Meet the MD of ScaleUp Berlin – Iskender Dirik (Not Dirk Iskender)

Everyone knows this famous line: “My name is Bond. James Bond.” But if you’ve ever emailed the Managing Director of ScaleUp Berlin, you might be familiar with a variation on this line.

Iskender Dirik – not Dirk Iskender - has always dealt with people getting confused by his name. He explains that Iskender is the Turkish equivalent of Alexander, and Dirik sounds a lot like the common German first name “Dirk.” While this was a minor nuisance before, once he joined Microsoft he suddenly found himself with a hundred thousand or so new colleagues.

“The number of mails I got that started ‘Hi Dirk,’ increased tenfold. So I thought, ‘why don’t I turn this into an advantage, and make it something fun,’ which is how I came up with my email footer and the example page I created.”

Title: Mister

First Name: Iskender (=Alexander in Turkish)

Last Name: D i r i k (--> yes, 2x i)

If still unclear: M y    n a m e    is    N O T    D i r k !
Company: Microsoft ScaleUp / Microsoft for Startups Berlin

Position: Managing Director / CEO
Social Media Profiles

This is just one example of the ways Dirik (and no, we’re not confused, it’s just proper style to refer to someone by their last name) has tried to find innovative solutions to problems. It’s part of a pattern throughout his career as a startup founder, VC, strategist and currently as the head of the Microsoft ScaleUp program in Berlin.

“I’ve worked in the digital space all my career, so I haven’t done anything else other than digital and I’m not interested in anything else other than digital. I founded a couple of startups; with my first startup at the age of 21. Some of the startups I founded in my earlier days went terribly wrong because I had nobody to advise me; I had no mentor.”

Dirik explains that the opportunity to advise startups, to mentor them and share his insights, was one of the main draws that encouraged him to join Microsoft and work with startups. “I saw it as a chance to help B2B tech companies, especially AI companies, become successful,” he said. “It’s a chance to share all of my insights with them. Also, I was super excited by the scale since impact is so important to me. Professionally, I want to generate impact; to generate huge impact. Microsoft gives me that chance. Additional reasons included the amazing things I read about Microsoft, the new culture, the tech advancements, and also the focus in Microsoft on transforming the company into an AI company since AI is something I’m very passionate about.”

Berlin ScaleUp

Iskender Dirik (far right), with the Microsoft ScaleUp Berlin team and current startups

“On top of that, the company is very diversity conscious, and Microsoft does so many things to establish a diverse culture. Just recently, Microsoft announced a partnership with Backstage Capital and Black & Brown Founders to help drive opportunities for diverse startups. I’ve also looked to the Head of Microsoft for Startups, Annie Parker, who is focusing on D&I issues and the ideas she is bringing to our efforts. All of this focus has been really energizing and has been one of the most rewarding parts of my work here.”

What was surprising about the culture of Microsoft and what do people in the tech industry get wrong about Microsoft?

“I remember the first call I had with the Managing Director for all Microsoft ScaleUp programs worldwide, and the first thing he asked me was ‘Iskender, what are your expectations towards me, how can I help you develop?’

“I will never forget that; that was a crucial point for me. The first thing he was asking wasn’t about my background, it was about my development, and that was a huge indicator of how Microsoft’s culture has changed.

“Another thing is that everyone [at Microsoft] is trying to think and act like they’re in a startup. It’s really agile, which is a super hyped word, but I’ve seen Microsoft on the inside for the last year and a half and I can confirm that Microsoft is super agile. That translates into trying things and experimenting. There is also a fantastic perspective on failure. My leaders always said, ‘do something different, fail if needed, if you don’t fail it’s just a sign that you aren’t trying enough.”

What are some of the big challenges startups are facing and what innovations is Microsoft providing to help?

“I’ll speak about the B2B space as that’s where I have been focusing and when speaking to B2B startups in the Seed to Series A stage, the number one challenge is sales, followed by scaling the organization.

“I see a lot of founders in this space with a technical background; they love to build their product and they love to build technology. However, the crucial issue is selling the product, scaling the organization, and becoming good leaders - that’s super important.

“Each ScaleUp program around the world is different, with a different focus and content. Here in Berlin, there are two super important points:

“The first and most important element is customer access. That is the number one pain point for the startups. They have great tech, they have great people, engineers, etc. What they need is customer access, the need to sell their product. [Our Startups] face the challenge that – and I’m referring specifically to startups dealing with large enterprise clients – they are running their solution in the cloud, and for a lot of enterprises, that’s still a problem.

“Second, a huge problem for startups, when they deal with enterprise clients, is the fact they are actually a startup. So, in the eyes of an enterprise client they are a small startup, which is a big risk for many enterprises. They don’t know if the startup will still be alive in a year since the product isn’t as stable as compared to products from large corporate tech providers.

“These are huge problems for startups focusing on enterprise sales, and this is where Microsoft can provide enormous value, because everyone trusts Microsoft. If a startup is able to say ‘yes, we are a startup, but we have a partner you already know and trust – Microsoft,’ that is a huge advantage for them.

“In Berlin, specifically, we believe it is important to help our startups with leadership and how to become good leaders. This is one of the most underestimated (by startups at least) success factors. So, this is an element that we on the Berlin have a strong focus on.”

You mentioned before that focusing on AI is very important to you. What do startups need to know about AI and how it will change the industry?

“They should, especially the startups that are not in the AI space, think about where the world will stand in five or ten years due to the changes driven by AI, because AI will disrupt so many markets and technologies, and especially, and this is the crucial part, business models. That means that AI could kill their market.

“They have to be very visionary, and need to constantly think: ‘how will AI change my world, my target customers, and their behaviors in five or ten years?’ Because if they don’t do that, they might find that their product is useless in a couple of years, because AI will change so many things.”