Podcast Transcript: Solar in Australia VS USA with Kerim Baran
Updated: Jul 7, 2022
Dave: We're really happy to have Kerim Baran join us today. He's a longtime executive in the energy space, but also a great business mind. We're going to dive into a lot of different business topics, certainly talking around energy and the energy sector. But I think it's worth... First of all, welcome Kerim to the podcast.
Kerim Baran: Thank you, Dave. Happy to be here.
Dave: And Kerim and I should just be mentioned, [00:00:30] we've known each other for, I guess it's been about 10 years? Something like that?
Kerim Baran: Pretty much. Yeah, I would say just about.
Dave: At least by my part we're friends, but certainly have been work associates over that period of time as well.
Kerim Baran: That's right. I've met you guys very, very early on in your journey and had the pleasure to be on the sidelines watching your amazing progress the whole time.
Dave: Kerim is, of all of the executives that I've known over the years, he has a pretty interesting background, how he kind of ended up in energy. [00:01:00] At the end of the day, we're all users of energy, but Kerim is originally from Istanbul, Turkey. Would you say you're from the city generally speaking?
Kerim Baran: Yeah. Born and raised in the city. City of which used to be a 5 million people when I was a kid. Probably 18 closing over to 20 million people now. But yeah, it is-
Dave: You're kidding me.
Kerim Baran: ... definitely almost a quarter of the country lives in the greater Istanbul area, which is, I'd say probably the size of the Bay Area [00:01:30] right now.
Dave: A city that's that size, it must be that it doesn't have very well defined borders then if it can continue to grow like that.
Kerim Baran: Well, I guess the way you define cities in Istanbul is a little bit like we define states here. So every city has its core middle of town district, but then has a wider boundary, which is the size of a small state maybe in the US, a smaller number.
Dave: Maybe you can talk [00:02:00] a little bit about what your background was in Turkey. Obviously growing up in Turkey, you were just a great school, and how has that maybe shaped your path?
Kerim Baran: Absolutely. So, I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, actually. I would consider with a lot of opportunities and good education. And I guess in Turkey standards, [00:02:30] we would even qualify as upper class family, which in the US standards would be a more like a upper middle class. But definitely grew up around a lot of powerful people in Turkey. The schools that I went to, the people that my family and our friends mingled with, they were all very accomplished business leaders, political [00:03:00] leaders, and people of that sort. As a result, I had the opportunity to go to some of the best schools. The school that I went to in Turkey actually was a American school that is now older than 150 years old. It was one of the first... Probably it's the oldest American college that was started outside of the US.
So in the 1860s. By the time I was a kid in the seventies and eighties, it had a [00:03:30] middle school and a high school division as well. But it was kind of like the Indian IIT system, like just being a wealthy kid coming from the right families didn't get you in there. You have to actually take a national exam, kind like the SATs at the age of 10 to place into these kinds of schools. And there were a lot of international schools in the bigger cities in Turkey when I was growing up and there still are probably 50 or so such schools. So [00:04:00] many of the educated families and families that were kind of Western oriented wanted their kids to go to these international schools, kind of like American schools, French schools, German. And the education was bilingual. So that education path really kind of, I guess, opened up the opportunities even more to come to the US for education and [00:04:30] be involved in business not only in Turkey, but outside.
Dave: So bilingual, so at least from the age of 10, you were taking classes in English then even over in Turkey?
Kerim Baran: That's right. At the age of 10, I didn't speak a word of English, but when you get placed into these schools, you spend the first year just learning the second language. So if it's an American school, you learn English for a full year. German schools, you learn German and Italian schools, [00:05:00] you learn Italian kind of thing. And then we condensed the usual seven years of middle school and high school into six years in the school that I went to.
Dave: What was the family dynamic? So obviously your parents.
Kerim Baran: My mother was actually the true entrepreneur in the family that started the family business, which was a high fashion women's clothing business. In the eighties when Turkey was not even yet [00:05:30] a open economy, a lot of the upper class women wanted to dress in Western styles with well known brands, but it was illegal to import those in style like the Armanis and Versaces and Guccis in Turkey. And so my mom would travel to Rome and Paris go to fashion shows and she would come back with designs that they would produce in Turkey, or they [00:06:00] would modify and produce in Turkey. So growing up, a lot of the family dynamic was around family business, growing the business and managing it and so forth.
