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Startup success starts with self questioning
"The most successful entrepreneurs I know are the ones with the endless passion for the field in which they’re engaged," writes Verbit CEO Tom Livne
When I was first asked to write this column, I felt embarrassed. How can a ‘burnt green’ Maccabi Haifa fan who grew up in Carmel inspire the next generation of Israeli entrepreneurs? What insights can I share from my personal entrepreneurial journey?
My journey as the founder of Verbit, which I founded a little over five years ago and what’s now considered the largest technological transcription company in the world, has been a crazy one. Most days are exhausting, and it can be an emotional roller coaster that few people outside of entrepreneurs can understand.
Since my childhood, the transition between Remembrance Day and Independence Day has always evoked very mixed feelings, and I know that resonates with many Israelis. To this day, these feelings create a whirlpool of emotions. While each day brings with it a new surprise, it is my army service that helped me substantially to become who I am today. It has given me the qualities needed for an entrepreneur - perseverance, resilience and adherence to a goal - when the ultimate goal is to complete the task successfully.
My track is not the classic track of an Israeli hi-tech entrepreneur. I didn’t serve in the elite unit of Modi’in - 8200. I was a combat soldier in Tzanhanim (The Paratroopers Brigade). What it gave me was a different perspective on the teamwork needed to be successful. Being a combat soldier means risking your life alongside people with different skills - ones you must trust to do their job best, because your success also depends on their success.
In business and in setting up a company, this translates into the ability to recruit people who will not only complement you or agree with you, but rather the opposite - those who will challenge you and push you to grow. And of course, those who will make your workplace a fun place that you will want to get to every morning.
The most important piece of advice I can give, no matter how corny it sounds, is that it all has to do with people. The people you manage to persuade to join you in the beginning will greatly influence what the company will look like in the future. Your employees will always be your most significant asset, and management will determine if the company will be able to meet the ambitious goals you set for it.
Your inner circle - your ‘department’ in the post-army real world are the ones who will make the difference in whether you succeed when you face challenges.
For most entrepreneurs - I among them - something ‘sits’ with them. There is some scarcity from the past that makes us want to prove ourselves. To be successful as a hi-tech entrepreneur, you must be your company’s best salesperson. You need to know how to sell your brand with a passion and belief that the world has never seen before.
With Verbit, it comes to me easily. One of our core values is to ‘do good’. We’re changing the world with technologies and solutions that make verbal content accessible, accurate and faster than ever to individuals with disabilities, in addition to many others who use our solutions.
I’ve met hundreds of entrepreneurs during my journey, and I am proud to call many of them my friends. The most successful entrepreneurs I know are the ones with the endless passion for the field in which they’re engaged. The level of dedication to the success of the venture must be endless. When I take a step back and look at Verbit’s vision and the millions of people we have influenced around the world thanks to access to Verbit, my fire and urge to do more only grows.
From my point of view, after Verbit has become one of the fastest-growing companies, with a valuation of over $2 billion and five acquisitions we’ve made in the last two years, here are some questions to ask yourself to drive your startup’s success.
1. How do you react to pressure?
Anyone who served in special forces in the army, remembers grueling training days well. My army service taught me that when I start something, I must finish it. Whether it was completing a difficult mission then or fulfilling Verbit’s promise to its investors who have put their trust in me, perseverance is the name of the game. Giving up or retiring in the middle, despite all of the endless difficulties, just isn’t an option for me.
Before I founded Verbit, I founded another company with a partner who unfortunately had cancer. It was difficult for personal and business reasons, dealing with an impossible situation at such an early stage. This situation made me make a brave and difficult decision - return most of the money to investors and close the company. However, I went through this process without losing my belief in myself and desire to provide myself as an entrepreneur. I persevered. I did not give up. Investors usually aren’t interested in getting into the details. They’ll see that you have a ‘failed company’ in your past and some will even mark you negatively for it (as was the case with me). Verbit was my second attempt, and although I took into account that with these circumstances, it would be difficult for me to raise funds in the beginning, I stood firm and did not give up. This persistence under pressure has led me and Verbit to raise more than $600 million (mostly in the last year). These are big numbers and a lot of responsibility. When dealing with pressure, lead with passion and remember that losing is not an option.
2. Who are the people in the inner circle that surrounds you?
You have to surround yourself with a team of experts you can count on to help fulfill your vision. They can be colleagues with different skills than your own who can bring additional talent to your decision table. What about investors? These are people who are betting their careers on your success. Once they invest in you financially, you want them to become invested in you personally. How are you creating a good dynamic with them?
