By Pieter Kemps and Rohit Agarwal
Four years after partnering with Insider for the first time, Sequoia Capital India is psyched to participate in the company’s $121 million Series D round, which values the company at more than $1.2 billion. When we first met in 2018, they told us about their company, their people. “We are romantics”, they said. “We never heard that from a company before”, we replied. Then, Hande Cilingir, the founder and CEO, said something that we have since heard very often during our journey together: “Pieter, I understand that. But this is Insider. This is different.”
This is Insider. This is different.
A SaaS company that originated in Turkey, led by a female founder, active in 15+ countries, with close to 50% of revenue in APAC and their HQ in Singapore. It was 2018 and although the company was still early in its journey, they showed us some of the best SaaS metrics we had ever seen. They were on a mission to help marketers create individualized customer experiences, and had a customer list that would make any Enterprise SaaS company envious: Singapore Airlines, L’Oreal, Huawei, Accenture, Domino’s, Unilever, Samsung, and the list goes on. We looked at these customers, the metrics, the passion of the team, and quickly realized that Hande was right…
This is different.
But much of the team was still in Istanbul. Outside our core geographical focus. This led to some heated debate internally, but the performance of the business looked too good to ignore. So we got on a plane to Istanbul to meet the rest of the team. A team with an average age less than 25 years old, that was not from Silicon Valley, and had never built a SaaS business. But what they lacked in exposure or experience, they more than made up in passion, work ethic, and original thinking. A truly mission-driven team.
One anecdote from that trip stood out. Over lunch on the first day, Hande asked us: “Would you like to join us for a celebration this evening? We will announce our new shareholders.” My jaw dropped. We were still learning more about the company, had not made a final decision on whether to invest, and definitely not wired any money yet. So how could they announce Sequoia as their new shareholder? She could see the confusion on my face.
So Hande explained: “No, we won’t announce Sequoia yet. For us, shareholders means something else. Stock options (ESOP) in Insider are not just transactional, not just monetary. Rather, we believe that being a shareholder has a truly profound meaning. You are a key stakeholder. You are an owner. And becoming an owner is something truly special, only for those who stand out. So twice a year, we announce our new ‘share-owners’.”
We attended the event that evening. Employees from across the company, at different levels, were called on stage by their manager, their performance and virtues explained to the crowd while they were being cheered on. There was lots of emotion. Tears even. The sense of purpose and belonging was palpable. And again, we thought…
This is different.
Their culture of care extends beyond the company boundaries. This became clear during the heights of COVID. When there were over 250,000 cases per day in India, most of Sequoia India was in the war room working with ACT Grants to help where possible. Oxygen was badly needed, but no one could deliver. Through hard work, six oxygen plants were identified at a manufacturer, which happened to be in Turkey. We called Insider. Their CMO, Merve, picked up and heard the story. Suddenly, a whirlwind of activity emerged. It seemed like Merve and a whole team in Insider dropped whatever they were working on. They visited the supplier, did on the ground diligence, ensured everything checked out and even secured additional oxygen plants. Within days, they were being shipped to India, under guidance from Team Insider. With banners that read “With great sincerity, from Turkey to the people of India”. This was literally life-saving, and we are still grateful for this act of compassion.
But Insider’s culture is not just warm and romantic. It is also ambitious. Determined. Hande won’t go into a meeting without a clear objective. And she’ll persevere. Co-founder Serhat Soyuerel is always hustling, and doesn’t stop until he succeeds. Example: two years ago, he tried to hire a Country Manager in Australia, but lost out. “Mark my words: he’ll join us at some stage.” He never gave up. That same candidate just joined Insider to run Australia. Merve has shown the same relentlessness. Some time ago, she asked: “How should we engage with analysts like Gartner, Forrester, and G2?” And look at it now: topping the charts at several of Gartner’s Magic Quadrants and G2’s Grids, often accompanied by much larger players like Salesforce, Adobe, Oracle and others.
Over the years, we encountered many examples like this while going through the company building journey together. We worked closely on the messaging and positioning, launching Insider globally as the leading Growth Management Platform. We worked together to win new customers, to hire the best talent, to launch new markets like Korea, Japan, and the US. We played football with Insider’s engineering team in Istanbul, followed by a midnight meal of Turkish soup. We had dinner with the local teams in Tokyo and Amsterdam. And we traveled together in India, for Sequoia’s annual PitStop event.
And as we worked together, we truly got to know Hande, Serhat and the other co-founders. They often held strong opinions. We didn’t always agree. Butting heads sometimes. But that’s ok. The intent was always right. And the purpose was clear: to show the world that a $100 million revenue SaaS business can be built from Turkey. Or from anywhere. And the way they are going about it, offers some valuable lessons for founders around the world, who are trying to succeed at the global stage:
Be ambitious – Believe in yourself and dare to dream big. Whatever your origins, dare to dream big. Know that you can build a global business, even if you feel that it’s against all odds.
Be relentless – things won’t be easy. You’ll be up against the best of the best, from around the world. It takes tenacity and perseverance. Constant hustle. And so it’s all about being relentless.
Be mission-driven – the strong culture and sense of purpose was always obvious, whoever we met. Everyone has a deep sense of belonging, and would go through fire for each other. Build a culture like that. Be missionary not mercenary. And ensure that everyone goes the extra mile.
Be different – learn what you can from the best global SaaS companies, but don’t blindly follow someone else’s playbook. Rather, focus on first principle thinking. Be authentic and play your own game.
With this new round of funding, the company is well on its way to accelerate growth and achieve its ambitious goals – and more – over the next few years. And I’m sure they’ll do it in ways that we hadn’t anticipated. I am sure, in a few years, we’ll look back and once again say:
This is Insider. This is different.