Abraham Burak: The digital nomad delivering instant connectivity worldwide

Read the story behind Airalo, the company bringing instant connectivity in 200+ countries and regions through the world's first eSIM store.

Antler in Southeast Asia

July 13, 2023
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When a group of Spanish noblemen once told Christopher Columbus that anyone could have discovered the Americas given a little time, the Italian explorer is said to have reached for an egg. He bet his companions that none of them could make it stand up on its tip. After they all failed, Columbus simply cracked the end slightly and balanced the egg vertically on the table. Since this apocryphal story, the term “egg of Columbus” has referred to a brilliant idea that seems obvious after the fact.  

“Egg of Columbus” is precisely how Abraham Burak describes Airalo, the tech travel startup that has turned the traditional telecommunications roaming market on its head through new eSIM technology. “We’re not producing cheaper SIM cards or shipping them out quicker,” Burak explains. “It’s a whole new user experience which has just clicked with people who have needed something like this for a long time, but just couldn’t imagine it being this way.”

A self-confessed digital nomad almost as well traveled as Columbus, Burak had first-hand experience of the “personal agony” of the telco roaming market. It was the painful memory of roaming bill shocks that spurred the Canadian legal and business consultant to remove inaccessibility and unaffordability issues in connectivity around the world.

Founded by Burak and co-founder Bahadir Ozdemir in Antler’s second Southeast Asia residency, Airalo brings instant connectivity in 200+ countries and regions around the world by allowing travelers to purchase virtual eSIM packages. Users download an affordable plan directly to their eSIM-capable devices without the hassle of inserting a physical SIM card, resulting in a seamless and contact-free experience. In the process, Airalo—which now has millions of users from all over the world—has redefined the antiquated rules of travel connectivity.

Issues of connectivity while working abroad

After attending high school in the Greater Chicago Area in the United States, Burak took a year out to travel to China “out of wanderlust” and ended up enrolling to study law at Fudan University in Shanghai. Further studies—in international law and political science—followed in Geneva, The Hague, Jerusalem, Ottawa, Chicago, and Washington D.C.

Throughout his travels, Burak was engaged in legal and business consultancy roles alongside his studies. “I was staying in these countries for certain periods, and working as a digital nomad,” he says. “One of the biggest problems I had was connectivity. I was either on expensive roaming packages, or I was offline or looking out to find the nearest hotel or coffee shop for Wi-Fi.”

When he returned to Chicago to study for an MA in social sciences while doing consultancy work in the telecoms industry—where he worked with Ozdemir, his future co-founder—he noticed various trends and became interested in the burgeoning eSIM market that was being used in the B2B sector. 

“It struck me and my co-founder that the fundamentals of travel connectivity had to change and that we can use eSIMs to that end to help people like me who were working and traveling abroad,” Burak, now 32, recalls. “We decided to respond to our own novel experience creatively. It turned out that the personal pain I was having as a traveler happened to be a very real but neglected pain for many other fellow travelers at the same time.”

Burak was studying for a PhD in political sciences at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. when he decided to drop out to join forces with Ozdemir after the latter had discovered the Antler residency program in Southeast Asia in 2019. A lifelong entrepreneur, Ozdemir was living in Singapore at the time and running his own telecommunications and SIM card business. “Bahadir saw the rise and fall of SIM cards and realized his own business was dying—and would die—if he didn’t step up and self-cannibalize,” Burak explains.

Ditching an inefficient legacy system

“When people are so used to one way of doing something, they do not innovate,” Burak says. “They think that the ‘better version’ is only an extrapolation or extension of what they’re already doing. It becomes difficult to imagine a totally new user experience.” 

To elaborate, Burak references a marketing adage by the economist Theodore Levitt: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill; they want a quarter-inch hole.” In this way, Airalo drew inspiration from tech giants like Netflix and Spotify who bypassed the then-familiar physical formats—DVDs, CDs and vinyl records—to give people what they want.

“The entertainment industry has been digitalized but the whole SIM card business was stuck in a legacy system for too long,” he says. “We have been using SIM cards since the early ‘90s but people aren’t necessarily fixated on that form—they just want to be connected.”

If this precise focus has made Airalo the world’s first eSIM store, Burak hopes it will spell the end for one of his personal bugbears. “You know that thing—I don’t even know the name of it—the little pin that allows you to eject your SIM card? That’s such an omnipresent thing in everybody’s life—and it’s so annoying because you always lose it. Frequent travelers will also have all these SIM cards taped to the back of their phone—these are very cumbersome details around the basic human need to communicate.”

In 2020 alone, 3.5 billion plastic SIM cards were produced—contributing to the estimated 14 million tons of plastic that ends up in the ocean every year, impacting fragile ecosystems. Add to this the logistics of packaging, selling, and shipping these SIMs, including the customer’s journey to and from retail stores, and the environmental problem escalates. “It’s a big, nasty carbon footprint,” Burak laments.

An alliance of the world’s telcos

Airalo counts among its numerous investors several telecommunication companies who are adapting to the new reality it is creating. Burak mentions the plight of Kodak and Blockbuster as examples of companies failing to meet changing consumer demands and spiraling down into oblivion. 

Rather than rattle cages—as many startups look to do—Burak saw Airalo’s stronghold in a lucrative market as coming from a more conciliatory stance. “We always wanted to acknowledge that we would be standing on the shoulders of giants as we push for a paradigm shift. We made the decision to talk to telcos and see if they wanted to be part of this, see if they saw any future in tackling this strategic inflection point together,” he explains.

To this end, Airalo has some of the telcos from every continent in the world—including major players in Europe, North America, Middle East and Africa—on board as investors in what Burak describes as “an alliance of the world’s telcos.”

