As a bridge between Europe and Asia, the Turkish city has more to offer globally minded entrepreneurs than breathtaking sights and a rich history.
You might not think of Istanbul as a startup hub to rival the likes of Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv, but there’s a reason the city has been dubbed the Digital Bosphorus: Its e-commerce niche is growing rapidly, with players like Yemek Sepeti getting plenty of attention.
The online food ordering platform has raised approximately $47 million in funding, from investors like the New York City-based private equity firm General Atlantic and Endeavor Catalyst. The company now has more than 3.5 million registered users all over Turkey and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, through a second site it operates called FoodOnClick.com.
Critically located at the intersection of Europe and Asia, it’s little wonder that Istanbul made Inc.’s shortlist of the top “Global Cities of the Future.” Considering the city’s geographic advantages, among other attributes, it’s more than conceivable that you could find yourself en route to Turkey soon.
Before you make the trek, here are a handful of things to know about Istanbul’s burgeoning startup scene:
1. The cost of living is lower than you’d expect.
Unlike some of the world’s more notable e-hubs–think New York City or London–Istanbul’s cost of living and average income is relatively low. Just ask Peri Kadaster, the director of marketing and strategy at Istanbul-based mobile software company Monitise. After relocating to Istanbul from San Francisco in 2013, she calls the difference “night and day,” with Istanbul offering businesses a “huge talent [and] cost arbitrage opportunity.”
Good news for travelers on a budget: There are plenty of affordable restaurants in Istanbul that fuse the best of Eastern and Western cuisine. And if you find yourself with an afternoon to spare, you can book a seat on a Bosphorus cruise for less than $50, with views of historic sights like the Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque in the Old City.
2. The population is young, smart, and social media savvy.
Kadaster was shocked when her 11-year-old Turkish cousin informed her that “Facebook is for old people.” The comment, said Kadaster, points to an important trend: Half of the Turkish populace (roughly 75 million people) is under the age of 30, and individuals are well connected to the internet. Turkey is one of the most active markets for Twitter. To wit, even when the microblogging site was blocked during the country’s latest political election, people continued to tweet, according to NBC News.
3. There’s plenty of engineering talent.
There are several universities in Istanbul that are churning out technical talent for startups, including Yildiz Technical University and Istanbul Technical University, which is ranked No. 165 in the world out of 400, on the basis of excellence in teaching, research, citations, industry income, and international outlook. Other schools, like Bahcesehir University, are opening up branches in New York City and Silicon Valley, thus giving students access to potential investors and networking opportunities.
4. Turkish culture is still warming up to entrepreneurship.
Turks tend to be more risk averse than Americans, according to Kadaster. She grew up in the U.S. but would frequently visit family in Istanbul before she made the move there herself.
Still, it’s important to remember that the Turkish startup scene is young: It’s only about eight years old, with just five acquisitions of startups to date, according to the nonprofit global entrepreneurship support organization Endeavor. Endeavor’s Turkish branch has helped grow companies like Yemek Sepeti, Monitise, and Peak Games, a global mobile gaming site, into multimillion-dollar ventures since Endeavor Turkey was founded in 2006.
5. Women are making progress.
Kadaster used to live and work in the bro-centric culture of Silicon Valley. In Istanbul, by contrast, she says, “Every room I’m in, there’s basically a mix of men and women.” That may have something to do with the gender ratio at Turkish universities: 54 percent of students are women, according to Didem Altop, Endeavor Turkey’s female co-founder. “There’s a really unique role for women to play in the entrepreneurship scene,” she added, especially given that “women are looking for more mission-driven careers.”
6. Venture capital is growing.
While the venture capital scene in Turkey is relatively nascent, it’s growing fast. There are approximately 10 homegrown VC firms in Istanbul alone, which each make an average of six investments per year, Endeavor’s Altop told Inc.
Kadaster, when asked about the VC landscape in Istanbul, perhaps said it best: “No matter where you are, good ideas will always get capital.”