Category: entrepreneurship

First Month in Tel Aviv, Israel

A few months ago, I applied to a program called NUS Overseas College (NOC) that places you in a startup in a startup hub of the world as an intern for 6 months. I got into the Israel chapter, which means I get to take 6 months off college to intern at a startup in Tel Aviv! I got here on 1st July and the first month has been amazing!

Tel Aviv is a tiny city. According to google its 50 square kms big, which is 1/14th the size of Singapore and 1/28th the size of Delhi. A large part of the city is accessible by foot, so I can walk to quite a few places.

I really like the city. Its a perfect combination of the two cities I’ve lived in. Its low rise, like Delhi. Its safe, like Singapore. The beach is nearby. Basic infrastructure like transportation is pretty good. For those of you who don’t know, its a fully developed country (no, there are no bombs on the streets). The people are a lot like Indians in some ways. They’re spiritual and energetic. Some people are religious. People in Tel Aviv are much more open minded than the people I’ve met in India though. They’re quite hippie, kind of like the people at Yale-NUS. Its a perfect combination for me!

Tel Aviv is very diverse. You see all kinds of people from all sorts of places. Some are from the middle east region, others from Europe. Its not rare to see people from Africa and Latin America either. So just based on someone’s appearance, you can’t tell whether they’re locals or foreigner, except perhaps for Asians who tend to stand out a bit more here. As one local said to me, “Anyone can be from Tel Aviv!”. In general, people are quite friendly here. They’re easy to talk to and they like foreigners. One of my favourite things about the people here is just how smart they are. They take intelligence to a completely new level. But that might just be the people I’ve interacted with so far.

A street party in Tel Aviv on the French Bastille day. There was music, street performances and people drinking and dancing to French music in the streets.
Another street performance in Tel Aviv. Its not rare to come across people singing in the streets. Based on what I’ve seen so far, they sometimes do it for money and other times for a social cause. 

A popular dish called Shakshuka. It’s tomato sauce with eggs and other veggies. Its typically eaten with bread. I learnt to cook it this week! 
Hummus with meat, one of the local dishes in Israel. The Hummus here is so different from the kind I’ve eaten before. It has a different flavour altogether, probably because of the spices they use to make it. The meals here in general are pretty big. I usually can’t finish dishes I order at restaurants in one go. Each of them are usually 1.5 or 2 meals for me.

The startup I’m working at is called eRated. It combines the online identity of online sellers who sell on websites like eBay/Amazon. Its been fascinating to learn that different e-commerce sellers actually operate on multiple platforms, but the reviews and ratings they have are scattered across all the platforms they operate on. So eRated pulls out information from the different marketplaces they operate on and aggregates reviews, facebook/linkedin profiles, etc to give buyers more information about the sellers. I’m doing marketing and social media at eRated. Working with the team at eRated has been amazing. They’re super smart people and they’re really fun. I’m learning a lot! Working with them motivates me to work harder at my own startup project. One of the best parts is that my work timings are 10.30 am to 8 pm, so it suits my body clock perfectly.

The eRated family! We had a fun day recently where we went for massages, drinks and Barbeque. Missing Matt, Jake and Yoav in the picture. 
Photo credits: Boaz Cohen

A timelapse of a day at the office.
Video credits: Dor Kelman 

I live in an apartment with three others from Singapore. I’ve learnt a lot living in an apartment, since this is my first time doing it without my parents. I’m learning to take better care of myself. In college, I never need to cook since food is provided. Here, I need to cook because food outside is pretty expensive ($15 a meal on average/ 750 Rs). I’m trying to learn to cook one new thing every week-preferably from different cultures! I actually prefer living in an apartment to college dorms. This way, I get to have more control over my meals, timings, etc. However, I miss being able to walk over to my friends rooms and knock on their doors to say hello!

The living room cum dining area of our apartment. The apartment turned out to be much bigger and nicer than the expectations we had for ourselves based on the photos we’d seen of it.  
A photo taken in the Old Jaffa area of Tel Aviv. We stayed at a hostel there the first few days before moving into our apartment. Its a beautiful area. It used to be a port at some time in history. Also, it has some biblical associations.

A view of Jaffa port. This photo was taken on our first day when we were walking along the beach to see the sunset.

In the old Jaffa area, there are several little cafes on the streets where people just chat and drink. These cafes would be filled with people on weekday nights and weekends. These kind of outdoor cafes are also prominent in several other parts of Tel Aviv.

A weekend visit to Nazareth, a town about 1.5 hours away from Tel Aviv. Its known for being the birth place of Jesus and is dominated by Arabs. Getting out of Tel Aviv and seeing the landscape on the highway and in Nazareth was amazing. Its one of the only places I’ve visited that’s more beautiful than portrayed in pictures. 
Tel Aviv Port: I don’t know if its a functional port, but it has a lot of nice restaurants around it. My flat mates and I went there one night and it was really nice walking along the port. 

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The Diary of an Edtech Startup: The Good, Bad and Ugly

It was a month after I started Smoocer that I realised it comes under the category of an Edtech startup. Edtech means much more than it appears to be. Its not just about online tools that teachers can use to keep track of their students. Edtech startups range right from technologies that sell to schools, products for MOOC takers to learning tools for individual students and learners.

