Izhar Shay, Founder Of Two Successful Startups, Talks To NoCamels About Success And Failure In The Startup Nation
Izhar Shay does it all. Since 2005, he serves as the General Manager of the Israeli branch of global venture capital firm Canaan Partners and has focused on building companies in communications and mobility, software, clean technologies and digital media. It doesn’t hurt his flair for a good deal that Shay launched and sold several startups himself. V-Secure Technologies was acquired by Radware in November 2005 for $15 million and Business Layers was acquired by Netegrity for $42.5 million in December 2003. Shay also serves on the board of directors of Ort Israel, the country’s largest technology education organization, and writes a weekly column in Israeli business website Globes. Not one to rest on his laurels, the businessman has also fancied himself an author with the novel “As Beautiful As You,” about the pursuit of happiness. Here, the father-of-four tells us about his road to success and on the importance of accepting the occasional failure.
When did your fascination with technology start? Did you have any entrepreneurial interests as a child?
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The answer is yes. When I was a kid, technology looked a little bit different, not that I want to date myself. When I grew up I had no access to a personal computer, so my general interest was in electronics. That was one of the main reasons why I went to study at the Technion after the army, where I earned an electronics engineering degree. My parents claim I have always been some sort of amateur electrician. I used to build kits and all kinds of exciting fun stuff.
What do you think it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?
I wish I had the right answer. But, I think that first of all being a successful entrepreneur means that you truly believe in your vision…You are very passionate about your idea whatever that idea, concept, technology, new service, game or app is…You have to be willing to go all the way to make it happen. This is where it starts.
There is a whole list of additional attributes to a good entrepreneur. You must be willing to listen, to accept advice, to have the capability to work and cooperate with people. You must also be able to share your passion with others. But, it all starts with believing in your venture and being willing to really go for it.
Why do you think Israel has become the “Startup Nation?”
I think it’s a combination. First of all, we are the Startup Nation because of our willingness to dream. That is indicated by all kinds of things that happened in the startup nation ever since we started. We have always dared to dream and dared to go for our dreams. Those are two main reasons.We have visions. We are creative, but we are also willing to go all the way to make those dreams happen. Along with this, people in Israel are willing to sacrifice lifestyle and job security to become an entrepreneur and try to live their dreams. This also means they have the self-confidence needed to start a new venture.
Another important part is that we do not heavily criticize failures. When you start a startup, most odds are against you. You have to be in a society that accepts failures as part of the way to do business.
What makes a startup appealing to investors? At Canaan Partners, what are you looking for?
OK, first and foremost come the people. We always look at the people who form the startup. It doesn’t matter what the startup offers, and what market the startup operates in. First, it’s about the people. Then it’s about innovation. It has to be an innovative business model, an innovative technology, and/or an innovative concept, something innovative. So yes, innovation is very important to us. That’s the key word. Then, it’s the potential to go after a very big market opportunity.
What strategies did you use in the past to secure investment and build your two companies, V-secure and Business Layers?
I think one of my most important strategies was to understand very thoroughly and very intimately my customers. I sold products to customers to help them run their business, so I always maintained close relationships with customers and tried to introduce a corporate culture that promoted a customer-facing attitude. And then, I was always alert. I wasalways listening carefully for a new threat, new market trend, new customer need, and new idea from an employee. Always be alert, always listen to what happens 360 degrees around you because that will help you build better companies and also help protect yourself from various challenges that are always there.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
First of all, prepare your homework. Make sure you know what you are trying to do. You understand the various aspects of what you are trying to do. Spend as much time and personal energy as needed to make yourself a true believer of your vision. After you have that belief in place, never give up your dream. Never succumb to criticism or to people who will tell you it won’t work. Or this will not happen. Or the market is against you or whatnot. This is almost a precondition: When you start something new, everybody will tell you that you are doing something crazy, something that will not work, not catch up. That’s where you start.
What do you think the Israeli startup scene will look like in 10 years, 20 years?
I think that we are still going to be one of the top three or four producers of high tech companies in the world. I think that we are going to see further innovation coming out of the high tech market in areas like semi-conductors, Internet infrastructure, cellular communications etc. I think that we are going to see much more mature markets in bio-tech and medical devices I very much hope we will also see aeducational technologies coming out of Israel. We see today a good number of companies that are targeting the new wave of technology that serves the educational market. This is something that is an international and significant trend. There are probably going to be other areas that we cannot even imagine today. I am pretty confident of the Israeli hightech market remaining a hightech force internationally 20-30 years from now.
Tell us about your book, “As Beautiful As You.” What was the inspiration to write it?
The inspiration is my imagination. This book is a story about an 11-year-old boy’s life and his challenges Some of the stories that inspired me are about how parents care for their children and others are about how parents do not care for their children.
Which is harder, writing a book or building a company?
I think that growing a company was much harder than writing a book. Writing a book for me was a whole lot of fun and I had almost no disappointments. Running a company as an entrepreneur means you are facing challenges day in and day out. You have to exercise everything that you have in you in order to make it happen. One of the most important differences is that when you are writing a book, you are 100 percent in control of whatever happens in that book. When your company “writes the book,” you are pretty much subject to market trends, market issues, conditions, international crises and whatnot. Not everything is in your personal control.
Tell us about your involvement with Ort Israel.
I sit on the board of directors of ORT Israel and I am very proud of this nonprofit. ORT is the largest school network in Israel. One of the network’s goals is to educate the next generation of Israeli scientists, high tech entrepreneurs and employees, and foster a whole new ecosystem of talent. We work closely with the Israeli military in order to guide qualified students to serve in the Israeli army in all kinds of technical positions where they contribute to the safety and strength of the Israeli army. Then later on, these students who went through the ORT network are qualified to go on to academic studies in the areas of engineering and science. Or, even to use their knowledge to become employees in all kinds of advanced technologies.
Tell us something about yourself that people would be most surprised to learn about you.
Well, I will tell you what people won’t find surprising, but is important to me. I am very proud of having a very happy and Zionist family with my wife. We have four children. I think that we have found the balance between being a very high-tech oriented home, and also insisting on values like a love for this country and a love for the people of this country.