say. Çağlar is very passionate, not only when he talks about his own startup, but about the whole ecosystem. He is in a very privileged position as he lives on both worlds.

He still keeps his house in London, he does not buy a house in Turkey, as his heart is in London but he is trying to find ways to get that wheel going in Turkiye. It reminds of the book “Good to Great” from Jim Collins, he wrote in 2001. He was describing a flywheel: “Now picture a huge, heavy flywheel. It’s a massive, metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle. It’s about 100 feet in diameter, 10 feet thick, and it weighs about 25 tons. That flywheel is your company. Your job is to get that flywheel to move as fast as possible, because momentum — mass times velocity — is what will generate superior economic results over time.” I always feel that we still are looking at the big wheel trying to figure out where to get that momentum to get that damn wheel turning. We need more than one Çağlar I am afraid. So let’s unite the people that can help create that momentum.

Çağlar says, lack of professionalism; mentorship and the reporting system are some of the many aspects where we need to work on in Turkiye. Even so, he says, we have some examples of good exits and also companies doing well abroad like Peak Games. Although Turkiye is a big country with a huge potential, Çağlar says, there are many weaknesses and threats both for start ups and angel investors like language skills and lack of international networking, weakening home currency and ever-growing political unrest. The uncertainty in many industry regulations is another weak point and a deal breaker for a lot of investors. This is my 8th interview and painfully enough some of the negative aspects come back again and again. Fingers crossed that the right people will read this and act upon.

Çağlar also points out that average age of the start up founders. He says in the USA and UK the average age of successful start up founders is 38! Yet, in Turkiye, people think it’s 19. He says they’re labouring under misapprehension that if they all can be rich and successful before they even reach 30. Stereotypes that kill the premature ecosystem by too many failures.

It is great to see that even after living abroad for 15 years, Çağlar didn’t turn his back to Turkiye. His personal success goes back to his business success. He gets a lot of satisfaction in what he is doing, and without a wife or kids, his focus stays on business. He knows well what it is to perform under pressure within strict rule sets. So what he is doing now gives him a lot more freedom. He moved from an over-organised life to a self regulated life where he decides on where and what. He’s much happier today than he was 5–6 years ago.

He finishes our interview with an honest statement, when he arrives at Heathrow Airport he feels like he’s home, arriving in Istanbul Airport, he feels like…shit, here we go again. Çağlar is from Izmir so I guess in time he might go for London-Izmir, hopefully feeling home in both. The Turkish homeland has a strong bond, but one has to go where happiness lies. And happiness is the engine that makes our own wheel spin.

Patrick Bosteels, Stage-Co Co-Founder


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Stage-Co, Urla Coworking, Now Sprint! Accelerator and Creative Academie co-founder, Facilitator, Accelerator Program Manager and Mentor