"Building a start-up is a journey full of failures" - Trends-Tendances sur PC

“Building a start-up is a journey full of failures” – Trends-Tendances sur PC

After selling the Waze company he co-founded to Google for more than a billion dollars, Israeli entrepreneur Uri Levine has relaunched a dozen other projects, including Moovit, which was acquired by Intel. Passing through Brussels, he gave us an exclusive interview about his career and especially his experience since the beginnings of the navigation app.

It’s a tech star who strolls through the brand new offices of the PwC Campus, PwC’s new headquarters based near Brussels Airport. Behind his cool look, jeans and t-shirt, the man hides an experience that most tech entrepreneurs would dream of having had: Uri Levine is one of the founders of the navigation application Waze, on board each month by more than 140 million users around the world and sold to Google in 2013 for more than a billion dollars… The man came to Brussels to meet the founders of Belgian scale-ups who participated in March last at Trends Winter University for a unique conference. We took the opportunity to spend an exclusive moment with him.

It’s a tech star who strolls through the brand new offices of the PwC Campus, PwC’s new headquarters based near Brussels Airport. Behind his cool look, jeans and t-shirt, the man hides an experience that most tech entrepreneurs would dream of having had: Uri Levine is one of the founders of the navigation application Waze, on board each month by more than 140 million users around the world and sold to Google in 2013 for more than a billion dollars… The man came to Brussels to meet the founders of Belgian scale-ups who participated in March last at Trends Winter University for a unique conference. We took the opportunity to spend an exclusive moment with him. TRENDS-TRENDS. What do you think were the ingredients of Waze’s success? URI LEVINE. I am thinking of two main elements. The first is simply that Waze was free. Then, the application provided a real answer to a daily problem, namely the traffic jams to go to and from the office every day and the need to find the fastest route. These two elements are therefore the real fundamentals of success. What could be better than answering people’s daily problem for free? There were navigation proposals but none took traffic jams into account and none were free. Do not minimize the fact of being free. It was a huge difference. The idea to provide an answer to the problem of traffic jams is one thing, but we know that it is generally not enough to meet with success… It’s true: it’s always the execution that counts. Ideas are great, but execution is key and often a nightmare. A nightmare? You have nevertheless managed to create one of the most used apps…I think that in the end, the important thing is the ability to try new things and above all to persevere in the discovery of new possibilities to find what really works. Try, try, try. I sincerely think that is the key. We imagine that the development of Waze has not been easy every day. What were the biggest difficulties? In effect. In 2010, for example, we tried to raise funds and met with no interest from investors… It’s surprising. Why? Simply because the product was not good enough. Not good enough in the US, not good enough in Europe or other big countries. As a result, it was particularly complicated to raise capital. We were lucky to find some in the end, but it wasn’t easy. Wasn’t it also because of the major crisis the world had just been through? It was the end of the crisis and investors were slowly starting to come back to the market but we had a lot of trouble convincing and only managed to complete a round of financing a month before reaching the end of the available cash. . It was probably one of the most complicated periods. Especially since in parallel, Google had also just launched its navigation system in the United States and everyone said that we were screwed. It was not the case. So you haven’t gone far from failure…If you understand that building a start-up is a journey full of failures, since in reality you experience failures on a daily basis, that makes your roadmap a list of experiments to be carried out. The local market where you start is, therefore, a list of experiences to accumulate until you get there. It was the same for us: we tried new initiatives and if it didn’t work, we tried something else. Until we get there. You talk about the domestic market. You started in Israel but quickly made Waze a global app. Was this in the plans from the start? Absolutely. Israel is a small market. Each start-up that starts there therefore thinks directly of an international deployment. The American, European and emerging markets are part of the project from day one. The domestic market is mainly used to validate the concept and the approach. As soon as it’s done, the idea is to go international as quickly as possible. The good news was that the issue of traffic jams was the same all over the world. The common denominator was the nature of the problem, which was found everywhere, which made it considerably easier for us to develop