Making Sense of the East-West Divide in Tech

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JTHANKS TO A capital risk (resume) boom, it is no longer uncommon to find tech unicorns, as unlisted startups valued at over $1 billion are known to be springing up in middle-income countries. However, two from Turkey are particularly strange creatures. First, they are big. Trendyol, an e-commerce company, is valued at $16.5 billion, earning it “decacorn” status worth $10 billion or more. Getir, a pioneer in “ultra-fast” grocery delivery, is said to be about to join this select group. Second, they are seasoned. Both come from a country plagued by inflation, currency instability and weak economic policies, all of which can be kryptonite for investors. Most strikingly, their founders bear no resemblance to the archetypal tech bros. Demet Mutlu from Trendyol is a 39-year-old woman. Nazim Salur from Getir is a 60-year-old man.

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And yet, take a close look at their two companies, which are now worth more than almost any company listed in Turkey, and the differences outweigh the similarities. As befits a country that sees itself as a gateway between East and West, their view from the Bosphorus resembles that of Janus. One is inspired by China, the other looks to Europe and America. We run away from the spotlight. The other wants it. We want to turn women into go-getters. The other has the masculine-sounding mantra of “democratizing the right to be lazy”. They encompass several different dimensions of the technological divide. This makes them intriguing to compare and contrast.

Start with the division between East and West. Simply put, it represents a choice between Asian-style super-apps and Silicon Valley-style blitzscaling. Trendyol’s largest backer is Alibaba, and the influence of China’s e-emporium runs deep. The Turkish company shares Alibaba’s market model: it accounts for more than a third of e-commerce in Turkey and provides a platform to exchange around $10 billion worth of goods per year. Unlike Amazon, the American giant, it only sells a few of its own products. Like Alibaba, it calls itself a super-app, aiming to offer a variety of services, including payments, on its platform, and it puts the importance of its smaller sellers, who are all over Turkey, on a equal footing with buyers. International expansion, if any, will likely be into emerging markets, such as those in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He believes, as does Alibaba, that the potential for super apps is greatest in these young, mobile-crazed places.

In contrast, Getir’s first international backer was Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, an American resume solidify. Fittingly, his strategy borrows from the Silicon Valley playbook: blitzscale first, make money later. Founded in 2015, Getir claims to have invented the business of delivering groceries in less than ten minutes (unsurprisingly in Istanbul, where few people live more than ten minutes from a store, many of Mr. Salur’s friends are first asked why they would need it). Discounts help get customers hooked, Salur says. Then, he hopes, the temptation to treat Getir like a personal butler will take over. With increasing competition from American Gopuff and German Gorillas, speed is essential. Since launching its first international operation in Britain a year ago, the company has moved around the developed world almost as fast as its purple-and-yellow-clad mopeds rush through the streets of London. It is now present in 40 cities in Europe and America, from Barcelona, ​​via Bristol, to Boston.

Mr. Salur has long intended to enter America and eventually list the company there. “If you’re a startup guy, you want to be successful where the startups are,” he says. In true American style, he relishes the media attention. Getir greeted your columnist in a brightly lit (“dark store” is a misnomer) depot under railway arches in south London to see baskets of biscuits and avocados whizzing by the door. It is only when discussing the finances of a cash-hungry business that Mr. Salur is on his guard. He declines to comment on his latest valuation, which Bloomberg says is $12 billion. “When the money is in the bank, you will hear about it.”

Ms. Mutlu couldn’t be more different. She has set up a Chinese-style media firewall around Trendyol and mostly dodges interview requests. One of the few commonly repeated nuggets about her is that she dropped out of Harvard Business School to start Trendyol in Turkey. And yet, it is more remarkable than that. In addition to founding Trendyol, she co-founded another Turkish unicorn, a gaming company sold to San Francisco-based Zynga for $1.8 billion in 2020. To put that into perspective: PitchBook, a data collector, calculates that of 1,335 unicorns worldwide, only 185, or just under 14%, have at least one female founder.

In addition, Ms. Mutlu is described by an investor as a “tech freak”. Having started selling fashion items on Trendyol, she is a champion of the Turkish textile industry. She is also an (albeit media-shy) advocate for women in the digital economy. Women make up about half of Trendyol’s employees, including some software engineers and many of its buyers and sellers. Those who know her say she struggled to be taken seriously as she built her business. Adding to the frustration, she didn’t know if it was because she was a woman, or Turkish, or both.

Ottoman empire builders

These are heady times for startups everywhere. Both companies recognize that they have thrived at a time when resume funding around the world is frenetic and sometimes indiscriminate. Neither is likely to go public anytime soon, at least until the valuation gap between public and private markets narrows.

Yet they also enjoyed their childhood in the Turkish school of hard knocks. Living amid runaway price increases prepares them for a world waking up to the threat of inflation. In a country where resume funding was negligible until 2021, they have learned to operate as efficiently as possible. And they proudly stand behind names that are hard to pronounce in English. As Mr. Salur says: “Do you remember Arnold Schwarzenegger? He has not changed his name. Maybe it’s time to get used to it.

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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “East v West, Venus v Mars”

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