IVCA Profile: Serhat Cicekoglu, Founder & Managing Director of Sente International Business Accelerator, on Their Upcoming Demo Day

IVCA Profile: Serhat Cicekoglu, Founder & Managing Director of Sente International Business Accelerator, on Their Upcoming Demo Day

August 4, 2015

The IVCA series on accelerators and enterprises at “1871” – the technology and business development center at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago – continues with Sente International Business Accelerator, part of the Sente Advisory Services. Their residence at 1871 is culminating in a Demo Day on Thursday, August 20th, 2015 (details below the profile). The term “Sente” is derived from a Chinese game of strategy, and it means taking upon a competitive initiative to control the game. Sente specializes in developing entrepreneurship from Turkey and other emerging international sources.

Sente’s philosophy is summed up in their mission statement...”Between the idea and the achievement, the most important variable is the plan that defines ‘how’ the company will operate. ‘How’ is the definition of the competitive advantage that sets successful companies apart from their global and increasingly complex competition.” The Founder and Managing Director of Sente Advisory, Serhat Cicekoglu, spoke with the IVCA on the origins and philosophies of his firm, and gave a preview of the upcoming Demo Day.

IVCA: Sente Advisory began in 2008. What is the origin of the firm and how did the International Business Accelerator spin out of the Advisory group?

Serhat Cicekoglu: I founded Sente Advisory in 2008 by to help Turkish firms to develop their go-to-market strategies to enter U.S. commerce. It was our way of helping to strengthen an emerging economy. Starting in 2012, the firm started to focus on start-ups and developed an accelerator program to create a bridge between Turkey and the U.S. ecosystem.

IVCA: The philosophy of your Advisory group and International Business Accelerator is to define 'how' a company will 'execute.' What factors are within that philosophy, and how did Sente identify it as one of their core approaches to a start up business process?

Cicekoglu: There are several different factors we look for in a start-up. First, the company needs to have at least a beta product ready for delivery –  it cannot be in the development stage. They also need to have a product or service that is marketable outside of their home country, particularly in the U.S. The final initial factor we look for is that they can commit to the program full-time – it is a period of an intensive few months, and the entrepreneurs need to be dedicated and follow every session, training, and mentor meeting.  

After these requirements are met, the program takes 20 selected start-ups through a process of validating their business model, executing an extensive competitive analysis, and helps them with an analysis of the resources they need by creating their unit model. 

IVCA: For your Demo Day, you brought a group of entrepreneurs from the country of Turkey for a three week stay at '1871.' What was your process for developing these businesses, and how do you find them?

Cicekoglu: The Demo Day businesses that will be coming to 1871 from Istanbul continue to get our help, but while in the U.S. our focus is on business development and partnerships. We train them on fundamentals of business development in U.S., and help them develop a business development plan that initially and specifically focuses on the Midwest.

They are the final eight from an initial group of over 150 applicants through ‘ITU ARI Teknokent’ – a techno-park located at Istanbul Technical University. The goal is to develop scalable businesses that commercialize technology and innovations.

IVCA: Your Chicago 'Demo Day' is set for August 20th, 2015. What common traits do the eight companies participating possess that defines what you do at Sente?

Cicekoglu: This Demo Day is slightly different than the ones we have done in the past  – this year, they are all software-as-service [SaaS] companies that fall in either a businees-to-business or mobile category. All of these companies are technology firms that have developed a unique and globally competitive solution. They all have existing customers in Turkey, where they have proved their product capabilities and also have serious potential for expansion in the U.S.

IVCA: You are also hosting a panel on Demo Day, 'Investing in Global Start-Ups.' What untapped potential in businesses and entrepreneurship is Sente identifying that the rest of the investment world should be noticing?

Cicekoglu: At Sente, we believe that there is a lot of untapped international potential and we want to help introduce those companies to the U.S. market. One of the major advantages of investing in global start-ups is the availability of public  – especially government – funding sources for research and development. Basically, most of these start-ups come to the U.S. with minimal product risk and without giving up much equity at an early stage. 

IVCA: One of your core principles in conducting the accelerator is addressing the specific challenges of entering the U.S. marketplace. What do most international entrepreneurs not understand about conducting business in the United States?

Cicekoglu: Most of the international entrepreneurs that we’ve worked with don’t understand the unique challenges of gaining traction in the U.S. market. They aren’t necessarily trying to understand the pain points of the customers, but push their innovation onto them. 

Another challenge is to complete a proper competitive analysis that provides valuable insight on where and how to position the product or the service to increase the chances of success in a new market, including the protection of their Internet Protocol.

IVCA: Part of your accelerator process is 'Business Model Validation.' What are the common problems that entrepreneurs face – in Sente's specific point of view – when structuring their ideas into businesses initially?

Cicekoglu: One of the most common problems we’ve seen is that a competitive analysis is often not conducted properly at the very beginning. They might know the market in their home country, but in the U.S., there could be five different established companies offering the same product or substitute products, and there may already be a patent that they could have a risk of infringing.  

Another aspect of our process is to structure their business model in a scalable way that takes advantage of funding. We try to shift the start-ups from a ‘boot strapping’ mentality to a growth mentality

IVCA: What would you tell the membership of the IVCA about the Sente International Business Accelerator, that you think makes you most desirable to investors, towards the businesses that your firm nurtures?

Cicekoglu: The U.S. no longer has the monopoly on innovative ideas and talent, and this is due to the technology advancements that the U.S. has led for decades. Now the entire world is a marketplace for ideas with much less expensive start-up costs in many geographies, and these start-ups – with the right process and necessary access to required level of funding – can bring their innovation to the U.S. market, benefiting the U.S. economy and its consumers.

It is important to develop emerging ecosystems and start-ups from international sources, so that they can be prepared to compete on a global scale. Our programs provide a robust planning and preparation for these start-ups, and Chicago provides the best launching pad for international start-ups with such aspirations.

The start-ups that go through our program do become investment grade, and are more tuned up for succeeding in the U.S. – because most of these companies are already successful in their home countries confirms the fact that there are less risks than a typical start-up investment in the United States. When you invest in graduates of our programs, an investor would not have to worry about research-and-development risk, risks associated with location, as the market focus is the U.S., and exit risk, because the companies – if successful – will operate like any U.S .start-up, given the size of the marketplace.

For more information about Sente Advisory and their upcoming Demo Day on August 20th, 2015, taking place at the 1871 Auditorium in the Merchandise Mart, click here.