Sagi Eliyahu of Tonkean: “No one knows anything, we’re all faking it”

I think the best advice, which I’ve heard in various forms from many people, is: “No one knows anything, we’re all faking it.” A lot of people think that there’s someone out there that knows what they are doing. We receive information from the media that paint a picture of people who seem to know […]

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I think the best advice, which I’ve heard in various forms from many people, is: “No one knows anything, we’re all faking it.” A lot of people think that there’s someone out there that knows what they are doing. We receive information from the media that paint a picture of people who seem to know what they are doing. In reality, there are zero cases like that. Absolutely zero. No one knows exactly what they are doing, everyone is faking it to some extent, and everyone’s feels like they aren’t properly equipped to be in that position.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sagi Eliyahu, the CEO and Co-Founder of Tonkean, the operating system for business operations. Sagi and his team built Tonkean as an adaptive, no-code business operations platform that helps increase sales velocity by solving operational inefficiencies and challenges. Sagi served for four years in the Israeli Defense Force’s elite intelligence agency, and he applies much of what he learned from developing data and information systems for the agency to his work at Tonkean.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Thanks Jason. So, at age 18, I joined an elite intelligence unit of the Israeli army focused on software development and technology. Army service is mandatory in Israel, so they are recruiting from the entire batch of 200,000 new kids that turn 18 every year, trying to assign them to different roles. And for this technology unit, there’s only actually between 20 to 40 kids a year that get approved. It takes close to three years of interviews to get in. I actually met my co-founder in that program in the army, and actually most of Tonkean’s R&D team in Israel comes from the same unit.

And for that unit they really look for people that are already experienced with engineering even at a young age. I had been writing code since I was probably nine or 10 years old, and I had my first business when I was 13. Back in the early 2000s, the internet started to really pick up in Israel, so my cousin and I saw an opportunity to make money building websites for people.

Even back then, I was obsessed with trying to get our tasks done in the most efficient way. Instead of building static websites, we basically sold that promise of dynamic websites with an admin console. That is fairly commonplace now, but it was novel back then and we were trying to convince our customers by explaining that they’ll be able to change the websites without the need to continuously pay us to do it for them.

And that same spirit of trying to get things done in an efficient way that I had in my first business as a kid is really central to what we’re doing at Tonkean. That Army unit led to four years of working on very advanced technologies and challenges. And after some time on the executive team at Jive Software leading a team of over 200 people responsible for a new category of products, I left to start Tonkean.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Every big leap that happened in technology, more specifically in software but it’s true for every type of technology, has happened after some sort of abstraction that moved us away from a more complex way of doing things.

When iPhone and Android came out and launched their app stores and operating systems, they changed everything with their abstraction of how relatively simple it was to build applications for a mobile device. You still needed to be an engineer to build apps, but you didn’t need to be a device engineer that has a very deep understanding of the devices. The app stores and operating system for those phones enabled so many new innovations and improvements just by abstracting the complexity of building those kinds of apps for the phone. And within a few years of that, we were all relying on our mobile phones for everything in our life, with apps for everything. It’s not like you couldn’t build apps before, right? I wrote applications for Nokia phones when I was 17, but it was just a terrible experience. It was extremely hard.

Business operations folks are in that same stage that building mobile apps was in the early 2000s. Right now the only options for biz operations are to rely heavily on engineering to build tools that are scalable and secure and enterprise ready, or to operate very manually, which is what most of them do. And as a result, the pace of innovation is only a fraction of what it can be.

So, it is my firm belief that technology should help us do more with less, and help us focus on the things that we’re good at. And so when I think about our disruption, we’re bringing that same sort of disruption to enterprise software that iOS and app stores brought to our personal lives. Our platform is an operating system for business operations. If everyone’s life at work became incredibly efficient, that would really make a long lasting impact. If the time we spent at work was significantly more focused it would impact everyone’s life, not only the bottom line for companies.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I believe disruption is always good — any progress or improvement you make is good, but it’s by definition changing the status quo, and there are many people that enjoy the status quo, so there’s always going to be push back. The most important question is whether the disruption ends in a net positive for society. Does adding automation leave you in a net positive situation? Are you left in the same situation and you just changed the balance of power from one company or person to another? Or as is too often the case, is the group or society as a whole is actually worse than it was?

