Sinan Güler, Professional Basketball Player, Social Entrepreneur, Angel Investor. Series of interviews with investors in Turkiye n°16.

Sports at school. When I think of it, it has always been treated like not necessary. Students had to be happy with 1 or 2 hours of sports during a whole week, constantly discussed by the principals to cut to the minimum while students want more and most parents had no vision about it. Especially in middle school much debated as so-called “did not bring value” to the knowledge acquisition. We did learn so-called important expressions like a Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body, but not from an experience point of view. The Greek showed us long ago but humankind is not always to keen to learn from experience and repeat what is good. We rather think we know better today then we knew 1000s of years ago. One would forget that we, as hunter-gatherers, evolved to run great distances hunting prey and gathering food thanks to the fact that we can jump on one leg. Our primate cousins never succeeded in this. Jumping is also what you need in basketball, and I have no idea how high he can jump, already being tall, but Sinan Güler used his physical and intellectual capacities in becoming a world-class basketball player.

Sinan went to Salt Lake Community College, Utah, US, after finishing Boğazici High School and Bilgi University in Istanbul. He is one of the top Alumni mentioned on their website, showing already appreciation for his talent and hard work. Following, he went to Caroll College, Helena, Montana, where you can find the same appreciation. I quote from their website: ‘’Former Carroll Basketball player Sinan Güler was named the recipient of the 2016 Osman Solakoğlu Public Service through Basketball Award.’’ He finished Business and Management Administration. Meanwhile, of course, performing as a talented basketball player. He is not alone in the family. His older brother, Muratcan Güler is also playing as a professional and of course their father. Necati Güler, born 1956 in Kayseri. A reputed Turkish national basketball player and manager. That last part is not to be forgotten. He was managing many clubs after his playing career.

He started his professional basketball career in Darrüşşafaka in 2006. The sacrifices in all those years are quite impressive playing and training for 350 days a year and 1 free day every 2 weeks. The results are also great of course entering the National team in 2008 and captain for 2 years. The NBA didn’t work out for Sinan, the competition is hard and he felt not experienced enough when it came in his direction. 
As a family, completely engulfed in the basketball game as a profession, they decided to use these experiences to create the Guler Legacy. Their mission, and I quote:’’ is to bring the power of sports to everyone with the projects we produce by combining sports and science; to raise well-educated athletes both mentally and physically by providing lifelong sustainable skills to future generations.’’. This is truly remarkable, considering the time they spend on the field. I definitely love the fact that the Gulen Legacy opens to the whole of Türkiye and abroad. In 2014 for the summer camp, they hosted young athletes from 5 different countries and 15 cities of Türkiye. Very impressive.

Believe it or not but Sinan also found the time to join his life with his loved one becoming his wife in 2017. During the brief talk we had, I saw a very enthusiast and open person in front of me sharing his life and dreams with me. The more I understood all the sacrifices he endured to stay at a high professional level, I got more and more impressed and we still needed to touch the startup world, another activity he discovered through a project he was supporting: an online sneaker shop. An extra investment was needed and he introduced his team to GBA, Galata Business Angels, where he observed how they handled the whole process of pitching and investing. He met with Joachim Behrend, who founded at that time BİC Angels. Sinan was quite impressed by the professional approach of Joachim and in 2013 he joined BIC Angels. One of the first startups that intrigued him were Connected2.me, a success story that started in Ankara, Türkiye. Sinan also understands the importance of location, meaning where you start your business and towards which international markets you want to reach out. He is the living proof as he started in Türkiye, explored and learned in the US and came back to Türkiye to find himself at the highest level.

The biggest challenge he sees is the attitude in the startups he meets and talks to. The teams are young and in Türkiye too often in survival modus. Patience is definitely lacking, may be related to the survival mood. ‘’Now’’ is the drive and it looks easy to collect money. And it is not in Türkiye. For Sinan an interesting process to discover, knowing how much hard work is needed to achieve success. Language is also a problem, the lack of English limits enormously the chances of success in the startup ecosystem and more importantly, growing internationally. Sinan was lucky he went to schools in English and again I like to point out that parents have great influence on the future of their kids, most of the time touching a world they have never known themselves. Sinan and his brother were lucky in that sense with parents who saw beyond what most know. İn that sense Sinan likes the young people to go abroad and enrich their knowledge and skills. Something that is encouraged and put into practice in the Guler Legacy organisation.

