“People look at investors simply as money. But your goal is not to raise money; rather, it’s to build a company.”
Demi Ben-Ari, co-founder and CTO of Panorays, shares that he wanted to be able to choose the people surrounding him and create something with them.
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Demi, take me back a little bit in time. Who are you?
I came to Israel from a country called Georgia when I was around six and a half. It was the first interaction that I'd had with different kinds of people. I was in the Mamram course of the IDF, the elite programming course.
I was in the Israeli Air Force, a unit called Ofek, the Software and Intelligence unit. Eventually, there I developed a missile defense system. It was more on the tech side of it, being a team leader. Afterwards, I asked to stay two extra years to be in a role that took all that I'd learned to benefit other areas of the unit. I shifted to a team that provided services around open source and Java to around 250 developers, doing a lot of projects that I wanted to do but never had the chance to actually get to.
During the military, my intent was to work with the best people possible. It's a hard thing to achieve in the military because, eventually, people end up there because they have to. There are great, amazing people. But still, you have X amount of time that you serve, and then you leave. One of my greatest passions was to create a place where you come to work and you actually enjoy doing all the things that you're creating together with great people. That's why I wanted to found a company, Panorays.
There’s two main answers that I hear to why founders start a company. One is it can be very lucrative. The other one is you get to solve a problem you're deeply passionate about. You're telling me that it's all about choosing the people that you want to work with.
Yes. I learn from all the people who surround me. Since day one, it started from my parents, up until today with my family, all the people that we hired, and the entrepreneurial community in Israel, which is amazing. Once you do the smallest outreach to anybody, I would say that 95% of the people would immediately respond, being helpful and really communicative. Taking the chance of learning from all the people around you is vital to actually creating something that is great. At Panorays, creating that infrastructure of people to hire more people is the key success factor.
Take me back to the founding of Panorays.
When I left the military, I traveled with my wife in South America and North America. Then I came back and started working at a small company called Windward. I knew that I was lacking the business side from my military service, where I was really involved in building things, but we were managing virtual money because it was essentially somebody else's budget. Once I got to the commercial industry and actually tried to sell something, I saw that this was a skillset I was lacking. I said, "I need to go to a smaller company to learn that. Then I will be able to found my own company."
After a year and a half of being involved mostly in the technology side, I realized that if I wanted to found my own company, the next best thing to learn would be to actually do that. A great opportunity came up, going back to people. I knew the two people who eventually became my co-founders from the Israeli Air Force, for over 10 years back then. Getting to know people was one of the best benefits that I took from my military service.
The first choice that you need to make about people is partners. Eventually, the idea will change. The product will change. Your customer base will change. What won't change is the essence of the company that you're forming. It starts off with the founders or the people that start off with the idea.
Then the next circle of people that you'll hire will be the core team. They will build the second circle and the third circle. When you grow, you can't control that continuously. The people that you hire and all the business relationships you form: this is what will be the success or the failure of your company.
When you're talking about people in your community, where's the importance? Where do you distill it to?
The annoying answer would be "everything." Eventually, the interactions that you form, the time that you spend with people, what you learn from them and learn about yourself, this is the best way to be able to understand all the verticals you mentioned.
When you do different kinds of projects with people, it takes time. You need to know that working with them is pleasant, that she can work as a team member, and that the team creates the goals that you want to achieve as a company.
On the business opportunity side, the interactions that we've had, all of our friends and our external circles, create opportunities. Once you are able to take advantage of these opportunities, everything will grow. You will make mistakes, like everybody, but you will succeed more because basically you try.
Eventually, you end up with this infrastructure of people to consult with, other entrepreneurs and investors. People look at investors as money. But your goal is not to raise money, it's to build a company. I look at all the VCs and investors as guidance, people that have seen a lot of companies. I don't always want to raise money from them. I want to learn from their experience.
Looking back at these five years at Panorays, what surprised you?
The amount of things that we were able to achieve. But looking back, it's not really a surprise because of the connections with all the people we've had. For every funding round, all the people that we know as founders and people are kind of connected. It boils down to that everything has a connection. That's why it's really important for me to create these kinds of interactions even for my friends and developer communities.
How do you cultivate motivation to form these meaningful connections?
If you're doing that with a motivation to basically do business, it won't be as natural. I like talking to people, I like helping people. If I could do that as a day job, I would literally do that from dawn to dusk.
When I left the military, I founded a couple of developer communities because sharing knowledge is something that I like. This is the best stage that you can give yourself to get feedback, especially in Israel, where people are straightforward and they're really bluntly honest. It's not something that I do to create business, but it's something that I love to do.
What sparked your curiosity as a kid?
I liked taking things apart, toys, relationships, conversations: literally dismantling things to know how things tick. Once you understand what motivates people, you will be able to find the connection of why they are doing what they're doing.
Where do you gain your inspiration to meet me here at 8 a.m. and then go on to a full day running this company?
It boils down to people. Most of the people who know me know that this is the way that I always leverage all the abilities of my friends. You choose the friends, the people who you want to interact with on a day-to-day basis with you to help you create new things.
If you had to choose a few words to describe yourself?
My wife said, “Social, Decisive, and Warm.” I agreed with her highly because she is much smarter than me and knows me best.
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, Megan Ryan