“The way I see it, success is a triangle comprising of people<>technology<> business.”
We sat down with Eran Vanounou, a bona fide startup veteran and current CEO of Varada to hear about his journey in the innovative ecosystem he’s been contributing to since 1998. Before the boom of the internet and long before iPhone and apps, he led the team that built Java, which later became the first Android. As Eran says it “With 51% luck and 49% smart decisions, mobile boomed and we were able to develop the first platform that would reside on a phone”. He was part of a team that raised 12 million dollars over 20 years ago and built technology that’s the predecessor of apps like Google Maps and Waze. Eran, in our eyes, is a true founder of the Israeli StartUp Nation we know today.
A man of discipline (fun fact: he was on the Israeli National Swim Team), Eran served as an Officer in the Israeli Navy after which he studied computers and business management when IDC Herzliya first opened its doors. He attests his 7-year military career to being the foundation that taught him the leadership skills he would later come to show through his various roles including being the CTO of a NASDAQ traded company with fortune 500 clients and hundreds of employees. That can do attitude, team management, and getting out of your comfort zone, are all essential elements for startup success that were cultivated in the Navy.
Today, at 48 years old, Eran is confident about his decades of experience, having led companies such as LivePerson, NICE, and Sun Microsystems. Instead of taking a year off as he planned, he has “gone back to basics” in order to join the new and promising Varada. He brings with him the knowledge of “How does a big company look at a small company? And how does a small company look at a big one? And what does a small company need to do in order to be big?”
Why do you think the Navy had such a big influence on your career?
A sailing vessel is teamwork by definition, hierarchy is nonexistent. You’re surrounded by people that are very smart, often much smarter than you. People follow you not because you told them to, but because of a deeper connection and understanding you create by curbing people towards a common end goal. That was lesson #1.
How was it working for a large company overseas?
When you’re placed away from the HQ, it’s hard to have an impact over the phone. When you’re abroad, you’re far from your family. I used to travel a lot, I would be abroad about a week a month in The Bay area, in China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Ireland, India, and back to Israel.
How did you manage the work-life balance?
It’s a cultural experience you can’t buy anywhere. Working with all of these groups and learning how to turn the disadvantages of time, language, and cultural barriers into advantages was a fascinating challenge.
So how do you bring in a wife and two kids into it?
First of all, my wife is a true partner in all of this. It’s not easy. But I was always a very involved father. I want to take open a bracket to say that we also founded a kindergarten. It’s a startup we built together.
Tell us more about it!
When our eldest son was 2 years old (he is 19 today) we realized his kindergarten teacher was trying to push him to either the older or younger kids group depending on wherever she had space.
We met fellow first time parents on the playground that complained about the same thing – and we said to ourselves, let’s start a kindergarten. So we did. And we created one of the most beautiful things I can tell you about. We built a place that became home. Imagine coming to pick up your kid and leaving at 8pm because both the parents and kids are friends. On Saturdays we built a treehouse and each parent volunteered and was involved.
We created something that transcended into the kids. We opened up their creativity…It’s not easy, but if you have the right team, it’s like a startup – you don’t know the outcome, you don’t know what the risks are, but you take the risks for the odds of making it and you might make mistakes along the way because one surely does.
It’s nice knowing that the kindergarten still exists today and both parents and children are still in touch.
Let’s fast-forward for a second – you were at NICE…
When I arrived at NICE, I began working for an American company with an HQ in Israel. Suddenly I’m with the decision makers in real-time which was very different than my previous job managing at a distance. I started the Product Technology Unit and managed 800-900 people. From there I arrived at the last job before Varada.
That’s when I had the opportunity to be the CTO of Liveperson, a NASDAQ traded company with a team of 450 people in Israel. I was the Global CTO and also the CEO in Israel. It was a heck of an experience where we replatformed.
How did you go from CTO of a NASDAQ company to CEO of Varada?
After 4.5 years at Liveperson I said to myself, ok I’m ready to take a year off. But of course, I didn’t. That’s where Varada comes in. It’s a great story.
How was moving in to Varada?
The people at Varada are incredibly talented. They came from xtremIO, and they came to me for advice because I know the startup world really well. Their process as a young startup was very “by the book” – they interviewed people like me to see if there is a real market pain, because that’s how you build a product, you want to make sure you’re not just imagining things. These guys came with incredible ideas and I gave them some tips. That was somewhere in April 2017. In May 2018 I left Liveperson and they asked me to come in and see how they’ve developed. I was blown away by what they had accomplished in a year. I fell in love with the people, the product, and the idea. My attitude of “I’ll help you guys” was met with “Don’t help us, join us”.
Who was the CEO then?
One of the founders was CEO, and they made space for me. As a founder, you need to look at yourself in the mirror and say what am I good at it and what am I excellent at? It’s easier said than done, but it’s imperative to identify what you need help with. You need to put your ego in the right place. Varada welcomed me warmly, they knew exactly what they were looking for and that harmony works well.
What happened in the 8 months you’ve been CEO at Varada?
We were 7 and now we’re 20. A really big VC invested in us, and there’s a momentum that picked up. We now we have the tools to succeed.
What is your vision ahead for Varada?
We would like to be GA (general availability), with the product being ready by end of the year. This year we’re concentrating on a stage called design partners and early adopters. One has to have a certain maturity to be able to take feedback and go back to the drawing board. The plan for Varada after that is to create the right collaborations and roll out our product globally.
What advice would you give to Israeli startups?
We have an amazing ecosystem here and it’s a place you can make mistakes in, also because of our culture. One of the beautiful things that sets Israeli startups apart is that, lucky as we are, Israel is not a market. This means that a two person startup sitting in Tel Aviv is already building a solution for a global audience from day one, and doesn’t have to then adjust their product to a new market — a transition a lot of non Israeli startups fail at.
So, number one is – think global from day one, but that’s in our Israeli DNA. Two is leveraging our “swamp”. A lot of global companies have their HQs in Israel so start working with them to get continuous feedback from the market. Israelis will be straightforward with feedback, so you can move quick. When you’ve gone to American clients, you can’t make mistakes anymore.
What do your kids think about your career?
When they were young they thought my job was telling many people what to do and that fascinated them. It reminds me of a story…
Go on –
I met one of my older relatives at a family gathering once who worked in an oldschool industry. He was approaching retirement age and I asked him why doesn’t retire. His answer was: “I don’t need to retire because I’m a manager, I don’t work hard.”
And that fascinated me because I work so hard as a manager. What is being a manager? It’s an emotional responsibility. People put a lot of money on me. So I asked what do you mean? He answered I come in the morning, I point and say “you do that , you do that”, if they don’t agree I switch it over, then I have lunch ,check up on them, and re-order as necessary. He wasn’t joking.
But management and leadership today are an artwork, people won’t do things just because you told them so – especially not today’s generation who have strong and educated opinions, have a willingness to succeed and to compete. People who think that management is simply building a work schedule – fail.
It goes back to that triangle of people<>technology<> business. People who only have one aspect won’t succeed, building that triangle is a work of art, and all the three components have to work in tandem.
F2 Capital is a specialized, seed-stage venture capital fund backing Israeli deep technology companies at the junction of Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Connectivity. Founded by Jonathan Saacks and Barak Rabinowitz, F2 Capital invests before others are ready and partners with leading international venture capital funds in future rounds. As value-add investors, F2 also operates The Junction, Israel’s leading pre-seed investment program to back game changing founders from the ground up.