Israeli entrepreneur’s FreshBiz board game could sharpen your business skills

Starting a company can sometimes be likened to a game of chance. Coming up with the right idea at the right time, when the market is neither saturated nor in financial free-fall, isn’t always under the business owner’s control, no matter how crack the team.

Ronen Gafni aims to enable entrepreneurs to surmount the vicissitudes of chance by turning the startup game into a real board game. FreshBiz is the result of eight years of development by Gafni, an entrepreneur who is taking his biggest gamble yet with a product that looks like the fabled Game of Life, but is far more practical.

FreshBiz players move through various business stages, from starting a new company to trading on the stock market. Dice throws and “business opportunity” cards help them advance toward the winner’s slot.

Instead of earning $200 by passing Go, players pay “toll passages” along the way. And you have only 90 minutes to do it. The game aims to simulate the world of business and to improve business behavior and industry acumen.

Unlike typical board games, competition is secondary to collaboration. “There can be more than one winner,” Gafni explained. “So it’s not about beating other people. It’s about finding creative ways to make enough money to get to the winner’s block. And if you collaborate, the chances are higher that everyone is going to get there.”

As players move around the board, they can start new businesses whenever they land on an empty lot. It may cost $2 million to open a business, but if you pay attention, you may have the opportunity to start a company for half price — if you find a partner. Similarly, you may be able to trade stocks more profitably if you team up with someone else.

Game translates across cultures

Sounds like you’d need an MBA to succeed in FreshBiz, but Gafni insists that “you’ll pick it up very fast. From the second game on, you’ll be more creative about how you play.”

You can buy the physical game for $50 or download an iPad version of FreshBiz for $7 so you can play against a maximum of four players in your living room or on the Web. But perhaps the best way is to join a FreshBiz workshop.

This is what Gafni has been doing for the last 18 months — running tests with real people around the world, to see how the game works and whether cultural differences matter. He has 30 facilitators (each person pays $700 to buy a kit, after which he or she can run as many workshops as desired) and has played the game in Israel, New York, Spain and Singapore; at banks and financial firms; and with professors and MBA graduates at New York University’s entrepreneurship program.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are very few differences in game play across cultures. That’s because “it’s a game about our core beliefs,” Gafni said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in India or Italy; we all go through the same experiences. In Israel, people might scream more, while in Europe the game might be quieter. But our insights are very much the same.”

Where is Gafni’s favorite place to play FreshBiz? “Madrid,” he said. “I don’t know Spanish, but I can see how the game is going by the movements made by these top executives.”

The game has, so far, been translated into Spanish, Russian and Hebrew, in addition to English, of course. Gafni estimates 3,000 people have played the game already in more than 100 sessions.

Tel Aviv ‘world tour’

FreshBiz officially hit Israel in July, when Gafni held a workshop with 200 entrepreneurs and business owners at the ZOA building in Tel Aviv.

The cost to join a FreshBiz workshop varies depending on the length, from NIS (new Israeli shekel) 150 (about $38) for a short session, up to NIS 2,000 (a little more than $500) for a whole weekend per person. Gafni hopes that organizations will pick up the tab for their top team members.

A workshop can include anywhere from 20 to 150 players. The facilitator does some lecturing with an overhead projector, but it’s mostly about sitting (or jumping) around the board.

Gafni’s goal is to have 1 million FreshBiz’ers in three years. The iPad app is key, he says, and it will comprise more than just the game. “There will be an entire community for entrepreneurial thinkers, where they can share knowledge and opportunities. They can create events and parties” outside of the digital realm.

His own entrepreneurial path started when he began trading stocks while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. He built a stock portfolio worth hundreds of thousands of shekels until the global financial meltdown. “It was a heavy blow for a young guy like me who was just getting started,” Gafni said. “But it also taught me the philosophy of recovery from a financial crisis.”

He and his wife later worked together in their own marketing consulting and branding company, where he saw “so many owners are stuck playing an old game of life and business. The world is changing around them, with technology, the economy, globalization, society — it’s not the same as it used to be — but they don’t know how to adapt themselves to this new game.”

Gafni, 39, was inspired to create FreshBiz after he realized the new world of business looked nothing like the landscape his parents knew. “They both worked in a bank for 30 years and then got their pensions,” he said. “I knew from the age of 10 that I wouldn’t do that. Knowing how much I’ll earn at the end of the month is boring. It’s cooler not knowing!” 

An Ethical Vision

Dov Seidman is used to riding a little ahead of the curve.
Back in 1998, the Los Angeles-based attorney and founder of the legal research
firm Legal Research Network (LRN) decided to expand his business to include an
online course in business ethics.

