This week, at the beautiful portside Na Laga’at Theater in Jaffa Israel, the first ever annual Geek Awards celebrated what is without doubt the proven exceptionalism of the Israeli hi-tech and Startup scene. But this kind of thing has never been done before.
Israelis in general aren’t big on pomp and circumstance. Just look at the near nakedness of the Israeli soldier’s dress uniform and compare it to that of the ribbon-rich breast and shoulder plates of their US and European counterparts and you would never guess that it’s actually Israel who are the ones actively fending off threats on a daily basis, both in and around its borders.
Not that a little well deserved self-indulgence is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a stylistic difference. For the most part, Israelis would rather be at the office writing new code than out receiving an award for old code.
And yet here are some of the boldest and brightest that Israel hi-tech has to offer and they basically felt uncharacteristically comfortable throwing a party to say ‘Yay us!’, and the question is why?
Standing on ceremony
Over the course of the evening there were several noteworthy takeaways. First, in his keynote address Shai Agassi challenged the audience to steer away from virtual and look to address the world’s most challenging problems. Energy was one primary example that he gave with a veiled reference to his belief that Better Place, although dead in bank account, was alive and well in spirit with alternative energy cars becoming the mainstay of personal transportation within the next 20 years.
The second obvious theme of the evening was Waze. The billion dollar baby swept three of the GA’s major categories, including the most coveted title of them all; Startup of the Year. Like when the movie Titanic walked away with 11 of its 14 nominations, clapping fatigue rather than surprise eventually set in as everyone in the audience knew whose name was going to be pulled from that final envelope and Yuval Shmuelevitz, not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio (only older, and Israeli, and a Geek, with a shoulder blade-length ponytail – but otherwise exactly the same) took the stage for the third time that night.
But the biggest takeaway of the evening brings us back to our original question, and that is the fact that the GA ceremony was neither forced or awkward (anymore than the Oscars or the Grammys are) but rather made complete sense to both those present, and I think the global tech community as a whole. Israel has come to a point where its leadership in innovation no longer shocks anyone anymore.
Taking its place at the global table
Done are the premise pitches for novel articles painting the picture of this ‘scrappy little country’ who manages to compete on a global scale with economic giants. Over are the days where Israel is only seen as a launching pad for promising startups to move to the Valley. Finished is the notion that US-based capital is greener than the dollars sitting in the vast funds of Israeli VC’s and no longer is it the case that Israeli/US exits see the roles of acquired and acquirer being played by the same parties every time.
Israel is no longer the young and eager to please prodigy but an experienced statesmen whose looked upon by others around the globe – in Europe, Asia and even the US – as a role model to learn from and emulate for their own economies and startup ecosystems. Israel’s startup sector will remain a healthy export and a significant contributor to its GDP for the foreseeable future, but the maturity of this sector makes it no longer possible to seriously consider it through the framework of being a startup venture of the Israeli nation. Israel’s startup scene now functions as, and is run with, the efficiency of an enterprise industry.
When startups graduate to the point of enterprise growth, one of the major culture shocks that hit the founders is the need to get used to the fact that they won’t be hands on coding 24 hours a day any longer. Much, in fact most of the work is delegated. Founders are now relegated to the big picture roles of setting quarterly and year-long goals, formulating major directional strategies and negotiating exits, new market entries and M&A’s.
Still, even with all that on their plate, in the day-to-day they actually find they have time on their hands. Enough time to look back and reflect on what they have accomplished over their years of struggling through the startup phase. Maybe even enough time to go to an awards ceremony, accept a little Space Invader Bug and give a heartfelt speech.
Firsts and lasts, beginnings and ends
Last night, what the strange sight of Israeli founders attending an Israeli startup awards ceremony demonstrated is that Israel’s startup scene is no longer in its startup phase. This may have been the first annual Geek Awards but what it symbolizes is the end of the Startup Nation and the beginning of an Enterprise Israel.
Image credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images