Tel Aviv’s start-up DNA, as seen from abroad

Entrepreneurs from around the world find Israel’s start-up scene to be helpful, friendly, and fun – a good harbinger for tourism in general

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai speaks at the Tel Aviv World Cities Summit (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai speaks at the Tel Aviv World Cities Summit (Photo credit: Courtesy)

There are many around the world who have yet to hear of Israel as a start-up “light unto the nations” nation, to judge by the reactions of numerous entrepreneurs who were in Israel last week for the third annual DLD (Digital Life Design) festival in Tel Aviv. The festival hosted heads of start-ups from Europe, India, and even China.

For nearly all of them, it was their first trip to Israel, as it was for Al Mackin of UK start-up Formisimo, who generally doesn’t pay attention to the news where Israel is concerned. “I know that Israel has security issues, but actually I walked around Tel Aviv quite a bit through areas that looked a bit dilapidated, but I wasn’t afraid at all,” said Mackin. “Tel Aviv seems like a very safe city.”

A report like that is exactly the kind of thing that Hila Oren, CEO of the Tel Aviv Global Tourism Administration, likes to hear. An initiative of the Tel Aviv Municipality, the Global Tourism administration is focused on international development and marketing, tourism development, global partnerships and promoting “brand Tel Aviv.”

Hila Oren (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Hila Oren (Photo credit: Courtesy)

That brand, said Oren, revolves around Tel Aviv’s “vibe” as a city of innovation, as well as a city that “never stops. People perceive Israel as unsafe, but Tel Aviv is very safe. As a woman, I can tell you that I feel perfectly safe walking down Rothschild Boulevard at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. There are people around, and the place is alive. Not many cities have that level of personal safety,” she said.

As part of the events surrounding DLD, which saw the cream of the high-tech world descending on Tel Aviv for dozens of conferences, meetings, and workshops, the municipality held its second Global Cities Summit, a policy forum that addresses issues like urban living, ways of coping with growth and better methods of transportation. Sixty eight cities were represented at this year’s conference – compared to 20 last year. Even more are expected in 2014, Oren said.

Among the topics discussed at the event was “the DNA of cities. Tel Aviv’s, of course, is innovation. We are number two in the world, behind Silicon Valley, in the number of per capita start-ups. There is one for every 500 residents of the city,” she said.

For Mackin, the start-up DNA was exactly what he was looking for. As a source of inspiration, and for practical help. “One thing that really impressed me was how helpful people have been, how they have been willing to share connections and advice. We got to meet senior executives and investors we would never have gotten to meet in the UK.”

His start-up, Formisimo, has a pretty innovative idea. “Companies invest all their efforts in getting customers to their web sites to try and sell them something, but they pay very little attention to what happens when they try to actually make a purchase using their online forms,” Mackin said, citing statistics that show that 80% of people who start filling out an order on a web site do not complete it.

Al Mackin (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Al Mackin (Photo credit: Courtesy)

“It could be due to confusion on their part, a requirement in the personal information box that does not apply to them but that the form requires anyway, filling out the form with a phone number or address using the wrong format – like putting a dash in where the form does not allow it – and so on. Some people realize they have to change the information in order to make it work, but a lot of people don’t.”

“You shouldn’t have to be a genius to fill out a form to make a purchase,” said Mackin.

Formisimo supplies a script for businesses that lets them keep track of how forms are used on a web site, providing analytics, data, and a “reactions engine” that indicates where users get hung up on forms, enabling sellers to make the purchasing process easier and faster, he said.

Being an innovative start-up city is great if you want to attract entrepreneurs like Mackin, but what about the rest of world? Oren believes that the same “innovation vibe” that attracts entrepreneurs can be translated for “regular” visitors.

“Entrepreneurs are busy people, always with something to do, and the start-up community is very supportive of newcomers. I see the same characteristics in the city in general,” Oren said. “There is so much to do, people stay up all night because there are so many options in Tel Aviv. We don’t have dozens of museums like in other cities, but if you just go into the streets, you will find plenty to keep you busy.”

“The problem,” Oren added, “is getting people to come here, and we look to the government for help on this. But once people come, they don’t want to leave.”

Mackin is heading back to Manchester, where Formisimo is headquartered – but he could see himself setting up shop in Tel Aviv. “It’s a good place to get funding, and to find engineers and marketing experts to help us grow,” he said. “Of course, I would need two things – a bike to get around on, and plenty of suntan lotion.”

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