For those of you pressed for time, I can save you reading the rest of the blog post. My impression of Israel, and especially entrepreneurship in Israel, is very similar to my impression of entrepreneurship in California, except that everyone is Jewish.
But in Israel, everything except the most local road signs is written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Also, my iPhone knew exactly where everything was. Next time I will rent a car.
Getting through customs at the airport was far easier than it is in the US. I breezed through, caught a cab and was at my hotel in a small beach town just north of Tel Aviv within an hour of landing. The Mediterranean was gorgeous, warm, and had beaches and resort restaurants and beach volleyball courts just as you would expect in Santa Barbara or San Diego.
The ConferenceThe conference started the next day with several talks detailing the support the Israeli government has for start ups. They are perhaps a bit smarter than we are, not trying to pick winners themselves, but rather providing matching funds for angel investors that the angels can buy out later if they like. There is no downside for the company, but a large upside for the angel investors. And they let the business people pick the most promising companies to invest in, rather than the bureaucrats. Not that I have any opinions.
The next part was speed dating, so I got to meet maybe 15-20 Israeli start ups in a four or five hour period. This was great, and I was very, very impressed with both the technical excellence (far better than my own developing expertise) and the innovativeness of the startups. A couple examples:
Cellergy: Cellergy is making aqueous
Better Place: Okay, so Better Place announced their bankruptcy just before the meeting, and it was the chatter while we were there. But they dared greatly, and it's better to dare greatly and fail, than to live in the...well we all know the Teddy Roosevelt quote. Better Place was going to have us all swapping drained batteries from our EVs for fully charged ones, ready to go in a few minutes. The world isn't ready for it yet, but I expect we'll be doing it before the next couple decades are over.
Electric Fuel, Tadiran: Both lithium battery companies, one established, the other new, both with high levels of technical excellence.
Entrepreneurship in IsraelEntrepreneurship in Israel is unique in several ways, but I especially noticed a unique culture that I thought was especially conducive to entrepreneurship. Here are my impressions:
Comradery: I'm not sure if it's their God, common military experience, shared history, or having half a billion people live nearby who want to kill you, but the Israelis have a comradery that I would liken to being in an alumni association of an elite academic institution. For one Israeli, any other Israeli is immediately a friend in a way that the rest of us folks cannot understand. I could see it very clearly, and as welcoming as they all were to me, I was on the outside. I harbor no resentment, but perhaps a little jealousy. What they share is real, and palpable.
Argumentative: They were also naturally argumentative, or we refined Southerners would say so (snicker!). It was a friendly confrontational aggression--questioning, refining, criticizing, suggesting. Again, I see this as good--every entrepreneurial venture seeks to improve, and without constant refinement, will grow stale.
Improvising: In my discussions, everyone was suggesting new things to do, new ways to try to do what we were doing. Most of the suggestions were quick-and-dirty, get the most information from the smallest test, suggestions. They would never throw $3 billion at a few choice players in the battery industry to see if it sticks. Instead, they would do 3 million tests that each cost $1 thousand, knowing that many, many many of them would come together to create something.
Player-coach: Here in the US, we have professional managers, who brag about not being able to do anything but lead. In Israel, I saw three star generals talking about how heavy the cells were, and if you could change them out with one hand or two, and how to design the handles so it only required three fingers and one pivot. There were not professional managers, but everyone was a player-coach. This, of course, is a prerequisite of entrepreneurship, where there simply isn't room for the professional manager who fills a seat and everyone's inboxes, and little else.
A Personal Story From My VisitAfter a few emails, Pastor Afif Saba agreed to meet me at Yardenit to baptize me. Pastor Saba had planted an evangelical church in Nazareth. My tour bus stopped there at 3pm. Young ten year old Chloe was the first person who agreed to be baptized with me, but she was soon joined by her six year old sister Lily and her mother Fiona, while husband/father Andrew was to man the cameras. I couldn't have been happier than to be joined by three new baptism sisters on this special day.
If you leave out the spiritual nature, Yardenit is little more than a large gift shop on the side of the river, with a locker room to change in and conveniently chained off areas to hold baptisms. The "river" would pass for a large creek in the mountains of North Carolina, with clear green water and a large number of fish, too small to eat but maybe fun to catch. I connected immediately with Pastor Saba, and we quickly realized that, while my baptism was real and special to me, the energy of his teaching and singing was best directed at the children. His deep voice resonated as he first read some verses to us, and then unreservedly sang a few old hymns as we entered the water.
The water was cool, as you can see in the video--but there was something else, too. The fish. When the singing was over, and Pastor Saba pulled me out into the water to be baptized, the fish joined me, and as we prayed together, they began to peck at my legs. It's hard to describe the feeling--stronger than a tickle, and nothing like anything I'd felt in this world, but definitely just fish, pecking at my leg hairs. Not just once or twice, but constantly, dozens of them, as if I were fish food, and they had all come to gently feed. Or, as I felt at the time, they were kissing me, over and over, gently touching their lips to my legs again and again. I felt as if the fish were delivering God's message, that I too was his son, and He was well pleased with me--not in the same way as Christ--but that I was entering the family of Christ, and the fish were welcoming me, even as Pastor Saba asked me the ritual questions of the Gospel. I came out feeling confirmed, feeling welcomed.
Am I a different person now that I have been baptized? I have always recognized my infant baptism, and so have considered myself a Christian for as long as I can remember understanding the question. Is there a change? I would say no, that the decision to get into the water with Pastor Saba and my three baptism sister did not change me--except for the fish. They touched me, they connected me with something that wasn't there before. It is as if an umbilical cord that I knew before only intellectually has now become solid, unbreakable, unquestionable, undoubtable. Is life easier? Is sin gone? No--the same hardships are here, in this fallen world that we live in. But those fish changed me, and I will never forget them.