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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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Cat memes will become less prominent on Facebook

Recent changes to Facebook’s news feed algorithm mean that organizations and companies developing and publishing their own original content are now receiving a significant boost on the leading social media site. Two weeks ago, Varun Kacholia and Minwen Ji, engineering and software managers at Facebook, respectively, posted in the Facebook Newsroom that “we are now paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content…what this means is that you may start to notice links to articles a little more often (particularly on mobile). Why are we doing this? Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to [these kinds of] articles…to the latest meme” about dancing cats or photos marked up with funny captions (as in the example to the left).

The bottom line: “high quality articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently.”

Facebook’s move is not a surprise. Traffic from Facebook to news sites tripled in the past year. Facebook is being increasingly used as a news source (much as Twitter has also evolved). So why shouldn’t Facebook’s algorithm promote original news articles? Facebook hasn’t revealed the secret formula for how it will recognize “high quality content” but the Kacholia and Ji’s promise is clear: uninformative over-shared links and tired memes will be demoted.

All of this is great news for Blum Interactive Media clients that have engaged us to create original content to publish on their websites, Facebook pages, email newsletters and other social sharing services. Original content already ranked high in Google’s organic listings; now Facebook is joining the party. Take a look at the home page from one of our clients, Shavei Israel: they treat their website as a mini-newspaper, publishing 2-3 original stories (which we write) every week. The result has been dramatic – on Facebook alone, Shavei Israel and its related pages now have more than 60,000 “likes” and web traffic is up as well.

There’s a sidebar take away here too: trying to create “viral” material online just got harder…and easier. You can spend less time over-thinking and crazy planning what you hope will become the next mega-video hit. Instead, write the best quality content and the social networks will help you out on their own terms.

Facebook - Related articles exampleFacebook will also be showing “related articles” directly below the news feed post. Although you can’t control which articles will appear, our experience using similar products on our own websites indicates that at least some of the time, these will be articles that your organization or company has published. The more content you have out there, the more likely it will appear in this new Facebook section. See the example from Facebook on the right.

If you’re thinking about how to get going with your own original content strategy, keep in mind that it’s not a one-time thing. To stand out on Facebook, Google – really, anywhere online – your organization or company needs a regular stream of innovative articles and multimedia material. The aim is to turn your website and social media presence into a destination; a trusted source of compelling content that make readers want to come back – to subscribe to your newsletter, to like your Facebook page, and to share and forward what they receive.

Now more than ever, you can’t do this with a couple of lines and a cute picture in a blog post here or a press release there. You need to publish new material on a continuing basis. As your content appears more frequently in your followers’ news feeds and in search engine results, your supporters will know who and what you are about, so that when it’s time to ask for donations, or to sell a new product, they’ll already be primed.

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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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Would Mark Zuckerberg be asked for the password to his Facebook account?

Here’s a trend that seems outright outrageous: asking for a job applicant’s social media passwords.

It’s been in the news for the past few years, off-and-on, especially during the past few weeks. Today, the Toronto Star has an article about a candidate for a law enforcement job who was asked to share his Facebook password with the recruiter. He wasn’t just asked to “friend” the recruiter, and when he offered to show his profile on the laptop in the interview room, the recruiter insisted on receiving the password.

The article in the Star came in reaction to a flurry of reports in the U.S. and U.K. about the occasional use of this distressing practice. Asking for an applicant’s password for a job with the police seems to be the most common – Bloomberg BusinessWeek cites examples from Virginia, Montana and Maryland – while The Telegraph writes about an online retail company employee in the U.K. who was asked to hand over his login details after his employer went trolling on Facebook and couldn’t find any personal details on the worker.

Facebook itself is up in arms about the practice. The Telegraph received a response from Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, who wrote:

In recent months, we’ve seen a distressing increase in reports of employers or others seeking to gain inappropriate access to people’s Facebook profiles or private information. This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user’s friends. It also potentially exposes the employer who seeks this access to unanticipated legal liability.

The most alarming of these practices is the reported incidences of employers asking prospective or actual employees to reveal their passwords. If you are a Facebook user, you should never have to share your password, let anyone access your account, or do anything that might jeopardize the security of your account or violate the privacy of your friends. We have worked really hard at Facebook to give you the tools to control who sees your information. … That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.

