With Young Staffs, Israeli Startups Hit Hard by Reserve Duty Call-ups

But companies work quickly, creatively to fill holes, meet deadlines, ensure delivery.

Tomer Appelbaum

Like a lot of Israelis in their 20s and 30s, Shlomi Wexler was called up for army reserve duty as Operation Protective Edge expanded from an air war to troops on the ground over the last two weeks.

But his absence threatened to leave his employer, Whitebox, a Petah Tikva-based security-software startup focused on data access for large enterprises, in the lurch. Wexler is the company’s chief technology officer and he was one of five of the company’s 20 Israel-based employees called up.

But if startups like Whitebox have little wiggle room when it comes to losing staff, they compensate by putting the Startup Nation ethos to the test – working extra hours and adapting in real time to a rapidly changing situations.

In the army, Wexler said he is doing both night and day shifts, so he gets into the office when he can. “It’s pretty intense. Most of us here are around our 30s and have families,” he said. He left his wife with their two daughters, one two years old and the other just two months old.

Jon Medved, founder and CEO OurCrowd, which uses crowd funding to raise capital for startups, said the most affected are the “smaller companies, the very-early-stage startups, with seven or eight employees. When two get called up, that’s a problem.”

High-tech companies are often project-based. A missing programmer or quality-assurance staffer can mean the difference between making and missing a deadline – and between booking and not booking revenue.

At ForNova, a Yokne’am-based provider of market intelligence and related services to major U.S., British and European retailers, a software engineer in his late 20s who leads a four-member team was called up for reserve duty. Management had a status meeting with the whole team. CEO Amir Freund said the company is built to absorb the loss of even a key staffer.

“We try not to have a critical position that only one person can do,” Freund explained. The company, which was founded in 2008 and began full e-commerce operations in 2011, has just 30 employees, about evenly split between men and women.

“We build the R&D from small groups and we set priorities,” Freund said. This method, he said, motivates the staff “and it’s transparent. You don’t need to go and make sure everyone knows what he’s [supposed to do]. They already know from the beginning.”

At Whitebox, Wexler said the company acted quickly to ensure that customers didn’t feel the war’s impact.

“What was important for us to do,” he said, “was to make sure that our customers don’t feel the difference. So we diverted some of our resources, including research and development, to customer support, for both proof-of-concept sales [potential new customers] and for our regular customers.”

Avner Halperin, CEO at EarlySense, a Ramat Gan maker of smart medical-tech solutions that monitor patients without touching them, has put his staff on notice: No delays, full speed ahead.

“We have several partnerships with large multinational companies and when they see this, they get worried,” he said.

“We say to our team, `If we [think about postponing] a project for a day or two, no go.’ Everything must be completed to the second.” This goes for “rainy days or sunny days, and these are rainy days.”

Among EarlySense’s roughly 50 staffers, three have been called back, from R&D, quality assurance and operations. The teams multitask and cover for each other, he said.

“If we schedule a conference call, we can’t change the time,” Halperin says. “We must be completely punctual and even ahead of schedule.” He added: “We must prove we can work through this.”

On the funding side, Medved said, “So far, we haven’t seen anybody pull out of a deal or say, `we’ll see how things develop.’ Maybe the opposite: People are more feisty. People are stepping up and writing bigger checks to support Israel.”

The issue of losing a small number of critical staff extends to the basic research from which future startups can spring.

Eran Segal, a professor in the Computer Science and Applied Mathematics Department at the Weizmann Institute, said two of the 20 students he oversees in genomics research are now doing reserve duty in the Israel Defense Forces.

Both are Ph.D.s. One is working in close collaboration with others, so in the student’s absence, the others work on their individual aspects of the project. The other is working independently and that project is on hold till the student returns.

“We have deadlines and competition worldwide,” Segal said. “We work in the broad world of science, and we know of groups working in related areas, so there’s always this need to move quickly so you won’t get scooped on projects.”

“For people who are not here, it sounds kind of crazy” to work this way, taking shelter when the alarms sound and then going back to business and projects, he noted. But the country adjusts.

“I was on an international conference call and an alarm sounded,” the professor said. “So you have to politely tell your international colleagues that there’s a missile attack on your institute and you’ll have to call them back.”