Uri Levine, computer programmer, investor, and start up guru, is best known for his involvement in the traffic mapping GPS app, Waze.
Similar to the crowd-sourcing concept of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Waze’s breakthrough platform provides drivers an opportunity to send real-time alerts about any traffic situation for other drivers, anywhere in the world.
From 2007 to 2013, Levine was Waze co-founder (with two others) as well as president for the Israeli-based company.
The app is now the world’s largest social network of drivers with an excess of fifty million users.
In 2013, Google acquired and bought Waze for a reported US$1.3 billion, what is said to be the largest buyout in the history of Israeli high tech.
While still working at Waze – with a $100,000 investment – he launched FeeX, where he is chairman. That app is designed to help people save money on financial services and investment funds.
He came up with the concept in 2009 during the economic downturn, at a time when funds in his own investment portfolio lost a fifth of their value; later his bank charged him a $250 fee. After he argued with them, they subsequently reimbursed him. That’s when he wanted to find ways to expose hidden financial fees, with FeeX. The service examines people’s portfolios and suggests similar investments that have less expensive fees.
Today, there are about 30,000 users in America, about 100,000 in Israel, and about two dozen of FeeX’s employees now work out of New York.
One of the new initiatives is Engie, an app that connects to your car’s diagnostic computer, telling you about the car’s issues in advance of taking the car to the mechanic. It’s designed to save you money, to know exactly what needs repairs, and what does not.
He is also an investor in Fairfly: after people have already bought their airplane tickets, the service searches for a cheaper flight that can be booked to save money — even factoring in the cancellation fees.
In addition, 52-year-old Levine is also a board member and investor at Moovit, like Waze, but for public transit vehicles.
What was your first experience with computers?
Uri Levine: My first computer, at age sixteen in 1981, was the Sinclair ZX, for its day one of the most popular computers globally. For its time, it was the most “advanced,” personal computer, with just two kilobytes of memory.
I did military service in Unit 8200, Israel’s cyber spy agency, and was a software developer at the Israeli Intelligence, and later a software developer at Comverse, a telecommunications company in Israel. About twenty years ago, it was one of the largest employers of software engineers, and a great Israeli high-tech industry success story.
When did you know you wanted to make tech your career?
Uri Levine: I would say that the Economics degree from Tel Aviv University provided me with a point of view, but the real study was in the army, and later on-the-job as a developer.
Were you ever worried that by selling Waze, Google might make changes you disapprove of?
Uri Levine: No, I was pretty sure the vision that we had will be kept – helping drivers to avoid traffic jams. Waze had to be sold; only Google knew how to monetize it in a gigantic way that we could never be able to do.
What were some of the challenges in creating Waze – or other challenges faced with other apps?
Uri Levine: Every startup journey would run into the ‘lack of traction’ phase –the difference between reality and theory is much larger in reality than it is in theory, and you try to figure it out and it simply doesn’t work. It requires time, dedication and team to go through this hard period. At Waze it was in 2010.
What are the key items a startup should know?
Uri Levine: I would suggest the following as the most important tips for startups; obviously the mistakes are not making those.
* fall in love with the problem – not the solution
* make mistakes fast. The biggest enemy of good enough is perfect
* define the DNA of your company. You need to be there everyday
* Focus. It’s very easy to defocus. You have to say NO to everything else which is not solving the problem.
* half of the startups fail because they realize that the team is not right and they don’t fix it.
* understand who your users are, and what’s their perception of the problem.
With millions of apps out there, how does an app developer get their product known?
- Create value for the users
- Make it simple to get to the value
With all successful apps, their growth was based on word of mouth. Look at the apps that you have on your first screen, your homepage, and ask yourself how you heard about them.
It is nearly always ‘someone told me’.
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