#25 Bahadir Ozdemir: The Dropout Who Revolutionizes Connectivity

updated on 31 March 2021

Am I an engineer? No. Am I a sales guy? I’m not really sure. Am I good at finance? Not as much as I want to. What would be my title in a company?

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Bahadir embodies the purest definition of entrepreneurship. From his early days in Turkey to living in the States in his youth and suddenly taking the leap and emigrating to Singapore, he has never given up on his dream: having a global impact and improving the lives of millions. He left us thinking that we all have a role to play and that it is never too late to start dreaming big and change the world. Besides living and breathing entrepreneurship, he is a philosopher at heart, and ended this interview with life lessons that will stay with us during our entrepreneurial journey!

Bahadir is currently revolutionizing connectivity as co-founder and CEO of Airalo. Before that, he created Sim4crew, a global mobile operator for seafarers, and Wossco, a global ship supplier. Oh, and he dropped out of college to start his first venture!

But that is only one part of the story.

At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups and downs, the late nights, the early mornings, the failures, and the victories.

In a few words: we want to share the real stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What did you always dream of when you were a kid?

I come from an upper-middle-class family, we weren’t rich but we weren’t poor either. My dad is an amazing guy, full of morals. He did his best so that we could get the best education and become kind human beings.

In my teenage years, I noticed that, even though my dad was obsessed with education, full of  “dadvice”, and always doing the right thing, he struggled at the end of the month when the bills would come. He was working very hard in his job, often doing overtime, and sometimes even that wasn’t enough.

This was the opposite of some of my first-degree relatives. These folks were businessmen. Most of them never finished school, and wouldn’t be able to engage in any deep thoughts, but it looked like they didn’t need to; they had all the money in the world, were driving nice cars, living in nice houses, and going on expensive vacations. Back then, I started to believe that that meant success. I was a misguided 17-18-year-old teenager who thought money was the answer to everything.

My conclusion was simple and naive: my poorly educated rich relatives always seemed to be enjoying their lives; while my dad, who is pro-education and working very hard till late hours in cornfields as an agriculture technician, does not smile as much.

Since then, I always had a dilemma: do I want to study at university or do I want to start my own business?

I decided that I wanted to be a businessman. This was how I embraced the entrepreneurial path.

Nonetheless, you enrolled at university, why is that?

Again, the social environment had a huge effect on me.

In Turkey, you have to take an exam to enter university, and entering university is everything. One million students take the test. I ended up being in the top two thousand. I had the chance to study in one of Turkey’s best universities, and this was an opportunity that I could not let pass.

Immediately, my studies felt almost too easy. Also, my classes were all in English, and I was lightyears ahead of everyone since I had previously studied in the US.

During my time on campus, it felt like I was doing the right thing but, every time I would go back home, I’d witness the lives of those rich relatives, and find myself in an identity crisis. I was enjoying my time studying at one of the top institutions but, no matter how high my grades were, during family reunions I kept feeling like the smallest guy in the room. In this money-obsessed environment, the only things that mattered were big talks, fast cars, and nice houses. The fact that I was the smartest kid in the room literally meant nothing in my social circles.

People around me would keep forgetting which university I was attending and kept on asking me which school I was in: That one? Oh okay. Good boy!

And then, the “Aha” moment?

During my first year at university, I came across an entrepreneurship competition with $50,000 in prize money. I immediately knew that this was my time to prove myself to the rest of my family.

My idea was simple: putting black boxes inside cars so that whenever there’s an accident, the police can easily analyse what happened before the crash. It could also push drivers to drive more carefully knowing that they were being monitored.

I won first place in that competition. This was my inflection point. I was now 19 years old, with $50,000 in my pocket, and strong confidence that I could have a dent in the world.

That day, my entrepreneurship journey started. That month, I quit university.

Fun fact: At the next family reunion after winning the competition, my relatives didn’t ask me what I had been up to. They had already read it in the newspapers. This is the first time that I saw respect in their eyes. Today, all this just sounds very dumb now but at that age, it was a priceless feeling.

You didn’t manage to execute your idea, why didn’t you look for a corporate job?

Seeing that my dad was not very happy being pushed around by his bosses and not getting enough appreciation for his hard work, I knew that I did not want to work in a corporate chain of command.

Observing my dad while growing up, I definitely associated working in a corporate with being unhappy. At some point, he forgot to smile, and I never wanted this to happen to me.

