PICO: A Force of Change in Jerusalem

by Brian Blum on February 5, 2014

in Entrepreneurs,Israel,Startups

PICO image from JPostGalya Harish could have set up her new company anywhere.

A seasoned business professional, she has both an MBA and a law degree, passed the bar exam in Israel and in the US, served as vice president of operations and finance for hi-tech incubator JVP Studios, and worked as a brand manager for several international companies in Israel and the UK.

So when the entrepreneurial bug inevitably bit her and she decided to open her own venture, the most logical location for the 40-year-old Harish would probably have been central Tel Aviv or Herzliya, with their wealth of founders in similar situations. But the Jerusalem-born entrepreneur chose to buck the trends of the last 15 years – which has seen start-ups fleeing the capital for the Center of the country – and opened up shop as one of the inaugural tenants at PICO, a new co-working space in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood.

PICO – an acronym for “people, ideas, community and opportunities” – is at the vanguard of a growing worldwide movement for entrepreneurs at the start of their business journeys to set up shop together and cut costs by sharing desks, equipment, phone lines and Internet access, all in an open-plan space. For a single entrepreneur, or even a small start-up with one or two employees, the price is appealing: PICO charges NIS 800 per month per workspace.

And if you only need to sit there a day or two a week, the price drops to as low as NIS 300.

Co-working spaces exist in the Tel Aviv area, but PICO is the first in Jerusalem. Its founder Eli Wurtman hopes it’s not the last.

Wurtman sees PICO as more than just a friendly place for entrepreneurs to park their laptops and cellphones. He believes that by creating similarly welcoming environments for students and start-ups, Jerusalem can reclaim its place as the country’s creative capital.

He should know. In 1996 he cofounded DeltaThree, one of the first companies to deliver voice-over-IP calls from a regular telephone. The business grew to 300 employees and was the poster child for start-up Jerusalem, which, at the time, was home to hundreds of small to medium-sized hi-tech ventures.

But then came the second intifada and the dot.com bust of 2000.

“The industry got snapped almost overnight,” Wurtman recalls. “And with it, sadly, most of the people who were working here left Jerusalem.”

He did, too, eventually commuting to Herzliya as a general partner for Benchmark Capital, a leading VC firm. His career thrived, he says, but “I knew I wanted to get back to Jerusalem.”

Within the last few years, co-working spaces have started to take off big-time.

Wurtman teamed with fellow investor Isaac Hassan and began designing what he called a New York SoHo-style “loft” space in Jerusalem.

It’s clear from the moment you walk into PICO – located in a grimy, nondescript industrial building, on the same floor as the offices of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) – that there has been an incredible amount of attention to detail without spending a lot of money.

“We didn’t want it to feel like Har Hotzvim or Malha,” Hassan says, referring to two of Jerusalem’s more popular hi-tech areas. “It needed to be functional, in sync with the area.”

The resulting look, which was meticulously planned to appear decidedly down-rent, includes bare concrete walls and exposed piping, natural wood floors, lots of metal and glass and even a large tube in the center of the office “to bring in fresh Jerusalem air,” Hassan says. (There is air conditioning, too – Jerusalem, like Tel Aviv, can get hot during the summer.) Windows open from two sides to let in plenty of light.

“We want the space to be copied [by future co-working spaces in Jerusalem].

So we didn’t spend a lot of money on things like plaster,” Wurtman says, only half joking.

He sees the Talpiot area as the center of a renewed start-up Jerusalem, calling it “the city’s garage district,” like lower Manhattan or Herzliya originally were in their respective environs. Many of the people who have been commuting from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv live near Talpiot, so it’s walkable. And it’s right on the new bike path that runs from the Old Railway Station in the German Colony.”

Plus, adds Hassan, “you need to have a good coffee shop nearby, and we have [popular bakery] Lehem Shel Tomer downstairs. The smell of fresh-baked bread liberally comes up through the window of my office.”

Also nearby is the private studio of Bezalel industrial design faculty head Haim Parnas, adding an artistic vibe to the neighborhood.

