Israeli startup venn builds neighborhoods of the future

Or Bokobza, David Sheraz and Chen Avni Photo: Kfir Ziv

Having developed its urban neighboring model in Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood, venn, already worth tens of millions of dollars, is targeting 100 cities worldwide starting with New York and Berlin.

There is something contradictory in venn's three founders - Or Bokobza, David Sheraz and Chen Avni. Having served in an elite Israeli army reconnaissance unit, graduated university, connected to progressive Judaism, and become involved with community voluntarism, they talk about the right to dream, self-realization, encouraging entrepreneurship, and affordable housing. Yet they are also businessmen who have become important and influential players in the real estate market.

They have transformed Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood (immediately south of the Central Bus Station) into an innovative experiment in urban neighboring with an alternative approach to residential real estate. It is a model tailored for the 21st century and suited for co-living and an on-demand economy. venn has been so successful that it is branching out to New York and Berlin. venn is already worth tens of millions of dollars and is swimming with domestic and international real estate sharks.

venn creates cooperation with developers and homeowners (starting in Shapira). The buildings are renovated to fit venn's residential model. The company's units range from a 7 square meter cubicle to 20 square meters and up to 130 square meters for a family or room-mates as well as shared areas belonging to all tenants. venn has initiated a kind of
activism of neighborhood life with local services, some in cooperation with other companies and others of their own such as laundry and cleaning services, neighborhood art, self-growth workshops, music rooms, yoga classes, café, pizzeria, kindergarten, co-working spaces, social involvement programs, professional training, pop-up stores and even dog-walkers and babysitters.

It is a recipe that has attracted a long list of investors including Carasso Real Estate, which has brought not only hundreds of millions of dollars but also the right connections. Bokobza, Sheraz and Avni are already managing 29 buildings in Shapira and have their sights on overseas projects, as part of their partnership.

Shapira is a kind of urban village with veteran residents, mainly from Bukharian (Central Asia) immigrant families, migrant workers and refugees, and more recently a wave of young middle class Israelis driven out of other Tel Aviv neighborhoods by the high rents. For many Bokobza, Sheraz and Avni are an enigma - thirty-somethings who have accomplished thorough and complex things under the radar but have generated suspicions and skepticism and accusations of gentrification but despite everything are being listened to and talked about.

There is something misleading about Venn, although perhaps like Facebook, Airbnb and WeWork this is all just part and parcel of a fast-changing world. But it seems strange that a private company should be developing, in their words, "a neighborhood operations system that can be implemented in neighborhoods around the world." A type of multi-faceted infrastructure touching all areas of life, just waiting for somebody to press the play button, is now becoming a reality.

It all began in 2014, when and because Bokobza, Sheraz and Avni needed somewhere to live. "Like every group of Israel friends we dreamed of one day living together and bringing up our children together," recounts Bokobza. "We thought about setting up a community in the north or living in the same apartment building but in the end we found ourselves in South Tel Aviv because David (Sheraz) said something was happening here and perhaps there was an opportunity. We went to Shapira and drove around the neighborhood and when we got out of the car in Karashkesh Street there was a silence that was difficult to explain. Just then a couple of chickens crossed the road and there was a large lemon tree. We looked at each other, felt something very powerful and understood without speaking that this was where the three of us were going to live."

But they did not come just to live. They took a more thorough tour of Shapira that same day and the next day they began charting out the neighborhood, marking where they wanted to live and where they wanted to work and what was the potential. After two weeks, they drew up an initial document by hand with their vision and the business-social model supporting it. In this way venn (named after the Venn diagram in math which represents overlapping common elements through circles, similar to their goal to sit in the cross section of profit and purpose) got going. After four months they moved into a shared apartment in Shapira and began building the residential model that would develop over four years into the venn neighborhood project.

The venture promotes neighboring experience in which tenants forego some of their own living space for shared space with neighbors such as balconies, roofs, laundry rooms, meditation areas, work rooms in the building etc. But the three are reluctant to define themselves as a co-living project. "Today every 22 year old pair of developers renovates a building and calls it co-living," explains Bokobza. "It's great and fantastic and an important element but we are thinking in terms of neighborhoods not buildings. We want Venn's tenants to go out of the building and into the neighborhood." Avni adds, "We call this 'wholebeing' and that's the central principle, which we divide up into three areas of life: my space, my neighbors, and our neighborhood."

