Ersin Pamuksuzer. Investor, Founder The LifeCo. Series of interviews with investors in Turkiye n°10.
Dancing. There is no doubt that I love to dance. But who would think of dancing on a startup pitching stage with one of the most remarkable entrepreneurs of Turkiye? In 2015 the very first DemoDay was held by Startup Bootcamp Istanbul after 3 months of acceleration. I was very fortunate to be introduced by Burak Yaman and Bugra Pamuksuzer to Ersin Pamuksuzer. My dance partner on stage. I worked with the Startup Bootcamp team for about 5 months and was master of ceremony at the DemoDay. I remember the Go Project team, a group of international entrepreneurial enthusiasts, compensating the lack of knowledge with enthusiasm and personal skills. The result was that all the startup teams had kind of a personal mentor which boosted the teams forward. It was by far one of the most intense and interesting working periods in Istanbul till now. A discovery also of Ersin Pamuksuzer and the amazing Bugra Pamuksuzer. Indeed family and as well in length as in professional approach opposites. It was for me a kick-start in understanding the startup scene in Istanbul. I cannot say Turkiye, as in the rest of the country this was and is still pretty unknown. Today Startup Bootcamp finished their 3th batch.
Linköping University in Sweden is where you could find Ersin for his university studies, more specific Applied Physics ending as an engineer. It is the start of a stay in Sweden for 14 years. He was the son of a big family where his dad run a retail shop. He chose himself to go this far as he wanted to focus on his studies. No local Turkish gang that could distract him. Focus focus. This is also how I experienced him during Startup Bootcamp. He could be very upset if you were not on it the full 100%. Interesting is that Ersin is a unique mix of the professional approach you see in the north, result driven, combined with the Turkish culture of the boss. Very much top down, emotional. As I said before, I danced with one of the most remarkable investors in Turkiye.
After a short visit to Turkiye, ending his studies successful, he moved back to Sweden and started to work for Ericsson. As operating system software developer, he developed the first admin program you load into the switches. Telco’s were booming in those days, expanding and growing at great speed and Ersin was part of it. And the real big thing had to come yet. Ambition is also part of Ersin’s drive, so he decided to go for a marketing job. It was at Ericsson that the Marcom department offered higher salaries and so he started to study at Uppsala University while working, following Project Management and Marketing. In ’85 he stopped as an engineer and started in the marketing department of Ericsson. It gave him the possibility to add a lot of value here as he had the engineer background. He liked the holistic view on the business and no surprise that the word holistic will come back regularly during the interview. Ersin likes to understand. From all sides.
The Ericsson story continuous. Ersin comes back to Turkiye. Or not exactly as Saudi Arabia is first. He becomes responsible for Middle East, expanding the business here and enjoys the live there for 2,5 years. It was like little Europe in a secured compound. Only going out for shopping or visiting. He was accompanied by his wife he married in ’81. In ’87 they finally moved back to Turkiye and he became Deputy General Manager of Ericsson Turkiye and again to grow the business. By the way, Ericsson sold his first system to Turkiye in 1890, for the Dolmabahce Palace and started an Ericsson division in Izmir in 1925. Ersin would later become General Manager. Between 1999 and 2002 some major initiatives were undertaken by Ersin, which would proof to be very important for Turkiye, for the company and for Ersin. Within Ericsson he initiated the start of Turkcell, Digiturk, and many other –Cells in surrounding countries. Ersin was member of the executive board of Turkcell. In 2002 he retired but he for sure was part of an important (r)evolution in telco in Turkiye. One of the fathers, no doubt.
This retirement didn’t mean enjoying full days at his catamaran in Bodrum. On the contrary. After a personal experience, pushed by friends, he enjoyed very much the detox and wellness programs and in 2003 he started The LifeCo. Again he emphasizes the holistic approach. This time between body and mind, personal and professional. The LifeCo is active in different cities in Turkiye and recently opened in Phuket, Thailand. Numerous international celebrities find their way to one of these centers.