elsewhere in the world, starting from Israel. Indeed, as soon as we talked about the problem that Waze was solving, people were receptive and wanted to try. And, above all, they let us iterate because there were no other alternatives. What fundamentally made Waze successful was the frequency of usage of the app as people were using it every day. Waze was hyper-intuitive and could start from anywhere. So we started all over the world at the same time by making the application available and by focusing on the collaborative aspect of its model. You mention that people were using the app a lot. So that means she was addictive. Did you deliberately work on this aspect? We have, in fact, made sure to reinforce this addictive side. How? With gamification tips, but also by simply explaining to users that the app was improving day by day and that what they were doing in it allowed it to perform better. So that encouraged them to use it again and again even though it still wasn’t perfect. It was then found that people were using it daily. This high frequency of use was the starting point for a huge word of mouth. When you use an app daily, you have plenty of opportunities to tell someone about it. This fueled the strong growth of Waze, which was not trivial. Indeed, the growth was critical for the improvement of the product since it was crowdsourced, therefore powered by the users. Later, you crossed paths with Google. When did you decide you were going to sell Waze and why? It was a matter of opportunity. We simply considered that this offer was the right one and we said “yes”. We had moreover had many proposals before Google and had all refused… Was it the astronomical amount that convinced you? It’s also the fact that we knew that Waze was going to stay Waze, with the vision of serving to reduce traffic jams, which was very important for us because we had built everything with this objective. In this sense, everything was right for us to accept the proposal… However, on a personal level, you directly decided to leave Waze and not to get involved in the next steps of the company in order to achieve this mission. ..I simply wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to launch other start-ups… Today, precisely, you remain active in the start-up universe by creating and financing new projects. After a sale like that of Waze, aren’t we under too much pressure to undertake a new project? You know, a few of the businesses I’m building today will be more successful than Waze. In fact, the success of start-ups depends on the size of the problem you set out to solve. Parking problems, for example, are huge. In what capacity do you intervene in these companies? As an investor? I invest exclusively in my own businesses. All the companies in which I have stakes were either born on the basis of ideas that I had and for which I went to find a team, or were born of teams that came to see me before launching their project and whose I accompanied the launch. Entrepreneurship and investing are two different things. I prefer to undertake. Today, I am very involved on a day-to-day basis in the ten start-ups that I have launched. Of course, I don’t manage the companies since each of them has a CEO, but I help and guide them. The Waze experience is obviously useful to you in these other projects… There are sometimes great similarities, such as for Moovit (start-up sold to Intel, in 2020 for some 900 million dollars, Editor’s note). This is a Waze of public transport whose aim was to answer the question “how to go, as quickly as possible, from point A to point B with public transport?”. This box has grown faster than Waze, moreover, public transport attracts more people than the car. To develop Moovit, we were obviously able to base ourselves on the experience of Waze since there were many commonalities between the two projects. For example the crowdsourcing of information. Thus, Moovit was created by the community which itself provided information on bus stop locations, for example. One of your companies, Refundit, had a foothold in Belgium. Where is this project? Refundit operated for a short time in Belgium, before the covid. This start-up allows the recovery of VAT by traveling tourists. If I buy goods in Belgium, I can recover the VAT as a tourist coming from outside Europe. We started in Belgium but in the middle of the covid period, there were obviously no more travelers and we put the box in “hibernation”. But since we launched the project in Greece, Spain, etc. You keep an eye on mobility. Do you think there could still be new major revolutions in the navigation market today? This one has encountered such upheavals with the arrival of smartphones and apps… Hard to say. What is clear is that an excellent product, free of charge, does not risk much from competitors. No one can really compete. So in that sense, this product should remain the market leader. However, if the future sees self-driving vehicles come to fruition and no one is driving anymore, things will be different and people won’t need apps like Waze anymore. Yes, so this will be the end of Waze…

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