Israel Journal: Is Yossi Vardi a good father to his entrepreneurial children?

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wikinews reporter David Shankbone is currently, courtesy of the Israeli government and friends, visiting Israel. This is a first-hand account of his experiences and may — as a result — not fully comply with Wikinews' neutrality policy. Please note this is a journalism experiment for Wikinews and put constructive criticism on the collaboration page.

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The beach in Tel Aviv early morning is a place for a jog.
All images: David Shankbone

Dr. Yossi Vardi is known as Israel's 'Father of the Entrepreneur', and he has many children in the form of technology companies he has helped to incubate in Tel Aviv's booming Internet sector. At the offices of Superna, one such company, he introduced a whirlwind of presentations from his baby incubators to a group of journalists. What stuck most in my head was when Vardi said, "What is important is not the technology, but the talent." Perhaps because he repeated this after each young Internet entrepreneur showed us his or her latest creation under Vardi's tutelage. I had a sense of déjà vu from this mantra. A casual reader of the newspapers during the boom will remember a glut of stories that could be called "The Rise of the Failure"; people whose technology companies had collapsed were suddenly hot commodities to start up new companies. This seemingly paradoxical thinking was talked about as new back then; but even Thomas Edison—the Father of Invention—is oft-quoted for saying, "I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work."

Vardi's focus on encouraging his brood of talent regardless of the practicalities stuck out to me because of a recent pair of "dueling studies" The New York Times has printed. These are the sort of studies that confuse parents on how to raise their kids. The first, by Carol Dweck at Stanford University, came to the conclusion that children who are not praised for their efforts, regardless of the outcome's success, rarely attempt more challenging and complex pursuits. According to Dweck's study, when a child knows that they will receive praise for being right instead of for tackling difficult problems, even if they fail, they will simply elect to take on easy tasks in which they are assured of finding the solution.

Sara Meltzer, secretary to David Ben-Gurion, and David Shankbone at dinner.

Only one month earlier the Times produced another story for parents to agonize over, this time based on a study from the Brookings Institution, entitled "Are Kids Getting Too Much Praise?" Unlike Dweck's clinical study, Brookings drew conclusions from statistical data that could be influenced by a variety of factors (since there was no clinical control). The study found American kids are far more confident that they have done well than their Korean counterparts, even when the inverse is true. The Times adds in the words of a Harvard faculty psychologist who intoned, “Self-esteem is based on real accomplishments. It’s all about letting kids shine in a realistic way.” But this is not the first time the self-esteem generation's proponents have been criticized.

Vardi clearly would find himself encouraged by Dweck's study, though, based upon how often he seemed to ask us to keep our eyes on the people more than the products. That's not to say he has not found his latest ICQ, though only time—and consumers—will tell.

For a Web 2.User like myself, I was most fascinated by Fixya, a site that, like Wikipedia, exists on the free work of people with knowledge. Fixya is a tech support site where people who are having problems with equipment ask a question and it is answered by registered "experts." These experts are the equivalent of Wikipedia’s editors: they are self-ordained purveyors of solutions. But instead of solving a mystery of knowledge a reader has in their head, these experts solve a problem related to something you have bought and do not understand. From baby cribs to cellular phones, over 500,000 products are “supported” on Fixya’s website. The Fixya business model relies upon the good will of its experts to want to help other people through the ever-expanding world of consumer appliances. But it is different from Wikipedia in two important ways. First, Fixya is for-profit. The altruistic exchange of information is somewhat dampened by the knowledge that somebody, somewhere, is profiting from whatever you give. Second, with Wikipedia it is very easy for a person to type in a few sentences about a subject on an article about the Toshiba Satellite laptop, but to answer technical problems a person is experiencing seems like a different realm. But is it? “It’s a beautiful thing. People really want to help other people,” said the presenter, who marveled at the community that has already developed on Fixya. “Another difference from Wikipedia is that we have a premium content version of the site.” Their premium site is where they envision making their money. Customers with a problem will assign a dollar amount based upon how badly they need an answer to a question, and the expert-editors of Fixya will share in the payment for the resolved issue. Like Wikipedia, reputation is paramount to Fixya’s experts. Whereas Wikipedia editors are judged by how they are perceived in the Wiki community, the amount of barnstars they receive and by the value of their contributions, Fixya's customers rate its experts based upon the usefulness of their advice. The site is currently working on offering extended warranties with some manufacturers, although it was not clear how that would work on a site that functioned on the work of any expert.

Tel Aviv beach early morning.

Another collaborative effort product presented to us was YouFig, which is software designed to allow a group of people to collaborate on work product. This is not a new idea, although may web-based products have generally fallen flat. The idea is that people who are working on a multi-media project can combine efforts to create a final product. They envision their initial market to be academia, but one could see the product stretching to fields such as law, where large litigation projects with high-level of collaboration on both document creation and media presentation; in business, where software aimed at product development has generally not lived up to its promises; and in the science and engineering fields, where multi-media collaboration is quickly becoming not only the norm, but a necessity.

For the popular consumer market, Superna, whose offices hosted our meeting, demonstrated their cost-saving vision for the Smart Home (SH). Current SH systems require a large, expensive server in order to coordinate all the electronic appliances in today's air-conditioned, lit and entertainment-saturated house. Such coordinating servers can cost upwards of US$5,000, whereas Superna's software can turn a US$1,000 hand-held tablet PC into household remote control.

There were a few start-ups where Vardi's fatherly mentoring seemed more at play than long-term practical business modeling. In the hot market of WiFi products, WeFi is software that will allow groups of users, such as friends, share knowledge about the location of free Internet WiFi access, and also provide codes and keys for certain hot spots, with access provided only to the trusted users within a group. The mock-up that was shown to us had a Google Maps-esque city block that had green points to the known hot spots that are available either for free (such as those owned by good Samaritans who do not secure their WiFi access) or for pay, with access information provided for that location. I saw two long-term problems: first, WiMAX, which is able to provide Internet access to people for miles within its range. There is already discussion all over the Internet as to whether this technology will eventually make WiFi obsolete, negating the need to find "hot spots" for a group of friends. Taiwan is already testing an island-wide WiMAX project. The second problem is if good Samaritans are more easily located, instead of just happened-upon, how many will keep their WiFi access free? It has already become more difficult to find people willing to contribute to free Internet. Even in Tel Aviv, and elsewhere, I have come across several secure wireless users who named their network "Fuck Off" in an in-your-face message to freeloaders.

Another child of Vardi's that the Brookings Institution might say was over-praised for self-esteem but lacking real accomplishment is AtlasCT, although reportedly Nokia offered to pay US$8.1 million for the software, which they turned down. It is again a map-based software that allows user-generated photographs to be uploaded to personalized street maps that they can share with friends, students, colleagues or whomever else wants to view a person's slideshow from their vacation to Paris ("Dude, go to the icon over Boulevard Montmartre and you'll see this girl I thought was hot outside the Hard Rock Cafe!") Aside from the idea that many people probably have little interest in looking at the photo journey of someone they know ("You can see how I traced the steps of Jesus in the Galilee"), it is also easy to imagine Google coming out with its own freeware that would instantly trump this program. Although one can see an e-classroom in architecture employing such software to allow students to take a walking tour through Rome, its desirability may be limited.

Whether Vardi is a smart parent for his encouragement, or in fact propping up laggards, is something only time will tell him as he attempts to bring these products of his children to market. The look of awe that came across each company's representative whenever he entered the room provided the answer to the question of Who's your daddy?

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This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.