Jeremie Berrebi and his business partner have been called the most active angel investors in the world. For several years now they’ve invested a minimum of $150,000 a week in one or two startup companies. Today, their fund, Kima Ventures, has a stake in more than 250 companies located in 29 countries, including Pakistan, Australia, and Norway.
Jeremie, 35, lives in Bnei Brak with his wife and their 10 children, and has achieved a remarkable degree of success while maintaining a strong adherence to Torah. The Jewish Press recently caught up with him to discuss his life and outlook.
The Jewish Press: Give us a little biographical background.
Berrebi: I was born in Paris in 1978 and lived there until my aliyah in 2004. My parents were traditionalists; they kept kosher at home but not complete Shabbat. Now they are fully observant. I entered an Orthodox school, Ohr Joseph, when I was six years old. My school was haredi but the students were not. The school did an excellent job instilling yirat shamayim and Jewish pride. I became fully religious a few years before my bar mitzvah.
I discovered the Internet in 1994 when I was 16 years old. I was always a real geek, spending most of my days and nights on a computer. I became a French IT journalist when I was 17, wrote a book about Compuserve when I was 18, and left school to join ZDNet France as an editor. At that time, I was one of the top ten Internet specialists in Europe and still only 18.
I launched my first company when I was 19, in 1997 – Net2one, a precursor of Google News – and sold it in 2004. At the same time I began studying more and more with a lot of rabbis from many affiliations, haredi to Mizrachi, and that is when I really discovered the value of high level limmud.
Eventually I became a super-active angel investor after a conversation with my old friend Xavier Niel. [Editor’s Note: One of France’s wealthiest men, Niel is the founder and majority shareholder of Iliad/Free, France’s second largest Internet service provider, and a co-owner of the newspaper LeMonde.] In four years we have invested in more than 250 startups and continue investing in two or three startups a week.
I’ve lived in Bnei Brak since 2008. I identify as haredi, learning in the morning, working in the afternoon and evening.
What are the main qualities you look for when considering a potential investment?
First, we want to be sure that the company is answering a real need; that the company is solving a real big problem. By that definition, we can outright reject 90 percent of projects. Then we look at the team, and check quantifiable measures of key performance indicators (KPIs) and traction once a product is already launched. That’s it.
Do you ever find it difficult to walk away from a business you’ve invested in when it isn’t working and hitting your expected targets?
It’s very difficult – though a lot less than before. But you know, failure is not always a bad thing. I failed with my second company, which launched in 2005 and closed in 2010, and I can say that this failure was a good thing for me. I live in Bnei Brak, have a wonderful job, and spend time with my children. We know that God is controlling everything. We just have to have great bitachon and let Him drive.
Google wanted to buy my company in 2007, but that sale would have required me to live in Haifa. I could have been a lot richer in monetary terms had I gone through with it, but I don’t want to live in Haifa.
What do you think of crowdfunding [financing a venture by pooling small amounts of money from a large number of investors] and how do you place yourself in this market? Are you changing your own business model accordingly?
Crowdfunding is fabulous and I buy a lot of products like that. I’m using this great Jewish clock on my Pebble smartwatch that I bought at their website [mypebblefaces.com/apps/3300/9380/]. However, on Kickstarter, you need to have a product that’s almost ready to go, and hardware is expensive to build. So we invest in the pre-crowdfunding round. For example, we were one of the first investors in FormLabs, an affordable 3D printer, which is one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns. We invested in 2011, a full year before their launch on KickStarter. They raised $19 million a few months ago.
We may also invest just after the conclusion of a KickStarter campaign, because very often the company needs a little more money to manage their orders.
We just invested in a number of new projects that will soon be launching on IndieGogo and Kickstarter, such as mypodo.com. It will be awesome.
How involved do you get with the companies you invest in? And where are the majority geographically headquartered?
The breakdown is43 percent in the U.S., 28 percent in France, eight percent in Israel, eight percent in the UK, and 13 percent in the rest of the world. I help our startups as much as I can – that’s 50 percent of my job. But most of the time they all ask the same questions and need the same kind of help or introductions. My profile on Angellist is angel.co/jberrebi.
You’ve had tremendous successes but there have been some bumps in the road, such as your experience with Zlio. What did you learn from that?
Gam zu l’tovah – this is also for the good. My friend Ilan, who was the Zlio U.S. manager, wrote about it and says he followed my advice, which was “Don’t worry, good things will happen after this tough experience.” Since then, he founded a company, Producteev, which he sold for a great price to Jive Software, and I became one of the most active angels in the world, so everything is O.K. I told you, God is driving.
