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Waze founder Uri Levine: ‘I like to be frustrated’

The man behind the hugely popular sat-nav app says everyone is motivated by 'greed, glory and girls.'

    (Photos: Paul Toeman/Waze)
    (Photos: Paul Toeman/Waze)

    Bumps in the road motivated Uri Levine to set up WAZE, the traffic avoidance app which made his fortune, so perhaps I should have been less surprised when our interview had a car crash beginning.

    I’d arrived bright and early to interview Levine at Investec, a bank in the City where he was giving a talk on his journey in life. But when we sat down, the man who hates red lights turned on his own and refused to answer any of my questions.

    Perplexed, I turned to his PR, who, just as confused as me, was trying to work out why the green light to ask about his career had suddenly changed.

    “I’ve been talking about this all morning, and I don’t want to do it again,” he said, arms folded in defiance. It was clear that he was not going to budge.

    Up until that point I’d been impressed with the time that the Tel Aviv University graduate gave to speak to budding entrepreneurs, all desperate to get his take on their big idea. Waze, after all, has 250m users worldwide, and has made Levine into a multi-millionaire. Why didn’t he want to talk now? I agreed to meet the next day, hoping that his words would flow easily, like a car following a WAZE route.

    Luckily, when we meet at his hotel 8.30am the next day, the traffic cones seem to have been cleared in the night. I don’t get an apology though. It’s as though it never happened.

    Maybe he was trying to teach me a life lesson. He tells me that, unlike most of us, he likes it when things don’t go according to plan.

    “When I run into frustrating events, I allow myself to be frustrated to try and come up with ways to solve it.

    “Frustration is very important for me. I run into situations like everyone else and I get frustrated like everyone else, but it is the time after when I re-think it.

    “Other people will say ‘Oh, that is how it is,’ but I allow myself to re-think it.”

    It is in the “re-thinking time” that Levine says he is “most creative”.

    Waze was born in 2006 after he found himself frustrated by Israeli traffic.

    “I was in the north with friends where there are only two roads that lead back to the city and it was time to leave.

    “I tried to figure out which route to take. Most people I was with had left 50 minutes ahead of me and I realised all I needed was someone to tell me how the traffic was.

    “The beauty of solving a problem is that if the problem is real you are definitely going to add value to it.”

    Levine sold the app to Google in June 2013 for more than $1.1 billion, although it is rumoured that his cut was around $38 million, because most of it went to his investors.

    The sale made the serial entrepreneur very wealthy but he says his lifestyle has not changed. He rents an apartment in Israel, he has not bought expensive cars and he hasn’t even considered retiring.

    He spends his time and money working on new start-ups. His success “has given me more passion and more of a desire to make a bigger impact.” He’s chairman of a start-up he launched while still working at Waze, called FeeX, which helps users save money on financial services and investment funds.

    Another, Fairfly, monitors airfare prices and finds cheaper ones after people have booked their ticket and re-books it for them. His latest, Engie, is designed to save money on your car repairs by letting you connect to your car’s computer so that you know what’s wrong with it before you take it to the mechanic, and so can’t be ripped off.

    “Most people would expect me to retire, buy an island or a ski resort and relax,” he says. “But I want to make a bigger impact and change the world to make it a better place.”

    He insists money has not changed him.

    “There is nothing that I would say is different. I was already able to enjoy the things I liked. I was always in the high tech industry and was financially OK. My behaviour hasn’t changed.”

    However the downside to his success has been “a lot of sacrifice,” something Levine talks about a lot on YouTube.

    “For me it has been time not spent with the family, not doing the hobbies that I like, or seeing my friends,” he says. “Eventually you find your time is pretty much dedicated to what you are trying to build.”

    Surely then, Levine — who has four children “who are mostly grown up now” — sees the benefits of living life in the slow lane?

    “No, not enough. You ask my kids and they will tell you they want more time with me. But that is the same for everyone. Everyone wants more time with me.”

    Two of his children have shown an interest in following his path in life, but rather than guide them through the traffic jams of life, he is keen for them to find their own direction.

    “I could support them endlessly but I want to support them the way I want to support them. So, if they want to travel and see the world that is great and I will say, ‘fine I support that and I’ll pay half, you still need to work to pay the other half’. Otherwise what is their drive and where is their passion?”

    According to Levine there are three Gs that make the world work.

    “Greed, glory, and girls: that is it. When you try to narrow down the incentives of people it is always one of those.” I raise an eyebrow at this rather sexist vision but we’re motoring down an open road, metaphorically, so I let it go.

    Although society tends to view his three Gs as negative, Levine’s not having it.

    “Greed is a bad thing to have, right?” he asks me, clearly not expecting an answer. “No. It is a good thing to have. It is about how you channel it. When you get frustrated, what drives you there?

    “Anger? That anger can very easily develop into revenge. The beauty of revenge is that once there is a target it is easy to focus the efforts into that thing.”

    He believes his drive came from his father.

    “He was an entrepreneur and was part of the industrial revolution of the kibbutz in Israel. I think that the passion I have for building things and changing the way we do things comes from that.”

    I tell him that I’ve read about entrepreneurs who do not sleep, plagued by a fear of failure or a constant need to stay ahead and come up with their next big thing.

    “I sleep very well. No problems,” he says. “Sometimes I wake up with ideas so I sleep with a note pad and a pen by my bed and if I have ideas I write them down.

    “It could be anything from a task that I have to do, or an app.”

    He learns more from his failures than his successes.

    “When you fail you ask yourself why. You learn about recovering. You carry on and the next time you are not afraid because you get up and you continue.”

    One of his most frustrating failures was a start-up that tried to harness the power of group buying.

    “I thought if you can get 500 people to buy something you could have the power to reduce the price.

    “But we realised people prefer to pick from lists. They are not interested in group buying. What we thought was a huge problem isn’t necessarily for others.”

    He is aware that being obsessed with “problems” means he is likely to miss opportunities to be involved in other projects.

    “If Mark Zuckerberg had come to me with Facebook I would have said: ‘What is the problem you are trying to solve?’

    “He would have said: ‘I don’t know,’ and I would have said ‘I’m not interested.’”

    At this point I take my chance to pitch my idea for a problem-solving app, to see if Levine thinks I could net a WAZE-like fortune.

    “My problem is my sister takes my clothes,” I explain, “and sometimes I don’t know what to wear. I think about it before I sleep and it keeps me up.

    “My idea for an app is a virtual wardrobe where I can record loans, and keep track of how to get them back. I can also plan my outfits there.”

    “It will work,” he says without hesitation and continues: “It is actually much more than that. It will work for young girls aged 15 to 25.

    “If you have a virtual closet where you can trade and barter, people will use it.

    “They are already doing it but just not in a systematic way.

    “I open up the closet of my daughter and half of the stuff there is not hers. I think what you should care about with this idea is the constant exchange of clothes.”

    Excited to have sparked Levine’s interest in something that I’d come up with just 24 hours before, I asked if I should quit my job and make it happen.

    It gets a green light: “If you believe in it then the answer is yes.”

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