“The mistake that most entrepreneurs make is they have an idea, but they don’t know if there’s actually a problem.”
ICON executive director and Shark Tank judge Yasmin Lukatz talks to Michael Matias about career journey and shares with him some key words of advice
Yasmin, you are probably the most well-connected person I can think of. Just looking at the talk show that you do on the ICC @ JCC is incredible and I enjoy listening to it. I’d love to hear a little bit about the journey that you have taken from corporate life to the Stanford Business School, ICON, and the Shark Tank of Israel. Let’s just start by telling me who you are.
One thing about the talk show that we do now is it’s not about people that we know. I think we started with a few people that we knew, and it was good. We started getting incoming people and I would love to have them come to the program, and that’s how it happened. I think if you have something good in hand, if you are going to have a good product, people are just going to come to you, and it’s not just about who you know.
And it’s pretty true also for the business world. If you have a good product, you don’t have to necessarily chase partnerships and investors—all of sudden they start coming to you because you are creating value.
Honestly, it is true about everything. It’s true about philanthropy, it’s true about relationships, it’s true about businesses, and it’s true about everything you do. If you have a good product, it markets itself.
So, who am I? I was born and raised in Israel, living in Silicon Valley. I have been in the U.S. for the past almost 17 years. For the past six years, I have been running a nonprofit, which I founded, called ICON. We are a community of people that share a passion for high tech and innovation coming from Israel, and together we want to see Israeli high tech thrive. We do this through a variety of events and programs, and it has been actually really challenging for us because we cannot do events anymore. Now, we have a boot camp that was supposed to come up. We had two big events that we had to cancel in March. How do we reinvent ourselves in this time? What we are doing is just shifting everything temporarily and changing all our content. I see the same thing happening with startups—re-thinking the product and what we can do with it.
I did my undergraduate at Tel Aviv University in law, accounting, and economics. I did a graduate degree at Stanford Business School, which were the best years of my life professionally. It was an amazing time with this amazing atmosphere, and I am sure you are experiencing the same thing now where everything can happen. With so many people around you and so many skills, anything can happen. Actually, interestingly, we are connecting with the class now because of this pandemic. With everyone at home, our WhatsApp group has been thriving. We already had two reunions, and I spoke with people that I haven’t spoken with for so many years. This situation brings new opportunities. I did some corporate America and a startup before. I was all over the place, and I have been really happy at ICON. It’s kind of combining many things that I am strong at and I enjoy. I love spending time with entrepreneurs and seeing the fire and the passion in their eyes about what they are doing and their devotion.
What is the mission of ICON? Is there a vision or a mission statement that you go by for the value that you are trying to create?
We are paying it forward to the community, so we don’t ask for payment for the services we offer, but instead, we ask everyone that’s part of the community to extend help to someone else from the community. We just want to see change, and we want to impact change to help Israeli technology companies and startups thrive and give them an unfair advantage just because they are Israeli. There is a community here that wants to support the Israeli community, the Jewish community, and actually people that are a part of neither but understand that Israel is the biggest technology center outside of the US, and they want to stay relevant.
Where does that come from? Because going from corporate to startup to business school, it’s not the traditional path to then running a nonprofit. How did this even start? Why are you doing this?
I always did it. I always found I have to put a few hours aside every day to help with intros for people that I know that are asking. I give them the advice to help them. I would love to tell you that this was a strategic plan and there was a strategic process behind it or I set a goal, but none of this is true. It kind of happened. There was an opportunity, and I opened the window, I looked through it, and it was nice. I didn’t think it was going to be so amazing, but every step I took, there was another opportunity that I was able to take. I didn’t have this vision that ICON would be what it is today, and it just slowly evolved. I listened to the people we worked with and understood their needs and found the right solution for them. The fact that we put this as a nonprofit actually was really important to our success because when you ask someone to help someone else and you are not really making anything out of it—you just really want to improve the situation for everyone—it’s a much easier task. And I see so many people that don’t have time to do anything want to be part of what we do and want to help. There are so many anecdotal stories of things that happen and people that connect—it’s endless.
I think one thing that I saw this year that happened with ICON, which I am particularly proud of, is that instead of just paying it forward within the community, this was a time that we, as a community, paid forward outside the community. And what we did is adopted a center for entrepreneurship for youth in the periphery of the country, the periphery of Israel, in the city of Netivot. Most of our founders are located in the center of the country, and they are driving there, mentoring the high school kids and helping them. We do it with a nonprofit—it’s called Unistream—that’s been active as well. So we are not inventing the wheel; we are just connecting our skills and our community with someone who is already doing this, and it’s so amazing and rewarding.
