What’s so special about Israel’s startup scene? Meet a few of my friends

Israel is a small country that pumps out an unbelievable number of startups. This country of just over eight million people boasts more than 5,400 vetted startups and tech companies, according to Start-Up Nation Central.

The people behind these businesses are not always who you think they are. They aren’t just the young upstarts you’ll find in Silicon Valley and other places. Many weren’t even born here. But they all share some important qualities.

Take my friend and colleague, David Galper. I met him almost a dozen years ago when he was a twenty-something student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He had already secured tens of millions of dollars in funding from venture capitalists for Ruckus Network, a college-oriented digital music and entertainment startup he helped to found.

His company was sold to Total Music, a joint venture between Sony and Universal. After that, he went on to become a go-to advisor for countless startups. He is known for having an eye for diamonds in the rough, such as when he relaunched TinyURL.

I met David for brunch in Tel Aviv last month, pigging out on a delicious brunch buffet and taking in the view of the Mediterranean Sea. He told me that after all his success in the Boston area, he and his family decided to check out living in Israel. It wasn’t an easy decision, especially with their less-than-fluent Hebrew. But when his wife landed a job as a physician at a top hospital, it seemed like the right time to make the move.

Only arriving a year and half ago, and having never served a day in the vaunted Israeli Defense Forces, where many of today’s business relationships are forged, David has been able to ride the Israeli tech wave with the best of them. He’s currently scouting talent as the country’s lead investor for Flybridge.

What makes him so successful? It’s his brainpower, natural curiosity, gut instinct, and love of exploration, along with his genuine humility (not always the most common quality in Israeli startups) that make him a perfect poster boy for Startup Nation.

If you’re in London, Beijing or L.A., what does all this have to do with you?

I’m not just talking about going global with the next Waze or Teva (two incredibly successful Israeli companies), but learning from, and even tapping into, the Israeli business mentality. It’s a mindset that puts qualities like improvisation, speed, spontaneity, candor, connections, creativity, and the joie de vivre very much in evidence in the Tel Aviv’s cafés and restaurants at any time of the day or night.

After a recent visit to Israel, I discovered a lot of commonalities among the entrepreneurs I met.

Israelis refuse to be categorized

Take Irit Singer, who started as an electrical engineer developing algorithms for more than seven years. She then transformed herself into a chief marketing officer and biz dev whiz. With perfect English that she picked up as a kid in Palo Alto, where her Israeli scientist parents landed prestigious gigs, this woman has the versatility and intellect to not be confined by her industry. She’s smoothly switched lanes several times during a career at L’Oreal, Microsoft, Mobli and now Alto, a new real estate fund based in Tel Aviv and New York City.

Israelis don’t sweat the small stuff

You know the name, Rafi Gidron? If not, you should. And not just because he pulled off the biggest exit in Israel’s history, selling his company Chromatis for $4.8 billion. This PhD from Columbia University is now making his mark as a social entrepreneur, including founding Israel Brain Technologies, a nonprofit organization that’s focused on finding a cure for daunting diseases. He doesn’t let the massive scale of this effort bring him down. Like many Israeli entrepreneurs, he combines business acumen with the kind of idealism needed to build a better world.

Israelis have chutzpah

Whether they are Israeli Arab engineers running Galil Software or ultra-orthodox Jewish techies at RavTech, Israelis have chutzpah. Case in point, my new friend Jonathan Bensaid, the vice president of research and development at Apester. This former fighter pilot from the French Air Force immigrated to Israel and virtually overnight became a young superstar in Startup Nation. He has the chutzpah to enter and then reinvent an established field of polling and consumer sentiment by imbedding real time surveys into the biggest publications.

Sure, you’ll find inspiring stories in other countries. Yet the sheer number of startups in Israel tells us there’s something special going on. A nation that has quickly gone from growing oranges to producing every kind of technology under the sun is overflowing with a can-do spirit that’s contagious.

Photo credit: Yaniv Ben-Arie/Flickr

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