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Entrepreneurs

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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Parko logoTomer Neu-Ner was driving home from the hospital with his wife and newborn son. As always, parking was tight near Neu-Ner’s central Tel Aviv apartment.

“I was a nervous new father,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave my baby in the car more than even a minute longer than I had to.” So he stopped the car briefly on the sidewalk, ran upstairs, got his family settled and returned to his vehicle only to find … a NIS 500 ticket on the windshield.

That wasn’t the only time Neu-Ner has battled the parking gods who have decreed that the average Tel Aviv resident will spend 24 minutes on average looking for a parking spot. But it was the wakeup call that, if Neu-Ner’s new startup Parko succeeds, will transform life for curb-deprived drivers everywhere. Investors seem to agree: the new Israeli “crowd-funding” site OurCrowd recently invested in the company.

Neu-Ner teamed up with his cousin Itai David, a Technion graduate whom he describes as an “algorithm geek.” Together they created a smartphone app that almost magically senses when a parking spot will become available – even before the car’s driver opens the door.

The technology is based on the same principles that have made fellow Israeli tech startup Waze such a darling of the roads, but there is no connection between the companies.

Waze informs drivers where traffic is heavy and suggests alternative routes, all without requiring any active input by users. The app uses GPS to sense when cars with the open app are slowing down and from there it extrapolates that data into traffic alerts.

Parko also uses GPS to sense the user’s speed. Once the vehicle has stopped and the speed at which the phone is moving has slowed to a comfortable “walking pace,” Parko assumes the user has parked. When Parko senses the user returning in the direction of the parked car, the app sends a message to other users that a spot may soon open up.

Neu-Ner and David built the app so that it minimizes access to the phone’s GPS, a critical feature given how quickly location service usage drains a mobile device’s battery.

A different approach

Parko is not alone in the parking alert business. The elephant in the room, as it so often is, is Google, whose OpenSpot app for Android phones does much the same thing as Parko with one pachyderm-sized difference: OpenSpot requires drivers to tap the app to alert other users that they’re leaving their parking space.

This is also an option for Parko users. However, Neu-Ner says, it is not ideal because by the time the alert hits the cloud, the space will almost always be long gone.

A very different approach is being taken by ParkSF in the San Francisco area, which involves sensors buried under the street that will alert drivers when a spot is being vacated in real time. Neu-Ner says there is talk in Tel Aviv about deploying something similar, although he believes the entirely crowd-sourced approach has more mileage, so to speak.

After Parko’s October, 2012 launch in Tel Aviv, Neu-Ner has his eyes set on Paris and New York. Statistics for both those cities put the average time someone looks for a parking space at 40 minutes, nearly double Tel Aviv’s.

There’s no database to be updated before a city is ready for Parko. It’s more a matter of promotion and marketing, something that’s been tough on a shoestring budget of money from friends and family. Parko’s recently fundraising from OurCrowd should help keep keep the parking brake off.

Neu-Ner is taking the “give it away, charge later when you’ve built a huge user base” approach common to startups (remember Facebook?). At that point, “location-based advertising and the sale of data will be worth so much more.” He also anticipates that freemium (paid) features and “demand-based pricing will become very interesting options for revenue models.”

Won Israeli Mobile Challenge

The 30-year-old Neu-Ner grew up in South Africa with Israeli parents. He returned to Israel four years ago and worked as a product manager at a startup creating software for options trading on Wall Street. He has degrees in economics and math from the “old country” and, more recently, an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

While Parko users stand to benefit when they search for a spot, we wondered what kind of incentive would entice users to leave the Parko app open once they found parking. Neu-Ner has a quick answer: prizes. For example, after you’ve just shared your 20th parking spot, you might get a free carwash from a Parko partner, or a coffee at a nearby Aroma.

Regardless of prizes, Parko needs a critical mass of users to function effectively. Thousands of Tel Aviv residents already know about the app, in part due to Parko’s win of the top prize at the Google-sponsored Israeli Mobile Challenge competition in June, 2012.