Ersin is an entrepreneur pur sang, no end in sight. He started Living Labs in Bahçesehir, Startup Bootcamp Istanbul, an international accelerator program, Startup Hub, a coworking space in Istanbul and involved in a project, called Funzi, giving vocational training and education for Syrian Refugees. This is after retirement. He describes his drive as a mission in life for humanity. Finding a balance between body, mind and spirit. For Ersin, everything is part of everything, no labels. He enjoys what he is doing. His motto is straightforward: “I do whatever I want”. He does underline that this balance was quite different before 2002.
He describes himself as an ongoing investor, even before the terminology changed into startups. Only the business models changed thanks to the web and technology. Ersin is not afraid of taking risks and acknowledges losing millions of dollars. In 2009 together with other investor he tried to build a smartphone, called Nexus with build-in AI, context aware interface avant la lettre. Failed. You need to put the money and try, there is no other way to a success story. Same with Startup Bootcamp. His road crossed with Gülsüm Çıracı, now Istanbul Startup Angels, and he started with 2 million TL committed on building the acceleration program. There was no example in Turkiye to follow so it was all from the ground up. I was part of the first batch and as you can imagine it had a strong Turkish flavor. After the first batch they also had immediately a first success, not an exit, but Zeplin was selected for Y Combinator and today they are funded 1,3 million USD and moved to San Francisco with still an office in Istanbul. It was not the only great story, many more followed. Startup Bootcamp Istanbul aims to have 50 startups in their portfolio and they have 22 Million TL for this available as they also exercise follow up investments from 250.000 USD to 3 million USD. Next to Ersin there are MV Holding, Gedik Menkul Kiymetler and BAU as important partners and cornerstones.
Ersin most of all puts emphasis on the holistic approach here towards the startups. Next to a more international mix in the selection, 63% is from outside Turkiye, he wants to give a 360° solutions around them. He is not convinced acceleration is enough in Turkiye. Call it nursing as he sees a lot of knowledge missing in the teams and instead of hoping they will get there eventually, he rather creates solutions around them that they can tap in when necessary. So talking about nurses, it is like having your own doctors and medicines in one place. Although I can imagine Ersin would prefer healthy food instead of medicine. This makes Startup Bootcamp and therefore Ersin the biggest pre-seed investor in Turkiye.
When I asked how the return was until today he clearly answered he is not that much interested. His first aim is to create value in society and describes his activity as social enterprise business. He could not give a specific answer to how much he already invested but assured it was millions of dollars. Not the usual answer you get from a Turkish investor.
Going back to the challenges in the local startup ecosystem. What he misses most is a reference frame for startups and talent within the teams. We are not aligned with what happens today outside Turkiye. He sees the need to educate the startups, the mentors and the investors. In Turkiye, Turkish startups see the home market too much as an end goal, not adapting to the international scene. Ersin refers to Sweden where he sees a very adaptive eco system. Most countries, like Sweden, have a smaller home market so they automatically align with the international market. We cannot pass by the lack of English and Ersin points once more to the right mindset which we are missing in the Turkish startup ecosystem. He points less at education. Don’t forget that he decided himself to go abroad where there is no reference to the Turkish homeland. I remember from working with Ersin that he appreciates more the stubborn startup who was defending his choices than the ones that were just talking to his mouth. He would be kind in most times, but he would forget you as soon as you walked out of the door. He was more interested by “characters”, “doers”, “pushers”. There is no doubt that Ersin himself does not fit with the other investors in Turkiye . He build an ecosystem around him and his businesses that went for impact and professionalism. And that never finishes as he always puts the bar high. Every day.
The happiness question. He knows the question and has the answer ready. Whatever you do is aligned with the purpose of your existence. And the purpose is described as good. For an engineer Ersin is pretty philosophic in his approach to his live, his family and his business. I don’t know the Ersin before 2002 but it is clear that he went through a moment of self-reflection and went on that road of self-exploration. His approach to business, money, and all factual items is always brought back to his own philosophic view. Not the businessman you might expect, but always intriguing.
Patrick Bosteels, Stage-Co Co-Founder
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