Dave: So, after you left Turkey, you went to school. So you had visited the United States, but really you went and you've told me in a different setting that you showed up with a suitcase at Northwestern, and that was the first time you'd ever seen the campus.
Kerim Baran: That's right.
Dave: So how did it happen that you left Turkey and decided ultimately to go to the school in the States?
Kerim Baran: [00:06:30] The school that I went to is called Robert College of Istanbul. Is a well known school because over the 150 years, it produced, I think, six or seven prime ministers in the country and many other successful leaders. And many of those people would continue their education abroad because it was where there's more knowledge and opportunity. And [00:07:00] so it was maybe at the time I graduated high school, about a quarter of my class, came to the US for college. And I would say half of those people got full scholarships. Now, this school accepted pretty much the first 100 or so people out of a class of million kids, literally. If you think about it, there's about a million kids at every age group in Turkey, was so when I was growing up [00:07:30] too, maybe a bit less.
And not everybody took the exam to get into these schools, but this school that I went to was known to be number one selected school. And many of those people were so bright that I went to school with that they got free rides into Harvard and Yale and Caltech and MIT, you name it. In that school, I was a pretty mediocre student, I'd say. I fluctuated [00:08:00] between the second, third and fourth quartile, depending on what year of the school I was in.
Dave: Well, regardless Northwestern, no slouch school. So maybe that was per your school.
Kerim Baran: Northwestern actually was easy. After having done my high school, that was a very easy experience, actually.
Dave: It's interesting, you talk about the school you attended starting in 1860, an international English speaking school. I grew up in Montana.
Kerim Baran: I know.
Dave: And I guarantee you, there's not [00:08:30] a school in Montana that's 150 years old. So an older school in Turkey it's...
Kerim Baran: Yeah.
Dave: Anyway. And I grew up dramatically different. Definitely not in an upper class family, right in the middle of a quarry.
Kerim Baran: I know. You guys grew up in a coal town if I remember correctly or coal town. Right?
Dave: Yeah. Yeah, I grew up in a coal mining town with power plants. So, a two gigawatt coal running power plant [00:09:00] was my backyard. And far less than half the people I graduated with went to college at all, let alone, went to college in the United States on scholarships. And in candor, I don't say that in any sort of negative way. I mean, many people pursued a very vocational path and have made a great living for themselves in Montana and are very happy to live in. In fact, fun fact is that people that are born in Montana are at least likely to leave Montana over [00:09:30] all other states. Part of it is it's geographically very large, but people that grow up there love it.
Kerim Baran: Which probably means they're one of the happiest.
Dave: I think that's true. I think there's a direct correlation there.
Kerim Baran: Yeah.
Dave: Awesome. So, you leave Turkey, you go to Northwestern, would you say fairly typical college experience?
Kerim Baran: Yeah. I loved my college experience. I was involved in many different things. I had good grades, I studied engineering. I liked my major. [00:10:00] I liked my friends. I joined a fraternity for a bit. I was kind of into it for a couple of years, but didn't really define my college experience. I was part of the sailing team, which was a great sports team and have many great memories from that. I loved Chicago and it opened doors to more things. After college, the option was to go back to Turkey, [00:10:30] Istanbul, get into the family business, which I definitely didn't want to do.
Dave: Still the fashion business?
Kerim Baran: Yeah. It was a bit more like at scale mass producing, high quality women's clothing mainly. And then my other options were to get the typical, banking consulting jobs that most well educated kids [00:11:00] chose to do. And I didn't really want that either. Or the other option was to stay in the US and get those kinds of jobs. I did apply to iBanking jobs and consulting jobs undergrad. Didn't really get it. And at the time, H-1B visas were not as common things. And they were a thing, but it was still an obstacle in getting jobs and many of the companies were not even that familiar with it. But I was lucky. I saw this one ad [00:11:30] on the career placement office of Northwestern. One day, I just went there and on this board, I saw this tiny little ad from a tiny little French software company saying they were opening up their US office in Chicago.