By working on my Edtech startup and in trying to make sense of this industry, I have discovered a few common experiences faced by several Edtech startups whose founders I’ve interacted with. If you’re looking to venture into this space, or if you are already in this space, here are some things that I consider must knows of the Edtech space:

The GOOD: There are tons of opportunity in the market. No matter where you look in the traditional education space, there is almost always visible scope for technology to swoop in and save the day. It can be in the form of Learning Management Systems for teachers or Massive Open Online Coursewares for learners worldwide. Problems, such as poor communication between teachers and students or low accessibility to quality education are well defined problems that have a well defined audience. And this is what makes Edtech such a vibrant and upcoming industry.

The BAD: Just because the problem is clearly defined and existent, doesn’t mean people are willing to adopt your solution. Remember that the Edtech space is entirely and completely dependent on the education space, which is fairly resistant to new technology. The Education industry comes under the late majority in adopting technology. Many a time, you can talk to your customers, understand their problems and craft a perfect product for them. But getting them used to screens after decades of having used paper is like trying to train a human being to do a headstand. For them, computers and phones equate to distracting games and social media, which is nowhere close to effective learning and good grades. Online tutoring is an ideal example of a product that faces this kind of problem. So in other words, finding your early adopters might be as difficult as finding your soulmate.

The UGLY: Even if you come with an awesome product that people are want to use, it’s hard to get it to them. While the market is well defined, the marketing channels are not. In case of B2B products or services, the bureaucratic hurdles that you may have to jump in educational institutes can really slow you down. In case of B2C products or services, like the kind I’m working on, its difficult to find online platforms and physical places where you can market your product. End users, like professionals taking MOOCs in my case, are scattered across the planet, several MOOC platforms and thousands of Facebook groups. It’s not rare for me to be talking to a user who tells me about a very frustrating problem they’ve been facing, like choosing the right MOOC for themselves, that has already been solved to a large extent by services like Coursetalk and MOOCList. They’re just not aware of the solution yet.

I’m not saying that its harder to operate in the Edtech industry than other industries. Just like any other space, this one has its unique set of problems. But despite these problems, Edtech has been the most exciting space I’ve worked in so far. Its vibrant, moves fast and is far from saturation. And the best part? It feels like a revolution.

A Newbie’s Lessons from the Game Industry

I was never a full time gamer, but after watching a talk on game design by Jane Mcgonigal and a few lectures by Kevin Warbach, I started thinking about projecting education through games. People are always talking about how information needs to be converted to a consumable format, and so far that consumable format has been videos. But videos just change the format in which information is presented, it doesn’t change the interaction people have with the content. While I think videos are far more affective than books and texts, I also think that games are far more affective than videos.

The problem is that so far, it hasn’t been done right. Games are still mostly for entertainment, and we still face the challenge of making games educational without losing out either the game element or the educational element. I have been trying to create a game on cultures and have learnt several things about the game industry in the process, with the help of mentors and experienced professionals:

a) No money: The game industry is facing the problem of how to monazite games in the face of competition from free games. Some of the best games have had to be made free of cost, because people aren’t willing to pay. Game designers are encouraged to incorporate the monetization in their game early on and not leave it for later. At the same time, the audience for video games is increasing as more people use electronic devices and the nature of games diversify.

b) Competitive and high failure rate: There is a 95% failure rate among games that are produced and the competition is severe. The number of games on the IOS and Android market are testiments.

c) Easy to produce: Producing a game isn’t so hard any more. There are several softwares that are available for non coders. Some good ones I have come across are Unity, Game Maker Studio, Adventure Studios and Game Salad.

d) Making games vs thinking of them: Thinking of game ideas is easy, and it may be appealing in your head. But when you actually start making the game, your ideas suddenly aren’t as fun as they were in your head. So its a good idea to start prototyping asap. (This may sound obvious to any entrepreneur or businessman, but I think it applies even more so for games than anything else I’ve come across so far)

e) Prototyping: From my experience so far, some prototypes don’t even make it to the customers, because you notice problems and change it before its fully complete. (This may not be a good idea though, since you could be overly self critical) Prototyping video games has been very different from other kinds of prototyping I’ve seen or done. It can be anything from drawing on paper to actually coding the game.

f) B2B educational games: A lot of educational games are sold to institutions like schools or businesses who need very specific type of information to be taught to their students or employees.

So far, the game makers I’ve contacted have been very approachable and friendly. They have been willing to fix meetings without knowing me directly or indirectly. This may be a characteristic of the gaming industry or Singapore, I’m not sure, but either way I have been very lucky with regards to talking to the right people.

Ideas Ideas Everywhere

Coffee Houses, Metros and Buses, Malls, Bathrooms, Restaurants, Middle of the Road, Parties, Dinners, Dates, Facebook discussions and Blogs. 

In case you were wondering THAT was the list of places where people often come up with business ideas and opportunities that can be converted into organizations and startups. Yes, people get ideas in the weirdest places, at the weirdest times and in between the weirdest conversations. And if I were to go around counting the number of great ideas that are mentioned every day, I would soon run out of numbers. 
Everyone has ideas. Some have the aspirations to make it a reality SOME day. But few have the courage to actually go out and execute them. 
I’m not writing this to criticize the passiveness of people in executing. There is a lot of thinking that goes into a startup and a lot of courage to invest time and money into it. 
I write this for the people who are out there executing their ideas and living their dreams and also for those who dare to dream and think of executing their idea some day. 
Keep trying, and keep dreaming, because a 90 storey building was once just a pile of rubble.