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Jody and Brian meeting with "Brian of London" at the Better Place customer event

Israelis notoriously have a hard time saying they’re sorry, let alone that they may have goofed big time. But that’s exactly what happened in an extraordinarily candid meeting last week between Better Place’s new management team and several hundred owners of the company’s Renault Fluence 100% electric vehicles.

Not only did CEO Evan Thornley, the genial Australian who replaced Israeli founder Shai Agassi in October, concede that the company had set unrealistically aggressive expectations and that too many target dates had not been met, but his CFO, Alan Gelman, who’s also the CEO of Better Place Israel, went so far as to give out his personal cell phone number and email address. Talk about transparency.

“I know you’re frustrated that we didn’t fight back enough,” Thornley told the audience, referring to the blitz of negative media coverage the company received last year when Agassi was ousted, layoffs were announced, sales dried up, and cash ran dangerously low. “The truth is, what was said in the media initially was basically correct. We had to make some very big changes fast.”

The backlash against the company, Thornley suggested, actually came about, davka, because so many people wanted Better Place to succeed. When it looked like that might not be the case, the public and the press turned. That said, Thornley assured the crowd that Better Place is beyond the crisis and now it was time “to return to the sense where people want us to win again.”

Despite the problems, Thornley said he believes that “the business strategy of the company is fundamentally sound. It’s just that when things don’t go right, it’s easier to blame the strategy rather than the execution of the strategy.”

Thornley may have spoken too fast. This morning, the Israeli press reported that Thornley has resigned, citing disagreements with Better Place’s investors over exactly that: strategy. We’ll provide an update later once we know better what’s now going on (assuming the company continues to come clean).

Despite this latest news, Thornley’s examples still make sense. He cited Better Place’s lackluster sales to date of less than 1,000 all-electric cars currently on our roads but insisted that Israelis will eventually flock to electric vehicles. It’s just that it was unrealistic to expect that they’d do that before the infrastructure was all in place, and that’s just happened now.

So while the media deemed Better Place a failure for sluggish sales, Thornley believes “we are now only at the beginning, not the end.” Current car owners should be seen for what they are: tech-savvy, risk-taking early adopters; the beta testers of the electric car industry, if you will. 2013 will be the make it or break it year, he stated, understanding the risks.

To get the word out, Better Place has hired a new Chief Marketing Officer, Peter Economides (a native English-speaker like Thornley, originally from South Africa but more recently living in Greece where he’s had an even more daunting task: re-branding an entire country that’s gone nearly belly up),

Economides, who will be leading a renewed marketing campaign in Israel, has an impressive pedigree. He worked directly with Steve Jobs on the “Think Different” campaign that turned Apple around from the verge of bankruptcy in 1997. And he headed up Coca Cola’s international marketing while living in New York.

“You are the heroes,” he cheered the crowed on. “You’re the people with the vision and courage and belief to say yes. This is where the ball starts rolling.”

Economides has been at Better Place all of three weeks but he was sold in less than ten minutes, he said, when he took a ride in his first electric car on a visit to Israel. He flew back home and got in his gas-powered car. “I thought I was driving ‘yesterday,’” he quipped. That car, he added almost as an aside, was a Porsche.

What’s gone wrong in Better Place version 1.0? Plenty, as Thornley, Economides and Gelman heard while fielding questions from their outspoken customer advocates. The swapping stations aren’t in the right places (“the algorithm for networking planning is very different for electric cars and we didn’t get it quite right,” Thornley said); the batteries themselves don’t get the range initially promised (“what works in the lab is not always achieved in the field”). One owner felt Jerusalem had been abandoned (the opening of the capital’s only swapping station was delayed for months). And parking spots with power plugs and are too often filled with gas guzzlers (“we need regulatory support from the government for this,” Thornley emphasized).

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. An equal number of Better Place customers took to the microphone to lavish praise on the company. Economides’ driving experience was roundly acknowledged (the acceleration on an all-electric vehicle, along with the spooky silence when stopped create a driving experience that’s uniquely exhilarating), and the company’s responsive Customer Service is on a level several notches higher than anything else available in Israel. Battery swapping is as fast as promised. And Idan Ofer, chairman of the Israel Corporation and Better Place’s prime investor, even made a surprise appearance, showing his commitment to the company he’s invested some $300 million in by arriving in his own Renault Fluence, which he parked in front to show off some special customizations he’d added (it was all tricked out with fully leather, electric powered seats).