The ACLU warns that employers or recruiters asking for social media passwords are entering a legal gray area that may potentially open them up to both privacy and discrimination lawsuits. And if the employer is the government, “they may be violating your Fourth Amendment rights,” Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU, told BusinessWeek.

Canadians may have it better than job seekers elsewhere. The Canadian publication TechVibes quotes Paul Cavaluzzo, a Toronto-based labor lawyer, who says that laws in Canada are more stringent than in the U.S. with regards to protecting private information. In an interview with CityTV he noted that, while there aren’t yet laws dealing specifically with social media, Canada has “always respected privacy rights.”

Cavaluzzo adds that “if an interviewer demands your password, feel free to call them out. Or just ask them for their house keys in exchange; the differences are negligible.”

A version of this article appeared yesterday on the AIM Group blog, a publication I write for regularly.

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Amnon Dekel

I always enjoy Jeff Pulver’s networking “breakfasts” which he holds around the world. Pulver, a VoiP superstar and lately startup angel with a passion for Israel, usually hosts his breakfast shindigs in Tel Aviv, but last week he came to Jerusalem.

I approach a networking event like a Kiddush at shul. You want to flit around as much as possible (while not being too rude with quick getaways) but if you find yourself talking to someone particularly interesting, you stay put.

That was the case when I met up with Amnon Dekel. Dekel is an old friend (he used to run the Digital Media Studies program at the IDC in Herzeliya and hired me to teach a course) and he’s about to turn in his doctoral dissertation to Hebrew University. The topic: “indoor navigation.”

Dekel has identified a problem you probably never thought about, but that’s a potential “next big thing.” Mobile phones are great at using GPS to find their position outside. But they don’t work so well under a roof of, say, a library.

Dekel’s research specifies a methodology for locating objects such as books, and it doesn’t require transmitters to be installed all over the ceiling of the space. The idea is that you’d type in the title or author into your phone, and you’d receive a map telling you exactly which floor, section and even shelf you should head to.

Dekel has built a working prototype in the Harman Library on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University. His tests show that, using the system, it takes only half the time to find a book and people make less navigation mistakes and need less help from others to find the book.

The same technology could be used in warehouses, bookstores and manufacturing plants, Dekel says.

That’s not to say that it’s easy – staff at the physical site need to input data, items may need to be scanned – but it’s a fascinating start.

The system has yet to be commercialized (venture capitalists – take note). But, who knows (and Dekel will scold me for writing this), you could eventually crown yourself mayor of the Dewey decimal system!

This article appeared last year on the Israelity blog.

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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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The Wedding Will Be Webcast

by Brian Blum on August 19, 2010

in Interactive,Israel,Media,Social Media

Sammy and Isaac

The happy couple "live"

A couple of weeks ago, we attended the wedding of good friends, Sammie and Isaac. The wedding was a blast with all the usual features of Israeli nuptials: chuppah, dancing, speeches and those greasy fried “cigars” stuffed with minced meat (of which I always partake too heartily).

There was one element, though, that I’ve never seen before (although maybe I’m just not invited to the right weddings). Prior to the simcha, the couple sent out an email that announced that, for those who couldn’t attend, the evening would be broadcast live over the Internet.

Now, live web streaming is nothing new and there are plenty of vendors eager to upgrade you to a “pro” account – Ustream and Livestream are just a couple that come to mind. I often catch up live online with TechAviv, a hi-tech group that meets monthly in the Tel Aviv area, when I’m feeling too lazy to hoof it over from Jerusalem. But I haven’t seen the technology used for a wedding.

The way it worked was a bit funky: one of the wedding guests had set up a small laptop with a built in camera and microphone facing the chuppah. When he wanted to pan around the crowd, he picked up the whole laptop and did a 360.

Since he had plugged the laptop into a 3G wireless card (I guess the wedding hall’s WiFi wasn’t dependable), he was able to later walk around the dance floor, as well as grab shots of guests chowing down at each of the tables – although with that brick of a broadcast unit, he wasn’t quite as nimble as a wedding photographer.

This isn’t state-of-the-art yet: the sound was muddled and the video not up to TV network quality (or even watered down YouTube, for that matter), but it’s still a great idea, not just for family that can’t make it from overseas but local guests for whom a time conflict may preclude in-person attendance.

And the coolest part: the video is still online. So even guests who were there can catch a glimpse of themselves doing the chicken dance.

If you want to view some of Sammie & Isaac’s wedding, here’s the link.

This piece appeared originally on the Israelity blog.

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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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