Why some start-ups backed up, others passed up

“We Israelis may excel at innovation,” said seasoned entrepreneur Yochi Slonim, managing partner of FFWD.me, a Tel Aviv-based program to “fast forward” start-ups. “But we’re pretty clueless when it comes to marketing our assets to potential investors and customers.”

This disconnect is the basis for “Start-ups From Mars, Investors From Venus,” one of the popular lectures Slonim delivers to the business community in Israel and abroad, which is also available on YouTube. Slonim, who has spent the last 25 years turning start-ups into major companies, entertainingly describes the problem in language and illustrations everyone can understand.

One message from the 52-year-old high-tech maven is that the quality of a product does not guarantee its success in breaking into the market.

“What every innovator needs,” he claimed, “is to have a differentiating idea and to take ownership of it.”

Sounds simple, right? But according to Slonim, most companies have a hard time grasping this concept.

He realized the depths of this discrepancy when he joined Star Ventures after years on the other side of the aisle as a company creator seeking investors. When heads of new companies would make a pitch, Slonim saw how they were perceived by the investors.

“After they would leave the room, the venture capital guys would summarize their company with one or two sentences in their Excel ‘deal flow’ file,” he said. “And it was funny to see what they understood from what was explained to them.”

He realized that entrepreneurs were often unable to elicit a positive emotional response from potential investors.

“Our brains are hard-wired to know very quickly whether we like something or we don’t. Knowing immediately if something is good for us — or dangerous — is a built-in mechanism for human survival.” 

Yet most young innovators are not aware of this when they try to promote themselves.

Slonim’s history in the business has taught him about this “brain-heart” connection. From 1989 to 1996, with degrees in math and computer science from Hebrew University, he co-founded and ran product development for the software company Mercury Interactive. Mercury went public in 1993 and was acquired for $4.5 billion by Hewlett Packard in 2006.

From 1996 to 2000, Slonim served as executive vice president of products and marketing at the enterprise software company Tecnomatix Technologies, which was later acquired by UGS for $220 million. From 2000 to 2006, he was founding CEO of Identify Software, subsequently acquired by BMC for $150 million.

Since 2007, he has worked alongside CEOs to help their companies succeed. He most enjoys finding “diamonds in the rough” and transforming them from “mud-covered rocks” into valuable assets.

“Even the best diamond is worth very little until it is cut right,” he said. “And most companies don’t know how to do the cutting.”

Here is where Slonim’s philosophy of owning an idea comes in.

“Ideas, in the conventional sense of the word, are a dime a dozen,” he said. “But a truly differentiating idea is a very powerful foundation for a company. All of a sudden, something positive happens — such as being able to attract investors and customers.”

The father of four works with companies to understand their essence — their technology, the skills of their team — and then helps them build on the foundation of a powerful idea that differentiates them from competitors.

“Differentiating with an idea, as opposed to with product features, is what enables you to maintain a strong position in the mind of customers and investors,” he said.

He uses his experience with Identify Software to illustrate. The innovation was pitched to him as a new debugging technology that logs the entire story of a program’s execution. In the event of a crash or other error, a look at the log detects the trouble spot.

Slonim argued that few people would understand the technical reasons why the program was unique and valuable, or why it was better than debugging tools Microsoft provides for free. He suggested dropping the term “debugging” in favor of a “black box for software applications.” Most people know that on an airplane, the black box is where you go to figure out why something went wrong. People with no technology background could understand how this would apply to software. This strategy took flight, so to speak, generating an interview with Slonim on CNN.

“The next day, the phones didn’t stop ringing with people asking how much the black box costs,” Slonim said. “And this was before we even had the black box actually working.”

It is precisely Slonim’s ability to find the “difference that makes a difference” that differentiates him and his endeavors from others. Nevertheless, he concluded, “Luck plays as much a part as skill when it comes to discerning which rocks in the mine are rough diamonds worth cutting.”

Life Sciences generate booming Israeli industry

Israel’s life-sciences field is growing so rapidly that even industry trackers are having a tough time keeping up with the number of startups.