 At the time, no one could have foreseen the coming scandals
involving companies like Enron and Arthur Andersen. As soon as the wave of
corporate corruption hit, Seidman became the man to call — both by the media
for quotes and by companies seeking to ensure their reputations remained

“In 1998, we were starting to write pamphlets and handbooks
that lawyers could proactively give to business managers and employees to start
putting out fires, so to speak,” Seidman said. “That was really a shift from
working with lawyers and helping them to be great firefighters to helping them
produce fireproof enterprises.”

Seidman, who dubbed his ethics department “LCEC,” or Legal
Compliance and Ethics Center, said he views sharing ethical principles as
crucial to a democratic system of law. He sees the Internet as the perfect 
tool to educate employees about legal ethics and “the rules of society’s road.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Western regional office
will honor Seidman for his vision of bringing a new ethical standard to
businesses here and abroad at its Jurisprudence Award Dinner on March 12. Other
honorees will include California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who will
receive the ADL’s Distinguished Community Service Award, and Joseph D. Mandell,
UCLA’s vice chancellor of legal affairs, who will receive the Stanley Mosk
Liberty Through Justice Award for his many years of public service.

“The award [Seidman] is getting is usually given to someone
in the legal profession who is doing something a cut above the rest of the
legal community,” said Barbara Racklin, director of development for the ADL’s
Western regional office. “Looking over what he’s done in his short career, we
felt he fit the bill for this award.”

Seidman, 38, attributes much of his career success to the
lessons he learned from his eclectic childhood. His father, Alex, a physician
born in Vienna to Holocaust survivors, lived in San Francisco and maintained
close ties with the European Jewish community there until his death in 1992.
Seidman said his father helped shape his outlook as a “citizen of the world.”

But it was his mother, Sydelle, who changed the course of
his life when she took him and his siblings, Ari and Goldee, on a trip to Israel
shortly after the end of the Six-Day War. Although she spoke no Hebrew and had
no family there, his mother decided to remain in the Jewish state.

“My mother had a very deep sense of intuition. Her bravery
and adventurism were really off the charts,” Seidman said. “In Israel at that
time there was a sense of euphoria and magic. All three of us kids grew up
bilingual and bicultural. It’s given me the ability to be creative and see
things from a different point of view.”

The family bounced back and forth between San Francisco, Tel
Aviv and Jerusalem for years, finally settling in Los Angeles. Seidman said
that 11th grade at Beverly Hills High School was the first time in his life
that he spent two consecutive years in the same school.

In addition to the challenges of always being “the new kid,”
Seidman also had to contend with dyslexia. He said he got into UCLA as a
“hardship case” and ended up majoring in philosophy, because it was the only
major where it was easy to get classes. In Horatio Alger fashion, he worked
hard, received his degrees, studied for and earned another bachelor’s degree
from Oxford and eventually graduated from Harvard Law School in 1992.

Two months out of Harvard, working at O’Melveny & Myers’
Washington, D.C., office, Seidman was doing research for a senior partner when
he came up with the idea to create a professional legal research firm in lieu
of using inexperienced lawyers for research.

“It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be in the grip of a
vision, but I was,” Seidman said. The young lawyer quit his job to build the
company. The risk paid off.

Within weeks of launching LRN (now called the Legal
Knowledge Company), Seidman’s company drew a mention on the front page of The
Wall Street Journal. Soon, companies like Motorola, Johnson & Johnson,
DuPont and Chevron were signing on for LRN’s services. LRN doubled its revenues
to more than $100 million in 2002, said company spokesman Ken Montgomery.

Determination and passion for the goal does indeed pay off,
Seidman told The Journal. “I think one of the qualities that makes someone a
true entrepreneur is the inability to contemplate failure,” he said. “You
really focus on what you have to get done.”

To make reservations for the ADL’s Jurisprudence Award
Dinner, call Les Williams at (310) 446-8000 ext. 267.  

Sex,Space and Swastikas

The explosive claim by Clonaid that a human being was successfully cloned has focused attention on the Raelian Movement, the quasi-religious sect that set up the genetic engineering company in 1997. Sharp-eyed viewers of television interviews with founder Rael may have noticed him wearing a necklace featuring a Star of David-shaped medallion, with a pinwheel filling the star. The design has been the official logo of the movement for more than a decade, but that’s not always been the case; the original symbol was, incredibly, a swastika within a Jewish star. The change came after an emotional confrontation I had with Rael in early 1992.

At the time, I was senior reporter for a TV newsmagazine program that had done an extensive investigation of the flamboyant Frenchman and his thousands of followers. He was an outspoken advocate of promiscuity ("If you like to have free sex, you have free sex," he told his adoring adherents), and he delighted in telling the story of his 1973 encounter with a 4-foot-tall extraterrestrial who called himself "Yahweh Elohim." The visitor explained to Rael (a former auto racer originally named Claude Vorilhon) that life on earth was created by scientifically advanced beings, and that the Hebrew word "Elohim" had been mistranslated in English Bibles as "God." Rather, it really means "those who came from the sky."

