The Tel Aviv startup scene (2): a Q&A with Hillel Fuld

"In Tel Aviv, when a startup fails, the founder still has his other two startups"



Hillel Fuld must be the heaviest Twitter user in Israel (currently at 120 000 tweets and counting). He’s also a guest blogger about the Israeli startup scene for the Huffington Post, GigaOm and SAI, so it’s safe to say that he’s the go to guy to ask what’s happening in the Tel Aviv startup scene.

It’s also quite a nice collection of references, I say to him, when I meet him at the Inneractive offices just outside Tel Aviv. He smiles: “I just asked them whether they would be interested in having someone write about the Israeli startup scene for them, and they were. For the Huffington Post, I feature a startup about once a month.”

Inneractive is a leader in the app monetization space, and Fuld is the Senior Evangelist at the company. Apart from guest blogging for tech and business blogs, he also blogs for Inneractive, and keeps a personal blog. Blogging seems like a way of life for him (but if he writes as fast as he talks, I’m sure he can write a lot of content in a very short time.)

Fuld: “Yeah, I’m a content guy. I really believe in writing good content as an effective marketing tool I mean, “push marketing” is passé I think. I think you get the farthest by just offering good content, by offering value, and not asking for anything back. In the long run that boomerang will return. For me, the foundation for every good marketing today is offering value – through blogs, or video, or any other type of content. Not all startups seem to understand that.”

“On the other hand, some do. I was at Google Tel Aviv yesterday for “speed dating” with startups. I’m a marketing mentor there for their startup events. I was talking to the CEO and the CTO of one of the startups I was mentoring, and with them were three girls, who were responsible for community management, social media listening and social media broadcasting. It blew me away that they had someone to just listen to the social media chatter. That is my philosophy too: listen, add value, don’t fall into the trap of aggressive marketing or selling of your brand day and night. That just doesn’t work anymore.”

Q: Let’s talk a bit about what’s happening in the Tel Aviv startup scene today. 

Fuld: “Well, I think it’s a very interesting time right now. If you had asked me a few months ago, my answer would have been completely different. The coaching at Google is taking place over a few months, and you can literally see the transition. The first time I was there, a few months ago, all the startups were developing consumer apps. Then, last time, the startups were split down the middle, with half of them developing for consumer and half of them for enterprise. But yesterday: all of them were working on B2B ideas. Not one consumer app.”

“I work closely with investors too, and they’re actually telling me too that gone are the days of developing a photosharing app and hoping for a billion users to monetise. It doesn’t work. Or those people discovery apps that tell you who is near you, social network things: I really think we have seen a peak there. Clear business models with a straight road to monetisation are the new black.”

“Apart from that, everything is mobile. It’s amazing. It’s very rare to see a startup that doesn’t have a mobile strategy. Location is huge. And I see a lot of hardware. Toys that integrate with hardware, location bracelets, those things. Oh, and another thing that I’m hearing a lot – you hear about b2c and b2b, but more and more people are talking about b2d. Business to developer. A lot of people are releasing SDK’s, to help developers with things like monetisation, or even with things like retention. Appsfire has its App Booster SDK, for example. Its aim is to bring users back who have gone inactive. Or things to add functionality to apps – like chatting with other users.

Q: In Europe, we’re seeing a lot of accelerators – is that a trend here too?

Fuld: “Oh, every day another launches, saying “we’re different”! It’s disproportional to the size of the country, the amount of accelerators we have here.”

Q: Tell us about three startups from Tel Aviv or Israel that we haven’t heard about but that we should follow?

Fuld: “I don’t know that it’s a real secret tip, because they’ve been in the New York Times, but Umoove is amazing. They’re doing eye tracking technology with your phone camera. It’s incredibly accurate, and it just blows you away what they can do with it. You can scroll with it, game with it, pause a video. It’s cross vertical, from gaming, to advertising, very cool. Scoble just met with them yesterday and he seems to agree.

Watch Umoove here:

“Another one is Takes.com, which is very clever, I think. Usually, when you’re taking your phone camera, you have to decide between taking a photo or shooting a video. Takes opens both the photo camera and the video camera, so you can do both. They will really be going places. There are so many more, thousands, that choosing three is not an easy task.”

Q: And which late stage companies are the darlings of the Tel Aviv startup scene?