All this, nevertheless, begs the question: how exactly is Better Place going to make a better go of it this time around? Here’s what Thornley said last week. Whether this plan is the reason he’s no longer the company’s CEO isn’t clear. But his vision (and that of the management consultants who worked with the company over the past months) was simple: Better Place wants to be the electric recharging network for every electric car made. That means applying its experience in building charge spots and a smart power grid that doesn’t overload when everyone plugs in at once to supply the growing number of Nissan Leaf’s and Chevy Volt’s, even if they don’t have swappable batteries.

To Israelis, that might not resonate so much because the only electric vehicles in this country are the Renault Fluence’s that Better Place sells. But in Thornley’s Australia, Better Place is already working with General Motors as the car manufacturer’s “preferred charge network.

Of course, Better Place would like all the other electric vehicle makers to offer cars with swappable batteries, which Thornley said he still believes is the future of electric and the differentiating feature between Better Place and other up and comers. That will come eventually, he insisted, once a network of swap stations similar to the ones in Israel and Denmark is built out in target countries (the U.S. and China are high on the list). That poses a not insignificant chicken and egg problem, but Thornley said that, once Israel is acknowledged as a clear “proof of concept,” the economics of electric cars will ultimately win out.

“The cost of manufacturing an all electric car is much cheaper than a hybrid,” he pointed out. “There’s only one power train versus two” as in a Toyota Prius, for example. And, he added, for many of today’s fixed battery electric cars, it would be fairly “easy to produce them in a swappable form.” Think 18-24 months for a factory to add that capability.

Better Place also wants to be more transparent with its software – so far, “a brilliant integration but a walled garden,” Thornley admitted. Why can’t Better Place’s OSCAR GPS system work with Waze, for example? It should, Thornley said.

The question remains, however: can Better Place convince the world that its Israeli “beta test” country is a success that can be applied elsewhere, before the company runs out of money again? It’s an imperative, explained Saul Singer, who gave a closing talk for the evening. Singer is the co-author of Startup Nation, the best selling book about Israeli entrepreneurship that featured Better Place in its first chapter as the poster child of the scrappy Israeli startup with global ambitions.

Better Place was Israel’s first attempt at tackling a problem affecting the entire world – reliance on a dwindling supply of oil – in the living laboratory of a small country, Singer said. The author envisions Israel doing the same now for other burning issues. “But Better Place has to succeed if we want to do it next for education,” he said, giving a perhaps improbable example. “The stakes for this are huge.”

Singer then shared a personal story. His wife, he said, hates it when they have to stop the car to swap the battery. But then his kids intervene from the back seat. “’Why are you complaining, Imma?’” they’ll say. ‘We’re the pioneers.’ Yes there are problems, but that’s the meaning of being a pioneer. We have to stick with it and win.”

This report on Better Place originally appeared on the Israelity website.

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A poster for the interactive movie "Turbulence"

“All filmmaking is based on a lie,” says Israeli Professor Nitzan Ben-Shaul. “In the narrative structure of a movie, it appears that there is only one possible ending – that the way it’s presented is the way it has to be. But in life there are always options.”

To demonstrate his argument, Ben-Shaul of the Film and Television Department at Tel Aviv University has created the world’s first, fully interactive feature film where the viewer gets to decide at various points, in real time, how the action will progress. “It’s nothing short of revolutionary,” he says. “It has the possibility of turning every one of us into potential film directors.”

Ben-Shaul is not a technologist – he teaches classes in cinema studies at Tel Aviv University and has written several books including Mythical Expressions of Siege in Israeli Films and Hyper-Narrative Interactive Cinema: Problems and Solution. So to create his interactive movie, he partnered with Guy Avneyon who built a sophisticated patent-pending movie editor and standalone player.

The technology is still under construction, as is the company. Turbulence (also the name of Ben-Shaul’s interactive film) is just now being incorporated and seeking angel investment. For Ben-Shaul, that’s less important. His focus is the process of thinking through the making of an interactive movie.