Rael said his little buddy told him to establish an embassy where the aliens can be welcomed when they return to earth sometime before 2035, and to that end, he has repeatedly asked the Israeli government for permission to build what he calls "the third temple" somewhere near Jerusalem. The request, for some reason, has been denied.

After our initial report on Rael, we heard that he’d be giving a lecture at the Loew’s Santa Monica Hotel. The program’s host, Geraldo Rivera, and I decided to confront him before the speech, and while awaiting his arrival with our camera crew, I perused a long table filled with Raelian literature and various tchotchkes. I was appalled to see the swastika/Star of David symbol emblazoned on virtually everything.

Rael was surprised to see us in the lobby, but pleasantly agreed to an interview in which he told us how extraterrestrials had taken him to another planet and revealed that he was to be the New Messiah; he also confirmed that he had personally met Jesus, Moses, Mohammed and Buddha, and that "I was speaking to them like I am speaking to you now."

After watching his lecture, I told Rael’s assistant that I wanted to meet with him privately. Following some whispered negotiations, I was ushered into a darkened room adjacent to the lecture hall. "Rael," I began. "I have no problem with you and your movement. Believe what you want to believe, preach what you want to preach, sell what you want to sell. But how dare you use a combined swastika and Star of David as your symbol!"

The soft-spoken guru expressed shock. "Why does this offend you?" he asked. "It is an ancient Sanskrit design which means ‘well-being’ and also represents infinity!"

"Excuse me," I replied, trying to contain my anger. "When I return home, I’ll show this to my mother and grandmother, who escaped from Nazi Germany. I’ll show it to my relatives who survived concentration camps, and to my cousins whose parents and siblings were murdered by people wearing this grotesque symbol. Do you think it will say ‘well-being’ to them?"

Rael, to my surprise, was clearly shaken by this line of reasoning, which was apparently a revelation to him, despite the fact that Jewish groups had already held protests outside his lectures. After more discussion, he told me he’d be in touch. A week or two later, I received a press release in the mail announcing a new emblem for the movement. There was also a full-page, handwritten letter to me from my new pen pal. Rael said that after our conversation, "I spent part of the night praying telepathically to the Elohim for a solution to not make more suffering for old people who were victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Finally, I got the authorization to change the symbol."

He closed the letter by thanking me for my "intervention," for explaining the problem to him, and for making him realize that the old design might be an obstacle to establishing that new embassy in Israel. Glad I could help, Rael.

Security — Israeli Style

For a nice Jewish boy who grew up on Beverly Hills’ Whittier Drive, Aaron Cohen has an unusual skill: He can kill people.

He’d prefer not to, but if he must, he will. And it’s not a joking matter. It’s part of the training that he picked up in three years in the counterterrorism unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It’s part of the package he delivers if you sign up to work with his year-and-a-half-old company, IMS (Israeli Military Specialists).

"There’s definitely a respect not just in the Jewish community but elsewhere for the IDF," Cohen said. "That gets you in the door. What’s going to sell it is the ability to analyze a problem and tell them what they need. There’s feel-good security and there’s real security. We offer real security."

Cohen, 26, likes to tell people he was "born and raised here, but grew up in Israel." After graduating Beverly Hills High School in 1995, he went to Israel, volunteered for the IDF and was selected for counterterrorism work. He won’t give details of training or assignments, which adds to the mystique. He will say he spent three years undercover in the disputed territories, then he came home.

He started his company in October 2000. Jackie Chan was one of his first clients from the showbiz world, one of the few famous ones Cohen will talk about, because they’ve been seen in public together. "When Jackie Chan is in town, his management company comes only to us. We also deal with major corporate clients, but I can’t reveal them," Cohen said.

Then came Sept. 11. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk about Israeli-style security, and how Israeli security would have prevented the hijackers from commandeering those passenger jets. Israeli planes already have secure cockpit doors. Israeli pilots know that if someone comes through that door, they shoot. Period.

Cohen explained his approach: "Let’s say the president of a corporation is getting threatening e-mails or has a problem with an employee. We consult, analyze and recommend. If hired, we set up everything, from cameras to guards to training to background checks. If they had pre-Sept. 11 security paying $18 an hour for a guard, half of that goes to the guard, half to their company. Nobody’s going to risk their lives for $9 an hour.

"I make it clear we’re expensive, $5,000 dollars a day for the initial consultation, but I explain why. If you’re going to have armed guards, you want people with as much experience as possible."

