Aydin Senkut's Voyage from Turkey to the Heart of Silicon Valley

Image Aydin Senkut was born in Istanbul to parents who were entrepreneurs (mom in executive recruiting and dad in textiles). His journey from there to Google (GOOG) and beyond provides a novel perspective on the Silicon Valley Start-up Common (SVSC). The idea of the Common in economics originated in a field in an English village where everyone brought their animals to graze. If the community did not over-consume the grass and kept it fertilized and fresh, then it was a useful resource for generations. If a few farmers let their animals eat too much, the whole thing died and the community fell apart. That unpleasant outcome was dubbed the Tragedy of the Commons.

In Silicon Valley, there is a start-up common. Instead of grass, it consists of various ingredients – capital and skills like product development, managing teams, sales and marketing — needed for start-ups to get off the ground and grow. First-time entrepreneurs network to tap those ingredients and if they are successful, then they give back to the common to benefit the next generation of start-ups.

Senkut’s journey to the SVSC began with his decision to learn lots of languages. Before entering the MBA and MS in International Studies programs at the University of Pennsylvania — he chose the dual master’s program because it was a challenge — he had lived in Switzerland and worked in Morocco as CFO of a pharmaceutical company. He was already fluent in Turkish, English, French, and German and his MS — that focused on Brazil — added Portuguese.

After graduating, Senkut was determined to get to Silicon Valley and he joined SGI as a product manager for three years. SGI had attracted great people working hard on innovative products — but it imploded because its management team continued to sell high-priced, proprietary products that customers did not want to buy because Windows-compatible delivered comparable performance at much lower prices.

In 1999, Senkut joined Google as its first international product manager. It had 30 people when he got his offer and 60 by the time, three months later, when he actually started working there. He left in 2005 as it was topping 3,000. And in between he flew all over the world negotiating global partnerships for Google.

He learned many valuable insights while there. In gis first 1.5 years reporting to Larry Page, for example, he was exposed to former Intel (INTC) CEO, Andy Grove, who told Google’s then-small staff how to manage by quarterly objectives and always maintain a healthy dose of paranoia. Senkut recognized that ignoring this lesson had cost SGI dearly.

And Senkut observed that Page made excellent strategic decisions that enabled Google to avoid a similar fate. One of Page’s most interesting ideas was to give a team of six smart engineers a big problem that they had never solved and ask them to develop a solution in say, six months.

That’s how Page got Google to create an advertising server that at one point handled more transactions than Visa (V) — a project that Senkut reckons the credit card company would have probably required 100 people and several years to accomplish.

Google also taught Senkut the importance of several other principles for managing a tech start-up such as to be skeptical of conventional wisdom, to seek original solutions, to use data to help make decisions, to hire the smartest people — and look for them in unconventional places. For example, Google hired about half of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s computer science department starting from the head all the way to the PhD candidates.

Senkut enjoyed Google’s early days when each person had so much responsibility. He was less comfortable as Google grew and people became more specialized in their jobs and middle managers began to take more control.

After six months off to spend time with his family and think about his future, Senkut decided he would become an angel investor — and as Google’s first, he got media attention. Even more importantly, his Felicis Ventures was able to tap into the expertise of Ron Conway and Rajiv Motwani — two very prominent Silicon Valley angels that were both involved with Google. And Senkut believes that he was taken seriously because from the very beginning he did angel investing “all-in, 110%” rather than dabbling.

Thus began a virtuous cycle in which Senkut was able to work with outstanding start-ups such as Mint, Meraki, Wildfire and Practice Fusion — many of which multiplied his investments and expanded his reputation. That expanded reputation, in turn, gave him entree into even more interesting start-up investment opportunities — such as Angry Birds maker, Rovio.

It also allowed him to raise two successive institutionally backed venture funds with over $110 million under management and over 30 exits in five years

Senkut believes that the SVSC is a constantly evolving network of people whose skills add value to start-ups. Some of those skills are relatively timeless; while others tend to change every few years as new technologies substitute for old ones.

For instance, when Senkut joined Google, the ability to build your own technology infrastructure was highly valued. Fast forward to 2012, however, and most start-ups don’t need that skill since theycan rely on “a plethora of cloud services.” Instead, today’s key skills are mobile-first thinking and user-interface design. Senkut’s value to the SVSC is not in these technology areas.

Instead, Senkut offers the SVSC a deep knowledge of the more timeless skills related to building a start-up. These include the abilities

    To focus on the right tasks and to execute;
    To say no to a proposal and move on;
    To reject the status quo and “think out of the box;”
    To create “plans A, B, and C” due to a healthy paranoia; and
    To use data for decision-making.

Senkut was also influenced by Page’s ability to get people to solve big problems. Two that Senkut has pursued are changing the way books are published and developing inexpensive, fast, and reliable 3D imaging. The first one is the pursuit of his portfolio company, Inkling, while Matterport is working on the second one.

Senkut gives back to the SVSC  by supporting research at universities such as UCSF and innovative new educational institutions like Singularity University, board memberships and investing.

As far as using data for decision-making, the specific metrics vary depending on the industry. For example, for his e-commerce portfolio companies, Senkut tracks variables such as average selling price, customer acquisition cost, and conversion rates; whereas for his enterprise companies, he looks at customer churn rates, core customer profitability and lifetime value.

Senkut believes that the most important advice he can give young people about the SVSC to be relentless in coming up with good ideas and in building your network. Among Felicis’s network of 200 founders, some are comfortable with networking while others have more of an inside focus.

But he believes that reluctant networkers must force themselves to overcome their discomfort and get good at it. He also advises young people to take on the biggest challenges early in their careers because as they get older, they may take on family responsibilities and their tolerance for risk will decline.

In addition to “just showing up” at networking events, young people must get good at relating to people. That means learning about them beforehand — if they’re well known — and finding a common interest that can be an initial bridge to a more fruitful relationship.

Ultimately, young people must do work that they are good at and that they love doing. In that way, they will work harder but it won’t feel like work. For Senkut, that work is “backing iconic start-ups around the world” and he does it “24/7 and is 120% into it.”

It looks to me as though Senkut’s journey from Istanbul to Palo Alto will continue to bear fruit. (Peter Cohan, Forbes)
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07