There is room for 18 entrepreneurs to sit in PICO’s central shared space. Use of a large conference room is included in the price, and there are couches for more casual working and conversation.

Occupancy rate since PICO opened at the beginning of this year has ranged from 40 percent to 60%, and Wurtman says it is already breaking even.

There are also six private offices, where Wurtman, Hassan and several other more established investors sit.

That’s part of the design, too. The vision is that the entrepreneurs can feel free to ask business questions of the more experienced professionals, as well as the other way around: It gives Wurtman and Hassan the opportunity to identify potential investments up close.

Harish says the ability to brainstorm easily with the PICO partners and other entrepreneurs is a key reason she chose to start there.

Her company, Wear My Prayer, creates custom jewelry with a written prayer inside.

“People unconsciously touch their necklaces all during the day,” she explains. “Each time they touch it, there’s a meaning to it. They may think about what note is inside, what the message is.”

Harish describes a problem she had with the Wear My Prayer website.

“We were getting a large bounce rate,” she says, referring to when visitors surf away without buying anything. “So we called an impromptu meeting, and everyone in the office came over to look at the page and make suggestions as to where the problem was.”

She admits that it’s not easy being an entrepreneur in Jerusalem, far from most of her start-up peers. “But the fact that there is something like PICO changes things. People come here and they’re surprised. They say that they’d expect this in Tel Aviv or New York, not in Jerusalem.”

Harish, who has several part-time employees, says that even when her company gets big enough and needs to “graduate” from PICO, she plans to find a space close by and visit at least once a week.

Sean Lewin is also renting shared space at PICO. A recent graduate of the Jerusalem College of Technology, the fast-talking 23-year-old made quite a splash when he raised over $30,000 on the Kickstarter “crowd funding” website to build an LED light for the iPhone that indicates when a message, email or text has arrived.

The light fits into the phone’s headphone jack and changes color and blinking frequency depending on the type of message. It’s something that BlackBerry users have had for years but that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs summarily banned from the iPhone.

Lewin – who has business partners in Italy, the UK and the US – had been working at home, but found he was not being productive enough.

“I find I can be more focused and concentrated here,” he says, despite the noise from other people. “And if I have a question, I can ask my mates. If I’m building an Excel spreadsheet, I can speak to a VC. That’s not something I could get in my own living room. There’s just a good vibe here.”

He also enjoys the free beer.

“I usually stay until 7 or 8 p.m.,” he says with a smile.

The beer is available at what is perhaps the most striking element of the PICO design: a blue neon-lit bar and kitchen, which is stocked with all-youcan- drink soft drinks and brew. This plays a role in the regular networking events PICO hosts.

Indeed, PICO buzzes after hours often as much as during the day. A series of intimate lectures have taken place at night; so far, the founders of hi-tech darlings Waze and Fiverr have spoken to a young, invitation-only crowd of no more than 30. Executives from Bira Shapira, a Jerusalem-area microbrewery, have also come to speak.

And city council member Rachel Azaria, head of the Yerushalmim faction, brought her whole team to hold one of its weekly meetings at PICO.

Hassan has been active in outreach, too: one notable partnership is with Siftech, an initiative that the Hebrew University’s student union founded last year to promote Jerusalem as a place to stay after getting one’s degree. Ten student start-ups have participated in Siftech’s four-month intensive technological entrepreneurship workshop. PICO offered a couple of months of free rent to the top two winners of Siftech’s most recent competition.

PICO also has close ties with Ruah Hadasha (New Spirit), another student organization promoting Jerusalem.

Clearly, having one cool place to work won’t solve all of Jerusalem’s problems with retaining the tens of thousands of college students who study in the city every year (including more than half of all art students in the country). Overall employment options and the availability of affordable housing top graduates’ concerns.

But, insists Wurtman, “we have the opportunity to be a force of change.

There’s an energy that’s required to change the working reality of a city; to give it more of an aspirational nature.

If there were 10 more places like PICO, more entrepreneurs would come out of their basements and stay.”

Adds Hassan, “Entrepreneurs are special people. They can change industries. It’s not just about PICO, it’s about changing the underlying aspect of the city.”

This article appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post.

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