Israel is the home of the start-up. It boasts more Nasdaq-listed firms than all but two other countries – the US and China – and has more venture capital than any other nation.
Israel-based businesses are operating at the cutting edge of their respective sectors – and contributing huge amounts to the global economy. For example, brands like Waze, Viber and Mobileye all began life as Israeli start-ups.
With start-ups so integral to Israel’s business landscape, let’s take a look at five of the country’s key business leaders who built brands that became billion-dollar giants.
Avi and Aaron Shaked
Brothers Avi and Aaron were born in Netanya and both studied at Ben Gurion University, although neither were initially set to pursue careers in enterprise as you might expect – given that they went on to build the hugely successful 888 Holdings. Avi studied Chemical Engineering and Aaron was studying to be a dentist. It was at a dental conference in Monte Carlo where, among the bright lights and hubbub of the casino, Aaron came up with the idea for an online casino that would change their lives and revolutionize the remote gambling sector.
The Shaked brothers launched Casino-on-Net in 1997 and became one of the first online casinos available worldwide. Rather than just offering one type of game, Casino-on-Net aimed to bring the whole casino experience into players’ living rooms, with a variety of playable options. It was soon followed by their second venture, Reef Club Casino.
In 2005 the brothers decided to float the company on the London Stock Market and only three years later it achieved FTSE 250 status. 888 Holdings has launched several brands that have become some of the most recognized online gambling operators in the world – including 888 Casino and 888 Poker.
Along the way, 888 Holdings have acquired a number of other notable brands including Globalcom, which enabled them to branch out into the bingo market with Wink Bingo. The company’s most recent acquisition was sealed in February 2019, when they bought out Costa Bingo, Slot Crazy and Fantastic Spins for a combined £18 million – tightening its grip on the steadily growing online bingo sector.
The Shaked brothers decided to take a backseat in 2006 and went their separate ways with new ventures. Avi ventured into politics and, although ultimately unsuccessful in running for Parliament, he remains a hugely influential figure. He also moved into the food industry, involving his son Eyal in his new business ventures in China, where the pair have opened 130 cafés.
Aaron became a philanthropist, primarily investing in community development to build new homes schools in underprivileged areas across Israel.
Born in Tel Aviv, Adam Neumann divided his early years between Israel and America, spending time in both Indianapolis and New York, where he eventually settled after attending Baruch College. In Israel, Neumann grew up partly in a kibbutz, an experience that helped shape his world view and influenced the community element of WeWork – the company he went on to found.
“As a teenager and as a child, it was the most unbelievable place to grow up. I was with my friends from morning till night. We ate in the same dining hall, we drove to the same school, and then we all did our homework together, or we didn’t do our homework together. It was awesome,” he said. “So yes, community is definitely a difference, but I think the real difference is intention and meaning behind what we do.”
After beginning several ventures which didn’t get off the ground, Neumann struck gold in 2010 when he started WeWork. The company’s business model was creating and leasing communal work-spaces with high-caliber amenities and wellness and innovation at their center. The business was a huge hit, expanding first through the US and then across the globe into London, Tel Aviv and Shanghai, with more cities soon following suit. Now with 10 locations in Neumann’s home country of Israel, including the latest in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, WeWork is continuing to provide modern work-spaces that encourage the formation of new startups.
Never one to be complacent, Neumann has been busy investing in other companies – including recently cannabis firm InterCure – hoping to continue inspiring new business and ideas.
Another Tel Aviv-born businessman, Teddy Sagi made his mark on the international tech scene before the age of 30. His business, Playtech, became the world leader in online gaming software, leasing designs and software to companies worldwide. Eager to grow his company quickly, Sagi listed Playtech on the London AIM before transferring it to the LSE in 2012 where it excelled as a publicly owned firm.
Sagi began focusing on other financial interests from around 2016, and in two years he’d sold off his remaining shares in Playtech. The billionaire has since bought major shares in Market Tech, a real estate venture holding property in a number of urban centers throughout Europe and the Middle East. One of Market Tech’s biggest holdings is Camden Market – London’s fourth-largest attraction with 100,000 people visiting every weekend.
Sagi has also set up LABS in the co-working space sector, and has a controlling share in cyber security giant KAPE. He is currently worth almost $4 billion dollars.
Serial entrepreneur Avishai Abrahami is an experienced start-up founder best known as the man behind Wix.com – the do-it-yourself website hosting service.
In the early 1990s, Abrahami’s first job was in crack cyber-security team – known as Unit 8200 – in the Israeli military. His mission? To hack into the computers of two hostile nations. While it may seem like a pretty huge task for a guy barely out of high school, Abrahami excelled in the role – breaking into the two target machines and sapping their data. To achieve this he also had to overcome the challenge of accessing the enormous amount of computing power needed for the job.
After leaving Unit 8200, Abrahami’s career took a different tack. He co-founded Wix.com in 2006, and by 2010 the company had 3.5 million users. This grew to 8.5 million by 2011 – by 2014, more than 34 million users had signed up to the Wix platform. Abrahami took Wix public In 2013 – on the same day he sold 500,000 of his shares.
"I was probably the first guy in history to have sold a company and IPO at the same time," he told Business Insider.
Most recently, Abrahami served as Director of SodaStream International.
While many Westerners see Israel as a developing nation, in reality it’s a hub for entrepreneurs. There are so many successful tech firms starting out here – and surely it is a question of when, rather than if, the next one will come along to take the world by storm.