One of the most touching moments of my career so far was when Ronen Nir stepped down from the board of Verbit. Here’s is a quote from his farewell email:
“I am stepping down from the board of Verbit with mixed feelings - on the one hand, the company is very close to my heart, I am very emotionally involved and letting go before the work is completed is really heartbreaking for me. On the other hand, if there was ever a good time to hand over it is now. The company has had a tremendous journey, it’s one of the most promising companies in Israel and the future looks really bright… I believe that Verbit has the best management team in all of the Israeli ecosystem. As you know me, this is not something that I say very often. Last word goes to Tom - this uncontrollable, unpredictable passionate guy has managed to build one of the greatest companies ever to come up out of Israel. I have learned a lot from his grit, optimism and aggressiveness - the things that great founders and CEOs are made of.”
These types of relationships don’t happen easily or overnight. It’s about building trust through transparency and managing expectations. Take the time to make sure you are in constant communication with investors (and not just when you need funding) and that you’re in sync on upcoming decisions you need to promote. Pay attention to the advice of others and let them illuminate your blindspots with a flashlight. If you’re as lucky as I am, you’ll build lasting relationships that develop into lifelong true friendships.
3. Are you curious and open to learning new things?
Being mentally flexible and open to listening and learning from others is essential. You may think you know everything, but you don’t. I’m always eager to learn and improve myself. Successful business leaders can’t be Mr. Know It All. It’s extremely important to surround yourself with skilled advisors that you trust 100% to be open and attentive to their advice to try things in other ways.
I regularly listen to podcasts and read, all as part of this continuous self development journey. Today, I’m much more focused on learning ways to adopt and adapt to change. I’ve had to adapt from our early days as a three-employee startup to running a global company of over 570 employees. An entrepreneur’s ability to reinvent themselves every year is not a trivial matter. Surround yourself with great people who won’t just say yes to please you, but will challenge you. You need people to lead you and also advisors who can tell you when to change your path because they’ve been there before.
4. How do you react to the highs and lows?
The trick is to minimize the “high” and “low” feelings of the entrepreneur roller coaster. As your experience as an entrepreneur grows, so does your ability to get used to it all. You learn not to get overly excited at the wins of fundraising or overly upset when a C-level executive resigns. I’ve learned to maintain balance, and so must you. Life goes on, even though a particular customer leaves or after the M&A you and the rest of your company’s employees worked on all day didn’t end up closing. Every entrepreneur must learn how to maneuver these ups and downs smoothly.
5. What drives your motivation and ‘hunger’?
As a child, one of the individuals who influenced me most (beyond my amazing parents) is the owner of Maccabi Haifa, Yankele Shachar. Even after the marvelous double season and all of the titles accumulated over the years, his endless hunger for achievement and improvement stunned me time and time again.
Aside from setting clearly-defined goals, leaders who lead their companies with passion and purpose, like Yankele Shachar, will win. You must be dedicated to the goal in order to reach it. Say it out loud. I for one can very clearly explain the good that Verbit brings to the world by making it a more accessible place for everyone.
You have to be very highly motivated to achieve your goals and be very focused in order to do whatever it takes to get there. Even after five years, we continue to demonstrate a clear perseverance, determination and focus to reach the company’s goals.
Even today, the determination in my entrepreneurial journey with Verbit helps me to focus and set very clear and measurable goals and plan together with my company management partners on what needs to be done in the near and distant future to reach those goals. I have seen colleagues who are often too caught up in past analysis and let it affect them, which greatly jeopardizes their future success.
At Verbit, we have created and continue to create each day - with all of our might and with tireless passion - unique technological capabilities that help us make classrooms, universities and workplaces more accessible to individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing. My motivation and hunger to succeed stems from this reality and also from the fact that we create many jobs for tens of thousands of transcribers who work with us every day. We help individuals based in third world countries to earn a respectable living, support their families and build careers they are proud of. As a new father, this resonates with me more than ever before.
This Yom Haatzmaut, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions in order to pave an independent path in the world of entrepreneurship. Map out how your unique life experiences have shaped you and align them to your next goals. The army surely shaped me. My love for Maccabi Haifa in both successes and failures from a young age shaped me. Becoming a father has inspired me to contribute to the future for my daughter and for all of Israel.
It’s a great honor for me to share with the next generation of entrepreneurs the lessons and insights from my personal journey. Happy Independence Day to all!
Tom Livne is the CEO and Founder of Verbit.