Tales of a British entrepreneur in the start-up nation

I’ve learnt that chutzpah goes a long way toward business success. Part of showing chutzpah is not taking no for an answer and doing whatever it takes to achieve your goal.

Tel Aviv view (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Tel Aviv view
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I’ve always been fascinated by Israel’s success.
According to Bill Gates, this tiny country has, “relative to its population, done the most to contribute to the technology revolution.” For starters, there are more Israeli companies on Nasdaq than all of Europe combined. A pretty impressive feat.
So how did Israel do it, surrounded by enemies? Why did Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book The Start-up Nation inspire our British company to leave London, a major financial center, and relocate to Tel Aviv for awhile? In this post, I want to share some of my own experiences about what has contributed to the “economic miracle” of Israel.
1. Israel’s immigration and assimilation policy I’ve seen such a diverse cultural mix of people. Waves of emigrants from as close as Tunisia and as far as Australia.
Only last week, I went to a start-up networking session with no few than 21 countries represented. The “Start-up nation” has created a melting pot of backgrounds, thought processes and ideas.
This has been made possible by Israel’s open door immigration policy. On the news, I see campaigns galore with agencies and ministers bending over backwards to bring new immigrants to the country. Politicians even run for election promising how many new immigrants they’ll bring to the country.
2. Role of the military A sense of mission is key to building a great team. This applies to any aspect of life, from successful marriages to start-ups. In the army young 18-year-olds put themselves on the line, while at the same time gaining solid leadership and mentorship experience.
One example is my good friend Or Hillel, a young entrepreneur who by the age of 22 had already sold his first online business. Or told me, “They took me as a kid at the age of 18, got me to think by putting me in tough situations where I had work as part of a team to survive.
It helped see the reality of the world through the eyes of an army soldier. This helped me become creative about dealing with tricky situations. To be an entrepreneur you need to be innovative and the army was a great breeding ground for this.”
Going to the workplace later in life breeds more mature, smarter entrepreneurs. I’m a firm believer that the military link between study and entering the fierce world of business is a valuable one. When looking for team players, I can only see it as beneficial to hire a member of staff who has previous experience in sacrificing himself or herself for a bigger cause.
3. Startups – ethos of survivability Israelis continue with their work and entrepreneurship even in the most trying of political situations. No doubt, there are problems here. The existential threat may always hamper the ‘Start-up nation’ from reaching it’s full potential.
However, most of the start-ups I’ve met in Israel work worldwide. Clients overseas want goods shipped. Entrepreneurs don’t have the privilege of saying “there’s been a flare-up, we can’t supply you.”
Last week, an entrepreneur named Haim Ben-Ami summed it up perfectly. He said, “Israelis need to stay in the game and keep in the competition every day.” This creates a sense of resilience and not wanting to give up.
We go back to my friend Or, who recounts that during basic training in the army he was only allowed one hour on the phone per day. Or remembers, “I had clients consistently calling in from the US. The first five minutes was always to my family to tell them I was OK. The rest of my time was spent with clients who had no idea I was in basic training. I simply had to portray an image of business as usual.”
4. Power of old-fashioned chutzpah I’ve learnt that chutzpah goes a long way toward business success. Part of showing chutzpah is not taking no for an answer and doing whatever it takes to achieve your goal.
My Israeli family teach their kids at a young age, “don’t be a frier,” i.e. sucker. As one of my local suppliers puts it, “if you stand in line and follow every instruction to a T, you won’t get far.”
At conferences, I’ve seen young Israelis with little business experience not being afraid to approach top CEOs, venture capitalists, and talk with them on an equal footing.
In other countries, this may be considered rude. As an entrepreneur, I’ve certainly learned from Israelis that to get something you need to be audacious and risqué.
5. It’s OK to fail Most start-ups fail. Whether you are in London, Tel Aviv or the Silicon Valley, the odds are against you.
Israelis know that they may fail, but the vast majority have the perseverance to try and try again. If a first start-up fails, they won’t lose faith in their entrepreneurial DNA.
I’ve noticed that entrepreneurs in Israel proudly “entrepreneur” on business cards. In most cases, it’s as prominent as the name of the company they founded.
At first, this shocked me. I then dug deeper to find out that being an entrepreneur is a pretty trendy profession here.
In the past, you might have pleased an Israeli grandma by telling her you were a lawyer, doctor or accountant.
However, in 2013, it’s trendy and accepted to be an entrepreneur in Israel. Grandmas proudly tell other grandmas that their son is an entrepreneur. Playing it safe doesn’t have the appeal it once had.
6. A resilient and ambitious nation For me, it’s crystal clear why Google, Microsoft and Intel see Israel as a key base for research and development.
Despite the country’s existential threat, the one thing I can truly say is Israel has an incredibly resilient population.
I’m so proud my team has got to see this story of innovation and entrepreneurial success with their own eyes.
We’re better, stronger entrepreneurs for the experience.
Thank you Israel.
The author is managing director of Global Currency Partners Ltd (My Currency Transfer).