The Next Big Thing

‘Godfather’ of Israel’s hi-tech industry Yossi Vardi credits ‘tiger moms’ for country's new nickname: Start-up nation

Government support, and competitive education and research in support of technology and innovation, also cited as key factors

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 9:44pm

Israel can boast an astonishing success rate when it comes to local start-ups, and the so-called “godfather” of the country’s hi-tech industry says “tiger moms” play a large role.

Yossi Vardi said many business founders in his motherland are indebted to their mothers for pushing them to excel from childhood.

“The true answer to why many entrepreneurs in Israel can be so successful today is they have their Jewish mother,” said Vardi, dubbed the “father of ICQ”, once the most popular online messaging tool in the world.

“Your Jewish mother will push you to succeed and push you to go all the time. My mother since [I was] six has been telling me, ‘All your cousins are smart’, and ‘How can you be an idiot? I’m the mother of idiot. How can this happen?'” he said during a panel discussion at SLUSH, Europe’s largest start-up conference. It is taking place in the Finnish capital of Helsinki this week.

Vardi made his point, and proved his mother wrong, by emerging as one of the most successful venture capital investors and innovators in technology of his era.

He famously invested in a company co-founded by his son that developed ICQ, a 1990s-era forerunner of instant messaging applications. It was acquired by AOL in 1998 for US$400 million.

Vardi’s emphasis on parental education may sound familiar to many Asian, and especially Chinese, families.

WATCH: Yossi Vardi explains the ‘secret sauce’ of Israeli entrepreneurship

The term “tiger mom” refers to a strict parent who relentlessly drives their child to excel from an early age at school and in extra-curricular activities. Vardi said this is typical among Jewish mothers, who instil a sense of guilt in their offspring and create the feeling that failure is not an option.

He said most start-ups must adapt quickly to survive given their high failure rate. Globally, eight out of 10 start-ups either fold or are snapped up by bigger companies.

“I think ideas are so over-rated these days. It’s typical that after three or four months, every start-up may have to pivot to fit the reality of [the] business,” he said.

“It’s more about execution and the people [founders] who you invest in.”

Consumer-facing internet-related businesses tend to attract his attention these days, he said.

Related tech start-ups that he invests must be extra nimble given how quickly consumer habits change, he added.

READ MORE: Vardi says he has high hopes for China

“Entrepreneurs who have failed are perfect investment candidates, because they want to win even more."

He said government support and competitive education and research at a university level in support of technology and innovation are also key factors behind Israel’s success. This has helped the country become branded as a “start-up nation”.

Rather than rest on his laurels as the godfather of Israel’s tech boom, Vardi said he spends most of his time “living on planes” as he travels the world speaking at events concerning start-ups and innovation, while also meeting future business leaders.