This is one of the reasons I tend to be an easy-going CEO in my company. I know how suffocating it can get when one is not given enough freedom. This helps me put myself in the employees’ shoes. My company email signature says: do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourself. I try to be the CEO that I’d wish to have if I ever worked in a company.

Whatever I choose, I’m going to do it to its fullest extent, with maximum freedom.

Plus, nobody wants to hire a university dropout (smiles). I studied business administration but didn’t really choose any specialization. I’m a generalist. I tend to think that I’m a creative hustler who observes well and tries to fix problems with new ideas.

Am I an engineer? No. Am I a sales guy? I’m not really sure. Am I good at finance? Not as much as I want to. What would my title be in a company?

And then, the big leap: the UK and Singapore.

Turkey became, and still is, extremely divided. This didn’t happen overnight; it happened slowly over the years but at some point, it became unbearable.

Brothers, neighbours, life-long friends started hating on each other over politics. It almost felt like people lost their hopes and everyone was just ...angry. I started seeing anger anywhere: in a store, on a university campus, or in traffic. There was a significant lack of positivity.

It became so bad that I wasn’t able to watch the news anymore. I had to get out of that toxic environment.

I told my wife: we are leaving. I have no clue where, but we will figure it out.

We flew to the UK, as I had well-established business contacts there.

It was cold, very cold, trust me!
It was cold, very cold, trust me!

I’m a tropical guy, I couldn’t handle the weather. After staying for three weeks in a hotel in London, we opened the map and came up with three options to go visa-free; Singapore, the Philippines, or Hong Kong. We chose Singapore and booked our tickets. We had no plans, no future.

How did your first successful company come along?

Let’s indeed skip all my failed projects (laughs) and talk about the successes, otherwise, you won’t have an article but a book!

People think that founders lie in bed, close their eyes and suddenly think about the next game-changing idea, I strongly disagree with that. If you want to change an industry, you need to observe it. You need to understand the sector deeply, and then, and only then, will you be able to find a pain point to solve.

Back in Turkey, I was in the ship supply business, providing food supplies to sailors on the ships. I would reach out to the ship captains directly and make sure that they and the crew had everything they’d need whenever they’d stop at a harbour.

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Every time I would interact with them, they would say: ‘thank you for the food supplies, we got it, but can you arrange local SIM cards so we can connect with our families?’

I give them tomatoes in Japan, they ask for SIM cards. I give them potatoes in Brazil, they ask for SIM cards. I give them cucumbers in the Netherlands, and they ask for SIM cards.

After thousands of interactions with those sailors in desperate need of SIM cards, I understood that there was no good solution on the market. Sailors would have drawers full of hundreds of SIM cards. They had to get a new one every time they’d get to a new harbour, it was simply not sustainable.

The solution hit me: can I make a global SIM card that works everywhere in the world?

That’s exactly how I created a global telecom company.

Every day I would package hundreds of global SIM cards myself at home. They sold like hotcakes and after 15 months, I already made three million dollars.

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Bottom line: I wasn’t passionate about SIM cards by any means. I analysed the industry and found a solution to a problem, for which people were willing to pay.

You went from selling tomatoes to running a very successful telecom company, why quit to start something else?

When the first phones with eSIM compatibility started shipping, I immediately thought that it would be very convenient if we could download eSIM cards to our phones whenever we needed.

In my previous company where I was selling a global SIM card, we were leveraging classic roaming and, as you may know, roaming can get expensive. Sailors were ready to pay for the convenience of it, but if sailors had a chance to get the local eSIM of their next destination, they would stop relying on our global SIM card. Trying to avoid marketing myopia, I could see that my current business would not be able to sustain for the next 10 years.

More and more smartphones and tablets were being shipped as eSIM compatible. The question was; If I have an eSIM compatible phone in my hand, how do I find and download all those eSIM cards from around the world? People would need a platform to access eSIMs whenever they wanted. This is how Airalo was born.

Becoming the Netflix of digital eSIM cards — that was our goal!

And suddenly a whole new market was in front of my eyes. Today 45% of travellers look for a local SIM card at the airport when they land their destination. 35% of travellers use roaming plans. 20% never touch their phones due to roaming bill fear. I call this 'roamophobia'. What if we create the gateway to instant and affordable connectivity for 100% of travellers? What if travellers could have access to connectivity wherever they are in just 2 minutes. Travel connectivity was broken and we could fix that with eSIMs. The timing was just right.

