The story of Tomer Botner, 31, and his rescue from professional fiasco could probably be included in some self-help guide books. In his apartment above a furniture store in Tel Aviv's Florentin neighborhood, with a frank smile, button-down denim shirt and round glasses perched over a reddish mustache, he talks openly about the inner process he has been through since failing his studies and becoming a knife designer selling his wares to chefs around the world.
In elementary school and high school he was a terrible student, but when he got into the Shenkar College of Design and Engineering he decided to study as he had never done before. In his first year he was selected as the outstanding student in the industrial design department, and for four years he filled all the academic requirements. He considered himself an artist and dreamed of exhibitions and museums.
Even on the morning he handed in his final project at the end of the fourth year of his studies, he knew he held something special. He presented the work he had been engrossed in for months, and his classmates complimented it: It consisted of seven large objects that symbolize the seven sins, in pastel colors and lankily designed.
Nothing prepared him for the moment he was told that he failed, that all his efforts had been for naught. In his four years of study, he heard of only two students who failed, and was convinced this was not a possibility for a top student like him. He appealed the failing grade and lost the appeal as well.
At this point, he could have dropped it all, curled up at home and realized that this profession was not for him. But instead, Botner decided to recognize his shortcomings, forget the conceptual pretentiousness and focus on what he is really talented in. He went to a workshop and did not stop working until he had created his own version of a kitchen knife.
"The fact that I absorbed a blow to the head is always good," he says. "A fall teaches you humility. The failure made me choose something very practical, very goal-oriented. Something that I could sell."
Today, he says, in addition to the chefs' knifes he sells over the Internet, he has two other projects involving knives: the Jewish Museum in New York commissioned hallah knives from him; and he is working with Hadar Snir on dishes for the Asian restaurant Yuval Ben-Neriya is opening, and developing knives for other restaurants in Israel. Chefs Sergio Herman and Nick Bril also ordered steak knives from him for a new restaurant they are opening in Antwerp. Their current restaurant in Holland, Oud Sluis, has three Michelin stars.
Funding from the crowd
Publicist Shmuel Warshavsky points out in his book "Orez Hahalomot" ("The Packager of Dreams" ) that the founder of Ikea started out as a match salesman. The founders of the corporate giant Proctor and Gamble started out as candle and soap sellers. And Israel's Yellow convenience stores evolved from the sale of six-packs of beer at the gas pumps at Paz gas stations. Based on these precedents, it is safe to assume that Tomer Botner will also go far.
Two weeks after the successful presentation of his new project at Shenkar - which this time earned a passing grade - Instagram posted the project on its blog, with Smartphone photos he took during the process of putting the knives together. He got thousands of "likes" and his very modest workshop started receiving orders from all over the world.
He realized that in order to realize his dream, he had to raise some starting capital using the new and promising method of mass funding. "I set up a page on the Indiegogo crowdfunding site to buy raw materials, pay professionals and live. But in the beginning it was difficult. It's not easy to raise money there for knives when the next page features a girl with cancer. Many of the subjects on this site are sad and the funding objectives are loftier than mine. I came out looking a little silly. One site, Kickstarter, did not agree to my raising money there because it has a policy against knives and guns. I tried to explain that these are kitchen knives, but they still refused."
His surge finally occurred thanks to the social networks. He formed an initial group of customers, and from there the word spread.
Tomer offered surfers a sliding scale for investments: For $1,000, for example, he allowed a surfer to purchase a visit to Tel Aviv, a Mediterranean meal and two customized knives. For $325 he offered a knife with a leather sheath. For $50, a T-shirt, apron, towel and sheath. But the most successful item was a knife for $300. The project started to catch on.
"In the end I was able to use my site on Indiegogo to raise the target sum of $10,000. Most of the money came from customers in the U.S. and Australia. They paid $300 in advance and since July, they've been waiting for their knives. They're still with me because it's possible to follow the work on the knives on Instagram and Facebook, and see that I didn't just take money from them. I'm not tricking them, but on the other hand, it's taking a lot longer than I thought.
"I'm still learning; every day I learn something about knives and my knife is constantly evolving. I'm still not a knife master - it'll take me a decade to learn everything there is to know. In the next stage, I'd like to have my own studio. I hate working from home - 80 percent of the workshop actually belongs to my girlfriend, Noam Blumenthal, who designs fashion here."
"A painful subject," she shouts from the living room.
Why do people buy your knives?
"I don't know why people buy things, and I'm not sure why they buy my knives. Clearly it's not because of the blade. After all, they're buying it on the Internet based on a photo and paying $300 up front, without feeling the blade. Apparently they like the way it looks. Basically, a knife spends 99 percent of its life hanging from a hook, so it'd better look good. And when you take it down, it'd better work well.
"But it's really a different caliber of knife. Once you've cut something with a knife like this, you understand the difference. The steel I'm working with now is D2CPM, carbon tool steel that is wear-resistant and corrosion-resistant, because it can be hardened to 61 RC, the hardness scale for steel, which is five above the average sold in knife stores. What I like about this steel is that it ages nicely and acquires character."
A communal effort
On the first day of the project, Botner went to a cutting course, bought his first chef's knife and heard tips and suggestions from Shraga Lublinsky, a third-generation knife expert. Then he mapped out that craftsmen and the raw materials available in the Florentin neighborhood in the hope of getting them involved in his knife enterprise.
"The idea was to use the small craftsmen, to link them to the design side assuming this was what would help them survive, because if they continued doing what they always did, they would be swallowed up. I tried to prove it's possible. It wasn't easy. There were many who didn't want to get involved or couldn't."
He realized that the community is the most important thing for the individual, ignored the skeptics and chose the best people to work with. Apart from his own dreams, he also has dreams for his neighborhood, city and country, and for the cosmos and its residents. He is able to go beyond his own student persona and has great faith for the future of humankind. But the most important thing in the great big world we live in is us, and we cannot forget this. If there is no solution in the immediate surroundings, it is possible and important to agree to go further and include other people in this wonderful circle of creativity.
And never forget what the original goal of your undertaking was, what you wanted to be when you grow up. All of the most important things you realized by the time you turned three you first discovered in the womb. You realized one main thing: "In the end I realized that people don't want to deal with the things they didn't deal with in the past. They have no patience to open up to a design student who is on top of them and telling them they can do it.
"It was hard to find the people who had already made knives. The technology is a problem here, just like the raw materials and the level of the work. I would like collaborations, so that I could do many things with artists and other designers could get help from them and help them. My dream is for Florentin to become Brooklyn. I searched for a kitchen knife factory in the area, and found only a factory that makes Rambo-style commando knives, but it doesn't have the technology needed to make kitchen knives.
"The opportunity came from the U.S. and I decided initially to work with a factory in Massachusetts. Working on the knives took away years of my life. In the beginning, I just wanted to be a teacher. But I decided to study with my hands. I hope to return to this dream one day; it's the most important thing to me. There's nothing more important. What could more important than being a teacher?"
Someone who has realized his dreams should aspire to new dreams. "I want to be a department head at Shenkar one day. Or to teach there," Botner says. "But first I want to do what I love and live off that. It's not a given in my profession. I don't think I'm a special or better designer; I have friends who studied with me and I hold them much higher than I hold myself and they're stuck a little, because there aren't that many places to work. You really have to do it yourself and pray that it succeeds. There are a lot of talented designers and many entrepreneurs in this country, but there isn't so much money. I thought that I really like being a designer, but realized that I also really like being a businessman. One of the people who helped me the most is my accountant.
"What do you need in order to succeed? A little marketing and some luck. The world is different now. This whole matter of social funding can suddenly make what you want happen."