Being a founder, not to mention a CEO, can be a very lonely place, carrying loads of stress and requiring 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 better place. That’s what I’m here for, and this is my podcast – The Human Founder.”
Ep 58: Natan Linder– Co-Founder & CEO of Tulip, Co-Founder & Chairman at Formlabs at Solutum
Natan grew up next to his granddad's woodworking shop, always building things with his hands. At the same time, his dad, who was an engineer, taught him about programming, and he also started doing that at an early age.
As a teenager, he was interested in building things with more people, so he started his first company at the age of 17 and caught the entrepreneurship bug. Still being a high school student, he came to experience a totally different world of meetings while entering the mindset of a COO of the company– things he only saw in movies before.
After he graduated high school, he served in the Air Force intelligence, where he did operational and technical roles, which meant he had a lot of responsibility on his hands. When he finished his service, he stepped out into a different world - it was the end of the “.com” era, and he found himself writing a lot of code. He was drawn mostly to embedded systems - he liked the combination of hardware and software.
A friend of his asked him for a favour; to pick up an application form for an entrepreneurship, tech, and leadership scholarship at Reichman University. As he helped his friend fill out the form, he thought to himself - maybe I should fill one for myself?
At the time, Natan was studying political science at the Open University in Israel Jean. Jacques Rousseau was equally exciting to him as c++, but in the end - he found himself getting the scholarship and re-evaluating his direction. He decided to do his bachelor’s degree in computer science.
He met Eyal Toledano in this program - a good friend and his co-founder. Both of them were in love with the mobile world and searched together for what was most interesting to them within.
Natan managed to work during his studies full time. They were working on getting downloadable apps on mobile phones in the early 2000s when mobile phones mostly only knew how to send text messages and do very simple things. Then came the 2008 crash, and while they had great ideas, they couldn’t raise money.
Samsung reached them, as they had no R&D in Israel at the time, and although they were dreaming of making a company of their own, Samsung managed to convince them to join.
And so, at the age of roughly 24, Natan found himself as the GM for the mobile division for Samsung in Israel, an experience which he describes as his ‘Grad School’.
Moving to the US
After 5 years at Samsung, Natan decided he wanted to try and build a company of his own.
He concluded that for that he needed to become a venture capitalist or at least work in a VC firm, which in retrospect he would not have done.
He met Harel Margalit and joined JVP as an EIR, where he had a lot of freedom to do what was interesting to him. Then his wife was accepted to do her MBA at MIT - an opportunity of a lifetime, so
He decided to put his work aside and go with her.
That’s how he landed in Boston. At first, he was confused and didn’t quite know what to do after working in tech for a decade, but he knew this could be a fresh start for him. He thought he might try MIT as well, the Media lab specifically.
At the same time, he started working with Prof. Rodney Brooks, whose company is responsible for iRobot & Rumba, and pioneering robotics in general. Meeting Prof. Rodney was like meeting Michael Jordan for a basketball fan, as he was a very impactful and known figure in the worlds of machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Natan joined him in the new company he was building that signalled the dawn of collaborative robots– robots that would be safe to interact with humans and would be programmed by teaching.
He was 29 years old at the time, and after considering the trade-offs, he decided to join MIT, and his amazing journey there started, which ended with a Ph.D. He found new opportunities for himself from within the realm of the unknown. Natan explains that he appreciates the beauty in the dichotomy of the entrepreneur, of “organized chaos” - he didn’t have a solid plan per se, but he had his anchors. He came in with the mentality of - “we’ll figure it out. In the worst case - I’ll get a job in a big company. And I tell that to new employees as well - people have the wrong impression of how risk works - because in the worst case you'll go back to the market and get a normal job.”
This belief is crucial for entrepreneurs because they are always navigating in the unknown; nothing is planned perfectly and always goes according to said plan. We need to have trust in ourselves and believe in our abilities and know deep down that no matter what, we’ll figure it out.
Media lab is a very hands-on place at MIT where you can explore and have a lot of creative freedom and get sponsors who come from the industry to interact with the students. Natan came to MIT after decades of experience in engineering, and shares that it’s difficult to unthink his ‘known’ way of doing things, so the entrepreneurial mindset never really left him.
He was working on projected augmented reality and created Formlabs with two of his classmates.
Today, Formlabs is a decade-old company with 700+ people, selling over 100,000 printers for design and engineering, but also dental care. It became a Unicorn.
“You can’t really plan which company will hit its product-market fit and when.” Their decision to put their complex and expensive HW - SW product on Kickstarter was a risk, as the platform wasn’t really used to that type of product - but it turned out to be a huge success, with 3 million dollars’ worth of product orders - that was an early product-market fit for them.
“No regret decision”
Natan made the difficult decision to leave Formlabs and found Tulip and shared that: “it was a moment that Jeff Bezos defines as a ‘no regret decision’, where you don’t evaluate your decision based on what you know now but based on how much regret you would have at this choice when looking back as a 90-year-old man.”
Formlabs was pretty stable, and Natan realized that this is the chance to build a very important second company, he couldn’t imagine a reality where someone else did it instead of him - so he went all in. “It doesn’t mean that you're comfortable and know every aspect of the decision, but the conviction that this is something worthwhile to build was extremely clear.”
Managing it all
Having 2 companies, a wife who's also a very busy executive, and kids - how do you manage all the stress of having so many balls in the air at the same time?
Natan shares that for him it didn't become so stressful overnight. He made the progress of the company slowly and gradually on purpose - his bar for building a platform was very high, and he was preparing for the long haul.
As for the stress, he shares that for him there's only one thing that can give you balance, and that’s the people around you - the family, his teams, the investors. Even as for stepping down from an operational type of role in Formlabs, it wouldn’t have been possible without a great co-founder by his side.
When I asked Natan about navigating between his personal and professional life, he shared that he grew up with 4 siblings and 2 hardworking parents, so the idea of a demanding career and kids together was not foreign to him, it’s just life.
The practical reality is that as parents you take turns and cover for each other – there is no magic answer. Although they’re far from their immediate family, there are other family members and a community that they’ve built over the years, and they make the best of it - there are always trade-offs. Still, he shares he’s living in a constant reality of wanting to be with his family more and spend more time with his kids, but having said that, the other side of the coin is that he and his wife are being good role models for their kids, by teaching them the value of work and the entrepreneurship mentality–“No matter what they’ll choose to do when they grow up, this teaches them about life.”