There are definitely some forms of robotic automation and AI that could lead to people losing their jobs if we’re not careful. Whether they do or not depends on the motives behind the disruption. If the sole intended goal is to use AI to reduce the workforce, then the outcome is predictably going to be people losing their jobs. Companies can spend less money and get higher ROI that way, but their employees and society end up worse off. Instead, we should be looking at AI and automation as new ways of empowering people to focus on the right things. To be sure, some of the responsibilities workers have today will change, but it doesn’t have to mean people lose their jobs. Instead, their job is going to shift into something that is actually more relevant to what they’re good at, not a mundane, repetitive process that’s easily automated. So, I’d say disruption is always good, but it’s all about how you manage it to have a positive net value.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I mentioned that we’re enabling organizations to do more at work, and become incredibly efficient with their operations. But it won’t be enough to just allow Tonkean to exist as an option, where it’ll become really powerful is when we create a new standard and reshape expectations that people have for the technology they use to get work done. The position we’re in is to not only provide disruption, but to completely reshape the standard of what work means and how every major company is run.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Through my specific experience in the army, and then through leading a startup and growing the team and operations at a public company, I developed a very specific viewpoint on the gaps I saw in the industry and where I thought the future should be. When we started Tonkean, I just assumed that those gaps were obvious to everyone, so we just jumped right into the water and started building a product. A common mistake that entrepreneurs make is thinking they just need to build the product and it will instantly fix people’s problems. And that’s obviously not the case. You have to understand that where you see things will be a few steps away from where the market is, especially when you’re being disruptive. There was a fair amount of education and calibration that we had to do to align our vision with the market, and there was certainly some heartache along the way.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Many of my favorite books to read are biographies. I have a lot of great friends, investors and former co-workers who have given me great advice over time and people I leaned on. But I think some of my biggest “mentors” are figures I’ve never actually met. Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Elon Musk to name a few favorites. Reading through the stories of what they went through and understanding their points of view on many things was actually where I got a lot of my inspiration and motivation in tougher times when it was hard to understand what to do next. That’s not to take away from the incredible network of people around me that was there to offer support. But there’s some deeper inspiration I take away from folks that were able to really build substantial things and change the world.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

I think the best advice, which I’ve heard in various forms from many people, is: “No one knows anything, we’re all faking it.” A lot of people think that there’s someone out there that knows what they are doing. We receive information from the media that paint a picture of people who seem to know what they are doing. In reality, there are zero cases like that. Absolutely zero. No one knows exactly what they are doing, everyone is faking it to some extent, and everyone’s feels like they aren’t properly equipped to be in that position.

I’ve heard this from many people but also experienced it firsthand. I grew up in a small town in the north part of Israel, and when I got accepted into the Army intelligence unit, I went in wowed by everyone, but then you realize that everyone there is just like me. My entire life I grew up with this perception of Silicon Valley as this magnificent concept, and to be sure there are super smart and great people here, but it’s not the pretty Instagrammed version of tech life that you’d expect. It’s much more complex and hairy, and everyone’s trying to figure everything out together.

So, my advice is to certainly listen and get as much feedback and advice as you can. But at the end of the day, no one else knows anything with certainty, no one can really save you. And no one can blame you, you’ve just got to figure things out for yourself. That was a huge epiphany for me when I realized it.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Similar to my love for biographies, I love any podcasts or videos that involve interviewing interesting people. I love the “How I Build This” podcast on NPR, for example. It doesn’t really matter what the person does, I get inspiration from hearing everyone’s story.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would try to inspire people to be more self-sufficient and do work that is more in-line with their skill set. I’d inspire them to improve their ability to move the needle. What we’re doing at Tonkean with business operations is our way of doing that for businesses, and the other big way to do that is with education. The way we run our businesses and the ways we educate our kids could really help people tap into their own potential and skills. Building that self sufficiency would really help bring out the most good from the largest number of people.

How can our readers follow you online?

Check out what we’re building at Tonkean at, or follow us @Tonkean on Twitter and LinkedIn. If you’re looking to increase your sales velocity, our business operations platform can help in some very impactful ways. You can also follow me directly at @EsbSagi on Twitter.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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