Seeing the Startup Nation Firsthand
- by Lisa Ellen Niver
After exiting the terminal in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport last month, I turned left toward the taxi line. I noticed a thin line of smoke rising from a nearby trashcan. As I walked toward it, I thought about what I could do. I had no water as I had just flown for hours and I could not remember how to say “fire” in Hebrew. As I pondered what to do next, a man walked by me from the opposite direction. He returned moments later with water and put the fire out. That sums up Israel: Everyone feels responsible.
Where does this national culture come from?
I agree with Dan Senor and Saul Singer, authors of the book Start-Up Nation, that the military training of young people in Israel gives them extensive responsibility and opportunity to be managers—self-managers. When you are in the Israeli navy for seven years like former navy officer Guy Aharon, founder and CEO of Motionize, you are out on a mission on the water and no one else is coming. You and your team have to figure it out.
That adds to why Tel Aviv was ranked as the top startup system in the world outside of the U.S. in the latest report by Compass. According to the economic development team for Tel Aviv, the city has about 972 startups, nearly one-third of Israel’s total of 3,389.
Necessity requires creativity and everyone around you cares that the team succeeds. As Aharon told me, in Israel anyone is only two phone calls away, and everyone has 30 minutes to help you think through an issue. The enterprise community is supportive and willing to offer advice, mentorship, suggestions and assistance.
“We are all on a journey to happiness,” Lee Rubin, CEO of Wekudo, explained to me. The Ministry of Tourism had invited me to tour Israel, and one of the benefits was the chance to meet a wide range of people, including business leaders like Rubin, whose startup serves other startups by providing memorable corporate activities.
Rubin agrees that army training teaches “soldier skills” and teammates learn assertiveness, confidence and how to manage a team. Her company thrives in New York and Tel Aviv, and she works with over 400 vendors. From her experience the Israeli difference is feeling responsible for yourself and your community.
At Maverick, a boutique venture capital fund in Tel Aviv focused on Israeli technology startups, Yaron Carni, a well-known figure in the Israeli tech scene and founder, and his team spoke to me about the diversity of companies in Israel and what makes startups work so well in Israel.
Carni agrees that the building blocks of an entrepreneur culture are feeling responsible, gaining skills by experience, access to an ecosystem and being able to improvise. Even in the Israeli Army, the habit of asking questions is celebrated “as long as you are not too much of a chutzpadik, or impertinent or impudent, he said. Carni added military training helps prepare owners for creating and running a company as entrepreneurs “don’t separate their day.”
“Their job in a startup is their whole world,” he said. “It is all encompassing and it defines us as people.”
Creating a company requires many elements for success. Like Israel itself, companies are being born out of hard work and determination. Shimon Peres, the former president of Israel, in the forward to the book Start-Up Nation, wrote that “Israel bred creativity proportionate not to the size of our country, but to the dangers we faced…The next years will continue Israel’s commitment to a better tomorrow, with a readiness to take risks and seek renewal.”