Another Take on the Start-up Nation, This One a Bit Less Glamorous

In the new documentary series 'Silicon Wadi,' filmmakers Daniel Sivan and Yossi Bloch discover there is a lot more blood, sweat and tears than luxurious villas in Israel's high-tech world.

Daniel Sivan and Yossi Bloch, the creators of the new Israeli documentary series "Silicon Wadi," premiering Wednesday on the Yes network’s documentary channel, expected to spend most of their filming time in the first-class sections of airplanes, luxurious villas and private swimming pools. But they quickly discovered that the lives of young high-tech entrepreneurs in search of investors and success are not like what most people think.

“There were 16 adults there sleeping two to a bed and keeping their spending down to NIS 50 per day,” says Sivan. “They hitchhiked and sat in the third-class train cars. We filmed one couple that lived on a baguette sandwich and a liter and a half of Coca-Cola per day. It’s the opposite of what I imagined about the high-tech world.”

Silicon Wadi is not just the name of the series. The term was coined in California’s Silicon Valley to describe Israeli high-tech and technological ventures. But unlike the stories of overnight success and the series "Mesudarim" (“Set for Life,” about four young Israeli entrepreneurs who have made an exit), "Silicon Wadi" depicts a different reality.

Bloch and Sivan follow four entrepreneurs and their backers. “These are people who dream of neon lights and an office of their own,” Sivan says. “They work from home and live in a rented apartment in Be’er Sheva or with their parents. Many of them also have day jobs so they can do software programming at night. We entered their world and thought about how our lives were similar – we’re artists, we make documentary films and aren’t connected with the gritty world of money. In the end, we found that they were artists more than we were. They agree to take starvation wages till the day they die so they can create.”

Bloch, 44, became a documentary filmmaker after spending ten years in the world of high-tech as an engineer at Ericsson and a project manager at a startup. “What I got to know wasn’t the story of entrepreneurs, but work,” he said. “I worked in high-tech when they were still just calling it work. For me it’s a huge amount of work, mostly technological, and when money enters the picture there are fights and politics, conflicts about who will get it.”

Mortgaging relationships and futures

Before making "Silicon Wadi," Bloch and Sivan made the documentary film November 08, which told the story of a group of teenagers from the time they joined the IDF until they were demobilized. They also made a film for the "Hitorerut" film series that was also broadcast over the Yes network.

Sivan, 29, also directed "The Life and Death of Gotel Botel" and "Monkey Business," and edited "Israel Ltd" about the trips to Israel taken by Jews from all over the world. Although film directing seems a long way away from the high-tech world, Sivan and Bloch found that world to be quite different from what they expected.

Sivan: “When people think about high-tech, they think about a headline in TheMarker that read ‘Such-and-such a company raises $400 million.’ There’s no headline that reads ‘Such-and-such a company didn’t manage to raise a single shekel.’ The people in the series say, ‘I messed that up’ or ‘I have no idea what I’m doing here.’”

Bloch: “My strongest memory of high-tech is that when "Mesudarim" came out, it was impossible to work. Whoever you talked to in the field said, ‘How could they do that to us? We’re working people. We care about more than just money and cars.’”

In the series, we see the entrepreneurs in extreme situations, trying as hard as they can to get funding that will enable them to start out, develop or carry out their idea. On the way to making their idea a reality, the entrepreneurs get into financial and personal trouble. Many of the entrepreneurs lose possessions and relationships, mortgage their futures and move on to the next idea. Sivan and Bloch believe they have similar personality traits.

Sivan: “Once, it was all about a person who wrote a line of code. Today, the idea is stronger. Google seems to be the last company that invented an algorithm, a brilliant line of code. All the rest, all the new entrepreneurs aren’t smart in the same way. There has to be an idea that gets people to play with it.”

Bloch says with a smile, “It’s also a question of character." He adds, "These are people who are ready to give up anything for their dream. That means giving up future income, too.”

One entrepreneur, Yosi Taguri, who is married and has three daughters, watches his startup fail. Sivan says that before his company failed, he visited the offices of Google, where employees work in a dream environment. “I thought that maybe it was time to give up this nonsense and work at a regular job. I asked him whether he’d go and work for Google now.”

Taguri told him he'd never do it, recalls Sivan. "They had a huge dining room with 3,000 people sitting there," says Sivan. "He said, ‘There’s nothing sadder than a person who goes to eat alone.’ We sat and saw the programmers sitting by themselves because at the end of the day, however glamorous it looks, you’re still part of a production line.”

Sivan says he sees the high-tech workers' story first and foremost as a story about growing up. "They go into it enthusiastic, and over time they get a rude awakening," he explains. "Reality is a hard slap in the face, since just because you think you have an amazing idea, that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to give you money for it.”

Bloch observes, “On the other hand, the power of self-fulfillment is so strong and fast. Six months after you scribbled an idea on a napkin, it can come true – and that’s an amazing feeling.” In the end, Bloch says high-tech attracts so many people because it's a place where "you’re allowed to do things in your own way. You don’t have to follow a particular path, and that’s part of our education.”

Sivan: “I have my own Zionist theory. We’re such a new country that there is no tradition yet, no one-and-only way to do things, nor is there a family dynasty of professional people with all the knowledge. Fifty years ago, anybody who started a new business was a startup person. It didn’t matter if the business was a stall in the market or a newspaper – you were the first. The tradition is not to build on work, but to invent it. In a place where a hundred people compete for a single job, they invent jobs for themselves.”

Sivan notes that there is a sad side, that at the end of the day unless one manages to invest a crazy amount of money and the product takes off and gets used for years, it’s like one hasn’t done a thing. "That makes them heroes to me," he stresses. "They gambled everything and they don’t have the privilege of saying ‘I created something’ because nobody ever heard of it. Every day, 300 startups fail and nobody ever heard of them, but for those people, the startup was everything. It was more important than a relationship, the mortgage, the desire to raise a family."

He adds: "For them, it’s not the money. The success is that somebody in India downloads their application and says to himself that it’s excellent. It’s like the least-known tormented artist who wants to hear that somebody was at their show, and it was great.”

Eitan Bernat
David Bachar