Being a founder, not to mention a CEO, can be a very lonely place, carrying loads of stress and required to constantly be at peak performance. This often makes it hard to find a balance between one's professional and personal life. Maintaining strong relationships with the co-founders and investors is also not an easy task, where clarity and empathy are not always present. As one of my entrepreneurs says: “It’s not the technological challenge we deal with, it’s the mental one.”
“Throughout my +15 years as a professional, I've always been attracted to the intersection of business and psychology through entrepreneurship - What makes people tick? How do people think and act? And what motivates people in business? What drives me is being there for the amazing entrepreneurs, who are under constant pressure, so that they can make our world a
Understanding a mindset of modesty, determination, and listening with Aharon Aharon, CEO and Entrepreneur
Aharon grew up in Kiryat Eliezer, a working-class neighbourhood. Most families there consisted of housewives and port workers– holocaust survivors who wanted their children to have more than they had. To eat and to learn– that's what mattered.
At the elementary school where Aharon studied students in the eighth grade were given a choice of class: seafaring and agriculture or craft and technology. Aharon chose technology, and then went on to study electronics in vocational high school, for it was the most practical way for him to get a good profession and forge a different path for himself as his dad wished for him.
In ninth grade, school was very challenging for Aharon, and he wanted to give up. His father told him to join him for some work at the port, and after two days of experiencing the rigorous work at the port, Aharon got the perspective he needed and returned to school. Now, he was more determined than ever before. Lesson learned.
A not so easy path
Aharon served in Unit 848 in the army, which is now known as 8200. He underwent a standard 3-month technician course and was then sent to a more complex 6-month course which featured a lot of English. This sent him to a flashback to his past. From 5th-12th grade, Aharon had a private English tutor. Though his English was the best in his class, his mother didn't care; she wanted it to be even better. And so, even though they could hardly afford it, he got his private lessons.
In his course in 8200, Aharon was surrounded by amazing people, most of whom were engineers. During their exams, though they knew the material, Aharon was the English whiz, so it gave him a leg up. From this experience, Aharon learned a valuable lesson, one which he uses today and shared with managers alike: use the advantages of the employees to overcome their shortcomings.
Aharon also shared with us his mindset when facing challenges, which he learned while climbing a volcano in South America. A daunting and challenging experience, Aharon managed to overcome it by focusing on one task at a time. In this instance, he focused on following the person who was walking one meter ahead of him.
This wisdom, of focusing on ‘the meter ahead’ when dealing with a problem, can be very effective for entrepreneurs and founders as well. We have a mountain we must climb, and from a first glance, the path which we must take seems too much to bear and fills us with anxiety– it seems too frightening and impossible. But, breaking down the climb into small steps can help us. There should be the North Star – the final place in which you want to get to– but divide this mission into a lot of small parts in order to digest them easier, and therefore succeed.
During his army service, he served as a technician in Sinai, and it was then that he decided he was going to study at the Technion. Math and physics were not easy - but he coped and made it through. He was surrounded by a class of geniuses– 35 out of 40 of his classmates had academic degrees or were soldier-students, some of whom today are amongst Israel’s wealthiest people.
His studies felt like a foreign language to him; the rest of his class knew how to speak the lecturer's language and they all nodded in agreement and understanding. Only Aharon was lost and confused. He consulted with a friend from the year above him who told him, "So, nod your head too" – fake it till you make it. And so, he did. We are all familiar with 'imposter syndrome’; we all go through it at one stage or another. However, when we are flooded by new material and feel we won't be able to bridge the gap, those feelings and thoughts are just a part of the process. We eventually overcame it. It was true for Aharon then and still holds true for him today.
At the beginning of his undergraduate degree, he came across an ad for a teacher's assistant position. He went to the interview, and only during that conversation did he discover that it was a position intended for those with a master's degree when he had not yet finished the subject at hand in high school. Still, he was accepted. And so, in his first degree, he was an assistant, and during the second degree, he was already a lecturer. It taught him to always try - don’t be afraid to approach. Try, at most, you will succeed.
To grow with the company
His master's degree was in collaboration with Intel and IBM in research. At the end of the degree, he had to decide between the two. He chose to join IBM because it was smaller - he wanted to grow with them. When their manager was relocated, the company was looking for a replacement Even as a relatively new employee, he was selected for the role, and so began the managerial side of his career, which he greatly enjoyed.
Aharon had to learn to bridge the gap between the job he was accustomed to and the new managerial position. Eventually, his previous manager had returned from his relocation which allowed Aharon to complete his Ph.D. at the Technion in parallel to his managerial role at IBM. In an attempt to combine the two and do it all, he paid a high price in his personal life. He wrestled with this dilemma for two years and eventually realized that the right decision for him was to leave the Ph.D. path.
