As co-founder and CEO, Hande Çilingir has led her marketing-technology company Insider to expand into 26 markets, employing 1,000 staff worldwide
The biggest risk Hande Çilingir ever took also proved to be her company’s biggest competitive advantage. The Turkish entrepreneur chose to establish Insider in Singapore and it has grown over the past 10 years into a leading marketing technology provider that helps some of the world’s biggest brands accelerate digital growth through cross-channel customer experiences.
“The decision to start in Asia first, where we had absolutely no experience, practice or knowledge about the local regulations, was a very big risk,” Çilingir says. “But we knew it was a very high potential market for our industry—B2B SaaS (Software as a Service) marketing technology—as there was low competition. This turned out to be our competitive advantage. Thanks to that, we started working with Singapore Airlines, L’Oreal and other big global brands in Asia, which then helped us expand into global deals too.”
Indeed, this early business bet was right on the money, as Insider achieved unicorn status in March of this year. The company was valued in excess of US$1.2 billion in a Series D round that saw it raise US$121 million via capital injections from the likes of Sequoia Capital and Riverwood Capital.
Today, Insider operates in 26 markets with 1,000 staff globally and boasts an enviable roster of clients including Samsung, Toyota, Unilever, Ikea and Estée Lauder.
Çilingir, a London School of Economics and Political Science graduate, has been named one of the top three female CEOs outside of the US by Crunchbase, among a host of other prestigious accolades. But hers is certainly not your typical startup success story.
“Discipline and work ethic are crucial for any business, but it’s even more important for a startup coming from [a] very humble, underdog background. We built [Insider] outside of Silicon Valley and we wanted to prove to the world that [this kind of company] can come from any part of the world,” she shares.
In fact, Insider did the startup journey “in reverse”, says Çilingir. Currently in a hypergrowth phase since unlocking unicorn status, Insider has only just recently penetrated the US market and is expanding fast into new geographical regions.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, its indomitable CEO subscribes to a punishing routine of ultra-early mornings, workdays that rarely end before midnight and sheer hard work in between. “We always work like our lives depend on it,” she states.
“There’s zero optionality and that gives us unbeatable focus. Discipline is important at every level—self-discipline, team discipline, company-level discipline—and it comes from your roots and trickles down to the entire organisation, so you need to lead by example as the CEO and work the hardest yourself.”
When you have joy at work, you don’t need to escape anything, you don’t need a break from anything
Has she ever felt like throwing in the towel when times get particularly tough, though? “There were hard moments, but [I] never even thought [I] had the luxury of giving up. Entrepreneurs, by nature, are very driven people. We keep going in the hardest times, not just for ourselves but for others. When we feel the collective effort of the people who have brought us to this day, we feel a very big responsibility,” Çilingir explains.
While the notion of work-life balance may not be on her agenda or even in her vernacular, she does champion “work-life integration”. Rather than seeing work and life as separate components, the sports enthusiast believes in living an “integrated life” that brings more enjoyment and fulfilment.
Says the budding DJ, who surprised all her staff when she performed at Insider’s last summer party: “When you have joy at work, you don’t need that balance because you don’t need to escape anything, you don’t need a break from anything. You have your dreams and you’re running towards them.”