Uri Levine, co-founder of Waze: “Building a startup is a journey full of failures”

After selling the Waze company he co-founded to Google for more than a billion dollars, Israeli entrepreneur Uri Levine has relaunched a dozen other projects, including Moovit, which was acquired by Intel. Passing through Brussels, he gave us an exclusive interview about his career and especially his experience since the beginning of the navigation app.

It’s a tech star strolling through the new PwC Campus offices, PwC’s new headquarters located near Brussels Airport. Behind his cool look, jeans and t-shirt, the man hides an experience that most tech entrepreneurs would dream of having: Uri Levine is one of the founders of the Waze navigation app, shipped monthly by more than 140 million users worldwide. the world. the world and sold to Google in 2013 for over a billion dollars… The man came to Brussels to meet the Belgian scale-up founders who attended last March at Trends Winter University for a unique conference. We took the opportunity to spend an exclusive moment with him.

It’s a tech star strolling through the new PwC Campus offices, PwC’s new headquarters located near Brussels Airport. Behind his cool look, jeans and t-shirt, the man hides an experience that most tech entrepreneurs would dream of having: Uri Levine is one of the founders of the Waze navigation app, shipped monthly by more than 140 million users worldwide. the world. the world and sold to Google in 2013 for over a billion dollars… The man came to Brussels to meet the Belgian scale-up founders who attended last March at Trends Winter University for a unique conference. We took the opportunity to spend an exclusive moment with him. TRENDS-TRENDS. What do you think were the ingredients of Waze’s success? LEVINE URI. I’m thinking of two main elements. The first is simply that Waze was free. So, the app gave a real answer to a daily problem, namely the traffic jams to get to and from the office every day and the need to find the fastest way. These two elements are therefore the true foundations of success. What could be better than answering people’s daily problem for free? There were navigation proposals, but none took into account traffic jams and none were free. Don’t minimize the fact of being free. It was a huge difference. The idea of ​​providing an answer to the problem of traffic jams is one thing, but we know that it is usually not enough to find success… It’s true: it’s always execution that counts. Ideas are great, but execution is critical and often a nightmare. A nightmare? However, you managed to create one of the most used apps… I think in the end, the important thing is the ability to try new things and, above all, persevere in discovering new possibilities to find what really works. Try try try. Honestly, I think that’s the key. We imagine that developing Waze hasn’t been easy every day. What were the biggest difficulties? in force. In 2010, for example, we tried to raise funds and didn’t find any interest from investors… It’s surprising. Because? Simply because the product was not good enough. It’s not good enough in the US, it’s not good enough in Europe or other big countries. As a result, raising capital was particularly tricky. We were lucky to find some in the end, but it wasn’t easy, wasn’t it also because of the great crisis the world had just gone through? It was the end of the crisis and investors were slowly starting to return to the market, but we had a lot of difficulty convincing them and we only managed to complete a financing round a month before reaching the end of the available cash. It was probably one of the most complicated periods. Especially since, at the same time, Google had also just launched its navigation system in the United States and everyone was saying we were screwed. It was not the case. So you weren’t far from failure… If you understand that building a start-up is a journey full of failures, since in reality you experience failures daily, that makes your roadmap a list of experiments to be carried out. The local market where you start is therefore a list of experiences to accumulate until you get there. It was the same for us: we tried new initiatives and if it didn’t work, we tried something else. Until we get there. You talk about the domestic market. You started in Israel, but quickly turned Waze into a global app. Was that in the plans from the start? Absolutely. Israel is a small market. Every start-up that starts there is therefore directly thinking about an international deployment. American, European and emerging markets have been part of the project from day one. The domestic market is mainly used to validate the concept and approach. Once it’s ready, the idea is to internationalize as quickly as possible. The good news was that the issue of traffic jams was the same all over the world. The common denominator was the nature of the problem, found everywhere, which considerably facilitated our development in other parts of the world, starting from Israel. In fact, as soon as we talked about the problem Waze was solving, people were receptive and wanted to try. And most of all, they let us iterate because there were no other alternatives. What fundamentally made Waze so successful was how often the app was used, as people used it every day. Waze was hyper-intuitive and could start from anywhere. So we started all over the world at the same time making the app available and focusing on the collaborative aspect of its model. You mentioned that people were using the app a lot. So that means she was addictive. Did you deliberately work on this aspect? In fact, we made a point of reinforcing this addictive side. As? With gamification tips, but also simply explaining to users that the app was improving day by day and that what they were doing in it allowed it to perform better. So that encouraged them to use it again and again, even though it still wasn’t perfect. It turned out then that people were using it daily. This high frequency of use was the starting point for massive word of mouth. When you use an app on a daily basis, you have many opportunities to tell someone about it. This fueled Waze’s strong growth, which was not trivial. In fact, growth was instrumental in improving the product, as it was crowdsourced, hence powered by users. Later, you crossed paths with Google. When did you decide to sell Waze and why? It was a matter of opportunity. We simply considered this offer the right one and said “yes”. We also had many offers before Google and they all turned it down… Was it the astronomical value that convinced you? It’s also the fact that we knew that Waze was going to become Waze, with the vision of serving to reduce congestion, which was very important to us because we built everything with that goal in mind. In that sense, it was all right for us to accept the proposal… But, personally, you decided to leave Waze directly and not get involved in the company’s next steps to fulfill this mission… I simply wanted to take the opportunity to launch other startups. -ups… Today, precisely, you are still active in the world of start-ups creating and financing new projects. After a sale like Waze, aren’t we under a lot of pressure to do a new project? You know, some of the businesses I’m building today are going to be more successful than Waze. In fact, the success of start-ups depends on the size of the problem you are working to solve. Parking problems, for example, are huge. In what capacity do you intervene in these companies? As an investor? I invest exclusively in my own business. All the companies in which I have stakes were either born based on ideas I had and for which I went to find a team, or were born from teams that came to see me before launching their project and that I followed the launch. Entrepreneurship and investing are two different things. I prefer to undertake. Today, I am very involved in the day-to-day activities of the ten start-ups I launched. Of course, I don’t manage the companies, as each one of them has a CEO, but I help and guide them. The Waze experience is obviously useful to you in these other projects… Sometimes there are great similarities, as in Moovit (start-up sold to Intel in 2020 for about $900 million, editor’s note). This is a public transport Waze whose aim was to answer the question “how to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible with public transport?”. This box grew faster than Waze, and public transport attracts more people than the car. To develop Moovit, we were obviously able to build on the Waze experience, as there were many commonalities between the two projects. For example, crowdsourcing information. Thus, Moovit was created by the community itself, which provided information on the location of bus stops, for example. One of its companies, Refundit, was based in Belgium. Where is this project? Refundit operated for a short time in Belgium, before Covid. This start-up allows the recovery of VAT by traveling tourists. If I buy goods in Belgium, I can recover VAT as a tourist coming from outside Europe. We started in Belgium but in the middle of the covid period, obviously there were no more travelers and we put the box in “hibernation”. But since we launched the project in Greece, Spain, etc. You keep an eye on mobility. Do you think that there can still be new major revolutions in the navigation market today? This one encountered such twists with the arrival of smartphones and apps… Hard to say. What is clear is that an excellent product, free, does not risk much of the competitors. Nobody can really compete. So, in that sense, this product should remain the market leader. However, if the future sees autonomous vehicles come to fruition and no one is driving anymore, things will be different and people will no longer need apps like Waze. Yes, so this will be the end of Waze…

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