BY MAY LIN TYE
Ezel Kokcu felt similar to a lot of us when she was leaving school. At 18, it’s hard to figure out the next step. Fast forward 7 years and the now 25 Ezel, who after a gap year and a short stint with university doing at a computer science degree, is already a successful entrepreneur working on her third business. Growing up in Nelson, and now dividing her time between Auckland and Wellington, her story is an inspiring demonstration of how young people can follow their own path to create and achieve. Most recently becoming the entrepreneur in residence at Te Papa, helping to foster new start-ups, it was no surprise that she was super kind, well-spoken, and her passion for her mission was evident when we chatted to her over the phone.
Ezel’s journey as an entrepreneur started with some frustration she experienced with the informative content provided at museums. Soon the idea for her first start-up, STQRY, formed. And all of this happened while Ezel experienced her own worries about what to do after school. As she tells it, “It’s really hard to figure out what to do after school. I took a gap year and ended up going to Turkey for a little bit which is where I’m from, and already had this big frustration with museums and the way they did their digital content. Most of it hasn’t been updated since like 20 years ago. So I went back to New Zealand and still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was in Wellington at that point, and decided I wanted to do something creative, which was computer science. Little did I know it wasn’t creative, and just more theory and developing in a really old language called Java. So I lasted all of a semester and was one of what must have been like 3 women in a class of like 500 males. I guess I just really felt the pressure of having this degree that I was working towards but wasn’t suited to me. I just couldn’t justify the time element spent on going to uni. I guess I was really fortunate because I met my co-founder at university and we decided to build this app called STQRY.”
STQRY, which was since sold, provides museums and attractions with a platform that enhances the cultural experience for visitors, through storytelling and provide information, utilising QR codes. For four years, Ezel and her co-founder worked on STQRY – garnering an incredible amount of customers, and raising $5.5 million out of the United States. Non Stop Tickets, another product developed on the side, also took off and sold. Her latest project is Passphere.
Passphere, a ticketing and analytics product for large festivals, concerts, and expos, has been a two-year project to date. Aiming for a launch in February next year, Ezel says, “We’re just really focusing on what makes event tech great.” There are also plans to go global quickly – with plans to add offices in the likes of Sydney, Amsterdam, and London. Passphere is her third business, meaning that she has approached it in a different way. “We’re doing a very organic process to growth, spending the time to really develop the product, making sure that when we go to market there are no issues with the tech, and when we do get to market, starting to pursue very high growth.”
It’s clear that Ezel’s mindset and drive have been key ingredients to her success. She believes that relentlessness is one of the most important characteristics for an entrepreneur. Growing up in an immigrant family in Nelson, she always knew the value of hard work even if she barely knew what entrepreneurship was when she was younger. That relentless pursuit and passion has driven how she approaches business. Running with your own idea to make it reality is definitely not easy, and it’s also not instant gratification. “It takes a lot of self-motivation and not expecting that people are going to give you a pat on the back… It’s just having that confidence to really just keep going against all odds. It’s not rosy, like it was three years before I started paying myself a decent-ish salary.”
This challenge was compounded by other factors too. Being so young when she started, Ezel described being underestimated. “There was a really big period of time where people would only talk to my male cofounder and they would never look me in the eye – ‘here’s this girl, she doesn’t know anything, she’s so young, she doesn’t have any experience’… they didn’t understand how passionate I was about this.” All of this only drove her to do more, working hard to up-skill herself, and never letting it hinder her. “I never looked at myself as an 18 year old, inexperienced female.” She also expressed her appreciation to her friends, family and team.
Ezel knows it’s also important to act smart, and to “create flowers out of a brick”. She learned to validate ideas quickly with customers to ensure they were developing something the market would want. “Investors very rarely invest in ideas before somethings been developed and if we’re looking at Passphere, it’s an analytics system which is absolutely mammoth. It’s about being confident in your ideas and not being silly about it.”
For those who are in the same position she was in around 7 years ago, or to those in high school not sure what is next, Ezel’s message is – do your research. She compares it to travelling: “You spend a ton of time researching the best places to eat and the best attractions. Spend time looking at every single course, every single work alternative, every single educational alternative.”
“University is a great option but please do your due diligence… what you’re doing is spending three or four five years of your life putting your time and energy into something. Just value your time and really do your research before you go out and pursue something. Look at your passions and look at things in the workforce that are going to feed your passion. And [you] have more power than [you] think. In a high school environment you have so much power. You have power on your life. You hold the wheel for the rest of your life.”
Ezel also has a passion for the technology industry and would love to encourage people, and particularly women, to enter this field. She encourages those considering their options to look more widely at the realm of technology because she knows that there is often a perception that development is sitting in front of the computer for hours and writing code, which might put some off from pursuing a career in it. A key message is that “the realm of development and the realm of technology does not just fall with computer science or software engineering”. There are opportunities to be creative and problem solve whether it is as a developer, or through product management and figuring out customer needs, figuring out digital solutions, or working with companies that sell technology.
So, what’s next for Ezel? Making Passphere a global name, and “just to create really good software that ultimately serves it purpose”. From there she would love to get into ecotech, and working on changing government technology infrastructure to benefit and serve New Zealanders.
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