At the heart of Israel's high-tech ecosystem

Natan Leibzon Photo: Eyal Yizhar

Startup Stadium's Facebook page with almost 40,000 followers is a great forum for Israeli entrepreneurs looking for exposure.

It is difficult to put your finger on the secret responsible for the success of Israeli high-tech. The mix in the Israeli economy's growth engine contains creativity, audacity, and innovation. Another elusive and unquantifiable element is the ecosystem - a broad network of connections between entrepreneurs, investors, and representatives of international corporations proving that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. One of the influential concerns in the Israeli ecosystem is Startup Stadium, a non-profit venture founded four years ago that maintains a Facebook page with almost 40,000 friends and a variety of other activities. Venture capitalist and entrepreneur Izhar Shay, managing general partner at Canaan Partners Israel (not to mention a weekly columnist at "Globes"), founded the community.

The day-to-day manager of the community is high-tech entrepreneur Natan Leibzon, 28, founder of the SoInFit startup. In a special "Globes" interview, Leibzon talks about Startup Stadium, saying, "Our goal is to generate value for everyone who is part of the ecosystem. We want to help everyone: startups and entrepreneurs."

Leibzon has been managing Startup Stadium as a volunteer for a year. His predecessors were Oren Kochavi (currently VP marketing at Terra Venture Partners) and Einat Meyron (marketing and public relations).

"Globes": How did you get this position?

Leibzon: "As a young entrepreneur, I attended a lecture by Izhar Shay three years ago. He talked about what investors were looking for. I felt it gave me knowledge. I came out of it with a desire to continue, to research, to get ahead, and to promote my startup. Over the years, I used the Startup Stadium Facebook page to advertise my startup. The thing is that it's not just me. Every entrepreneur and accelerator manager can use this platform.

"After I got to know Izhar, I invited him to lecture at an event in the Bar Ilan University Illanoation entrepreneurship club. We clicked immediately. There are people you immediately have good chemistry with. He proposed that I join Start-Up Stadium, and I couldn't refuse, because there are things in life you have to say yes to right away."

Who is your Facebook page aimed at?

"The page is a great platform for entrepreneurs who want exposure. It also helps accelerators, which invite startups to join them. We're making connections with people in the industry, and it's important for us that their voice be heard. We're careful not to just stay on Facebook; we also conduct physical meetings. The big events take place once on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and again on Yom Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), and the atmosphere at them is festive and enjoyable."

"With us, there's a lot less pressure"

One of the big challenges for entrepreneurs is to compose a sales speech, a pitch, that will help them recruit investments and customers. Every Start-Up Stadium event allows a number of entrepreneurs to make such a pitch. "There's a difference between us and a demo day at an accelerator, for example," Leibzon explains. "With us, there's a lot less pressure. The surroundings are supportive. The spirit of Start-Up Stadium is to provide a stage and lend a hand. The panel that gives its opinion about the pitch does it in a friendly way. At the last event on Rosh Hashanah, entrepreneur Eli Polak from the BAZZ startup took part. He spoke, one of the investors scheduled a follow-up meeting, and it's likely to lead to an investment. That has already happened to us a number of times."

Another Startup Stadium department is the "High Tech in the Traffic Jam" podcast, a hour-long program broadcast on Facebook live every Thursday morning. It includes interviews with senior high-tech and venture capital industry figures. The program is presented by Shay, Leibzon, and Yael Shani, known to the Israeli high-tech community from "Tsav 8 to Barcelona" conferences" (she only recently replaced Hagar Sagi from Glilot Capital).

The people interviewed on the program over the past year included Facebook Israel CEO Adi Soffer Teeni, serial entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, investor Dov Moran, and others. "These people don't need advertising," Leibzon says. "They participate in the program in order to share their knowledge, give tips, and tell about inspiring things that happened to them."

Startup Stadium's active Facebook page, the most popular in the genre, makes it possible to appeal in an (almost) segmented way to everyone interested in entrepreneurship. Startup Stadium is leveraging this status to create cooperative ventures with large corporations having development centers, venture capital funds, joint work sites such as SOSA, and so forth in Israel.

In recent years, the high-tech community in Israel has become more and more heterogenic. It no longer consists mostly of geeky graduates of IDF Intelligence corps Unit 8200, and Startup Stadium is part of this trend. "We host young and old entrepreneurs on our Facebook page and our events," says Leibzon, "including women, haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), and Arabs. Both Arab entrepreneur Rami Khawaly, cofounder of MindoLife from the Hybrid incubator in Nazareth, and Chedva Kleinhandler, founder of Emerj, a company from the KamaTech incubator for integrating haredim in high tech, participated in one of the events. That's our spirit. We believe that even though we are so different, a better situation can be created through entrepreneurship and startups, where everyone is equal."

A series of senior high-tech figures have been hosted at Startup Stadium events. The list includes Ministry of Economy and Industry chief scientist Avi Hasson, Wix.com Ltd. (Nasdaq: WIX) cofounder and CEO Avishai Abrahami, PrimeSense CEO Inon Beracha, Dov Moran, former Ministry of Economy and Industry chief scientist Orna Berry, Pitango Venture Capital cofounder and managing partner Chemi Peres, Rad Group cofounder Yehuda Zisapel, and others. Politicians have also appeared at the events, including then-Minister of the Economy and Industry MK Aryeh Deri, former Minister of Finance MK Yair Lapid, former Zionist Union chairperson MK Shelly Yachimovich, and former acting Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs MK Tzipi Livni.

"I contribute to other entrepreneurs"

Leibzon: "I personally believe in also volunteering and investing my time in something from which I don't get money. As an entrepreneur, I benefit a lot from the ecosystem, and the great cooperation in it, so if I'm able to give back, it makes me feel I'm contributing to other budding entrepreneurs, and motivating them a little bit to give of themselves to the ecosystem in return, so everyone comes out winners."

How does the community profit from this?

"In the end, the community is composed of entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, services providers, and so on. When you boil it down, everyone wants as many Israeli startups as possible to succeed, whether in financing rounds, IPOs, recruiting customers, getting worldwide advertising, etc. We're all working towards that goal. More activities for the community mean more interest. More players come from Israel and around the world, and more resources are created. You can look at it as a system that really is friendly to the entrepreneurs and promotes them all the time."

Somebody visiting your page is likely to get the impression that things are better than they really are. You support the entrepreneurs, and that's proper, but you refer less to the matter of failures, which are quite an essential element in venture capital."

"The question of failure is something I find very interesting. This is part of the learning process. We can and should learn a lot from startups that failed - at least as much as from those that succeeded. Even when we interview successful people, we make it clear that the road is strewn with difficulties. We try to give a platform for good things, for successful things. Failure is there in any case. Disappointments, frustration, lack of success - it exists. As a platform, we say, 'Let's give the stage to success and achievement.' We don't focus on failure. We want to show the positive side, without embellishing the reality."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on January 26, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

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Natan Leibzon Photo: Eyal Yizhar
Natan Leibzon Photo: Eyal Yizhar
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