What UK & European Startups can learn from Israel

By | June 8, 2014

This post was originally published on Forbes.com on 6th June 2014.

How difficult is it to create a European startup in a technology discipline?

How does it compare to the USA, the home of the startup?  What are the cultural differences that seem to put America—in particular the San Francisco Bay area—ahead of the game?


Alan Gleeson, the respected digital marketer and former European GM of a successful U.S. startup has covered this elsewhere. To summarize his position, there are five key aspects:

  1. Location: Concentrated in the USA (SF/Silicon Valley); dispersed in Europe (Shoreditch, Dublin, Barcelona, Espoo in Finland, Denmark/Sweden’s Medicon Valley, etc., etc., etc.)
  2. Initial market: The USA is homogeneous; Europe is not, despite the best efforts of Brussels bureaucrats.
  3. Talent Diversity: A high proportion of startups in the USA are created by first-generation immigrants (e.g., Google, WhatsApp).
  4. Support Systems: Highly supportive venture-capital community in the USA; risk aversion in Europe.
  5. Media: The U.S. media loves to champion the little guy; European media tends to champion the establishment.

But Let’s Think More Flexibly  If we cast our net a little further, then a different picture emerges. Many Israelis rather optimistically include Israel in “Europe,” even though it’s conventionally thought of as being in Asia.

After the USA, Israel has more startups than any other country. There are more Israeli companies quoted on Nasdaq than European companies.

Israel is a country founded on startups, brilliantly described in Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. And, as a country just over 60 years old, I guess you could call it the ultimate startup.

In a recent meeting, Shimon Peres made a very interesting remark. He said that in traditional western Europe, most parents want their children to be lawyers, doctors or even—heaven forfend—accountants. In other words, classic, respected professions.

Imagine their reaction when they ask 12-year-old British kid, Alan, the time-honored question, “What do you want to be when you’re grown up?”—and he answers, “an entrepreneur.” Probably horror and an immediate ban on hanging around with Jill from up the street whose father runs his own tech business.

(How ironic that the word entrepreneur is French.)

But in Israel, an entrepreneur holds similar status as those classic professions. When his Israeli equivalent, Alon, wants to be “an entrepreneur” his parents swell with pride. Their boy’s going to make it.

Being an entrepreneur is something to be celebrated. A couple of startup failures would also be welcomed: Learning from them is a rite of passage.

But What Does This Tell Us?  Well of course, the picture is muddied by multi-layered context. Israel isn’t really comfortable in its own skin and may never be: Its political and geographic issues will probably see to that.

My point is that Israel is constantly watchful and so uses innovation to keep one step ahead of its enemies and detractors.

The establishment totally, proactively, strategically supports startups—not just financially, but also emotionally and physically. So, there may be few parallels to the rather safe, self-satisfied worlds of western Europeans, with our liberal attitudes, tolerance and high standards of living.

However, we certainly can learn a thing or two about pride in our entrepreneurs.

The Bottom Line  The concept of an entrepreneur is somewhat less easy to grasp than a profession regulated by formal qualifications. But may we see a time where teenagers can legitimately declare their desires to be to entrepreneurs, without ridicule?

It starts in schools, in educating the young about business. We should look at the curriculum and ask ourselves whether we’re really preparing our teenagers for the technologically advanced world of the 21st century. I certainly think there’s scope for improvement.


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