Ben-Shaul points to the Gwyneth Paltrow hit Sliding Doors which presented two alternative paths that intersected, diverged and eventually arrived at a single conclusion.

Turbulence the film is similar, except that the viewer controls the points of departure. The 83-minute suspense/thriller is about three friends who meet by chance in New York 20 years after they participated in a demonstration in Israel and were arrested. At the time, the police pitted the three against each other, which led to accusations of betrayal. There is also a love story that is rekindled.

The interaction takes the form of “hot spots” that glow when the viewer can make a choice. At one point, for example, one of the Israelis has written a message to his lover on his cell phone. The viewer can click “Send” or “Cancel”. If the viewer hesitates too long, the action continues according to a pre-determined narrative path.

Unlike previous interactive attempts, the transitions in Turbulence are seamless, which means there is no point where the movie stops and a flashing button appears with big icons to click. Once a choice is made, the film immediately cuts to a new scene. “That’s the language of movies,” Ben-Shaul explains. “There could be 4,000 cuts in a film, but if you cut on motion, people don’t see the transition, they just see the flow.”

While viewers make choices throughout the viewing experience, the film regularly returns to the main narrative. This means the writers don’t have to create 10 entirely different scripts (although in Turbulence there are several alternate endings).

Ben-Shaul is adamant that interactivity is not a gimmick – like the first attempts at 3D in the 1950s and 1960s. But he warns that interactive films must be carefully planned to avoid the errors of more primitive experiments in the past.

These mistakes include what he refers to as the ‘computerization trap’. “Computers can generate endless possibilities, but that doesn’t help the viewer in terms of drama. It interests computers, but not humans!” he says. Good interactive drama, he adds, is actually about “option restriction”.

Interactive movie producers should also not try to emulate the gaming world, he cautions. “It’s not about scoring and puzzle-solving,” Ben-Shaul says. “It’s about creating real, life-like situations.”

Turbulence can currently be viewed on either a Mac or PC. But Ben-Shaul is most excited about the red-hot Apple iPad. With its touch screen and media consumption emphasis, “it’s the perfect device. The iPad is a main target,” Ben-Shaul says.

Behind the scenes at Turbulence

The technological secret behind the film comprises an editor that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever created a movie, with a timeline, audio control, and multiple tracks. There are various additions such as a library of clips and hot spots that can be easily inserted.

The aim is to sell a standalone version as well as plug-ins for professional editing systems such as Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere and Avid. Ben-Shaul and his team are also developing a scriptwriting tool that will ease the creation of a hyper-narrative.

Both grassroots and professional filmmakers should be empowered. “We’re not aiming toward automatic storytelling,” he says. “That’s like robots today, which are so far off from what humans can do.”

Turbulence isn’t the only software company making interactive movies. Israeli alternative rock sensation Yoni Bloch owns a company called Interlude, which is moving in the same direction. Earlier this year, Interlude produced a music video by pop singer Andy Grammar that includes seamless interactivity. YouTube also has its own very simple interactive functionality.

Ben-Shaul acknowledges the competition but says his system is further along, not to mention patented. Turbulence also gives viewers the ability to actually move an object on screen (for example, to slide a letter out of a drawer) rather than just click or touch a point on the screen.

The idea for Turbulence was hatched in response to one of Ben-Shaul’s courses about the “siege mentality in Israeli cinema.” The professor explains: “Israeli movies are very close-minded. It comes from the society and the political situation; from war and ethnic tensions. Interactivity and giving people options is the opposite.”

Interactive movies are primarily intended for an audience of one. But Ben-Shaul says it’s possible for an entire audience to get in on the fun. Turbulence was premiered at the Berkeley Film Festival this year where it won the prize for “best experimental feature.”

In a demonstration of the interactivity at the showing, Ben-Shaul’s wife (who also works at the company) canvassed the audience at each decision point. Ben-Shaul then clicked the viewer’s choice from his computer backstage.

In the future, Ben-Shaul would like to build a system where everyone in the audience has a controller, allowing the movie to move in the direction dictated by a majority vote. In the meantime, Ben-Shaul says the showing at Berkeley was “very successful. People loved it.”

