Sojourning in the land of Silicon Wadi
Buffer, a wandering start-up, temporarily sets up shop in Tel Aviv, as its founders take stock of what the white-hot White City has to offer.
At first glance, the founders of the high-tech start-up Buffer look like any other Tel Aviv entrepreneurs. Like the hundreds of hopeful tech cadres feeding the start-up frenzy around the city's central Rothschild Boulevard, the Buffer team met in their university days. They are developing a hot new technology service. And they commute to a shared workspace using the city's Tel-O-Fun bike rental system.
But Buffer, a social media sharing program, isn't just another Israeli start-up. Actually, it isn't Israeli at all.
Buffer is a wanderer, a 21st-century nomad that has flitted from one high-tech hotspot to another.
"Within the next two weeks we are heading to one of the top startup hubs in the world: Tel Aviv," co-founder Leo Widrich announced in a June 19 post on his personal blog. "I couldn’t be any more excited about heading there. The start-up community, the beach and the great location for working on Buffer with the whole team, it’s most certainly a perfect spot."
Tel Aviv, where Buffer's founders plan on kicking it for the next three months, was chosen from a long list of cities. They landed here six months working in Hong Kong, and before that participated in a technology incubator program in San Francisco.
The Buffer team – made up of six young entrepreneurs from the United Kingdom and Austria – are renting an apartment on the city's artsy Lilienblum Street.
The length of their stay is still up in the air, but Buffer's team says that if they really love it here, they will stay on until October. In the meantime, they are soaking up the local scene, sitting in cafés, networking with other local start-up entrepreneurs and even playing some paddle ball on the beach.
And culture shock has, for the most part, failed to rear its head.
"We thought we would be arriving in a Middle Eastern city, but we feel like we're in some of the cities we have already been to," says Tom Moor, one of the company's founders.
Even so, part of Tel Aviv's appeal was the chance to do something completely different.
"One of the reasons we travelled to Hong Kong was because it was in Asia," says Widrich. "We had a similar thought process behind the choice to come to Tel Aviv. We're all from Europe and not a single one of us had ever been to the Middle East. We wanted to get out of our comfort zone."
Of course, a sense of exoticism wasn't the only consideration behind choosing Tel Aviv. "We were stuck deciding where to go after Hong Kong," Widrich wrote on his blog. "Our thought process for doing this is really quite simple. The key parameters we used to make a decision were: buzzing startup community, 'craziness of the place' i.e. level of feeling uncomfortable (the higher the better) and nice weather."
Among the cities considered alongside Tel Aviv were Tokyo, Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, New York and Honolulu.
While the nomadic lifestyle offers them constant excitement, they actually adopted it out of necessity when they found themselves trapped in waiting limbo for American work visas. Now, however, they realize that constantly shifting landscapes, and routinely feeling like fish out of water, has given them a leg up in an intensely competitive business.
"In Hong Kong, we would meet with people who would ask why we came there," says Joel Gascoigne another company co-founder. "Many times we've said that it was to be productive and facilitate product development."
They've only been in Israel for three weeks, but Buffer's team is already reaping the benefits of Tel Aviv's buzzing start-up scene.
"For high-tech entrepreneurs considering a location to work and set-up operations, if they can't move to New York or San Francisco, I would recommend Tel Aviv. Certainly not London, where the weather is awful, "says Gascoigne.
"In Hong Kong we meet some key people and learned what a crowd really meant, but start-up activities in the city weren't very intensive," he adds. "In London, and England generally, the mindset is often focused on the local market. In Israel, because the local market is small, the mindset is global, which is very healthy."
There is also a sense of serendipity among the start-ups, Gasgoigne says, and it's exhilarating to work in a place where every day can be a surprise.
"The ecosystem here, like the one in San Francisco, is very good," he says. "We found in Tel Aviv something that we also found in San Francisco – the ability to discover things aimlessly, for example while walking in the street or while sitting at a café. You're always meeting with other entrepreneurs and you can pitch them your start-up idea and get feedback. Tel Aviv has this."
One of the beautiful people
Another perk to Tel Aviv? People are nice.
"The people here are very sociable. In Asia, in particular in Hong Kong, people are way more closed-off. Here, in the street and in shops people are much more willing to provide advice," says Widrich.
