Idema, entrepreneurship with an extra dimension. Series of interviews with startups in Turkiye n°2.
An entrepreneur is not a startup and every startup is an entrepreneur. Definitions can be a headache especially as they are basically useless as they evolve and context-sensitive. Steve Blank had a simple definition that ends in scalable and repeatable. It is a great attempt but I see today that 3 boys or girls, or a mix, starting a business based on tech, or more correct, something over the internet, are called startups though they don’t sell anything, look for funding, and in many cases just left MVP behind and still unclear about the business model and go-to-market. I considered myself an entrepreneur who wanted to make money what is now called sustainability. There is also fashion in this domain, being buzzword compliant definitely helps.
Ali Ercan Özgür, his last name means free, independent, reminds me of myself. A lot of ideas, full of energy and entrepreneur. The difference? Academic is one of them, I chose the art direction instead. I met Ali Ercan in Izmir I think for the first time and we had immediately a good connection. He was, and still is, running Idema and mentioned Inogar as a project. Next I knew he opened with his partners Inogar in İstanbul and very quickly after that Inogar Art, which immediately attracted my attention. I heard and saw a lot of new names like Mert Fırat, Das Das and many more. A new world opened for me. After visiting the coworking space of Inogar Art at Das Das all pieces came together as one image. I also saw it is not the end for Ali Ercan and his partners. The world is their stage and Türkiye is just the start. Even after the interview, I am still wondering if Idema is a startup or a company with great ambitions. There is no technological platform or algorithm but a very important dependency on unique people. Not easy to “scale and repeat” I would say, but at the same time disruptive and focused. Steve would say no. I still fight with the definition as too narrow.
Ali Ercan, born in Fatih 1979, Istanbul, is a product of Istanbul Marmara University where he followed Political Science and International Relations. His father was raised in math and physics and working in the Oncology department of Istanbul University Hospital. His sister followed more in the footsteps of her father, Health Management but also a genuine entrepreneur. He reckons the entrepreneurship drive comes more from his grandfather through his mother, Albanian origin. Ali Ercan was the first to go to university in his family. In university, he couldn’t just do the tasks of course. He was part of a student club, created a loyalty card, very advanced in CRM and sold later to Boyner Holding, branded as the Advantage Campus Card and became the first instalments card. The question of why Political Science was answered with the central system for school choice in Türkiye. He wanted something rather in the field of an artistic director but the algorithm decided differently.
Early on, Ali Ercan was very interested in volunteer work, so one day he started to volunteer for Habitat where he met Sezai Hazır, Habitat Derneği Founder & President, founded in 1997. Today Habitat is one of the biggest NGOs in Türkiye. At this moment Ali Ercan was around 21 years old, or young I should say. Nice anecdote is that Ali Ercan was always active in social but also in sports organisations. Yes, sports, in high school, player and trainer of the school basketball team. There was always a latent leader and organizer hidden, already at a young age. He even became the organizer of the soccer team on a trip to Finland as he was the only one speaking English and had the guts to take the responsibility. All qualities a genuine entrepreneur needs. Sezai saw the talent in Ali Ercan and he became the private sector connection starter. It was also Ali Ercan who taught me capacity building and that is not just making people and organisations smarter. Here is the UNDP definition: Capacity Building as “the creation of an enabling environment with appropriate policy and legal frameworks, institutional development, including community participation (of women in particular), human resources development and strengthening of managerial systems”. That is in my opinion what Ali Ercan is all about, and in a sustainable way. Thanks to Habitat, Ali Ercan became familiar with UN organisations, Worldbank and other important players in this field. The foundations for Idema and Inogar were laid here. As he reached out to corporations, whom also new the international playfield, this brought on his lap a big project of Cisco after simply writing an email to the CEO with as a result the first Cisco Network Academy in Diyarbakır. Just imagine, this was 2002–2003.
In 2003 Ali Ercan earned himself a scholarship through British Council for a Master degree on “Aid Coordination, effective aid management” in Birmingham, UK. Right after his studies, he applied at Worldbank but it was TEGV, a foundation, that hooked him up as project coordinator but rather active as facilitator and external relationship management. He appreciated the experience but decided to go for his PhD, no job but with the help of his family. Here I got lost as he already sold a product, remember the Advantage Campus Card and his professional experience in the social society organisations environment. Maybe it is like an early midlife crisis, who knows. He went back to Marmara University and passed the 1st year with a successful exam. During the thesis period, he was parttime active in an EU project. After this point, it became confusing for me as too many activities that went in parallel on top. I noted BTC, a regional fund developer, helped write a book and cut expenditure. Followed by American Chamber of Commerce which he put back on the rails, as they were parked in the field when he arrived. Before I forget, he also got married to Yaprak Kaymak who he met at TEGV and today they have a little girl. 2014, the end of his thesis with success, he earned now a title next to be Mister, the famous PhD.