Ben-Shaul hopes to show Turbulence in Israel, perhaps at one of the country’s Cinematheques, though nothing has been finalized yet. For now, interactive movie fans will have to visit Ben-Shaul in his office at Tel Aviv University or watch a TV news clip and interview with Ben-Shaul on Israel’s Channel 10 which provides a hint of the richness of interactive moviemaking.

Beyond entertainment, interactive video might even help to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ben-Shaul suggests. Interactivity, he says, “develops thinking for people who are in what seems like an intractable conflict. It can be a real therapeutic tool.”

This article originally appeared on Israel21c.

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From ‘Facebook-like’ buttons to embedded YouTube videos and interactive chat, it’s rare to find a website these days that doesn’t beckon you to share your thoughts with everyone you’re connected to.

But for website owners, adding all that social interaction takes time and, if you’re not a programmer, copying and pasting esoteric HTML and JavaScript code into your site’s header or widget boxes can be a technically daunting task.

Wibiya from Israel is a hot start-up that aims to streamline the process. The company, which raised $2 million a few months back from Primera Capital and counts as one of its seed investors the ubiquitous Israeli angel and Internet guru Yossi Vardi, has built a popular toolbar that consolidates dozens of social media functions into a single space-saving strip at the bottom of your website. Wibiya’s aim is to make adding new apps and functionality as easy as a one-click install.

Among the useful Web functions that Wibiya incorporates are the ability to instantly “like” a company’s fan page on Facebook and write on its Wall without leaving the website you’re looking at; see how many other people are online and looking at the same page you are; translate the site into one of more than 40 languages; and chat with your social media friends directly from within the Wibiya bar.

Taking a cue from Apple, Wibiya has created its own app ecosystem, allowing third party developers to add their Web products to the toolbar at no cost. This has led to an eclectic range of functionality built by enthusiastic supporters that Wibiya co-founder and CEO Dror Cedar never expected.

For example, there’s an app that allows website owners to pop-up targeted messages filtered to the specific person visiting. This could be based on the page a visitor is currently viewing (say, a message about the Middle East peace process) or could kick in only after a user has been on at least five pages of the site.

Another popular app automatically turns all links on a website into “affiliate ads.” If a visitor to the site buys a product via that link, the website publisher keeps 70 percent of the revenue. Amazon is one of 25,000 merchants included in the program.

Want to raise money? Wibiya has apps for that, too. One puts a link on the toolbar to your organization’s Causes page on Facebook; another allows visitors to use PayPal to make donations a snap.

Wibiya is on the verge of releasing a developer website with an open API (Application Programming Interface) to make it even easier for developers to build Wibiya-compatible apps, Cedar says.

For publishers, Wibiya provides detailed analytics showing, for example, how many clicks the toolbar is receiving or how many Twitter updates have been tweeted via the Wibiya service. The toolbar itself is tiny – only 17K. And it plays nicely with all the leading blogging platforms, including WordPress, Blogger and Ning.

Since the toolbar is free to both third party developers and publishers, how does Wibiya intend to make money? “We work with high end publishers including Philly.com, Playboy and even the (confectionery vendor) Jellybelly.com on either a revenue-share model or one that’s based on performance,” Cedar explains. “We deal with them directly to build a tailor-made solution.”

For everyone else – the so-called “long tail” of web publishers, as Cedar describes them – Wibiya will soon introduce premium paid packages with “for example, the ability to integrate your own advertisements into the toolbar.”

Cedar didn’t start out with the intention to build Wibiya. He and his co-founders Daniel Tal and Avi Smila were working on a travel-related product called Joongle. “If you wanted to search for a flight from Tel Aviv to New York, our toolbar would give you the top 10 websites, like Kayak and Priceline, with flights to that country,” Cedar says. “Then each time you clicked, it would do the search for you.”

But when the team showed the product, potential clients kept saying “wouldn’t it be great to have another button that would show my most recent posts, or one that displays photos,” Cedar recounts. Realizing that there was an even bigger market beyond travel, the company quickly switched gears. “After the 10th time, we said okay. The demand came from the publishers themselves. People really wanted it.”

