Making Waves: Hande Çilingir, Co-Founder And CEO, Insider | JP
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In the dynamic and fast-paced world of marketing technology (martech), Insider co-founder and CEO Hande Çilingir means business. A trailblazer, she’s been steering her company towards a global leadership position in the martech space, with the Singapore-headquartered Insider now comprising of 26 offices across six continents, and more than 1,000 team members.
Çilingir launched Insider in 2012 after having wrapped up her first entrepreneurial endeavor, an English as a second language (ESL) school in Fethiye, Turkey, which was acquired by a fellow local educational institution. As it so happens, it was her experiences with marketing her first enterprise that informed the creation of her next. “Having successfully exited my first company, I realized that marketers worldwide were struggling to achieve their ultimate goal- deliver a seamless and individualized customer experience,” she recalls. “Instead, most brands were delivering fragmented journeys, with elements of personalization here and there, across a range of disconnected channels.”
According to Çilingir, the martech stack that was meant to help marketers had gone on to become a hindrance, with bloated processes being identified as the root of the problem. “Marketers today have more data, channels, and possibilities than ever before, but they still spend 80% of their time on low-leverage, low-impact execution-level work like data entry, writing subject lines, and triggering campaigns, because they are not yet fully leveraging the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI capabilities,” Çilingir explains. “As a result, marketers are exhausted. Entire marketing teams are inefficient, ineffective, and unproductive.”
And that was the catalyst for the birth of Insider, which Çilingir launched in 2012 with co-founders Muharrem Derinkök, Mehmet Sinan Toktay, Okan Yedibela, Arda Köterin, and Serhat Soyuerel. All of them got together and established the company in Singapore with a mission to “make marketing manageable”. Insider thus offers a platform for individualized, cross-channel experiences, enabling enterprise marketers to connect customer data across channels and systems, predict their future behavior with an AI engine, and orchestrate individualized experiences to customers. The focus is thus not only on transforming marketing teams, but on accelerating business growth, identifying revenue opportunities, and enhancing customer loyalty through AI-driven solutions. “This leads to better outcomes for the brand, the consumer, and the marketer,” Çilingir adds. “From higher customer satisfaction, customer loyalty, and customer lifetime value, to revenue, market share, wallet share, and market cap, they are all positively impacted.”
As an entrepreneurial enterprise, Insider’s growth trajectory has been nothing short of remarkable. With more than 1,200 customers, including one-third of the Fortune Global 500, Insider has secured its position as a leader in the market in which it operates. A cursory look at the brands it supports is enough to validate this statement- it’s a list that includes Singapore Airlines, Estée Lauder, Samsung, Vodafone, Allianz, Virgin, Toyota, New Balance, GAP, L’Oreal, Santander, Pizza Hut, Nissan, AVIS, MAC, Marks & Spencer, CNN, and many more.
“Insider is loved by customers and recognized by analysts worldwide,” the CEO proudly states. “We hold leadership positions in the likes of Gartner and IDC. G2, the world’s largest and most trusted software marketplace, recently named Insider the sixth best software product in the world.” And investors have taken note of the enterprise too- with a series of funding rounds and capital injections, Insider has been able to raise a total of US$274 million since its inception. The latest of these investments happened earlier this year, with an injection of capital stated as being “up to $105 million” from Qatar Investment Authority (QIA)- the sovereign wealth fund of the State of Qatar- and Esas Private Equity. This investment came after the company’s $121 million Series D raise in March 2022, which was also when the company achieved unicorn status, making it one of the few female-led, B2B, software-as-a-service (SaaS) unicorns of the world.
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The new influx of funds has been earmarked for strategic mergers and acquisitions (M&A), with it set to build on the success of Insider’s first acquisition of Turkey-headquartered conversation management company MindBehind that was announced in January. “This latest round will be used exclusively for the purpose of acquiring exceptional product companies to further complement our technology, and fuel inorganic growth through M&A,” Çilingir explains. “Our goal remains steadfast, to acquire unique organizations with industry-first technologies to better serve our customers, drive more value, and source innovative solutions to marketers’ biggest frustrations and challenges before they even arise. Acquiring impressive technology solutions will help Insider define, lead, and build the way for the future of customer experience.”
This ties in well with the long-term plans Çilingir has for Insider too- in an interview with Bloomberg held at the Qatar Economic Forum in May, she had indicated plans for an initial public offering (IPO) that could materialize in 2025 or early 2026. It becomes clear here that as much as she likes to celebrate all of her company’s extraordinary achievements, Çilingir is choosing to remain laser-focused on the future. “I am incredibly proud of every milestone, achievement, and record we have broken, but I still believe the best is yet to come,” Çilingir says. “It remains my driving force.” As such, when it comes to the future of Insider, she envisions it creating a customer experience landscape where technology and AI free marketers from low-impact tasks, allowing them to focus on delighting customers and creating loved brands. “At Insider, this is our mission- to forever change the dialogue between brands and consumers, and make marketing feel manageable,” she declares. That said, the triumphs she has achieved in just over a decade is certainly no mean feat; however, Çilingir has no qualms in highlighting her team and their company culture as a significant factor in the success of the business. “We have a ‘zero optionality’ mindset that is, in my opinion, unique,” she explains. “We work harder, longer, and more consistently than any other player in our space.
This shared mindset is an unwritten strategy that informs our day-to-day behavior, and fosters true ownership, creativity, efficiency, and productivity. This kind of spirit and determination can only come from a company’s roots, and it trickles throughout the entire organization. As Insider’s co-founder and CEO, I strive to lead by example, and ensure that I always work hardest myself.” This would explain why NASDAQ’s choice of an Insider team picture on screens in New York City’s Times Square to celebrate its recent investment round was a moment of pride for the CEO. “Seeing the faces of your team in lights over New York City was a special moment for me and my co-founders,” she says. “It is only through their hard work, dedication, and relentless hustle that Insider is where we are today.”