And they were looking for junior sales reps to join the company. And so that was my first job out of college. And I interviewed with them and I got hired as the first employee in the US. Or there was another [00:12:00] American guy actually, who later on became a big time executive in various different major software companies. But he was operating out of France, but hiring for the US office. And anyway, so I got the job and it was a great experience. We were selling IT software back then. This is early nineties, early to mid nineties. We were selling these pieces of software which fit in a single floppy disc, three and a quarter inch [00:12:30] floppies that we sold for $3,000. And the way we sold them, there was no internet, but nobody was really using it. We would advertise in trade magazines, go to trade shows, ship out demo diskettes to these customers.
And they would use the demo diskette which did not have the same function. So they would play around with the software, get its capabilities and then call us to order it. And we would answer all the technical questions. It was a great experience because [00:13:00] being a software company, we had designed our own CRM system at the time. So every other CRM system that came after that, all the Siebel System where I worked and sales forces [inaudible 00:13:11], they set standard for me. Our CRM system that we used in that company was amazing and we could track the whole funnel and everything. It was a great experience. And so I helped grow that business from two people, basically in Chicago to about 20 [00:13:30] as-
Dave: And that was over what period of time? Over how long did you-?
Kerim Baran: Over two years, we grew pretty fast and we were competing with various different computerated software engineering tools, they were called. Basically like database design, data modeling tools that helped you build databases faster, with better code and more better documentation. Oracle had a little product that competed with ours, and there were a handful of other competitors. But we grew fast enough that [00:14:00] Sybase, which at the time was Oracle's number one competitor, decided to buy us two years after. And that was an amazing story, unique story that essentially helped me get into business school.
Dave: It's interesting that this French company would've chosen Northwestern to post on a job board. I guess maybe they'd thrown a wide net, but-
Kerim Baran: Actually they had a strategy. They didn't want to go to New York or the West Coast for two main reasons. One, they were more expensive. [00:14:30] Chicago was less expensive. And two, they thought that whoever they hired there would jump ship after a year or two and move on to other better jobs and that it would be harder to retain employees. And that the Midwest would be kind of like your Montana people. Jobs is not the number one priority. It is a priority, but it is not the number one priority. And they would be more grounded, stable [00:15:00] people. And that was their thinking.
Dave: Sure. It's interesting. So two years, and obviously, spoiling the story a little bit, you found your way into business school at Harvard. Was that right after the sale of the business or?
Kerim Baran: It was a year after.
Dave: Okay. So did you stay on at post transaction with the software company?
Kerim Baran: Yeah. And one of the probably most useful things I did there was, I helped train every single sales [00:15:30] office of Sybase on our product for a year. Which multiplied our revenue by, I don't know, probably 10 times or 20 times within a year. And then, the funny thing is, last I heard, which was a few years ago, that that product line is still in business. Now it's an SAP portfolio product. SAP bought through some acquisitions. And it's still making the same level of revenue, which is like [00:16:00] 10 times what it was when we sold it or 10 to 20 times what it was when we sold it.
Dave: That's incredible.
Kerim Baran: So it's been an amazingly profitable acquisition for the acquirers.
Dave: Find another software product that has that sort of longevity. I dare you.
Kerim Baran: Well, right now, Salesforce is kind of that dominant player, I guess that uses. But we'll see how all that-
Dave: Awesome. So then you go to business school, trying to figure [00:16:30] out... A lot of people that go to business school just because they feel like that's the next step in their evolution. Did you have your path mapped out, at least in your mind of what business school was going to do for you?
Kerim Baran: No, I didn't at the time. I was kind of still just fulfilling expectations of society at the time. And in fact, after business school still fulfilling those expectations. One of the ways to keep [00:17:00] those options open and fulfill some of expectations was to go back to Turkey, taking a job with Bain & Company. And Bain at the time was opening their first satellite office in Istanbul, out of their Italian operation. So I worked in Italy during the summer of my, between first and second year and then helped launch the office in Istanbul with Bain.