They also were also impressed by Israelis characteristic directness and tendency towards practicality.
"They don't beat around they bush, they get straight to the point," says Gascoigne.
In the meantime, the young band of entrepreneurs is taking note of the expensive prices in Tel Aviv restaurants, even if they say that in comparison with Hong Kong and San Francisco, the rent here is relatively cheap. They scoot around the city in cabs or on their handy rented bicycles.
They've also been inspired by the hard bodies of Tel Aviv residents, whom they note seem to always be jogging, running, surfing or playing paddleball. To try and keep up, they've all purchased memberships at a local gym.
"I'm more physically active than I have ever been," says Moor.
When they aren't in the gym or at the beach, buffer's young entrepreneurs head to one of the city's many clubs, which surprised them with their late closing times.
And while work and play has kept them busy within Tel Aviv's city limits, they hope to explore the rest of Israel, including Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, as well as take a snorkeling trip to Eilat and the Red Sea.
Get out the map
Buffer was first alerted to Tel Aviv's thriving start-up environment by the work of Ben Lang, an Israeli entrepreneur who also doubles as an IDF soldier. Lang created a map of Israeli start-ups which clearly shows the flurry of entrepreneurship happening in Tel Aviv.
"We wanted to be a part of the community, and to surround ourselves with these kinds of people," Gascoigne says.
Here comes the sun
Gascoigne grew up in the British city of Sheffield, and it was there that he founded his first start-up.
Buffer was born in 2010 while he was still a student at the University of Warwick. He met Widrich on campus, and the two met Moor, Buffer's third founding partner, at a start-up event in Sheffield.
"They aren't a lot of start-ups in Sheffield," says Gascoigne. "It's almost certain that if we had stayed we would be the largest start-up in the city today."
But Buffer wasn't looking to be a big fish in a small pond. Rather than put down roots in Sheffield, the company moved to Silicon Valley and joined the AngelPad tech incubator, founded by Thomas Korte and other Google alumni.
Widrich, 22, is originally from Austria and put his academic studies on hold to join the company in the U.S. Since then, Buffer has raised $500,000 from nineteen leading angel investors, including Guy Kawasaki, Andy McLoughlin and Jay Baer.
But it wasn't all rosy. The staff was deported from the U.S. for violating American immigration laws, a sentence that, ironically, came down the day they finished their first round of fundraising.
In December, the company left the U.S. and wandered over to Hong Kong for three months, which soon turned into six. But in the end, the earned legal U.S. working visas and scooted back to San Francisco.
It's doubtful whether Buffer's investors were happy to find out that the start-up members are hoping to enjoy themselves in Tel Aviv and aren't necessarily here just to promote the development of their product or increase their marketing efforts and market penetration rates.
"At the end of the day, we are most focused about just enjoying ourselves, having fun and practicing being happy," Widrich wrote on his blog. He added, possibly in part to assuage the concerns of his investors, "That’s what will all make us do our best work."
Widrich asked his blog readers to give shout-outs for places to live in Tel Aviv, recommendations for upcoming events, cafés, and joint workspaces worth a visit from high-tech entrepreneurs. Responses poured in from entrepreneurs, high-tech workers, and investors all tied to the Israeli start-up. One commenter was Saul Singer, the author of best-selling book "Start-up Nation," who wished the staff at Buffer much success and said that he hoped to meet them while they were here.
Widrich says the company also received close to 100 emails with friend requests from local start-ups, workspace owners and journalists. One of the inquiries was from IDC Elevator, a funding and support network operated by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. IDC Elevator operates an incubator program for start-ups, and are covering the cost of Buffer's Tel Aviv apartment.
Location, location, location
Still, with all due respect to the leading tech incubator of the Middle East, it's clear to the company founders that the real base of operations for the company is Silicon Valley.
"Ninety-eight percent of the companies that we want to partner with work out of San Francisco, and we need to be there, even if it's hard to stand out there because of the multitude of high-tech entrepreneurs and start-ups," says Gascoigne. "Of course, we could always work from different locations around the world, but that would pose more than a few problems. The most serious of which would be recruiting new employees."