So before the thesis ended he was in contact through an email group with ex-Habitat colleagues and from all that brainstorming 4 people decided to act together as a team, Idema was born in 2011 as a company, not an NGO. Ali Ercan, Guler Altinsoy, Bilge Turcan and Levent Koç were the founders and the aim was to offer International Development Management, but rather as consultants for Government bodies, EU funding etc. Ali Ercan prepared everything and will be for the first years the “always on board” member. They acted in a very agile way. When there was no specific job for one of the partners, that partner would join other projects so everybody could manage to survive during the first years without the need of a big starting capital or creating immediately a cash problem. When Güler came back after a mission the real deal was on. Güler is a very hands-on manager and a more structured future plan was laid out. In 2012 the first office was inaugurated in Karakoy with Google CSR as one of their big customers. They started Google NGO Academy in Türkiye and became an official vendor. Interestingly Ali Ercan decided to move to Izmir with his family after they conducted the Urban Innovation project. He saw a rather dark future for Istanbul and decided to move with his family to Izmir and come to Istanbul just for meetings, around 3 days a week. In the meantime, after one other office space, they finally moved to Inogar in Kağıthane, Istanbul. From 15m2 to 1500m2 in 6 years. Güler was acting as CEO and Ali Ercan as the Chair of the Board. They were the 2 fulltime working partners. A first and today the only investment came from Ümit Kumcuoğlu in 2015 as in Angel Investor for 200.000 TL. Levent left the company in 2014 and in 2017 Bilge came fulltime on board. The 3 Mouseketeers were a fact. The building that was named Inogar was also the new project were Idema is one of the leading partners. Here again, too many things happened that had a big impact on their growth. Güler needed some time off and Ali Ercan recommended her to go to Washington as he had friends there from the American Chambre period. Güler came back with the L.I.F.E. project. An incubation program for refugees who want to be active with food. Again in 2014 Mert Fırat, a very famous actor in Türkiye, crossed their road and they worked together on NeedMap, tested in the same year and now a huge project. Needs Map is a digital platform where the needs and supports can be mapped in order for the providers and needers to find each other. It aims to create a systematic collective work network. Today they act together with TBWA to grow the platform. As a result of this rapid growth over 40 people are on the payroll in Idema, next to a bunch of freelancers.
Inogar and Idema seem to be merged in a way, although there are other partners in Inogar, with a full-fledged mission: A new generation incubation centre that combines innovation and enterprise culture with civil society, the private sector, sustainable development, culture-art and technology. I am very confident that this mission statement took some effort to put together as it aims clearly to be as inclusive as possible. When I asked Ali Ercan what is a short and comprehensive definition of the activity he could not do it although I liked “Field Laboratory” a lot. Important here is that the aim is to start many Inogars all over Türkiye and abroad! Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara are active now and Mersin and Gaziantep are on the list but also in the UK and in Africa. Remember the definition of Steve Blank, scaleable. So we come to repeatable and here comes the strategy of putting a project in a process and finally into a product. Inogar Art is one of them just like the L.I.F.E. project. Inogar was the one that attracted me the most. It is situated in Das Das Theatre, Ataşehir, Istanbul and has its own space, set up as a coworking space with programs focused on art and technology, kicked off in March 2019. At the same time, the search is on to get investors onboard and productize the projects in order to grow locally and internationally.
In my workshops, I explain that growing exponentially is more common for tech-based solutions. The question that haunts me is whether exponential growth, what attracts investors, is really what we need today? We see more and more investors follow the road of impact investment. Inogar is definitely a great example although the dependency on very qualified coworkers is a thread or can they productize in a way that the framework is strong enough to eliminate this burden. The future will tell. Is Inogar a startup? By definition not, but maybe we need to review the definition of Steve Blank.
During the interview, I felt sometimes confused as too much information came to me and as Ali Ercan is a great storyteller I sometimes got too carried away. He is a very genuine person with a good heart and light in his eyes that shines pretty all the time. Looking at my own history I must admit I sometimes thought like, do not take too much hay on your pitchfork. But I also see that he is surrounded by a great, professional team, so inşallah, this might just work out.
We came to the happiness question. Ali Ercan is very supportive of his wife and definitely a family man. Naturally, happiness starts there. He defines happiness also in discovery. He likes to meet new people, share ideas and thoughts, a great sparring partner for philosophical issues. Discovering new places is also on the list and he already saw quite some places. He likes to describe himself as a universal person with an open mind. Looking at his track record before turning 40 I wonder what the second part of his life will bring. Like a real entrepreneur his happiness private and business overlap. He is a people man with a constant stream of new ideas and seeing new opportunities. He is very happy creating the roadmap and the specific strategies with his partners. When you see him, you just understand that this man is happy. There is no shield or facade, what you see is what you get. In a good way.
Inogar is a great example of bootstrapping and offering services that are paid. May sound easy or simple but in the startup world, we rather see the opposite. That is the reason why I wanted to take this interview. No tech, no early seed investor but still the aim to become a company that grows internationally based on people skills. Great challenge, not an easy one, but hopefully finding the right investor to cross the chasm. Or cross without.
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