He continues, "The first circle is the residential living experience. We surround the community's members with all the relevant services: cleaning, laundry, handling bills, vegetables delivery, postal services. A venn resident does not have to talk with Tel Aviv Municipality because all bureaucratic business is controlled by our app. Community members can send a message or picture saying their 'drain blocked' or 'I want to put up shelves' and we provide the service."

"The second circle is a major connection between community members in our shared neighborhood spaces and our communal spaces in community buildings. Our desire is to create genuine connections between local service providers and purchasing power. For example, laundry services for community members will come from local laundries etc."

"There is also the world of content which creates major connections in the community. venn has a team of community managers and a community team creating a fund of content in each of our spaces. For example, the 'Red House,' which is the neighborhood's arts and cultural center, which was opened in 2016, attracts 100,000 visitors annually and is open to everyone, and it has changing exhibitions and cultural activities. Midburn Israel's (the country's Burning Man festival) head office operates out of it."

The third circle is 'our neighborhood' and how members of the community succeed in being significant for the neighborhood. We have built a model that measures the impact of our activities and we present results each quarter to the Impact Fund, which has invested in us. For example, the level of prices for purchases in the community or our community subscription, which gives access to all the spaces and services we have mentioned."

"Community members receive a major discount on the neighborhood kindergarten out of our desire to open the platform not only to cool hipsters but also young families. We also give community members the budget, tools and resources to build for themselves their own platform and so a situation arises where a community in a building turns to our designer in order to make changes in a building, or for example a community of musicians needs the services of certain musical instruments, so they put in a request and we find them the services of a local musician."

Rents in a venn apartment range from NIS 1,200 to NIS 2,500 per month depending on the size of the unit plus a small maintenance fee (vaad habayit) of NIS 50 to NIS 160 per month. A subscription for community services is 250 per month for community members and NIS 460 per month for neighbors.

venn's business targets are extremely ambitious and go far beyond Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood. Bokobza says, "We want to bring Venn to one million people in 100 cities by 2030. Over the past 18 months, we have set up a team that has built a plan on how to enter these cities. We have compiled a book with 250 tasks and research processes from macro to micro to identify the trends and where young families and students will move to in the coming years."

He adds, "We have charted trends and identified opportunities. For example, we have looked at 18 neighborhoods in New York, of which we chose one neighborhood where we will begin Venn operations over the next six months, although it is too early to reveal its name. We have already started working in two Berlin neighborhoods but it is also too early to reveal their names. In the next six months everybody will know about them. It means that within a year from today there will already be 500 to 1,500 people living in Venn neighborhoods and building their lives."

"The company is already well established and we have salaries that we are satisfied with. We have 50 employees, of whom over 30 are in Israel."

Venn has a long list of impressive investors. "Calcalist" has published that Bokobza's partner is Tamar Cohen, the daughter of Egyptian born British businessman Sir Ronald Cohen, one of the founders of the Bridges sustainable growth investment fund, which made its first Israeli investment in Venn. Bridges stresses that its investment in Venn was before Bokobza became acquainted with Tamara Cohen.

Other investors said Bokobza include Pitango (Chemi Peres sits on Venn's board of directors), Gigi Levy-Weiss, Saul Klein's LocalGlobe, former Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz, Harvard Business School Prof. Arthur Segal, Israeli venture capitalist Shmil Levy and individual investors like Yariv Gilat and Eyal Gura.

venn does not consider the word gentrification to be an insult. Sheraz said, "Gentrification is about change and renewal of the urban space. These are processes that are happening and there are more and less positive sides to them. Less positive is that it pushes rents up and there are residents that find themselves kicked out of the neighborhood."

He continues, "Here we take responsibility and create solutions of affordable housing. We allocated some of the apartments through the impact fund, because we don't want a neighborhood where the veteran residents are leaving. We want a heterogeneous range of people and we have responsibility for the area."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 30, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Or Bokobza, David Sheraz and Chen Avni Photo: Kfir Ziv
Or Bokobza, David Sheraz and Chen Avni Photo: Kfir Ziv
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