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. 64 - With Nevo Alva/ Co-Founder & CEO of Acumen
Discovering your purpose by coincidence
The cliche is a cliche for a reason, and for Nevo, it was his physics teacher who inspired and believed in him that started it all. He was working at the Weitzman institute at the time, and when he was asked by one of their departments if he knew anyone who could build a website, he sent Nevo and two other kids, although they didn’t really know how to get it done. So, they learned from the internet and made it happen in 3 months. After that, another department asked them to do the same, and then another one, until eventually, they worked with the whole institute. From there, other companies from the area reached out to them to build their servers and network in their offices, and they became a company.
Later, he served in the air force, and stated that “Once I’m in something, I can’t be less than the best.” He oversaw a new command and control system inside the cockpit: “Basically take a helicopter from the seventies that was built for the Vietnam war and add to it a PC with a touch screen”, which was like a little startup practice for him.
When I asked him how he had the knowledge and the vision of what he wanted and how to get it, without having studied computer science or product, Nevo started with a big smile that he didn’t really know how he succeeded in it. He was simply told what the goal and timeline were, and to do whatever it took to make it happen. He learned along the way by asking people, researching, and making mistakes. He paved his own way by doing and committing to what was in front of him. They threw him into the deep end, and it was his approach of curiosity that made him great at his job. A big part of being the best is learning to ask the right questions.
“I knew that if I want to innovate in this field, I must become an expert. So, the first step is that you have to be humble, you have to read, you have to learn, but you also have to have a goal that within a few months, you’ll become an authority within this field.”
And that was exactly what he did – through talking to and asking experts the right questions, he understood their pains, their challenges, and ways of thinking. He also talked to patients, embryologists from the lab, and doctors, to find what everyone's interest is so that in the end he profoundly understood the market.
Managing a balanced family life as busy parents
“Being an entrepreneur is not rational,” Nevo said, and this is a point we can all relate to – if we look rationally and from the lens of convenience – being an entrepreneur is quite the opposite. So, when you know that and still choose it as your life path, you must be willing to pay the price.
He also adds that his relationship with his wife, who is a doctor, is based on ‘Firgun’. As they’re both in intense and demanding careers, they know the level of pressure and responsibility the other is dealing with, so they know when to let go and always give each other the trust that they're doing the best they can. This is also the recipe for a relationship with your co-founder, and his wife Yael is indeed the best co-founder to their family he could have asked for.
So, what happens when one of them is having a crazy period in their job? The other steps in and covers for them by taking on some extra roles in their home life and accepting the other’s struggle and stress as not personal, but as a feeling they must go through together. It doesn’t mean it’s not hard, but they understand it’s a part of the package.
After a few years of working in other companies and learning from the inside how to manage a startup, he decided to dive into the deep end again, only to discover it wasn’t a pool – but an ocean. Nevo shares that in the beginning they made every mistake possible, but still managed to get half a million dollars in ARR 3 months after they launched, though at the time they didn't know it was considered so good.
At first, they struggled with their confidence, as they didn’t know how to deal with the amount of feedback the startup was getting. This is something that entrepreneurs learn through experience; the knowledge of how to listen to VCs and investors, and how to not get too down, or too pompous from their feedback.
It was very hard for the company to maintain the same growth they first experienced, so they started exploring other options to help them and found a conference called GMIC in China which had a startup competition. The deadline ended a week earlier, but they contacted the organizers and with a healthy amount of Israeli “Chutzpah” explained their situation and got accepted. Later, they won the competition.
Then, suddenly, they got so much attention and new opportunities, but they seemed to be stuck in their place since they had to keep flying back and forth. Nevo understood for things to get moving, he needed to be all in or all out.
His wife Yael was in the middle of her medical practice and had to stop everything for a year, and their son was less than a year old; they had to make compromises to make this work as a family and moved to China for a year.
Nevo shared that his friend had an exit of half a billion dollars and told him he had two goals in life: one is to take his company to a valuation of hundreds of millions of dollars, and the second was to have a healthy family - and he failed on his family side - “If you lose your family, you lose the ‘Why’”.
From their lowest point to a skyrocketing turnaround
Being in China was very challenging, and they got to a point where they had no money left. It felt like it was the end of it all - but just then, they managed to get Alibaba as their strategic partner. It wasn't like it was an easy fairy tale after that–Nevo said they still made a lot of mistakes, but they managed to get a nice deal, followed by Alibaba opening their R&D center in Israel, based on Visualead.
As an entrepreneur, you have no idea which one of the efforts you invest in will be the winning one, and what will lead to another. The key here is to cultivate the ability to see everything as an opportunity – you need to believe that eventually, it will lead you somewhere. Nevo adds that most of his progress came from people opening doors for him and nurturing relationships– not necessarily from meetings.
Jumping into the deep end… again
After leaving his first company, he had time to think: “I said, ok - where’s my passion? When you're on this journey you learn so many things and you feel you must do something with what you’ve learned” - so he jumped in again and founded Acumen. After finishing a big project, we need to have this difficult conversation with ourselves about our motivations and pave our paths - to make sure we are still driven by our inner fire and not by a need to fill a void.
“When the expectations around you are high, there is more pressure. I may not be a rational way to think but it’s a reflection of how you feel about yourself; it’s the expectations you have from yourself and then you project it onto your environment.” It's a voice we all have in our heads asking, ‘how can we know if we can do it again?’ With all those voices in mind, Nevo still dove in, and today his company works with thousands of organizations.
Nevo knows how important it is to hear from and consult with others, so he found a creative solution and opened a window in his calendar every morning on his way to work where people can sign in and talk with him - which is both efficient and fun for him.
His second volunteering service is in Restart, a non-profit organization helping IDF wounded soldiers restart their life journey after experiencing trauma. It’s a shared passion of ours and where we met, and in talking about it we both had huge glowing smiles on our faces.