Recently, you have become very well known in Israel as a "Shark" on TV. In the circles that I run with, you are very, very well known.
People who knew me before told me that I shouldn’t do it, that I wouldn’t be able to go out on the street, that people would recognize me, but it’s not happening. Everybody scared me, but I don’t feel like I am well known. Yes, I am on the cast of Israeli Shark Tank. We filmed it a little more than a year ago last January, and it’s starting to air in January. We filmed 14 episodes and they only aired seven, so half the season is coming up now. Because of the situation, they changed the schedule. It was an amazing experience, really taking everything I learned from the high-tech world and from technological startups. We saw startups that were from every vertical, people with dreams, people with ideas, and I brought what I learned from other verticals to someone that developed this gadget for a hair salon or someone that had a breastfeeding pump. So many different ideas from many verticals. People that came from all over the country, and people that actually just had a dream, had a passion, and had a sparkle in their eyes. They dared to try to make a change and took this chance of going in front of the Sharks, being on TV, and doing something with their dreams. I got a lot from meeting those people. I really enjoyed that, and sitting with the fellow Sharks and learning from them was definitely an amazing experience.
A lot of these follow Sharks are also heavily involved with ICON and with other things that you are doing, so it’s really a continuation of your relationship with them.
I felt lucky. There were five of us, and there was only one that I didn’t know before, Eldad. I hadn’t met him before. I met him just before the show. He was the only one I didn’t work with. It was just sitting with friends who I work with all the time. We knew each other and had good chemistry offline, so it showed online and it’s part of the appeal of the show.
How many different ideas or pitches did you see throughout the filming of the show? Also, I want one piece of advice that, if you could go back in time, you would give to them. What would that be?
We have seen about 100. There were many different things, but I think the one mistake that most entrepreneurs make is they have an idea about something, but they don’t do enough validation and they don’t know if there is a problem that they are actually solving. Is the problem painful enough that people are willing to pay for the solution? Maybe there is a problem, but nobody really cares about it? Are there enough people that have this problem and are willing to pay for it? So, I think people don’t do enough research and validation, which is not just important for yourself because you want to know that you are going down the right path, but it is also extremely important when you go and you want to speak with an investor. You can’t just have a hunch—you need to show the research that you have done. Whatever indications you have that your solution is not just technically possible but it is also addressing a problem that enough are willing to pay for it.
I think this goes along a similar line of advice that I keep hearing from a lot of investors about remaining humble and remaining sincere about what you don’t know, and one of the issues that the startup world faces is that a lot of people get so excited about their idea and their solution that it seems almost impossible to them that they could be wrong or that there is another way to do something. I definitely know that when I have the chance to build something of my own, I always want to remain humble enough to challenge myself and have others challenge me.
I don’t think it’s just about humility; I think you have to have facts to back up your hunches, and instead of being humble, go look up the answers. Don’t come in and ask for my money before you actually research it. It’s not just about admitting what you don’t know; it’s about trying to find the answers.
Yasmin, over the years with ICON and before Shark Tank, you have seen so many different industries and so many different startups. What really gets you excited and makes you passionate?
So many different things. It’s not a vertical or an idea; I am passionate about people. I love working with people that really are passionate about what they do and have that spark in their eyes. It could be a cyber product, it could be a consumer product, it could be something medical, it could be anything when they are impacting change, changing the world, changing the company, improving something, and are passionate about what they are doing. I enjoy spending time with them. Personally, I love the power of community, and with Unistream, we are taking what we have as a community and impacting change. I am passionate about that, too. So really using and leveraging the power of the community and impacting change with that.
So now more of a personal question for me. I am just starting and paving my way through this experience in Palo Alto, and I am so lucky that we got to meet quite a few times and form this relationship over this last year. So looking down the road, what advice would you give me as I start my career here? What are some things that I should be keeping in mind as I go through this path?
I guess it depends on where you want to go, what you want to do, and what’s your path. I think now is a very interesting time. This is an opportunity to sit and reflect. This is not a time to start a new business, but it’s a time to research business ideas that you have. It’s time to create relationships, and it’s really time to learn. If you just started a business, you have a business and you can weather the storm. It’s time to work on your infrastructure and all those projects that you never got to. Now you have the time to do that and the time to brainstorm. Nobody knows what’s going to be after. We can all venture, we all have ideas, but this has never happened before. With the circumstances that we have around us, it’s all educated guesses, so just to be ready for the day after.
Yasmin, before we finish, what are three words that you think best describe you?
It’s honest, loyal, and curious.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, while working as a software engineer at Hippo Insurance and as a Senior Associate at J-Ventures. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Amanda Katz