Fuld: “Apart from Waze and Fring, I think you need to know about a company that was recently acquired called iOnRoad. You dock your phone on your dashboard, and the forward facing cam opens and warns you when you’re too close to the car in front, or when you’re swerving off the road. Very cool technology.

Watch iOnRoad in action here:

“Appsfire is huge. GetTaxi is doing well. Outbrain is a content recommendation platform that is huge on the web – it drives me a lot of traffic – and I can see a lot of startups racing to port that success to mobile. And last but not least, Conduit is like – a cash machine. They make a custom toolbar available to publishers to drive more traffic, and their numbers are honestly insane. They are a huge, huge company, and they also do amazing things for the community here in Tel Aviv. of course, Conduit too is thinking big when it comes to mobile.”

Q: It’s incredible how many big companies you manage to name – all in a small country like Israel.

Fuld: “Israel has a population of about 8 million, so yes, that’s quite amazing. There’s a book about Israel called “Startup Nation” that tries to explain why we have the highest number of entrepreneurs per capita. Their conclusion is that it has to do with the army. In Israel, you turn eighteen, they give you a gun and tell you that you’re responsible for the safety of your family and friends. You grow up fast that way. I don’t know about all that, but it’s clear that there’s something in the air here.”

“I once heard a blogger say that in Silicon Valley, when a startup fails, it fails. Here, when a startup fails, the entrepreneur has two other startups. And it’s definitely true that serial entrepreneurship is a very Israeli thing. Ben Lang once mapped all the startups in the Tel Aviv startup scene, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them. It’s really insane.”

Q: Are there that many more engineering students in Israel?

Fuld: “No, I don’t think we have disproportionally more engineers here. It’s just a spirit of innovation.”

Q: How about the layer of superangels who have exited and who can take an ecosystem to the next level?

Fuld: “I actually don’t think we have that many of them here either. I mean, ICQ exited. There are some of them, but not a tremendous amount. I do expect a lot of them to happen over the next few years. There’s lots of talk about acquisitions these days. Of course, there is the developing Waze story…”

Q: That’s one definite advantage you have here: there are so many big US corporations here with R&D centers that the climate is very good for M&A exits.

Fuld: “That much is definitely true. And a company like Google, who built amazing offices here, is a big factor. We also have a lot of the big VC’s active here, like Benchmark. There’s a constant stream of guests – like analysts, and press. We have a lot going on for a small country.”

Q: All that and good weather. It’s not really fair! 

Fuld: (laughs) “Yes, it’s an interesting place to live.”

Q: Is there as much a pull here from Silicon Valley as there is in Europe?

Fuld: “Oh, there’s a lot of relocation. But it’s a difficult question, to relocate or not. You need a presence there I think – it’s very hard to be relevant without a presence in Silicon Valley, if only for PR reasons. You need to be there at some point, but relocation is not a huge plague for the Tel Aviv scene, I think.”

“For one thing, development here is better – it’s cheaper. Recruiting talent in the Valley is astronomically expensive. It’s a lot cheaper here. Also, for some reason, there’s so much competition there, and people look a bit drained there.”

Q: Really? I always hear people go on about how ‘relaxed’ Silicon Valley is.

Fuld: “Oh, I think people look tired over there. For every one app that succeeds, 5000 don’t. Even companies that in my mind are a success – like Foursquare. I think it’s an amazing technology, and Dennis Crowley is the nicest guy. And it has 30 million users – but that’s apparently not enough anymore. The grammar of success changed in Silicon Valley. 10 million users, 15 million users just isn’t enough anymore. That’s sad, I think.”

Q: You mean the tech press is too obsessed with big numbers?

Fuld: “Not the press – it’s just that there are giant companies out there that just laugh at 30 million users. A company that does it well – that nailed it in terms of discovery, monetisation, user retention, everything, is Flipboard. I love that company. I’m hours on there every day. An hour on Instagram: I can’t manage that. But on Flipboard: hours.”

Q: And on Twitter, I guess.

Fuld: “I actually use Tweetbot.”

Q: How many tweets do you send per day?

Fuld: “Oh, you don’t want to know. 80 or 90. And that’s just Twitter. I’m actually more active on G+. I love that, I’m a big fan. I actually have more followers there than on Twitter. And I think it’s going to be big. We’ll see.”

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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