Who Is Oded Kobo? Natural-born Businessman or Celebrity Sidekick

He’s been seen in the company of Bar Refaeli, Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Esti Ginzberg to name a few. His business record is not quite so star studded.

Shuki Sadeh
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Oded Kobo.
Oded Kobo.Credit: Dudu Bachar
Shuki Sadeh

In December 2015, a mobile messaging app that lets you send texts, photos and other media to anyone on your contacts list — anonymously — was launched. As you might guess, Blindspot main target audience was young users.

An aggressive advertising campaign included a giant billboard over Tel Aviv’s main traffic artery, the Ayalon Freeway, but the primary marketing channel was actually Dor Refaeli, the company’s business development manager (and the brother of model Bar Refaeli).

Blindspot took full advantage of her brother being on their payroll, presenting him in ads as one of the app’s creators and a partner in the company (though in later publications the company, Shellanoo Group, admitted that Dor is just an employee). The company tried to position itself as cool and antiestablishment, writing in a media statement, “There’s so much fake comment on social media — it can be like an airbrushed version of life. We want people to have fun, and most of all we want people to be real with one another.”

The media loved the story: Anonymous messaging combined with the opportunity to mention Bar Refaeli resulted in wide coverage and massive downloads of Blindspot.

But the pushback was just as swift.

Guy Lehrer, anchor of the Channel 10 current-events show “Hazinor,” began a campaign against the app which he called “Dor, close it down” (it rhymes in Hebrew). The app is dangerous and can only boost teenage violence and shaming, Lehrer said. The Knesset even discussed Blindspot, and at some point, a class action motion was filed. Shellanoo has not filed its response.

Dor Refaeli took most of the heat, even though he was not the developer of the controversial app. That would be a different boldface name: Oded David “O.D.” Kobo, 41, son of the real-estate magnate Eliezer “Bebo” Kobo, who is married to model Miri Bohadana.

Oded Kobo’s involvement was only revealed later, when he began to try to protect the app from the fierce criticism. In February, in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, he argued that in the 1960s, parents and Knesset members united to stop the Beatles from performing in Israel, claiming its music corrupted the youth.

“In my opinion, Blindspot is fun and safe for children just as the Beatles were,” Kobo said.

A source in the know argues that the noise generated around the application was over the top. “It does not purport to be a serious project,” he says. “It all started as a joke among the employees, ‘Let’s make a cool app, so we don’t know who is sending those messages.’ Then it turned into something bigger.”

‘He has principles’

Why didn’t Kobo retreat when he saw the criticism?

“Because he felt he was right,” says the source, who asked not to be identified. “He has principles. He really believes what he said about the Beatles. The ‘anti’ campaign simply defied logic.”

Half a year after the ruckus, Israelis seem to have forgotten that the app exists. Blindspot for Android devices (data are unavailable for iOS) has between 500,000 and a million downloads worldwide, which isn’t much.

“Downloads fell sharply after the launch in December,” says Roi Shlomi, an adviser to startups. “In January the app was top of the most popular downloads list in Israel, but in February it went into free-fall and now it’s below 400. In May, worldwide downloads were just 40,000, which is a negligible number. My impression is that it was a sort of gimmick that simply didn’t take.”

Last week Oded Kobo made headlines again, when Channel 2 News revealed that he’s thinking of buying Golan Telecom, a mobile carrier that touts its low prices.

His potential partner in the deal, Channel 2 revealed, is the oligarch Roman Abramovich, who has invested in other Kobo internet ventures in recent years.

To preserve competition among mobile operators, the Communications Ministry is trying to keep Golan Telecom from merging with Cellcom Israel, one of Israel’s three biggest mobile carriers. To this end, the ministry drew the attention of Golan Telecom founder Michael Golan to Kobo and Abramovich’s interest in his company and Communication Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber met with Kobo.

Figures in the telecommunications sector were taken aback by Kobo’s latest idea. Abramovich is a billionaire who could buy Golan Telecom by himself if he wanted, and if he’d wanted to, he could have bought into the Israeli telecoms market years ago. Kobo, the man presented as being at the forefront of this move, has no experience in owning or managing a big company with hundreds of thousands of customers and thousands of employees and that faces regulatory challenges and the need to deploy cellular transponders throughout Israel. His investment record consists of “all sorts of applications and internet ventures, some of which were nice ideas, but nothing grew into a big business of significant scope that was stable over time,” and he made no investments in substantial operating companies.

It’s difficult to gauge Kobo as a businessman. He has lived in the world’s culture and finance centers, including Hong Kong, London, New York and Los Angeles, and rubbed shoulders with the global jetset. He’s been mentioned in news stories with Alibaba founder Jack Ma, the leader of Qatar and British real estate tycoons.

Reading the newspaper clippings, one sees that the number of references to Kobo in the gossip columns is almost references in the business sections, partly because of his well-publicized affairs with celebs such as Bar Refaeli, Esti Ginzburg, Or Grossman and Katya Gaydamak, daughter of tycoon Arcadi Gaydamak. Six years ago he and Katya lived together and there was talk of marriage.

Kobo and his wife, Etty Ovadia, who is pregnant, live in a spacious apartment in the upmarket Herzliya Marina.