Sinan also shines his light on the peer pressure that exists in Türkiye, a driving force to have too many opinions, killing entrepreneurship at the start. He sees 2 important qualities to become a good entrepreneur: be curious and have courage. Break the chain that you feel blocking you. This means overcoming your fears and see failure as a learning. All these qualities can be found in his own career. Imagine at young age going to the US and being confronted with a totally different culture and still succeed as a student and basketball player. He used a term I seldom use myself: propagate, go for it. Definitely what we also push forward when explaining The Lean Startup method. Sinan ended this part of the conversation with wise words, especially for the MEA region, let us not talk about what divides us, but let’s talk about what connects us. Couldn’t agree more.

Talking about investments in startups, he shares with me that his ticket size is around 250.000 Tl or 50.000 US Dollar with investments in 12 startups. Seen his busy schedule he is forced to do his follow up based on regular reports, some more detailed than others. Sinan focuses on IoT but is open to any good opportunity. Next to his investment in money, he can also offer his strength in PR, from network to knowledge. He preferred to pass by BIC Angels as he liked the way Joachim set up the reporting but moved to Keiretsu Forum as BIC Angels stopped the main activities in Türkiye with Joachim moving to Berlin. Sinan is getting more involved and in that way can also judge better what works and what doesn’t work. He would love to see more professionalism and get rid of the garbage on all sides, startups, investors and mentors. He underlines again that the team is important with an attitude that shows curiosity and courage. Less çay (black tea) and more work. Here he also sees the role of education that is still not in line with what startups and entrepreneurs need. Sinan still sees too much business based on family connectıons and he is still baffled how Rocket entered Türkiye and just as fast went out. Entered in 2011, 400 persons working in İstanbul and out in 2012. The good thing was that from these 400 persons, some great founders stood up. Of course, that was mainly about e-commerce while also Sinan sees a lack of AR and AI and other tech-based startups.

Sinan assumes the current wave of investors and startups as a second wave going trough Türkiye after Yemeksepeti, acquired by Delivery Hero for $589 million in May 2015 and Gittigidiyor, which was acquired by eBay for $217 million in April 2011, to name some big ones. At the same time, there is a lack of the follow-up investments to get local startups the power and runway to grow internationally. I heard again the role model importance but at the same time, we can not deny that we have them already. Somehow, in my opinion, we forget fast combined with the fact that those who exited are not connected to initiatives that really support entrepreneurship. I only know of Sina Afrın with girisimcilikvakfi.org aiming at youth and entrepreneurship culture.

Coming to the happiness question, first on his private life. Could not not ask how long he will continue playing basket, knowing what hard labour it represents. Sinan estimated 5 years. As you can imagine, seen his past, family and health are very important for him. Not numeric assets, but value based assets. As a final statement on personal happiness is the question he is asking himself: did I do everything in the best way possible? That’s pretty philosophic and also represents our talk very good. Sinan looks forward but never denies the past and is not too afraid to question anything. He is confident but at the same time open-minded and very reasonable. This conversation could have gone way longer and even deeper.
Happiness in business actually starts with the reflection of Sinan that he is influenced by the Stoic philosophy. This also explains the private happiness. Sinan wants to create value, thinking about the future but in the first place put stuff in action. Stoicism is in a revival modus and I personally think that is a good thing especially the updated one. For Sinan, this is a way of living and seen his curious nature he is reading a lot. Next on the plate is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where self-actualisation is the highest level. He likes to see himself in a mutual influence with close peers and an even bigger impact thanks to his sport. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has five levels and each level needs satisfaction before you can level-up. I assume for Sinan the helping others in their human behaviour and motivation helps him too in his self-actualisation but the fact that you are aware is pretty extraordinary. In that sense, Sinan does not go for material success but for good health and the material need to sustain that health. In his view, material value changes, it is short-term satisfaction. Sinan sees private and business happiness in the same league I understood.

I kept the interview for a year in my notebook but I could still remember the conversation very good. Some people just touch you and Sinan surely did. Success my friend in anything you want to achieve.

Investments of Sinan Güler: Connected2.me, The Meditation App(Meditopia), Fongogo, Bionluk, Fithletic, Sweaters, Ceotudent, Inovatink, Monument, StartupMarket.co, Hızlı Çeviri, Temizlik Yolda, First Vision, Erasmus Inn, Wordego.

Patrick Bosteels, Stage-Co Co-Founder

patrick@stage-co.com

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