One concern we had was whether creating yet another way to share information across the Web would cause alarm, much in the way that Facebook has taken a drumming recently for its fungible privacy policies. Moreover, will users be paranoid that Wibiya may follow them around, tracking what they’re doing on the Web?

Cedar assures us that Wibiya is just “an enabler. We don’t do anything automatically and we don’t save your information. We’re completely transparent.” Still, Wibiya may have to be more proactive in spelling things out to put visitors at their ease.

As for the name Wibiya, it’s a play on words – a “wib” is a widget bar. “We didn’t like ‘widget,’ ” Cedar says.”That implies a static component.”

Indeed, with Wibiya’s functionality, financing and future prospects, the company is anything but static.

This article originally appeared on the Israel21c website.

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Multitasking in Tel Aviv

by Brian Blum on July 14, 2010

in Entrepreneurs,Social Media

From right to left: me, Benjy Lovitt, Lior Manor and his iPad

From right to left: me, Benjy Lovitt, Lior Manor and his iPad

A recent episode of the NPR program Science Friday featured an interview with Clifford Nass, the author of the forthcoming book “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop,” about whether human beings are truly able to multitask. His conclusion: not really.

Nass says that we have the illusion of multitasking, but in reality, we are switching from one task to another so quickly it seems like we’re doing more than one thing at once. The problem is that, every time we switch, there is a micro-millisecond delay and that teeny tiny pause causes us to be less productive even when we feel we’re sailing high.

I had a chance to experience the woes of obsessive multitasking first hand earlier this week when I attended the 140 Characters conference in Tel Aviv. The event, produced all over the world – including Israel – by social media and VoIP guru Jeff Pulver, is dedicated to exploring the “real time web” (a fancy way of referring to web and mobile services that let you follow a stream of never ending status updates as they happen).

As I sat in the lecture hall at Tel Aviv’s Afeka College listening to the lectures (which, in true short attention span spirit, were allotted on average no more than 10-15 minutes each), I had my laptop with me open to TweetDeck, a Twitter desktop client where I could follow along as much of the room was “live tweeting” what was happening on stage; Gmail – which I checked incessantly while simultaneously chatting with people both in and outside of the room itself; Facebook – of course (just for fun); an Excel spreadsheet of all the attendees sent by Pulver – so I could scope out who to approach during the networking breaks; a live video stream of the conference itself (with a slight time delay); and Evernote – a application I used to take notes on my laptop which were then automatically synched to my home computer, iPhone and (when I get one) iPad.

And if the lectures ever got boring, I’d brought with me a copy of an article I was working on that needed an edit.

By the time the conference was over, I actually breathed a sigh of relief as I finally caught a break in the long drive back to Jerusalem.

Not so for Michael Matias, a 14-year-old who took the stage for his 10 minutes of fame to tell us about “growing up in real-time.” My multitasking experience is his daily reality. He adds to the mix doing homework while simultaneously watching TV on his laptop (42-inch flat screens are so 2006) and playing online chess and poker. He says he spends at least 5 hours a day online, not including class when he often uses the school computers. When he needs to study, it’s as likely to be via video conference than an in-person cram session.

Matias is a relative pauper when it comes to Facebook friends – he only has 300 and says he only accepts someone he’s met in person. Although he does spend time with people in the so-called “real world,” he told the audience that in some ways he actually prefers his online world. “It brings me closer to them. I can hang out with more than one person at the same time.” No, he doesn’t think he spends too much time online and, when asked which of his real-time tools he’d give up if necessary, he quipped that he couldn’t. “It would be like choosing between my mom and my dad.”

The rest of the conference was interesting (if less shocking). Israeli comedian Lior Manor did “Twitter magic” – he asked the audience to tweet a number between one and 140 (get it, the 140 character maximum Twitter imposes), then he picked a number from his real-time Twitter stream and did a card trick in person – no different than what magicians have been doing for years except that he used an iPad to display the input.

Yossi Taguri talked about his latest startup Fiidme which lets you “share your satisfaction” about food. “If you’re in a restaurant,” he explained, “you can ask your friends what’s good on the menu and they’ll tweet you their recommendations.” With a grin, he added that they also “thought it would help us get free lunches.” His business partner Lior commented that being in a restaurant “without wireless is very frustrating.” (Whatever happened to the romantic candlelit dinner?)