Dave: And that was on the consulting side for Bain?
Kerim Baran: Yeah. Some strategy consulting work. And I did [00:17:30] that for about a year and that was also a little bit to appease my parents that after having been in the US for nine years, undergrad, some work experience in grad school that I would go back. And I did that. That was a great experience. But at the time, the dot com movement was also happening. And I had been in the tech world and a lot of my classmates from Harvard were paper millionaires in Silicon Valley. And I was like, "You know what? I think I want to be in the tech world." And [00:18:00] so packed up and Bay Area two weekends back to back without telling my parents. Got four different offers and then took one with Siebel Systems and moved to San Francisco. And that's-
Dave: So worked again for another software company, large software company, Siebel Systems?
Kerim Baran: Yeah.
Dave: And were you with them through their acquisition as well? How long were you with Siebel Systems?
Kerim Baran: I was there until I got my green [00:18:30] card basically, which was about three years. Well, about two to three years. I got my green card at the two year mark. But I had an obligation to stay another year. So, about three years. That was an amazing experience actually. Siebel had very much the Oracle culture because Tom Siebel had created the original [00:19:00] Oracle's internal CRM system for Larry Ellison and team when he was there. And he was an early Oracle employee. And these guys, they're as aggressive as a Harvard Business School culture kind of people. Take no prisoners, kind of like Oracle culture is well known for its unique and win at all cost kind [00:19:30] of attributes. And Siebel was similar, very driven, very execution focused, all about business.
And Tom Siebel had, at the time when he built that CRM system for Oracle wanted to commercialize it to Oracle's customers. And Larry Ellison hadn't allowed that because he thought at the time that was a competitive advantage that they should keep in-house. Fast forward, a couple other careers later, Tom Siebel [00:20:00] decided to create that product himself and he was doing a great job. And I thought, what a great opportunity to experience a fast growing large software company from inside with that kind of culture. Even though I wouldn't say my personal culture fits that too well, it was kind of fun to be in it and observe it at the time and be part of it. I learned a lot and I was responsible for managing one of the strategic relationships [00:20:30] with Deloitte Consulting and Siebel, which was a big chunk of the business. And seeing those 10, $25 million software deals happen with big companies, big customers, big implementation projects, and seeing how all that was done and the impact these CRM platforms brought to those businesses was also quite interesting to watch.
Dave: So you got blue chip education, blue chip consulting [00:21:00] experience, and then blue chip software company. So when did you decide, "All right, it's time to do this on my own now and go try my entrepreneurial legs out."?
Kerim Baran: One thing I did right after I got my green card and then I quit my job. And in a way that was my risky move, not so risky for a guy with all that opportunity and education necessarily, but I [00:21:30] have a lot of classmates who are still in that track and they get their self worth from competing in that single track lifestyle. For me, it was like, "You know what? I'm not enjoying this. I got to do something more creative, more that's part of me, more that I want to do." And I didn't even know what that was necessarily, but without knowing, I quit basically. Once I got my green card in hand, [00:22:00] which was kind of my like world citizenship in a way, so that I could eventually get my American citizenship and travel the world with some other passport than a Turkish passport, because a Turkish passport is not really a passport. It's more like a stop port, I call it. Because you get stopped at every port and asked for visas and whatnot.
So that was kind of like my passage to becoming a free world citizen. [00:22:30] And after that, I decided to go travel the world. I put on a backpack and went to Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand, and motorcycled Vietnam top to bottom.
Dave: Was that to the chagrin of your overly ambitious and entrepreneurial mother, or was she glad that you were exploring your boundaries or something?
Kerim Baran: [00:23:00] I would say she was definitely a little bit scared and definitely not approving of it, but just got to do what you got to do. And which opened up a lot of other doors because, the idea of creating a social network actually came to me when I was in a internet cafe in Nepal, sharing my little digital pictures that I took with my, at the time, $150 digital camera on oPHOTO with my friends. I was like, "This is so [00:23:30] power