Lessons Learned Over a Decade of Supporting High-Impact Entrepreneurs in Turkey

Reflections from Endeavor Turkey founding Managing Director Didem Altop

After more than a decade, founding Endeavor Turkey Managing Director Didem Altop has passed the baton to her successor, Aslı Türkmen. Didem has been a tireless champion of entrepreneurship in Turkey, from Endeavor Turkey’s 2006 launch to its recent roll hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Istanbul in April. During Didem’s tenure, Endeavor Turkey emerged as one of the most important entrepreneurship organizations in the country, selecting 94 high impact entrepreneurs from a diverse range of industries, 17% of whom are women. We recently asked Didem to reflect on what she learned during her journey.

After more than 12 years at the helm of Endeavor Turkey, there are so many milestones to celebrate, so many people to thank and so many lessons to share. Summarizing my most treasured insights into a single blog post might just be my most challenging project at Endeavor yet! To start, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about championing a high impact ecosystem.

Words Matter
When we launched Endeavor Turkey with a formal press conference on December 6, 2006, it was a turning point in the Turkish business community. On the stage there were the rising stars of the next generation of “corporate” leadership; there were a few entrepreneurs among the mix of our founding board members, but even they did not refer to themselves as “entrepreneurs” at the time. Sitting in the audience, startups were skeptical that these corporate leaders would only act in self-service. Potential mentor network members were skeptical that we would suck up their time with requests for funding with weak ideas and juvenile teams. And media representatives were both genuinely intrigued and deeply confused by our message about high impact entrepreneurs, mentors and economic impact.

We started with language, defining and promoting new terms and concepts every single day for over two years. What is entrepreneurship? What is high-impact entrepreneurship? How is this different from small business ownership? What is mentorship? How is this different from consulting and coaching? What is networking? Why should people spend time talking to “strangers”? What is “angel” investing? Aren’t most investors actually “devils”? What is venture capital? Isn’t this like private equity? Isn’t venture capital only for rich countries? What is “mentor capital” and why is it a precursor to “venture capital”? What do we mean by the “role model effect”? Why should we celebrate and explore another’s success?

When the words don’t exist, the concepts don’t exist. When the concepts don’t exist, then the behaviors and cultural attitudes don’t exist. Major Insight #1: Words matter.

Optimization is better than maximization
“Let’s engage ALL the entrepreneurs as candidates for Endeavor. Let’s recruit ALL the business leaders as mentors. Let’s convert ALL the owners of capital into investors.” HALT! This approach does not work.

As we embarked on building the Endeavor Turkey community, we started with 32 truly respected C-level business leaders, established entrepreneurs, business consultants and financial advisers in our mentor network. Let’s call them the Movers. Our original value proposition to the Movers was: “Do a little good. Have a little fun.” We intentionally did not initially ask them to consider becoming investors. We wanted them to invest their time, experience and networks. We wanted them to both lend their voice and learn something new. We promised to use their time wisely.

We needed the mentors in place before we could engage the scale up candidates — let’s call them the Shakers. Indeed, our original value proposition to the Shakers was access to this trustworthy network of expertise. We intentionally did not position the Shakers as “beneficiaries” but rather as partners of Endeavor’s efforts in building the ecosystem. We promised to use their time carefully.

Ultimately, the Movers and Shakers were invited to participate actively in a give-and-take community based on both mentoring and reverse mentoring. By our second year of operations we had doubled our mentor capacity to more than 60 mentors, which also expanded our scouting capabilities. But we quickly got ahead of ourselves. In our third year, we wanted to grow Endeavor bigger, faster. We hosted a series of mentor recruiting events and tripled our mentor capacity to 180 members. And then we hit a wall. On the one hand, there weren’t enough qualified entrepreneurs to engage all these mentors actively with conviction. On the other hand, the new mentors weren’t being vetted and onboarded as effectively. And simultaneously, both the mentors and the entrepreneurs were still struggling with how to resolve the access to capital dilemma.

The downside was that we needed to revisit our capacity planning strategy. The upside was that the most active Movers and Shakers really had transformed into Endeavor’s partners. It was both stakeholder groups asking Endeavor, in unison, to do something about mobilizing local capital. Thus, in our fourth year, our angel investing workshop program in Turkey was born, coinciding with the launch of the Endeavor Global Investor Network initiative worldwide. And by our fifth year, many of our most active mentors and entrepreneurs were involved in pioneering the first local angel network groups and early stage VCs.

Sometimes, you have to set the stage to let epiphanies bloom on their own rather than forcing them to emerge. If we had explicitly pushed our initial group of mentors to consider becoming investors when we first engaged them with Endeavor, many would have been reluctant to participate in the network. But their personal experiences in mentoring talented entrepreneurs increased their own appetite for risk and nurtured a desire to become a more integral part of the entrepreneurs’ success stories.

The bonding experience between the Movers and Shakers — both professional and personal — also helped us achieve a cultural paradigm shift between owners of capital and doers. Typically, cash is king and workers are subordinates. But this power dynamic does not work in entrepreneurship ecosystems. Investors and entrepreneurs need to be peers in pursuing common goals.

The best mentors attract the best entrepreneurs. The best entrepreneurs convert the mentors into investors. The investors accelerate the entrepreneurs even further. The entrepreneurs give back to the ecosystem by becoming mentors and investors themselves. They are all role models. It is a collaborative effort. When growing an ecosystem, start small, be deliberate, grow strong, then cross pollinate new verticals. Major Insight #2: Optimization is better than maximization.

Partnership is often the boldest form of leadership
In the beginning, there was nothing. So, Endeavor did a little bit of everything. Over time, other ecosystem support organizations evolved to fill in the gaps. Today in Turkey, there are a handful of high-performing incubators, accelerators, angel networks, early stage VCs, co-working spaces, competitions and event organizers supporting entrepreneurship across various stages and verticals. Many of them were initiated and continue to be supported by Endeavor community members. All of them are sibling organizations. And, in due course, Endeavor was regularly prompted to continuously reinvent and realign itself as a high-impact entrepreneur support organization and its role as an ecosystem builder.

Our original definition of scale-ups has evolved from helping the startup with $100,000 get to $1 million, then from $1 million to $10 million. Today, we are focused on helping the $10 million scale-up get to $100 million. Tomorrow, we will move even further upstream to help the $100 million scale-up break the $1 billion revenue threshold. As the ecosystem matures, so too does Endeavor’s community and service offerings.

The hard part is to let go of “owning” signature programs that other ecosystem players are now replicating effectively. The creative and challenging part is designing new signature programs to keep deepening and expanding the ecosystem. The liberating part is discovering that we can do more, together, as partners. A healthy ecosystem truly does require an open mind and willingness to collaborate. This is contrary to local cultural paradigms where partnerships are not the norm. It is an honor to lead a new initiative. It is a greater honor to successfully bring diversified stakeholders together around a set of principles to pursue even more ambitious common goals. Major Insight #3: Partnership is often the boldest form of leadership.

Blog posts are supposed to be short and sweet. Next time, I’ll share some insights about team building, entrepreneurs and agenda setting. Here’s a teaser in any case:

Major Insight #4: Managing up & serving down is more fun — and effective — than the reverse.

Major Insight #5: Entrepreneurs who appreciate process management as much as achieving results are the ones who survive and thrive.

Major insight #6: Listening and feedback are an art. Persuasion and advocacy are a science.

Endeavor is both a beautiful community and an inspiring movement filled with magical moments. Thank you to everyone who has been a part of my work family for over a decade. May the Endeavor story keep unfolding brilliantly with love and respect to all who find their way here.