Insider co-founder and CEO Hande Çilingir. Image courtesy Insider.
People are thus clearly extremely important for Çilingir- and this includes all of the entrepreneurs, investors, and customers in the MENAT region that have given her “invaluable” lessons and mentorship all through her career. Here, she especially acknowledges the contribution of Fadi Ghandour, Executive Chairman of venture capital firm, Wamda Capital, and founder of logistics and transportation company, Aramex, who has been her mentor and friend for many years. “Fadi and I share a belief that entrepreneurial success should not be defined merely by growth and profit,” Çilingir says. “True entrepreneurs pay it forward- mentoring, investing, and inspiring the next generation of founders. In doing so, their impact is multiplied across job creation, innovation, and community transformation. Research from Endeavor highlights that it only takes a few successful entrepreneurs to jumpstart an ecosystem. I am determined to pay it forward to the next generation.”
Such an ethos would explain the efforts that Çilingir has been personally leading to further women’s careers within the tech industry. According to a 2020 Accenture and Girls Who Code report called Resetting Tech Culture, 50% of women who take on a tech role drop it by the age of 35, compared to approximately 20% in other types of jobs. The research also found that in the world’s largest 1,000 companies, fewer than one out of five Chief Information Officers (CIOs) or Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) are women. Meanwhile, a 2022 McKinsey report focusing on women in the workplace revealed that 32% of women in technical and engineering roles often find themselves being the only woman in the room at work. Çilingir is aware of all of these issues- but she’s putting in the work at Insider to address them as well. “Women remain underrepresented in tech, not only in the MENAT, but across the world,” she says. “At Insider, we’re proud that 70% of leadership roles are held by remarkable women.”
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But that’s not all- corporate social responsibility initiatives (CSR) aimed at empowering women are also a mainstay at Insider. These include sheleads (a leadership mentorship program), shecodes (an eight-week training and mentorship program), and shemarkeables (a movement celebrating remarkable women in customer experience). “Our dedication to empowering women goes beyond tech,” Çilingir adds. “We recently launched an initiative aimed at providing training to help young athletes, especially women, reach the highest level of competition, and create more female Olympic athletes. Whether it’s sailing, volleyball, fencing, football, or gymnastics, we’re dedicated to nurturing and funding young athletes, equipping them with the skills they need to be successful. The impact we drive in initiatives like these is much more significant than anything we could achieve as individuals.” Leading by example -and with a sense of purpose- thus seems to be an integral part of Çilingir’s psyche as an entrepreneur.
“For me, the two most significant traits that separate great leaders from good leaders are energy and consistency,” she says. “It’s an old and well-documented adage that ‘startups are a marathon, not a sprint.’ I do not entirely agree with this. Running a company, team, or even a family, feels much more like ‘a marathon of sprints.’ It’s about bringing the same energy, commitment, and focus day in, day out. It means you need high-energy, every day, for days, months, and weeks on end. As a leader, the entire organization runs on the energy you put in- so, you consistently have to be the best, biggest, and loudest advocate for your business. How do you create that relentless energy? Having a fundamental belief in your mission that transcends the bad days, the tiredness, the late nights, the challenges, the setbacks. Consistency is critical. Hard work is a competitive differentiator that can move markets, gain first-mover advantage, and more.”
And that, in effect, is how Çilingir runs the show at Insider. “‘Nobody gives a sh*t’ is the best advice I ever received,” she says. “Because, as a company founder, it’s true. You screw up, fail to build the product, fail to make the right hire, fail to hit your target? Your investors, co-founders, team members, and customers don’t care [about who exactly might be at fault]. You and you alone are responsible for moving, finding solutions, getting stuff done, and moving onward and upwards. That ‘zero optionality’ execution mindset has been fundamental to Insider’s success.”
‘TREP TALK: Q&A with Hande Çilingir, co-founder and CEO, Insider
What are your top tips for tech entrepreneurs/CEOs looking to lead their companies to success, and build the best possible product, service, or platform?
“One of the most important lessons I have learned throughout my career, and at Insider, is balancing the importance of listening to your customers- and your gut. Not enough founders or CEOs discuss this, but it has been critical to our growth and success.
Like most software-as-a-service (SaaS) businesses, net revenue retention (NRR) is one of the most critical metrics we use at Insider to measure our company’s growth and health. We have achieved an extremely high NRR rate at Insider. To do this, I genuinely believe that you need to be customer-obsessed, you need to love their problems, and seek to solve them- but never at the expense of your own gut instinct.
Customer feedback should be used as a compass, not a crutch- and I say this as the CEO of a product company with a 100/100 user satisfaction score by G2 [the world’s largest and most trusted software marketplace]. We are guided by customer feedback, but not dictated by it. Why? Because founders and CEOs should be the ones focusing on pushing the boundaries of what’s conceivable, transforming your technology from a mere tool into a catalyst that turns customers into visionary industry leaders.
Customers can easily describe a problem but sometimes cannot see -or visualize- the bigger picture. This analogy -somewhat dubiously attributed to Henry Ford in the 19th century- best sums it up. ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Customers can easily describe a problem they’re having -in this case, wanting to get somewhere faster- but not the best solution. Cars were the solution that customers never knew they needed.
At Insider, we listen to our customers, and we are guided by their challenges, feedback, and guidance, but we also trust our gut instinct to be able to create the best platform for marketing and customer experience professionals- and anticipate their needs before they even arise.”
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