Giving up Silicon Valley and giving back to Israel

Aliya and army service come first for young hi-tech entrepreneur from New York.

Ben Lang 311 (photo credit: Ben Lang)
Ben Lang 311
(photo credit: Ben Lang)
Israel and Silicon Valley have had a symbiotic relationship for years.
Israeli startups export hi-tech products and technologies to “the Valley,” and American companies send back money and stock options. But money gets spent, and stock options have a way of evaporating before they’re vested, what with all the ups and downs in the market these days.
Far more lasting is the knowledge and intelligence the American “daddy” sends to its Israeli “child,” which in short order is transformed from a startup into an “R&D center.”
The stateside parent company sends some of its people over to learn the magic of the technology it has acquired, and they get together with the folks in the new Israeli subsidiary and trade ideas.
That intermingling can lead to even bigger and better ideas and new technologies, resulting in a new startup and a new round of buyouts.
This interplay between American and Israeli tech people is important not just for the germination and development of new technologies.
For Israel, it’s an important part of the country’s hasbara, helping others to understand Israeli society, the country’s problems and needs.
It’s not necessarily about politics, but about showing off the “other side” of Israel, the side beyond the conflict. In other words, the human factor is as important an aspect of Israeli hi-tech as the technology part.
That human factor, in fact, is attractive in and of itself, and it’s become a major reason for individuals and families from the US and Canada to make aliya. Many of the professionals who come with their families to work in Israeli hi-tech end up working for American companies when the startup they work for gets bought out – and ironically, some of them actually get sent back to the States for training or even an extended work assignment.
For many in hi-tech, getting assigned back to HQ in Silicon Valley is a dream come true, something they would never have been able to attain had they stayed in Teaneck or Toronto.
But what about people who already live – or work – in Silicon Valley? In Talmudic style, we pose the question: If a hi-tech worker’s dream is to end up working for a Silicon Valley company – or even in Silicon Valley – does it not stand to reason that someone working in Silicon Valley already would want to remain there? Of course, Zionism, love of the Land, and other ephemeral concepts play into the decision to make aliya – but hey, we’re talking a Silicon Valley job here! Though these opportunities are few and far between, for many, making aliya trumps working in Silicon Valley. Among those who made the decision to come to Israel is a young man named Ben Lang, who not only worked in Silicon Valley but actually ran not one, but three Internet startups. Not only that, he managed to get The New York Times upset enough that they threatened to sue him. Now he’s living in Israel, and is already working in the hi-tech industry here.
Note: Lang is all of 18 years old – and will be joining the IDF in March! It’s pretty unusual for someone with a running hi-tech business to voluntarily give it up and serve in an army – any army – but Lang is a rather unusual individual.
For example, he spent last summer in a program for young hi-tech entrepreneurs (the Teens in Tech Incubator program), which took place in Silicon Valley – spending a total of $250 all summer to support himself! “I attended plenty of events, where there was always something to eat, plus I had a relative in the area, so I was able to eat more or less for free.” Clothes – at least Tshirts – were never a problem either, since many of the companies Lang visited as part of the program lavished participants with shirts, hats, and other tchotchkes.
Lang was in the program as a result of his startup activities.
“I started my first online business when I was 14, selling things on eBay,” Lang said.
“A few years later, I started EpicLaunch, a popular blog for young entrepreneurs. And, I started a site called MySchoolHelp, where high school students can share notes and help each other on assignments.”
That idea, said Lang, came about when he was still in high school (Ramaz School in Manhattan), when he realized that students could make use of the notes they took to help kids coming into the class they just took, instead of throwing them away. And as a result of the incubator experience, Lang has a third startup, ClassParrot, which lets teachers send notes and messages to students’ phones and devices without revealing either’s phone numbers to the other, thus preserving privacy on both sides.
Perhaps his most interesting adventure so far was an attempt to circumvent the paywall that The New York Times put up this past year for its online edition. Readers are allowed to browse 20 articles a month, after which they get a message that if they want to read more, they need to subscribe.
“The system they use is pretty simple, and just checks cookies,” said Lang, which gave him the idea to develop a web program for browsers that would simply erase the cookies.
To spread the word, he bought a domain name called “FreeNewYork-,” which raised the ire of the folks at the Times, who threatened him with all sorts of legal pain if he did not “cease and desist” from using their good name for his nefarious purpose.
“0They sent a letter out the day after I bought the domain name.
My hosting service took down all my sites, and I was out of touch for a couple of weeks. They worked pretty quickly,” he said.
Right now, Lang is working at a site called Wibiya (recently acquired by Conduit) here in Israel, and recently cofounded yet another site, Innovation Israel, which is an evangelist site that promotes great Israeli ideas. But all that will come to a screeching halt in a couple of months, when Lang enlists in the IDF.
“If I had stayed in New York, I would by no means have been obligated to join, but I felt a necessity to give back to Israel,” he said.
“It was extremely difficult leaving Silicon Valley, a haven for startups and entrepreneurs, but I know that joining the Israeli army is the right decision,” he added.
“Decisions are always tough, but in the end everything always works out.”