Share and share alike

A new start-up offers a search engine to connect people with similar interests.

Share and share alike (photo credit: Courtesy)
Share and share alike
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Jerusalem-based start-up called Webbing ( proposes to help you “explore your interests and discover people who share them.” The technology, poised to take social networking to a whole new level, recently got accepted into the Sigma Venture Capital portfolio.
But even before gaining funding or a user base, Webbing has achieved something notable in the social space: One co-founder is religious, and the other is secular. Both in their early 20s, the two Jerusalemites met in May 2012 at StartUp Weekend Jerusalem, a 54- hour event to help people find networking, resources and incentives to grow their concept into a business.
Avraham Orbach’s great idea had been percolating for the previous year, ever since a musician friend told him of his difficulty finding fellow musicians to start a band. Why not create an “interest network” where people who otherwise would not find each other online could connect based on mutual interests? Though his father is a computer programmer and his grandfather is a professor of computer science and math, Orbach didn’t have the know-how to put his idea into action. He had spent the previous 12 years learning in haredi institutions such as the Hebron Yeshiva and had just begun rabbinical studies at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Institute. But Yochay Ettun had the skills Orbach needed.
“WHEN WE met at the StartUp Weekend, I was a bit surprised that I could talk to a person in a white shirt and black pants about technology and start-ups,” admits Ettun, who has been programming since he was nine years old and served in a technological intelligence-gathering unit in the army.
“Avraham pitched me the idea of Webbing, and this was a clear problem I really connected with,” Ettun continues. “I had already thought of this type of idea in different variations. When he talked about competing with Facebook, I was amazed at his chutzpah. He really thought big, whereas I am always more realistic. Hearing him speak about this project so passionately made me believe we could do this, so I joined him.”
Ettun says they have no problem getting along.
“Obviously, religious stuff comes up sometimes. I’m not allowed to send emails on Shabbat,” he says with a laugh, “but we work really well together.”
Says Orbach, “Yochay gets where I’m coming from 100 percent, and we respect each other. As long as you want to change the world together and you’re motivated and passionate about your idea, the barrier of religious differences shouldn’t hold you back. But I have to thank him for trusting that I could do this.
He took a bigger leap because I came into it with no background.”
CEO Orbach and CTO Ettun soon teamed up with COO David Berger, who has a doctorate in psychology, and Lee-Ad (Adi) Gottlieb, who has a doctorate in computer science and teaches at Ariel University. They rented space at Jerusalem’s Startup Hub.
“Yochay figured out how to do what we wanted to do, and Adi made it happen – he put the magic behind our platform,” says Orbach. “Besides a nice idea and a gorgeous interface, we have a very savvy technical side.”
Webbing users begin by sharing content from their areas of interest on the platform. With the help of semantic technology algorithms that analyze these articles, the site identifies users with related interests.
“If you have 100 different interests, we can learn the associations between them and create a beautiful visual story for you,” says Orbach.
Sigma VC partner Amit Bohensky says the Webbing concept appealed to them immediately.
“The field of correlation engines in social networks is something we feel will grow. This enables users to find others with similar needs, interests and hobbies, and Webbing has a nice graph algorithm that can serve that purpose,” says Bohensky. “Once you have a correlation engine, we think it might create good traction and attract different businesses to be involved. If I know your interests and what to offer you, there are plenty of business models possible.”
Until Webbing is put to a bigger test, of course, it’s not a sure thing. However, Bohensky says Sigma is betting on its potential.
“We want to be there as they develop it,” he says.
Ettun explains that the team mapped the features and problems of competitors, both large companies and small start-ups, and decided that its advantage would be core back-end technology that could understand users, concepts and content.
The trio searched high and low for a developer proficient in Ruby on Rails, an open-source web application framework in the Ruby programming language. One day, software engineer Vladimir Shteinman walked into the Startup Hub and announced his proficiency in Ruby on Rails. He was the answer to their prayers.
“I’ve learned that no matter how much you try to push something forward, it’s all in God’s hands,” says Orbach, who immediately accepted Shteinman’s offer to begin programming on a voluntary basis.
Since then, they’ve added two marketers – Maxx Blank and Shalom Tzvi Shore. They also have about a dozen interns at the University of California- Berkeley working on the project through the TAMID Israel Investment Group, a program that connects business-minded American college students with economic ventures in Israel.
“IT WAS a vote of confidence that the students said they’d use a platform like this,” says Orbach, who expects to have a viable product within six months.
“Right now, there’s a demo of our technology that people can play with, where you can chat with others based on interests. That’s just scratching the surface. With the full product, you will be able to create sub-networks of people, even across the world, who could be your next business partner or your next girlfriend.”
Most social networking technology, he explains, branches out from people you already know – friends of friends and colleagues of colleagues. Once you get to the third or fourth degree of separation, it’s harder to meet.
“Networking is an artificial constraint,” says Orbach. “Let’s say you have a group for shopping in Har Nof and another in Rehavia and another in Katamon. On our platform, they will all flow into a larger group for shopping in Jerusalem. Or if I were studying astronomy at the Hebrew University and someone at Harvard is studying astronomy, we’d flow into a larger group of college students interested in astronomy. The system understands how to do that.”
The team plans to build a mobile application eventually; but for the time being, Webbing will be web-based because it depends on uploading content.
If all goes well, Orbach would like to run the company for a few years and then go back into learning and teaching Torah.
“I want to leverage whatever Webbing creates for me and funnel it back into the community,” says the newlywed.
Webbing’s team has moved out of the Startup Hub but is committed to remaining local, even though office space is available to them at Sigma in Tel Aviv.
“We want to be part of the new Jerusalem start-up scene, so we want to stay here,” Ettun says.