A day in the (tech) life

Running a startup is a marathon; pace yourself, Outbrain founder says

Ori Lahav, CTO and co-founder of Outbrain, walks his son to school, hates it when work gets stuck, and organizes a yearly sailing trip for tech entrepreneurs

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Ori Lahav, the co-founder of Outbrain, organizes a sailing trip once a year for tech entrepreneurs (Courtesy)
Ori Lahav, the co-founder of Outbrain, organizes a sailing trip once a year for tech entrepreneurs (Courtesy)

Ori Lahav, the 47-year-old chief technology officer and co-founder of Outbrain, walks his 8-year-old to school in the mornings and tries to be home for dinner with his family. He spends his days in meetings, and is able to pick and choose the projects he undertakes.

Outbrain, founded in 2006 by Lahav and Yaron Galai, who served together in the Israeli Navy during their mandatory army service, developed software that allows publishing sites, like CNN, Fox News and Slate, to offer their viewers “smart content” that is relevant to the viewers’ previous searches. The firm employs some 600 workers around the world, including 250 in Israel, mostly in R&D. Outbrain, which has raised some $193 million to date from private investors, was named by IVC Research Center, which tracks the Israel high-tech scene, as one of the 24 Israeli firms that are ripe to hold an initial public offering of shares.

Managing a larger company poses different challenges from managing a fledgling startup, Lahav said. But at each stage of Outbrain’s growth, he has worked, and works, very hard. The bigger the company the bigger the woes, he said. He loves every minute of the challenge. Except when things get stuck for no reason. That really drives him up the wall.

In his free time, this former kibbutznik loves to sail. Every year, he organizes a sailing trip to Greece for tech entrepreneurs, for them to network and exchange ideas. In return, he asks them to support a nonprofit organization he backs.

Lahav declined to talk about any IPO plans.

Ori Lahav, Outbrain’s co-founder and chief technology officer (Courtesy)

What challenges do you face running a larger tech firm vs. a small startup?
“When you are a larger company your focus is not your one product anymore, but a package of products aimed at a number of markets, dealing with different cultures — all this needs to be dealt with in a good way, professionally, and that is challenging.

“Also, when you are bigger, you manage significant amounts of money — so you need to be more organized — one small mistake could cost you a lot of money.

“You also deal a lot with deciding what the DNA of your company is. As a small company, the company culture gets passed on at the coffee machine. But as the organization grows, there is much less interaction between management and the workers, and so you need to start formalizing the DNA — to give everyone the tools to become ambassadors for this culture.”

What is Outbrain’s culture?
“Get the shit done; create trust with our employees and customers. The mission statement of the company is to help people discover interesting content, and our job is to create this trust.”

What did you enjoy more, running a startup or running your company now?
“I had fun running the startup and I am having fun now. We like challenges, that is also part of our company culture. Challenges push us forward. As a startup or as a developed company, the challenges are always new, and stretch your abilities. And this is what gives us that thrill. And at each stage you tell yourself, now I am really stretched to the utmost — but then the next stage arrives. The challenges grow as your company grows.”

How easy is it for you to delegate?
“We always get the help of people we employ to work with us — this is the beauty of a bigger organization — you can get the help of people who are the best, who are better than you in other skills. It doesn’t hurt one bit to delegate.”

What did you learn during your service in the marines that helps you today?

“How to lead people who are much more professional than you are, and this is an amazing skill for whoever then gets to the business and technology world.”

Sometimes founders get in the way of the company when it grows. What are your thoughts on this?
“Unlike what some people may think, the founders are a key part of the company, even after the company grows. Most companies, like Apple and Google, for example, got to greater heights when their founders returned. Founders do something different for the company — they are an important part of the company.

“Entrepreneurs –the founders –are generally a team and they learn very many things along the way.”

Your advice to startups
“Take it easy, it is a long way. Don’t get burned on very fast sprints because it is a marathon. Do things the right way, not in a rush. It is better to set up a startup when you are older, and after having gained experience working in a large tech firm. I got my experience working for Shopping.com and eBay. When you work at a large firm you create the milieu — the social setting — of people who can then come and work with you.”

What does your day look like?
“I get up when one of my kids wakes me. I have three children, aged 8, 14 and 17. I spend time with them and either I or my wife make their sandwiches for school and then I take my 8-year-old to school, either by car or walking. I get to work around 9:30. If I do sport, Cross-Fit, I get to work at 10.

My day is filled with meetings — internal meetings, recruitment assessments, management meetings once the US wakes up, in the afternoon Israeli time. My day is very varied. Most of my work is in Israel – I am the chief technology officer for the firm and I am involved in the technological developments of our product.

We have reached the stage where I don’t need to be involved in every little detail –I get to choose what to get involved in or not. And that is because there is a management team in place to cover all aspects.

I get home between 6 and 8 p.m., eat dinner with my family, put the young one to sleep and then, if needed, work in the night again, because of the US market.”

What aggravates you?
“When things get stuck, for no reason. When things don’t progress as fast as they should, and I need to then intervene to unplug the blockage.”

Where do you find joy in your work?
“When we create value for our customers — that is something we can measure with data. And as a team we learn something new about our abilities.”

Do you work harder now or when the company was small? 
“I have always worked hard.”

How do you chill?
“I go to the beach.”

What are your hobbies?
“I am a sailor, and I love kayaking. I take my family and friends on family holidays and once a year I take tech entrepreneurs out on a sailing trip, to bond, exchange ideas. It is a five-day trip. We rent three yachts and sail in the Greek waters. I don’t charge for organizing the trip but I ask the entrepreneurs to contribute to Tmura, a non-profit, that gets options in startups as donations and gives any proceeds it makes to promoting education.”

How would you define yourself?
“A person of action who cannot rest when things don’t move fast enough; people fascinate me and I like direct contact with people; I like challenges, that is where technology fills me up. I love the open horizon. I will always be attracted to the sea and the desert.”

What did you study?
“I studied practical software engineering at Ruppin Academic Center, a private college in Israel.”

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