Seeking a Start-up Guru, but Coming Up Short on Content

Anthony David’s book on pioneering tech investor Yossi Vardi offers a portrait of a swell guy with laudable goals, but offers no new insights into the world of Israeli entrepreneurship that Vardi so significantly shaped.

A few pages before the end of Anthony David’s book on Yossi Vardi, the subject comments on some of the author’s dull observations. "Whatever you say. It's your book. But if you ask me, people want a good story, and if you’re boring me, you can only imagine how they're going to react.” A perceptive comment indeed.

Yossi Vardi has been one of the most prominent figures in Israel’s high-tech industry over the past 15 years. One of the reasons he’s so well known is because he was a personal investor in Mirabilis, a company started by his son Arik, which later changed its name to ICQ – after the name of its main product, an instant messaging service.

The cash sale of the company in June 1998 to the American technology giant AOL for $407 million gave the burgeoning dot-com bubble a distinctive Israeli stamp. In the years that followed, “The Mirabilis effect" led to the establishment of hundreds of start-up companies, a considerable amount of which went bust when the bubble burst. One of the people who remained standing after the smoke cleared was Vardi.

In his book “I Seek You!” (a play on the name of Vardi’s famous company, which loses all its cleverness when translated to Hebrew), writer Anthony David sets out to get to the bottom of Vardi’s personality.

It’s hard to think of an industry conference, event, panel, television program or newspaper list where Vardi hasn’t been honored. In the process, he’s managed to accumulate quite a few nicknames: "Internet Guru," (“call me Guru, call me Buru, it doesn't matter” – he says to David), "The Godfather of Israeli high-tech," the "Prophet," and a plethora of other titles designed to shower him with glory. He despises them all.

The manner in which Vardi refers to his reputation reveals quite a bit about his personality, as reflected in David's book. Vardi isn’t shy, he doesn’t shirk from making public appearances, is not intimidated by giving interviews or lectures or meeting world leaders. He’s the center of attention, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’ll have a laugh at his own expense and at the expense of his hosts, will throw in a joke or two (or three), and will downplay his role in the success of the businesses he’s invested in, especially when it comes to the company that made him a multi-millionaire.

The question is whether these qualities justify a whole book. The first half of “I Seek You!” tells the story of the sale of Mirabilis. But despite the story consuming over 160 pages, there are hardly any new details. The little new information consists of nothing more than amusing historical trivia. The details surrounding the sale of Mirabilis was relevant back in the age of the dot-com bubble, but that time has passed. Even the intimidating technology giant AOL is no longer the same company it was. Same goes for the internet-services company Excite which is also mentioned occasionally. Even Microsoft is no longer the same formidable force it was in the mid-90s.

David dedicates the second half of the book to Vardi's search for his own secret to success. Vardi is not indifferent to the fact that ICQ’s $407 million valuation wasn’t actually about the product itself but rather its vast, loyal, user community that numbered tens of millions (until a certain point when many deserted him).

So if this is where true value lies, it begs the question how such a success can be replicated. How do you persuade web users to return, use new services, and stay? How do you make these services go viral? How do you make the users themselves into the company's best marketing and sales agents? In other words, Vardi's looking for the secret of “cool,” and he does so in the methodical manner that has characterized his process since he was a civil servant.

The problem with the book is that what David learns from Vardi is nothing new, at least not for those who read the high-tech sections of the newspaper, and especially not for those familiar with the culture of start-ups.

The writer learns that Vardi is a big believer in unorganized conferences where you simply have fun, ones that don't have a set itinerary. He learns that Vardi believes that the secret to his success lies within the ability of high-tech companies to motivate their users to collaborate, communicate and, primarily, to enjoy themselves. He also learns that Vardi himself realizes that there isn't really a secret recipe for success. If such a thing existed, all of the companies Vardi invested in would have succeeded – and not all of them did.

As you read the book you get the sense that David's tome is a magazine article that spiraled out of proportion, or alternatively one that suffers from an inflated sense of its own importance. Too-long sections are devoted to descriptions of David's own experiences at conferences organized by Vardi. These sections don't provide any real insights, rather just banal personal reflection. Other parts are devoted to an already heavily chewed over historical summary of the major changes that affected various industries, such as the music industry. Even Vardi's own insights are repeated over and over again in different formulations, and they all lead to the same conclusion: Vardi is an entertaining guy with nothing unusual about him – for better or for worse.

Despite this, those who wish to get to know Yossi Vardi will find that the book does its job. The readers learn about an eccentric and charming personality, goofy yet sharp, sloppy but organized. Vardi is the king of schmoozing, making connections, tying off loose ends. He is the ultimate matchmaker, connecting entrepreneurs with ideas, investors and companies. He is a human switchboard.

No less importantly, Vardi recognizes his own limits. He knows what he doesn't know, he knows that he works alongside those that are smarter and younger than he is but who haven’t been blessed with his money. In entrepreneurs he is looking for hunger, talent, independence, integrity, the willingness to take risks, and, especially, likeability. Yes, Vardi chooses his investments according to whether or not the entrepreneur is a nice person. It's hard not to be fond of such a character.

However, Vardi's recipe is far from the ideal formula for the entire Israeli high-tech industry. He is interested in lean, agile companies, ones that gather millions of users over a short period, enabling him to sell them to the highest bidder while he gets a fat cut on a small investment. He’s not looking for companies that will develop over years and employ thousands of workers; he's not looking to establish the "Israeli Nokia," or even another Check Point, the Israeli company that partnered with Nokia.

And although he is a patriotic Israeli who makes a point of investing in Israeli entrepreneurs, he probably doesn’t believe that Israelis are willing, or able, to create valuable content or generate big bucks on their own. He is here to build, so he can sell.

“I Seek You! Inside Yossi Vardi`s Head” by Anthony David (translated from the English into Hebrew by Yaron Ben-Ami), Aliyat Hagag and Yedioth Books, 319 Pages, NIS 98.

Dr. Yuval Dror is the head of the Digital Studies track at the College of Management's School of Communications.