The media, myself included as a then-correspondent for "EXTRA," couldn’t get enough of the Israeli angle. That brought me and a camera crew to a private shooting range in Valencia. Cohen, his staff and trainers, speaking in Hebrew, were all business, as they should be when you’re handling live ammunition. Practicing with real bullets and firing Glock 9 mm pistols certainly seems to keep you focused. First it was "Israeli-style tactical shooting." I was on the firing line with Cohen leaning over my shoulder. You draw, aim and shoot in one smooth motion. There is no time wasted sighting. Why? In combat you don’t have the time to lock in the sights on your target.

Then it was time for the VIP protection drill. I would be playing that role in the back seat of a rented Lincoln, one guard next to me, another driving. We rolled up to a mock arrival line. I got out, escorted by the guard that was sitting next to me, when the "attack" happened. A masked gunman came at us out of nowhere, pistol blazing. "Gun!" someone shouted. The guard’s body shielded mine. He drew his gun and fired. Then I was turned around and propelled back into the backseat of the car, the guard on top of me, as we roared off. It took about five seconds. The gunman who had "attacked" us? Dead. My guard "shot" him before shoving me back into the car. (We switched to blanks loads for this exercise.)

The Israelis have a method: If you attack them, they not only fight back, they make sure you’re dead before they leave. Again, it adds to the mystique. A dramatic demonstration for our cameras? Yes, but at the same time, very impressive.

There is competition from larger established companies, but Cohen thinks he has an edge that comes with the "I" in the company name. He says it’s not about the money.

"I’d rather have two clients who do what we tell them to do and benefit from our services than 500 clients who have feel-good security and we’d benefit financially."

Yet, he’s alarmed because a year after Sept. 11, he sees people starting to relax. Despite the ongoing warnings, Cohen finds that people, companies, executives and celebrities are once again less than vigilant. Not him though. Never.

Thin Blue Media Line

Felice and Michael Friedson call their news production company The Media Line, Ltd. (TML), but a limited media line is exactly what they are trying to get around. Dedicated to an accurate portrayal of Israel in the news, the Friedsons work to provide both sides of the story.

In early February, TML opened its own broadcast studio in Jerusalem after years of broadcasting from makeshift quarters in a hotel lobby. Now the nonprofit company has a home for its multiple projects, a list of journalistic endeavors that keeps expanding.

Since the late 1980s, the Friedsons have produced a radio talk show concerning Israel and the Middle East, first broadcasting in South Florida and later in Israel. TML also serves as liaison to foreign journalists, giving reporters background and access to informed sources who can present a clear picture of Israeli political reality.

Their Web site provides updated news and other resources for journalists and others who need accurate information. In addition, they produce news stories and interviews for television, which they distribute directly to local stations, bypassing networks and aiming directly for “America’s Heartland.”

“We’re not saying, ‘It’s not fair.’ What we’re doing is filling in the gaps,” says Michael Friedson, who serves as director of media services (Felice Friedson is president-CEO). “The media problem is not one of commission of evil against Israel. It’s a matter of omission. We have to get information to people who aren’t necessarily looking for it,” he says. That often includes the journalists assigned to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those journalists are often hesitant to trust or even contact official Israeli sources, according to Michael Friedson, but TML can often put them in touch with accurate, informed sources. “We’re Americans,” he says, and by remaining unbiased in their news presentation, TML gains the trust of journalists looking for stories.

“I can’t say it enough — we don’t play games with the news. We are a professional media organization. We meet and exceed all journalistic standards,” he says.

TML staff includes David Zev Harris, a Jerusalem Post correspondant and former BBC reporter, and Michael Widlanski, senior analyst of Arab language media and a former reporter for The New York Times.

Some of the people who are not necessarily looking for Israeli news are the Evangelical Christians who are some of TML’s most regular audience. In 2001, when the Friedsons attended the National Religious Broadcasting Convention, they became the first Jewish media group to do so, and are now broadcasting to Christian media outlets across the U.S. They have worked with Pat Robertson and produced news segments for “The 700 Club.”

“We wish the Jewish community would be as unconditionally supportive as the Christians have been,” says Felice Friedson.

Some of the stories TML covers hit members of its staff too close to home. “When attacks occur in Israel, people don’t hear about the wounded. They hear numbers. They hear deaths, and so-and-so was ‘lightly wounded.’ Lightly wounded can mean someone lost an eye or a limb,” says Felice Friedson.

When a suicide bomber attacked a cafe one block away from their new studio, TML filmed the devastation, not just the bloodstains and debris. Those images were beamed to thousands of homes through local U.S. news programs.

The message of unbiased news from Israel is simple, according to TML. “Israel can stand on its own, even with its flaws,” says Felice Friedson. “Report the events, and report the context, too.”

For more information about The Media Line, Ltd., visit  or call (858) 523-0927.