Of the approximately 750 Israeli companies in the field, nearly three-quarters were founded in the past 10 years, said Yael Rogel-Fuchs, executive director of

A Wing Girl and a Prayer

I’m your average middle-aged schmo. I’ve never been able to pick up women in bars or bistros. Never met my beshert in a bakery on Fairfax Avenue or in Beverly Hills, or in one of Los Angeles’ retro-hip boîtes with those sleek banquette settee things, either.
But I did go out with two Jewish 20-somethings the other night — at the same time. Both women were spirited and energetic, wearing those little golden necklaces with their names on them: Marni and Nina. They call themselves “Wing Girls,” dating aides from a new start-up called IcebreakerDating.com.
For $75 an hour — three-hour minimum — Nina Rubin and Marni Kinrys aim to help men like me meet my maybe-mate at an L.A. danceteria, Farmer’s Market, a poetry reading or wherever I choose, actually. It can be anywhere from Friday Night Live to the Israel Independence Day Festival, from the Skirball Cultural Center to LACMA.
The two women met in Israel on the Birthright program for under-26-year-olds. Nina, who is from New Mexico, where her family were the only Jews in town, went to Penn. Marni, a psych major from Toronto, went to college in western Ontario. They hit it off in the Old City, and one night dreamed up a service where they could take people out and introduce them to people. Genius. On a bet, they put an ad on craigslist.com. They found 75 responses waiting for them the next morning.
Marni had tried JDate. “I met a lot of people, but I don’t need a fire wall between me and the person,” she told me.
Nina also explored Jewish computerized courtship and admitted, “It may be a good motivating feature for some people. But I’m still a fan of meeting in person where you see the initial attraction and you can feel if there’s a chemistry — versus being a pen pal.”
The matchmakers have steered dozens of Jews, and non-Jews, too, ranging from 35 to 58, and they claim a 75 percent success rate — judging by the number of “target” phone numbers each client procures.
So, I figured, why not? I’ve tried everything else: SpeedDating (Pico-Robertson Starbucks version), UCLA Extension, Chasidic-aerobics by the beach, new shuls on the Westside, Dan Fogelberg concerts. Everything but the Venice drum circle. But I’d say I’ve been open.
I met them at a happy hour in Venice. Before they find you somebody, the Wing Girls get to know you for 45 minutes. They call themselves, “on-site dating specialists.”
When was my last relationship, they wanted to know. I told them I broke up in between the first and second seder. They asked what kind of woman I liked. I told them short, dark-haired Jewish women. They said they were not available. (That’s OK, Nina told me. Wing Girls always get hit on.) I said I also liked tall women, so tall they had troubles that nobody could see.
The Icebreaker’s angle contends that women are competitive and like what they can’t have, and what other women want. So men appear more attractive when they’re with another woman.
“Most people think our clients are these desperate poor losers,” Marni said. “Not at all! They’re cool guys, have great jobs, and a lot of them are wealthy.”
Sure, I thought. Who else can afford the $225?
“The price of a night out on Sunset,” Marni argued.
“And you don’t have to tip us!” Nina added.
“OK, what would be the next step for me?” I asked.
“You just point out a girl,” the ladies said.
“Simple as that?” I asked
“Or we’ll point out a girl that we think you’d like, and go bring her over,” they said.
“Kid in a candy shop?” I asked.
“Exactly,” they told me.
Suddenly these two action females, ravaging the basic hunter-gatherer foundation of our existence, set out. But putting theory into practice can suddenly feel even more awkward than where one’s usual self-loathing and loneliness usually leads. (I’m thinking of the shy computerized nice Jewish boy staring at screens all day. Not me.) Remember when cousin Moishe or Manny would just introduce you to someone from the neighborhood? Well, old school is out.
The first four women Marni and Nina tag-teamed were either engaged or celebrating engagements. A Canadian they sized up found their approach absurd.
“I’d have a dinner or wine tasting at the house and just invite eligible men and women,” said Kristin, not her real Canadian name. Her companion, Amy, was a little more game for the gambit. A friendly gal in “outside sales,” high-end, Amy said something about “business to business” and being between jobs.
I procured her phone number and also some laughs. I guess I’m too old, but I felt like a weenie for having to enlist Wing Girls to fight my battles for me. Does the word yenta ring a bell? My next move is “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” They promise even if I don’t end up married, at least my apartment will seem cozier.