Aharon defines his time at IBM as the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey. They developed wonderful tools in the company in Israel, and tried to sell them within the company abroad, but encountered reluctance since the company itself did not believe in the tools initially. Aharon thought of a way to change their minds and decided to sell the tools outside of IBM. He had excellent partners, a CEO and a legal counsel who supported him. The sales were very successful and made $3 million with many companies starting to use their tools. As a result, IBM also decided to use the same tools. By proving the tools’ value to others, Aharon indirectly managed to get IBM to adapt them as well.
In our conversation, Aharon raised an important point for entrepreneurs that approach investors, and that is how crucial it is to listen deeply to those sitting in front of you - to their questions, their body language, their tone– all of which can indicate their feelings and concerns. This is true for job interviews as well. It's more important for people to hear how we approach problems and how we think than the immediate knowledge of the solution itself.
Aharon emphasized the importance of listening without bias. One of the companies he recruited for was in a field that was not very interesting to investors, and his way of handling the situation was to use deep listening, talking to and seeing the investors on the same level - "I never thought there was anyone superior to me, but I also never felt superior to anyone either. There were people I wanted to learn from - but I never felt that they were above me. The service providers are equal to me too - we are all on a job, doing our role. I learned a lot from people, but I didn’t idolize anyone." This inner dialogue with ourselves–the understanding that we are all human– reduces stress and allows us not to be shaken too easily. Even people in high positions want to speak on the same level; as equals and as people, they too are looking to be seen.
Zoran was a small company when Aharon joined it. He joined as VP of R&D and was the company's CEO in Israel. He then moved to the U.S. to run the company.
Levy Gerzberg - the CEO, faced a difficult decision - whether to continue with 7 product lines that were in development or focus on just 3 of them. Aharon was in favour of staying more focused; he realized that stopping developing product lines, though difficult, was the best decision. Levy agreed with him and decided to specify the company’s path. But for them to do so, they had to understand what needed to be sacrificed. The company was very successful and when he left it, their sales profit had tripled in just 3 years. From there Aharon just kept on leaping.
After 3 years in the U.S., he returned to Israel and came to Cybridge. When asked what his expected salary was, he said “10% more than the current CEO”. When they asked him why, he simply replied: "I don’t know the current CEO and I don’t know what his salary is, but if you are looking for me to replace him, it probably should be more." He got the job, and his mission was to turn around the company which was a very difficult task. Just a month before he came to the office for the first time, he realized that the company was not profitable and losing a lot, and if he didn't find a way to change the situation, the company would close. On his first day, he had to fire 80 people he didn’t know– an event that still traumatized him today.
A lot of advisors were fired, but that was necessary. Siemens, who was going to purchase the company, wanted to rehabilitate it by putting a Band-Aid over it and then sell, but then something surprising happened - after two years with Aharon, they once again became successful and so Siemens decided to keep the company.
Dealing with failure
Aharon founded Camero, a company on the edge of technological capabilities. "We put out an amazing product - after two years of hard work we got very generous recruitment rounds. I couldn’t believe that we would succeed in putting out the product, so much so that I even said that if we succeed, I would dye my hair and beard red like Abu-Tir for a month. I really did get the red hair–I was so incredibly proud. But then there were failures - the market wasn’t ready for the product." Aharon experiences pride and a sense of failure in the same breath. On the one hand, immense pride in making a product that is almost on the verge of science fiction, and on the other hand a bad sale of the company which did not return any investment to investors.
How do you know when it’s time to stop?
"I realized that even in the best scenarios, the markets would not be interesting to investors, and the investors were not as patient with the market as they should have been. We came to a mutual conclusion - let's sell it as is. I felt that I had disappointed the investors, but after realizing that there was no chance to recoup the investment they would have expected to see, even in twenty years, we knew there was no choice but to cut our losses."
Aharon was chosen to be the CEO of Apple Israel. Before that, he worked at Apple in the U.S. and from them learned amazing things about the unique way in which the company operates:
1. The organizational structure is functional and not hierarchical. Professional decisions are made by a debate, and not by a senior manager's sole decision.
2. Attention to details– down to the tiniest one. The products are perfected down to the last detail, which includes engineering. The number of details is huge, but this is part of the company's DNA.
3. Even with Apple's insane growth and the companies it absorbed into it; the same original culture has been preserved.
4. Inspired by Steve Jobs– in his lifetime, people thought the company would not continue to exist without him. Then came Tim Cook who does an amazing job - and today the company exists amazingly, proving that a company is not the product of one person. Organizations are bigger than people.
The choice to lead the Israel Innovation Authority
"Money is a good thing as long as we manage it and it’s not managing us." Aharon decided that he wanted to move on, give back, and contribute to the society in which he grew up. At the Israel Innovation Authority, he met amazing people with the same ideology as him. Today, he continues his social work, "I hear a lot from high-tech people asking me what Israel has given me?” – Aharon believes that everyone should know where they came from and try to give back "Know where you came from and where you are going."