Extraordinary entrepreneur sees failure as start, not end

Published in UT San Diego, March 5, 2013

Once in a while, you encounter a truly inspirational and extraordinary person, and meeting Yossi Vardi, one of Israel’s early tech entrepreneurs, was one of those peak experiences. Vardi was recently in San Diego; he spoke at an event sponsored by UC San Diego and the Israel Start-Up Nation series.

Listen to some of his accomplishments. Vardi has founded and helped build more than 70 technology companies in diverse areas, including software, energy, Internet, mobile, electro-optics and clean water. In 1996, he was the first investor in Mirabilis (started by his son) — the creator of instant messaging — that was sold to AOL 19 months later for about $400 million. He has also started companies that have gone public or been sold to giant companies such as Cisco, Microsoft and Yahoo. He’s an overachiever in a country that has produced the most successful startups — after the U.S. and China — that are listed on American stock exchanges.

In addition to his numerous business achievements, what we love the most about Vardi is his self-deprecating humor (“I have a very nice list of wins and an impressive list of failures”) and his perspective on life.

“You want to feel that what you have done is about more than making money. You want to feel that there is a meaning to all your effort,” he said. Then, pointing to Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Mark Jacobs, who was in the audience, Vardi continued, “Dr. Jacobs created something that everyone uses. What he did enabled people in Africa to get medical help. It’s very rewarding if you find a bigger meaning.”

In his remarks, Vardi touched on several themes that resonated with us: whether entrepreneurship can be taught, the importance of failure, the role that immigrants play in startups, and the motivation behind his entrepreneurial pursuits.

Entrepreneurship cannot be taught, Vardi contended, but it can be honed, unlocked and enhanced — a view we share. “Entrepreneurship is a cultural phenomenon, something embedded in the DNA of the individual and the society. You need society, education, a great university, companies and infrastructure.”

A culture and society that permit failure and allow people to begin again is an essential ingredient in creating a large number of startups, according to Vardi. “You have to encourage people to go and endeavor and try. … If you fail, it’s not the end of the world.” In San Diego, we have a similar climate and support system.

Immigrants, particularly the first and second generations, are a major force behind innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship in Israel and the U.S., Vardi said. His parents came from Europe to modern-day Israel in 1923 and 1931, and he was born there in 1942. In the U.S., immigrants founded or co-founded almost half of the 50 top venture-backed companies, according to a 2011 study by the National Foundation for American Policy.

Vardi said a major motivation for entrepreneurs is revenge — a sentiment that Neil promotes vigorously. “My mother always told me that I was an idiot — that my cousins were smarter than me. … So you spend your life trying to prove to your mother that you are not an idiot,” he said.

As to the future, he talked about how the Internet has changed the innovation paradigm, taking away the innovation monopoly from the largest companies, and shifting it to the startups. Millions of developers can now tackle software problems at a fraction of the cost of what it used to be. “This is the most empowering change. It is a sea change in the mechanism of innovation,” he said, noting that we are only in the third inning of the ballgame. His motto: Do it fast, do it cheap and deploy.

Vardi is Israel’s “Energizer Bunny,” relentlessly pursuing technology with passion, enthusiastically drumming nonstop toward the next big thing.

Little known fact: The bunny’s favorite drummers are Ringo Starr, Buddy Rich and Phil Collins.

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