11:12 | 05.12.17 | Interviews | exclusive 109453

Rina Onur: Armenia’s small population produces global tech solutions

In October, Tumo Center for Creative Technologies hosted HIVE Summit 2017, attended by San Francisco-based 500 Startups accelerator Partner Rina Onur.

Onur, who co-founded Peak Games, manages 500 Startups Istanbul. Itel.am talked with her about her visit to Armenia and its results.

- How much did you know about Armenian tech before this visit?

- I have seen a lot of Armenian diaspora in Silicon Valley and around the world. Because of the Ex-soviet influence, the education, computer science, engineering level here is super high.

One thing that’s interesting about Armenia is that the entrepreneurs in a lot of bigger countries (in terms of population) tend to focus on building regional or local businesses, because they think their home market is big enough. With Armenia, the population is not that big, a lot of really highly skilled and talented engineers start from day one to create something that’s global, which is really exciting. Look at what PicsArt has achieved!

Rina Onur and Narine Daneghyan Rina Onur and Narine Daneghyan
photo © Mediamax

The exciting thing about these ecosystems is that examples like PicsArt firstly create a hope for other entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams, and secondly, an ecosystem within themselves. Early employees of PicsArt could go out and build their own companies in a couple of years, so that’s how an ecosystem starts, which is why it’s exciting to be here right now.

- If we compare Armenia and Turkey, do they have similarities in the tech ecosystem?

- I see similarities, but I would say, because Turkey has an 80m population, Turkish entrepreneurs think they could be the Uber or Airbnb of Turkey, and that’s a very limiting approach. I think that would work five years ago, when international companies would want to come to Turkey and buy these copycat startups, but not anymore. Now Amazon is launching in Turkey without having to buy a local copycat or competitor.

I think like Israel, like Estonia, like Armenia, Turkish entrepreneurs need to think globally and try to create technologies or services that work outside of their borders. I admire Armenia for that.

- Do you know any Armenian entrepreneurs working in Turkey now?

- Armenian population in Turkey is not that large. Programmers have good careers, working for amazing companies, although the tech ecosystem is very narrow. I know very good Armenian entrepreneurs building businesses in the Bay Area and actually HIVE has invested in a multiple of them. I’m interested in a couple of them.

- Many are only aware of 500 startups as a San Francisco-based accelerator, but as far as I know, they work in other directions as well.

- They do a couple of things in the world. They have an accelerator, they do direct investments and ecosystem development around the world.  With the direct investments and ecosystem development, they’ve started to create these micro funds ranging from USD 10m to USD 30m funds that invest either in that country or in that region.

Rina Onur Rina Onur

500 Startups Istanbul is looking at deals from Eastern Europe to Armenia, and that’s why I’m here. I want to find good Armenian entrepreneurs, invest in them and help them grow abroad if they need.

We are going to keep in touch with startups we met in Armenia and introduce them to right people, help them with mentoring.

- You are the co-founder of Peak Games, the largest online and mobile gaming company in Turkey and MENA. Is it hard to become a successful woman entrepreneur in Turkey?

- I don’t think it is easy for women anywhere in the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming from an emerging market or the Bay area.

The power imbalance between male and female specialists in a number of industries is ranging from tech to entertainment. So I think it’s great that we’re thinking openly about having more balance in tech companies between men, women and minorities. We’re in the right direction but we have a very long way to go.

I remember when I was starting my startup with my co-founders. I was very young, around 23 years old. It was hard for me, so I worked three times more as compared to my peers to make sure that we achieved what we needed to achieve. I like to push my goals through.

So yes it’s not easy, but there is a way. You need to stop complaining that it is so hard and everything is against you. Thing are getting better, there’s hope, so you have to keep pushing.

-What were the early stage mistakes and difficulties that you have faced as a startup founder?

-We were a tiny team but we got funding from two European venture capital firms very early on. With all that money we immediately started recruiting people, so the company grew from 3 to 50 people in a matter of weeks. It was so weird that sometimes I would forget the names of new people because we were joined by around six people every day.

I was lucky enough to have had these really experienced investors who became mentors and board members. We would maybe have made huge mistakes if there weren’t our investors.

- Based on your experience on receiving applications from startups, what are the common mistakes that startups make while filling in the application?

-When VCs, investors or accelerators consider a startup, they look at five different criteria: the team, target market, the company’s technology, defensibility, traction and terms.

Rina Onur Rina Onur
photo © Mediamax

You have to be able to tell us who your team is and why it is the best group of people to tackle a given problem and create a given product.

Secondly, we need to see that you understand your market, your audience, the competitive landscape or its absence and the reasons why that could happen.

Further we need to see that your company offers a defensible technology, so if you’re in a highly overcrowded market, it’s going to be pretty tough for you to distinguish yourself from your competitors, especially if your product offering is the same. We don’t like those types of businesses. We look for businesses that are unique with a different approach to solving a problem.

And the last important thing that you need to know is that we don’t invest in the idea stage. We want to see either prototype or working version and how users are interacting with your product or service. So those are the four aspects that sometimes startups don’t explain to us, and that’s why the application process goes sour.

-Solutions on artificial intelligence are trending nowadays. In your view, as an investor, is it a must for the startup to have some level of artificial intelligence solutions?

-It’s not an obligation. Obviously, if we look at the past 12 months, I have mostly made investments in companies using AI and MC learning to some capacity. For example, 10 years ago people could come and say that they were going to start a mobile company, while today it’s a stupid thing to say, because everything is mobile now. I believe in 5-10 years down the road that’s what AI is going to be.

Narine Daneghyan talked to Rina Onur
Photos by Emin Aristakesyan