The real mistake at Zlio was not the concept but rather our dependency on Google. We didn’t want to rely on Google and we didn’t work on any SEO optimization, but in the end it was our main source of traffic. When you are an Ecommerce player, it’s too difficult to live without Google.
I’ve learned to build and invest in businesses that are not dependent on anyone. Today that’s becoming more and more difficult. We are almost always dependent on Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or Twitter. The best companies will be the ones that don’t rely on them.
What do you say to a haredi yeshiva boy interested in entering the business world?
First I advise him to talk with his rabbi and to be sure he’s not losing something in the process. I explain to him how difficult it is to make a parnassah and that many avreichim are living a better life than many working people. But after telling him that I will try to help him find the job that’s right for him. There are plenty.
The most important thing, though, is to understand that when we are working we need to serve God exactly like when we are learning. We have to be very careful to be respectful, not to steal from anyone, and not to treat employees, partners, or customers like dogs. When you are selling something, sell it at the right price, as we learn from the laws of ona’a in Baba Metzia. When you are lending money, try to do it without interest, or write a real heter iska. God will help us if we remain true to Torah, and this is the real nissayon for someone in the workforce.
I have seen too many people stop learning and start working in jobs that are, for me, completely disrespectful to all human beings. You have to remain a ben Torah when you are a ba’al habayit.
Given the enormous social polarization in Israel between religious and secular, and considering that hi-tech innovation is generally the province of the secular camp where there is little overlap with the haredi world, how does your religious identity affect your interactions when dealing with secular Israelis?
Everyone knows they can’t invite me for an outing on Shabbat. They know that while we are brothers, we live in two different worlds. I have no problem working with anyone. Many secular people speak with me about their faith without my initiating such a conversation. I never try to convince someone to become more religious. I just try to be a good example of a person with faith. I have a very good reputation in this market, and ultimately your reputation is what really matters.
I’m French, I’m haredi, I learn Talmud, and I’m a businessman investing in a lot of companies. In the end, I’m part of every world by taking the best part of each one.
Do you think that if you weren’t the one handing out the money but rather looking for funding yourself, your experience in the Israel hi-tech world would be very different; that your yarmulke would serve as a glass ceiling?
Not at all. When I came to Israel, I was a French haredi with outstanding experience and distinguished accomplishments. By then, I had already sold a company and funded another. One short year later, I received many term sheets from the biggest Israeli funds. Google wanted to hire me, along with offering to buy my company, and I would have managed the biggest projects for Google Haifa. The thing haredim are mostly missing in this industry is just experience, expertise. I’m an expert. I can do what I want and still remain haredi, just like when I was a Jewish guy in France who didn’t eat in any non-kosher restaurants. It’s part of the Jewish spirit to be a little different but still do great things with everyone.
At a recent conference in Israel on haredim in hi-tech, the statement was made that “Inclusion of haredim in the Israeli hi-tech industry represents the number one economic opportunity for Israel in the next ten years.” But salaries paid to haredim on the computer programming side of hi-tech, are, on average, half of those paid to secular Israelis. So would haredim be better off on the funding/business management side?
I follow this subject very closely and am involved with a lot of initiatives – KamaTech is one of the best – to help Israeli haredim be accepted in the hi-tech industry. It’s not easy. People are afraid of haredim, and many Israelis hate us more than they hate the Arabs. So we are talking, organizing and attending conferences, and at the end explaining how smart we are and how much more efficient we will be – not spending our days on Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. We just need a few years to prove it and show how it’s true.
Yes, the salary discrepancy is completely crazy, but my advice is to take any good job even if you are paid at a lesser rate if you know it will give you great experience and allow you to develop skills and expertise. After that, you will be able to request a greater salary from someone else once you’re confident that you are an awesome developer.
What defines a successful life?
I think there is nothing more true than Pirkei Avos 4:1: “Ben Zoma says: Who is rich? The one who is appreciates what he has.” I can say that you’re not only rich in that case but you’re also living a really happy life.
Additionally, for a Jew, being successful means observing the laws of the Torah that are bein adam lachaveiro, between us and other humans, and bein adam laMakom, between us and God.
Many people abandoned Orthodox Judaism over the past couple of centuries thinking Judaism needed to change or adapt to make it compatible with modern life. I want to be one of the people to prove that notion completely false. There is nothing more modern than Orthodox Judaism.
As you look back on your life so far, what are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the mix between my religious life and my job. I love helping students to learn more and more Torah. I’m proud of my wife and children. I’m building my life so that I can be proud of it, at all times. Money and business success are not important at all if you fail to manage your relationship with your wife, your children, and your friends.
By: Devora Mandell
Source: The Jewish Press