There was also a session on using Twitter to do good in the world: an Israeli company called JustCoz lets you “donate” your Twitter status to organizations to raise awareness about their causes. In just under a month online, 100 organizations have signed up for the free service, gathering 1,200 supporters which provide re-tweeting access to more than a million people.

Now that’s a great idea from the real time web…if we can actually take a moment away from our incessant multitasking to participate.

Oh, and about that article I was writing? I guess I succeeded because you’re reading it now.

This article was originally posted at Israelity last week immediately following the 140 conference.

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PokeTalk Woman on Phone

Do blondes have more fun on PokeTalk?

In January 2009, I wrote an article for Israel21c about PokeTalk, a then new startup offering free VoIP calls using regular phone lines. I bumped into the company’s founders Shai Genish and Boaz Bahar Wednesday night at a meeting of the TechAviv Founder’s Forum and I thought I’d share the original article with you here on the Blum Interactive Media along with some company updates.

The 2009 article was topical, coming in the midst of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead operation in Gaza. Since then, the company has expanded its offerings to include paid calls that can last longer than the free service’s maximum 10 minutes duration, along with many other cool features such as web callback and analytics.

But I also heard some disturbing news: PokeTalk has been hit by a significant amount of fraud where unscrupulous hackers have redirected calls, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in charges for PokeTalk. The situation has gotten so bad that the company is now investing in building its own security software which will also be available to other VoIP services and not just PokeTalk.

Shai and Boaz are both very sincere and enthusiastic Israel entrepreneurs who I like a lot. So, here’s the original article without changes.

—————————————–

Residents of the southern part of Israel in range of missiles from Gaza can now make phone calls up to 30 minutes to their friends and relatives entirely for free, thanks to a new Israeli startup called PokeTalk. The service, which is already operational in 60 countries around the world, is good for any calls between two phone numbers in Israel’s 08 area code.

PokeTalk has been flying high since its launch three months ago. The company, founded by two 25-year-olds in Tel Aviv – Shai Genish and Boaz Bahar – has signed up 70,000 users nearly entirely on word of mouth and viral marketing alone.

The service, like fellow Israeli-founded company Jajah, uses voice-over-IP to connect regular phones, not just two computers.

As with any good idea, though, there’s a catch: calls are limited to 10 minutes. The promotion on Israel’s front lines triples that amount.

Ten minutes (or even 30) may seem like a deal breaker but, says Genish, the average call placed is only two minutes and 40 seconds. And 70 percent of calls from a mobile phone are a mere 80 seconds. “Other than for business calls, 10 minutes is usually more than enough.”

PokeTalk is essentially an automated version of the call back systems that were once popular in Israel as a way of saving money. But rather than calling a certain phone number, with PokeTalk you enter your number and the number you want to call on the PokeTalk site. A few seconds later, your phone rings. You pick up and PokeTalk places the call.

I took a test drive and the quality is quite good – certainly on a par with other voice-over-IP systems like Vonage, Gizmo5 or even Skype.

So how can PokeTalk offer even 10 minutes of talk time for free? On-site advertising. Since you’re required to initiate your call from the web, PokeTalk can show you advertisements on screen. That’s a whole lot less annoying than some other free phone systems that put 10-second audio ads before a call is connected.

After only three months in operation, PokeTalk is far from profitable – only 50 percent of calls are covered by ad revenue – but the small eight-person company has raised $1.25 million from Maayan Ventures and private investors. Genish says he hopes to be in the black by the end of 2009.

PokeTalk calls can originate from 13 countries – including Israel, the US, Canada and Germany, though notably not the UK – and can be connected to 60 nations, from Kazakhstan to New Zealand. Mobile phones are supported in nine countries.

Of PokeTalk’s 70,000 users, 40,000 are in Israel. A viral “refer a friend” program has been successful at recruiting new users too (if your friend signs up, you receive an extra 10 minutes on your next call).

On an average day, up to 7,000 users login and make close to 18,000 calls.

The company has been featured on Israel’s Channel 10 news and in The Marker and Globes business supplements. Genish estimates that a series of interviews that appeared in the “VoIP Guides” online publication led to some 10,000 new users.

