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Saturday, February 02, 2002 Shvat 20, 5762 Israel Time:  09:35  (GMT+2)
Making waves in Silicon Valley
By Mary Sagi-Maydan

PALO ALTO - "The Israelis in Silicon Valley have changed," says Gadi Behar, founder of the venture capital group Silicom Ventures. "They have learned to be polite, to listen when someone speaks - these are qualities that are still hard to find in Israel. In general, Israelis are very competitive. Everyone wants to prove he is better, more successful and more talented. In the valley they have also learned to give credit to others, although they don't often applaud at the end of a speech."

Behar hears applause every month when his group, Silicom Ventures, meets to examine initiatives presented by entrepreneurs. Silicom has become a hit during recent months among residents of the valley. Even the mass circulation San Francisco Chronicle sent a reporter to write about the group. It is rare to find 100 people, including senior executives, directors of venture capital funds and entrepreneurs meeting every month to analyze proposals and to invest together.

The interview with Behar, 46, takes place in his living room in Los Altos in the Silicon Valley. He wears a button-down shirt and slippers - he is very unaffected. He came to high-tech entirely by chance. "I'm not into technology," he says. "I'm a businessman.

"When I was discharged from my job as a jet mechanic in the IAF (Israel Air Force)," says Behar, "I had ideas about how to improve planes, and I decided to go to McDonnell Douglas, the manufacturer of the F-15, in Los Angeles. On the way, I visited a friend in Silicon Valley, and I never left. I registered to study at Foothill College, and for money I worked at whatever turned up. First I bought and sold cars, and later I went into real estate. I bought this house and two additional houses down the block."

At the end of the 1990s, on one of his trips to Israel, he met Tal, whom he married and brought back with him to Silicon Valley. Their two sons were born a short time later. Tal now works with Gadi in Silicom Ventures. They share an office in their Los Altos home, sit back to back, but correspond by e-mail. "Tal discovered that most of the time I'm on the phone or busy with something. The best thing is to send me an e-mail, which I attend to as soon as I can."

Silicom Ventures was born two and a half years ago, when Behar wanted to invest in stocks, but felt he didn't understand enough. "In high-tech," he explains, "there are many fields, and you need a great deal of knowledge. I wanted to consult with people before investing. I put together a group of eight people, mostly beginners, who began to meet in my living room every Tuesday to discuss stocks."

The group was very enthusiastic, and began to attract other members. "When we reached 30 people there was no longer room in my house, and we looked for a bigger place for meetings. The global accounting firm KPMG offered to sponsor us. The original group was joined by people who had already achieved some success, people called "angels" in the local jargon, who have experience, knowledge and connections. They were people who could open doors.

"One of the members of the group had about 10 ideas for start-ups. I said, `Let's take one idea, leave your work and we'll begin a start-up. The idea we chose was online appointment scheduling. We called the start-up WebAppoint, and some of the members of Silicom Ventures joined. That was in 2000, after the crisis had already begun, but we found investors and raised $1 million, mostly from members of Silicom Ventures. A few months later there was a call from Bill Gates. Well, not exactly from Gates, but from Microsoft. Microsoft bought the company. People tripled their investment. For my part, as the one who had tied together all the ends, I was supposed to get 5 percent, but the guy was an Israeli, and gave me pennies."

WebAppoint nevertheless had a great influence on Silicom Ventures, which decided to change its character. Instead of talking about stocks, the group decided to concentrate on examining investment opportunities in start-up companies, with Behar proposing Israel companies. "We do the initial filtering," he explains. "If we decide to continue, we send questions to the start-up and request additional information, and then we decide if there's any point in bringing them and presenting them to the group.

"There are generally 20-30 companies making presentations at the monthly meeting, although in October, which was a crazy month, 140 companies came. I reached the conclusion that when people work in a group, they make better decisions. Sometimes people have a good idea, but don't know how to promote it. We advise them, help them improve their presentation and protect their interests, especially with VCs (venture capitalists), who try to get as much as possible from the firm and don't care if the entrepreneur is left with nothing.

"About 80 percent of start-ups we examine are Israeli, but we get American firms, too. If one of the members of Silicom Ventures is interested in an American firm and wants to hear our opinion, he'll bring the company and present it to us."

Today, when many investors are cautious to the point of paralysis, Silicom Ventures' advice and connections are especially important. Behar says there was a time when people in the valley had their checkbooks at the ready and didn't care what they were investing in. The crisis changed that. Today everyone is afraid to invest, even in firms with completed and salable products.

"When I understood what had happened I decided to bring VCs into our group, to ensure there would be someone to invest next time. Today all the top-ranking VCs in Israel, like Polaris, Gemini and Giza, are members of Silicom Ventures. It's worth their while, because we are only asking them to allow us to invest up to half a million dollars, and in return they are getting the tremendous experience and knowledge of the group members."

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