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Making sense of the East-West divide in tech

THANKS TO A venture-capital (VC) boom, it is no longer unusual to find tech unicorns, as unlisted startups valued above $1bn are known, springing up in middle-income countries. However, two coming from Turkey are particularly strange creatures. First, they are big. Trendyol, an e-commerce company, is valued at $16.5bn, giving it the status of a “decacorn” worth $10bn or more. Getir, a pioneer of “superfast” grocery delivery, is reportedly close to joining that select group. Second, they are battle-hardened. Both come from a country wracked by inflation, currency instability and barmy economic policies, any of which can be kryptonite for investors. Most striking, their founders bear no resemblance to archetypal tech bros. Trendyol’s Demet Mutlu is a 39-year-old woman. Getir’s Nazim Salur is a 60-year-old man.

And yet look closely at their two companies, now worth more than almost any listed firm in Turkey, and the differences outweigh the similarities. Fittingly for a country that sees itself as a gateway between the Orient and the West, their view from the Bosporus is Janus-like. One takes its inspiration from China, the other looks to Europe and America. One shuns the spotlight. The other craves it. One wants to turn women into go-getters. The other has the male-sounding mantra of “democratising the right to laziness”. They encapsulate several different dimensions of the tech divide. That makes them intriguing to compare and contrast.

Start with the division between East and West. In simple terms, this represents a choice between Asian-style super-apps and Silicon Valley-style blitzscaling. Trendyol’s biggest backer is Alibaba, and the Chinese e-emporium’s influence runs deep. The Turkish firm shares Alibaba’s marketplace model: it accounts for more than a third of e-commerce in Turkey and provides a platform for trading about $10bn a year of merchandise. Unlike Amazon, the American giant, it sells only a few of its own goods. 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 small-business sellers, who are everywhere in Turkey, on a par with buyers. International expansion, when it comes, will probably be to emerging markets, such as those in eastern Europe and the Middle East. It believes, as Alibaba does, that the super-app potential is greatest in such young, mobile-mad places.

By contrast, Getir’s first international backer was Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, an American VC firm. Aptly, its 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 under ten minutes (unsurprisingly in Istanbul, where few people live more than ten minutes from a shop, many of Mr Salur’s friends wondered at first why they would need it). Discounts help get customers hooked, Mr Salur says. Then, he hopes, the temptation to treat Getir like a personal butler will take over. With competition from America’s Gopuff and Germany’s Gorillas growing, speed is of the essence. Since launching its first international operation in Britain a year ago, the firm has moved through the developed world almost as fast as its purple-and-yellow-clad moped riders dash through the streets of London. It is now in 40 cities in Europe and America, from Barcelona, via Bristol, to Boston.

Mr Salur has long set his sights on penetrating America—and eventually listing the firm there. “If you’re a startup guy, you want to succeed where the startups are,” he says. In true American style, he revels in media attention. Getir welcomed your columnist to a brightly lit depot (“dark store” is a misnomer) under railway arches in South London to see baskets of biscuits and avocados whizzing out the door. Only when discussing the financials of a cash-guzzling business is Mr Salur guarded. He declines to comment on its latest valuation, which Bloomberg reports to be as high as $12bn. “When money is in the bank, you will hear about it.”

Ms Mutlu could not be more different. She has put a China-like media firewall around Trendyol and mostly shuns interview requests. One of the few nuggets commonly repeated about her is that she dropped out of Harvard Business School to set up Trendyol in Turkey. And yet she is more remarkable than that. Besides founding Trendyol, she co-founded another Turkish unicorn, a gaming company sold to San Francisco-based Zynga for $1.8bn in 2020. To put that into perspective: PitchBook, a data gatherer, calculates that of 1,335 unicorns globally, only 185, or just under 14%, have at least one female founder.

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

Ottoman empire-builders

These are heady times for startups everywhere. Both companies are aware that they have thrived at a time when VC funding across the globe is frenzied—and sometimes indiscriminate. Neither is likely to do an initial public offering soon, at least until the valuation shortfall of public versus private markets narrows.

Yet they have also benefited from growing up in Turkey’s school of hard knocks. Living amid galloping price increases prepares them for a world that is reawakening to the menace of inflation. In a country where VC funding was negligible until 2021, they learned to operate leanly. And they stand proudly behind names that are hard-to-pronounce in English. As Mr Salur quips: “Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger? He didn’t change his name.” It may be time to get used to them.

For more expert analysis of the biggest stories in economics, business and markets, sign up to Money Talks, our weekly newsletter.

Read more from Schumpeter, our columnist on global business:
TikTok isn’t silly. It’s serious (Jan 15th 2022)
Glencore’s message to the planet (Jan 1st 2022)
The billionaire battle for the metaverse (Dec 18th 2021)

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

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