The company’s current promotion in the south of Israel probably won’t generate a significant number of new customers, but it’s a noble gesture that helps local residents in tough times.

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A Neat Trick for Scheduling Meetings

by Brian Blum on March 21, 2010

in Israel,Products

neatcalltNew startups have the best shot at success when they address a “pain point” – an issue that causes discomfort, annoyance or even loss of business.

Tel Aviv-based Neatcall targets just such a situation, one that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to schedule a meeting with two or more participants: Seemingly endless phone or email tag.

Neatcall’s solution is to marry mobile technology with a seemingly simple voting system. But as with any good start up, there’s a lot more under the hood.

“On average, setting up a meeting with more than two participants is a process that can take between half to a whole working day,” Neatcall CEO Dan Benger says.

We’ve all been there. A meeting initiator calls or sends out a message to the people who are required to attend. The respondents reply with their availability and the initiator then tries to find a time that works for everyone. Automated services, such as Microsoft Exchange, can speed things up, but they don’t eliminate the essential “trial and error” nature of a task that often seems to stretch on forever, especially if not all the participants are sitting at their computers at the moment the message is sent.

This is how it works: The initiator selects several free time slots from his or her calendar. A message is sent out to all attendees who then vote on which slots work best for them, in their order of preference. The Neatcall system tallies up the votes and shoots back the optimal time. If all agree, Neatcall books the meeting, sends out a confirmation notice, and follows up closer to the meeting’s actual time.

So far, the system is neat, so to speak, but not a major breakthrough. But Neatcall has another trick up its digital sleeve. It sends out its messages via multiple mobile formats – email, SMS, WAP, instant message or via the browser to a smart device like the iPhone or Palm Pre. Even on a basic phone, people can vote by simply responding to an SMS – “send S to select the first date, T for the second date” and so on.

Neatcall also offers location management so that scheduling requests are sent to attendees in the appropriate time zone. For iPhone users, there’s an app available from the Apple App Store.

It’s no surprise that Benger was the man to recognize the need for Neatcall, seeing as he previously served as VP of international marketing and business development at web and video conference call solutions company Interwise. Customers were satisfied with the quality of the conference calls, he says, but they frequently complained about how difficult it was to set up those calls. Interwise was purchased by AT&T in 2007 for $121 million.

In addition to its innovative approach to scheduling meetings, Neatcall also offers to conduct your meetings for you, with a package that comprises chat, audio and video conferencing from a single unified site.

While Neatcall’s basic innovation should help to solve an existing problem, it may be difficult for the company to make headway with the rest of its package, given that the market is already saturated with conferencing companies such as Webex and GoToMeeting which lead the space.

Benger is hoping that the fact that Neatcall’s service is entirely browser-based, unlike competing software which requires users to download an application, will make the difference.

Neatcall sells its service directly to companies – Benger says there are several deals in the pipeline but won’t reveal their names – for up to $12 per user per month, with the price depending on whether Neatcall is handling just the scheduling or total conferencing delivery. About 200 corporate users in Israel, Europe, Australia and the US have already tried the system.

With only four employees, a few contractors and an investment of $500,000 from the Netanya-based incubator Targetech and Israel’s Chief Scientist’s Office, Neatcall is small, but looking to grow.

When I set up my interview with Benger, he used Neatcall to handle the scheduling. I received confirmation and reminders via both email SMS. And that was just, well (wait for it)… really neat.

I wrote this article last year for Israel21c – here’s the link.

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Great Deals or Hidden Scam?

February 21, 2010

The courts have ruled that the service is legal, but it still leaves a muddled taste in my mouth. I’m talking about Free.co.il, a popular Israeli auction site that works more like the Lotto than eBay. You can’t help but be drawn in by Free.co.il’s home page which promises a Sony Playstation for NIS 99 […]

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Sweatshops and Social Justice

February 3, 2010

I’ve apparently started running a sweatshop. I didn’t mean to. It’s just what the market seems willing to bear. It began with a small task. I wanted to move the content on my personal blog from one platform to another. Over the last 7 years, I’ve written well over 400 articles for This Normal Life. […]

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