Again, one venture led to the other; I wasn’t simply lying in bed, thinking about how I would revolutionize this industry, it doesn’t work like that.

But then, coronavirus?

We had a product-market fit from day one. Travellers were happy to be able to directly download prepaid eSIM cards at affordable fees even before they started their trips while not wasting time at the airport to find a SIM card shop or deal with complicated roaming plans. We became truly a global company from day one and have served customers from 162 countries in just a few months. Our revenues were growing exponentially, until… the world stopped travelling.

In many ascetic traditions, you have these moments where one goes into seclusion for spiritual search. This allows the person to take the time to reflect on their decisions and life choices and come out of the seclusion with a clear mindset. Similarly, COVID and its consequences were the perfect excuses to isolate ourselves and rethink our company.

We were only four months old, and had a lot of things to improve and broken parts to fix so that, whenever travel would open again, we’d be ready to take off!

Any advice to a novice entrepreneur?

Excellent question!

I started my entrepreneurial journey when I was 19 years old for the wrong reasons because I wanted to impress my relatives. I wanted to earn respect through the materials that I own. You know, nice cars, nice houses, etc... With time, I have understood that such a childish and shallow mindset is almost repulsive and doesn’t allow for growth. Don’t be an entrepreneur for the wrong reasons. Be an entrepreneur for better purposes.

I truly believe you need to bundle whatever you are doing with a much bigger purpose. I believe you need to be seeing the world with an open eye and open heart and find out how you can contribute to making it a better place.

And as entrepreneurs, if we can actually lose sleep over these problems, we can make a change because we are creating wealth that can be attributed to meaningful causes. You might be discouraged thinking that, based on statistics, your tiny efforts will not have a visible impact and sufferings will still exist in the world. As the tale of the starfish goes, statistics mean nothing to an individual. Statistics mean nothing to the African kid who will be able to find clean water today with your help. Statistics mean nothing to the homeless people who will find a roof over their head tonight and keep warm. Statistics mean nothing to that one single refugee family who can smile and hold onto life again.

Be a better person. Only then be an entrepreneur.

But remember to be true to yourself when it comes to defining your purpose. We can all become so quickly lost in extremes and just start virtue signaling. There is a fine balance to be kept to stay true to yourself and others. Otherwise, you will stop what you are doing when the likes and the claps are not there. Trust me. I’ve been there.

When was the time you felt the most vulnerable?

It is when I started questioning the usefulness of ethics and, more broadly, of metaphysical thinking. I was raised in a value-based environment, and it’s extremely hard to question the very fundamental principle which you use as a guidance to lead your life.

When I deep dive into the “problem of evil” or the Kafkaesque ordeals taking place around us every day, I got confused and quickly lost myself in the black hole of nihilism.

I still don’t have all the answers and it’s continuous research for me. Luckily, I’m now in a much better place than where I started.

An inspiring figure?

This will sound cliché, but my dad has had a huge influence on me. He is a person with no extremes, no bulls*** in his life. A sincere man, just trying to go through life dedicating himself to his family. He always stood by my decisions. Knowing that he was around made me feel secure. I knew that I could always trust him.

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One Movie

The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith.

One Billion Dollar Question: if you were the main character of a museum, what would this museum be about?

It would be about seeking the meaning of existence. Constantly trying to understand the world around me and to get closer to the truth is a full-time job for me.

Let’s get out of the deep waters.

My final message to readers; go to airalo.com and get an eSIM if you are travelling soon (smiles). I promise you will save a lot of money. Feel free to use the code FOUNDER30 to get a 30% discount too!

Oh, and the very final piece of advice to upcoming entrepreneurs, as you can see from the above paragraph; ALWAYS BE SELLING!

Our Main Takeaways

  • Ascetic moments can ignite opportunity. When shit hits the fan, make use of moments of seclusion to reflect on the past and prepare for the time ahead. It can supercharge you into a superior future.
  • To find a problem worth solving, you first have to observe. Good ideas do not appear overnight, they appear as a result of a thorough understanding of the problem
  • Live a life with purpose and aim to make the world a better place. Even if the contribution is tiny statistically, it will change someone's life for the better

Inspiring story Bahadir, thank you very much.

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