People who have worked with Kobo say he’s a born entrepreneur and has good ideas. But not only has he never built a big business, he also missed some superb investments, which could attest to his business acumen.

As he told Yedioth, he turned down proposals to invest in Waze and Snapchat, which are now worth billions of dollars. In another case, in the mid-’90s, he owned the domain Lottery.com, but sold the company owning the domain quite quickly for $300,000. He could have held on and gotten more.

Where Kobo excels, his colleagues say, is in recruiting investors. “He’s a colorful character, no question,” says a man who’s done business with him. In a room of entrepreneurs, he dominates. “He may be dressed differently or speak differently, but that does not mean he does not know how to conduct himself in the business world.”

Zeev Holtzman, chairman of the Giza venture capital fund, met Kobo when he invested in a Chinese internet venture that flopped. “He’s an entrepreneur in body and soul, a man with the highest abilities,” Holtzman attests. “In our case, unfortunately, it didn’t work out, but that’s part of the DNA of venture capital. We described him as somebody riding a motorcycle at 350 kilometers an hour — he would either reach his destination or crash. Unfortunately, he didn’t reach the destination, but he had great potential.”

Self-made man

Cracking the riddle that is Oded Kobo requires knowing about his father complex.

Eliezer “Bebo” Kobo made his fortune in the 1970s in Hong Kong, manufacturing and marketing clothes in the Far East together with the owner of the Israeli fashion brand Jump, Richard Caring. In the ‘80s and ‘90s he expanded into Florida and for a while partnered with the Nakash brothers in Jordache Jeans.

His big move came in the ‘90s, when he and Caring teamed with Elliott Bernerd, head of the British property company Chelsfield, to acquire London’s Camden Market commercial center. Then a run-down mess, the partners turned it around. in 2014, the partners sold Camden to another Israeli, the gambling magnate Teddy Sagi, for 2.4 million shekels ($625,000).

Bebo Kobo is also famous for having married Bohadana. A man who has worked with Oded Kobo and who asked not to be identified says that Kobo is highly uncomfortable with people immediately associating him with his father and Bohadana. Still, being Bebo’s son is a terrific starting point, the source points out.

Father and son are very different, says another source who’s known Oded for some years. “Bebo is an old-school businessman, more interested in property and media-shy. Oded is more a man of the world. He went to school abroad and his mother tongue is English. He’s more interested in high-tech. He’s also more open to the media, likes the spotlight and has a thing about name-dropping — making sure big, famous names are mentioned with his.”

Being Bebo’s son means having contacts, mainly among London’s wealthy, though how the contact with Abramovich arose isn’t clear. In any case, Oded Kobo stresses in interviews that he started out on his own: He wanted to succeed with his own two hands, Holtzman says.

According to some media reports, Shellanoo Group is worth between $250 million and $300 million, although others believe these estimates are based on overly optimistic forecasts. In any case these will remain guesstimates until the company is either sold or listed for trading.

According to the Registrar of Companies, Kobo is registered as Shellanoo’s only director and owns 59% of its ordinary shares, which are held in trust by a law firm. Kobo’s personal worth is unknown.

Nicki Minaj, David Guetta on board

Born in Israel, Kobo moved with his father to Hong Kong at the age of 2, remaining there until age 16, when he moved to London by himself. He studied business administration for a year but dropped out at age 19 and embarked on his entrepreneurial career. One of his first businesses was a one-time deal exporting cigarettes to Bulgaria; he made tens of thousands of pounds.

Come the dot.com craze, he moved to New York and invested in domains and other internet things, but never stayed focused and neither developed the ventures into big companies nor sold them for great profit, as he admitted himself in the 2010 interview. He envied people like Teddy Sagi who set up empires, he confessed.

He set up Koolanoo in 2006, closed it four years later and in 2014 founded tech firm Shellanoo, which has 60 employees in Herzliya Pituah.

His misses include Lottery.com and Snapchat, which is now worth about $18 billion. “There’s no formula for these things,” shrugs Shlomi, the startup adviser. A venture has to make noise to bring a wave of joiners, then more money is needed to maintain it. “It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. For an app to be popular, you need a lot of people to join and communicate with one another. The more users there are, the more advertisers come ... but few actually make it. Right now it doesn’t look like as if the applications by Kobo and his people are creating that kind of success.”

Shellanoo’s other apps include Music Messenger. Launched a year ago, it allows users to create and send song playlists. Investment in the company has reached $30 million, it says; Android data put downloads at about 5 million worldwide. Abramovich invested $15 million, the company says, the most he’s put into an Israeli startup. Other investors include American musicians Nicki Minaj and David Guetta and the Dutch DJ Tijs Michiel Verwest, better known as Tiesto.

Oded spent most of the last decade doing business in China, through Koolanoo, which began with high hopes but fizzled after four years.

In 2008, investors in Koolanoo included Bernerd, who brought in the ruler of Qatar at the time, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Koolanoo had holdings in 18 internet sites, including 360 Chuan, a social media site for young people in China. It also had shares in a browser designed to be used in public places.

But failure, around the time the global economic crisis began, came fast. Koolanoo discovered that competition with the 12 other Chinese social media sites was too tough; a model for Jews, irrespective of China, also flopped.