“Move fast and break things” – Uri Levine on building a startup - Corporate Events South Africa

Uri Levine once asked his son to drive him to the airport.

“My phone is broken,” his son replied, “I can’t.”

Levine asked again, and his son said, “You don’t understand, my phone is broken; I don’t know how to get there.”

To which Levine replied, “I’ll be in the car with you, I’ll tell you how to get there.”

And his son asked, “But how will I get back?”

The serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Waze shared this story to demonstrate the power of disruptive innovation at a BusinessLIVE breakfast on Friday, 9 November.

The story of Waze is legendary by now. Levine and his co-founders decided in 2007 to create a traffic and navigation map through crowdsourcing. They started building it in 2008 and launched it in Israel in 2009. In 2013, Google acquired the app for $1.1bn – and Levine went on to found a PowerPoint slide full of startups: FeeX, moovit, FairFly, Zeek, engie, LiveCare, See Tree and more.

But the road to success was not that straightforward.

“We launched Waze everywhere and expected it to work because it worked in Israel – turned out it didn’t,” said Levine as he moved across the stage in a T-shirt that read, “easy decisions are easy, hard decisions are hard”. It took a year of back-and-forth between Waze and the drivers – and iteration after iteration – before the product became “good enough” (Levine’s words). And then, it took the world by storm. 

“Building a startup is the same journey as when you for in love,” Levine said. “You need to be in love with the problem you’re trying to solve.” For him, that problem was traffic. His ideas often originate from personal experience. Take for example LiveCare – a smart medical alert system for elderly people – which his mother inspired. Or engie, which connects your car to your computer and empowers you with knowledge and price comparison, equalising the relationship between driver and mechanic. Levine wants to change the world and is passionate about making an impact. To do that, you need to make mistakes.

“If you’re afraid to fail, you’ve already failed,” Levine said. “We keep on trying different things until we find something that works.” His advice to entrepreneurs is to fail fast and build resilience. When you build a startup, ask yourself:
What is the problem?
Who does the problem affect?
How can we solve the problem?

“Good enough and free wins the market.” Levine reminded the audience that before Gmail, people used to pay for email. “Move fast and break things,” he said, explaining that of the top 10 companies in the world today, only half will remain in the next decade. “More interesting, who is going to replace them?” he asked. “Some of them don’t even exist yet.”

“Disruption is about changing the way we are doing things,” he said. “Disruptors are always newcomers, because they have nothing to lose.” A key question to identify a disruptor is: “Who will be out of the market if you make this product?”

“You cannot prevent the revolution,” Levine said. “Invest in the things that will make your business irrelevant. The new market will be bigger than the current one.” Imagine what may have happened if Blockbuster decided to partner with Netflix; if Microsoft saw the value of the iPhone, if Yahoo said yes to acquiring Google, or if Kodak didn’t hide away its own invention – the digital camera.

Then again, as the man says, “There are only right decisions and no decisions.”