But it was an investment from Antler—and most notably the timing of this cash injection—which laid the foundations for success. “When the pandemic came, travel died overnight,” Burak recalls, stressing how COVID would have made the search for similar funding impossible. “Compared to many other companies and startups, we had the substantial luck of closing our Series A funding right before COVID. It was a good runway. The timing was just right, and we were very grateful—even if we didn’t know when COVID would end.”

The disruption could have been far worse. “We always had a broad understanding of ‘waste’ —even before COVID—so we didn’t really have to change that much. We did go into a hibernation period in terms of hiring. But the reception of our product never stopped. The pace slowed down but we kept growing.” This “lean philosophy” meant that once restrictions were lifted, Airalo could hit the ground running. 

Taking the Uber route to success and ubiquity

It’s a sign of how far Airalo has already come that Burak feels confident enough to speak of his company in the same breath as some of the world’s biggest tech corporations. “We are not a telecoms company, per se, just as Netflix was not a production company back in the day, and Spotify was not a record company. We don’t own the networks that we provide—we are a good aggregator of good connectivity,” Burak explains.

If Airalo’s pay-as-you-go model has been compared to Uber and AirBnB, it’s easy to see why. “Uber is the world’s largest transportation provider, but they don’t own the vehicles; Alibaba is the world’s largest retailer, but they don’t own the stores; AirBnB is the world’s largest accommodation provider, but they don’t own the properties. Airalo is the world’s largest telecom provider at this point, but we don’t own the telco companies ourselves.”

With more than a billion people traveling each year, Burak admits that he has a “world-is-our-oyster type of mentality” when it comes to scaling up his business. “As far as our imagination goes, we ask ourselves, ‘Why don’t we make life easier for every single traveler by providing them very affordable and easily accessible connectivity?’ That’s the kind of ambition we have—although we’re aware that it’s an evolution, not revolution,” he says. 

Current figures indicate that 50% of travelers buy local SIM cards in store, 30% activate a roaming plan, and 15% opt not to use their phones to avoid incurring large bills. “A Canadian staying a week in France and using a roaming service would pay hundreds of dollars. But they can get an eSIM from us for as cheap as $4.50. This product saves travelers like me hundreds of dollars every time they go abroad,” Burak stresses.

Since first coming to the market in 2019, there are now an estimated 500 million eSIM-compatible phones in the world—a figure set to rise to 2.2 billion by 2024. And with physical SIM card slots on devices soon to be a thing of the past—and, with it, those fiddly pin contraptions—Burak is confident that Airalo has placed itself at the forefront of this shift in travel connectivity. 

Looking to the future while doing good in the present

Four months old when the pandemic hit, Airalo is now four years into its journey with millions of users. The American, remote-first company employs 190 people working from 44 countries (and counting) across 12 departments.

“The good thing about being a remote-first, work-from-anywhere company is that the talent pool is the world itself. We just go with whichever country we need a certain skill set for,” says Burak from a café in Toronto. (Sporting a black Oasis t-shirt—his second favorite band after Placebo—Burak readily admits that his office “is all the cafés in Toronto.”)

Burak and his Dubai-based co-founder Ozdemir hope to double their workforce by the end of 2023. Himself speaking fluent Mandarin and basic Hebrew and French, Burak says the product—currently available in 22 languages —will soon cover 53 languages in total.

Beyond the company’s environmental sustainability goals, the duo has engaged Airalo in a series of social responsibility projects including the construction of water wells in Africa; the sponsorship of children worldwide facing challenges such as poverty, malnutrition, limited access to schools and medical services, and social discrimination; and the providing of free internet to Ukrainian refugees forced from their homes due to the war with Russia. 

For his part, Burak volunteers at several non-profit organizations. In particular, he provides pro bono services, empowers communities via job training, and offers counseling for young adults on their academic and employment futures. In his spare time, he enjoys woodworking, playing the clarinet, and listening to jazz, Balkan and klezmer music. While relishing the diverse culture scene in Toronto, he also feeds his Zen interior with twice-yearly off-grid retreats to an isolated cottage for meditation and contemplation. 

A fan of the British philosopher Alain de Botton—whose work he finds “very calming”—Burak hopes to mold Airalo into “the emotionally intelligent workspace that everyone requires and deserves.” In Ozdemir, he feels he has found the perfect business partner who possesses a set of supplementary traits.

“Bahadir thrives where major, high-level changes are necessary but struggles with day-to-day routine and processes,” Burak says. “I, on the other hand, enjoy creating operational steadiness but flounder when quick transformations are needed. We are both graciously accepting of these differences. This, when applied properly, helps us to balance structure with flexibility; speed with accuracy; long versus short-termism and avoid groupthink as much as possible.”

Burak remains convinced that a business emerged from a personal strife of struggling for connectivity abroad will continue to flourish while people share the same needs. “At the end of the day, a business should be about increasing the pleasure of, and decreasing the pain of, another human being,” he philosophizes. “Airalo does this by making connectivity very accessible and affordable. No more getting ripped off buying a local SIM card from someone whose language you don’t speak, no more disputing charges with your roaming provider. We keep hearing the egg of Columbus reference from our users—because our solution is a whole different user experience which just clicks with so many people.”

To learn more about how Airalo is changing the fundamentals of travel connectivity, visit www.airalo.com.

If you're a person with drive, grit, and vision, who wants to build a solution for a meaningful problem, apply to an Antler residency in 20+ locations.

Antler in Southeast Asia

Antler is the most active investor in Southeast Asia, with offices in Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam.

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