…Just because you’re doing a lot doesn’t mean you’re getting a lot done. A busy calendar and a busy mind will destroy your ability to do great things. You need free time and a free mind to reach breakthroughs.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ori Hofnung of GiantLeap.
A native of Israel, Ori spent most of his professional career between the United States, Brazil, and Israel, where he held several executive positions in digital media ventures. His work focused on games and entertainment content products. His previous roles include Director of Global Client Relations at Tomodo and General Manager of Playbuzz Latin America, where he was responsible for establishing Playbuzz’s Latin American subsidiary from scratch and taking it from zero revenue to profitability after the first year.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Upon finishing my degrees in business and law, I started to carve out my niche in the Israeli tech industry. Using my fluency in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Hebrew, I became the go-to salesperson for companies wishing to expand to Latin-American markets. After accepting a high paying job, relocating to Sao Paulo, Brazil, and living there for over two years, I started wondering if I could do something more meaningful with my life. I was also feeling constrained by the necessity to be at a specific place, at a specific time, doing a specific thing..
I convinced two of my childhood friends that it was a good idea to start a risky business together, and off we went. I was the first to quit my day job, and after two months, I encountered my first setback when both of my friends told me they could not quit their day jobs and commit 100% to the venture. For three days, I was completely devastated: how could it be that I was able to convince a law firm and an accounting firm to work with us for a deferred payment until we raise money, but I can’t convince two of my childhood friends to join?
I had to throw a hail mary and convince another childhood friend that I hadn’t spoken with for years. After several attempts, he finally agreed and became my co-founder, which in hindsight was a blessing, as Nadav proved to be a fantastic entrepreneur and business partner.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The idea came from a bad experience I had as a child. In my early school years, although I excelled in sports, memory games, and craftsmanship, I couldn’t read until the age of 12, and my parents — overwhelmed by the literature and the inscrutable world of child development — were helpless. Having gone through this experience, I told myself that I would like to solve this problem for other parents and children one day. I understood that the world of child development is a maze full of dense psychological jargon, decades of neuroscience and behavioral studies, and countless schools of thought. Hence, there needed to be a tool that would put the science of child development at every parent’s disposal to help them make evidence-based decisions regarding their child’s development.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When my co-founder Nadav and I decided to start this business together, I was far too optimistic about fundraising for this business. I thought that thanks to my experience running a subsidiary for a big tech company in Brazil, and Nadav’s computer science degree from one of Israel’s top universities, investors would ply us with cash.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. Investors couldn’t understand how two people without a scientific or educational background could create a digital learning disabilities screening tool for parents. After more than 100 investor meetings, we were at 0 conversions.
We got our first break when we were selected by the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute; we then pitched more investors and raised 75K dollars, which at the time appeared like a lot of money.
The second biggest challenge came when we landed in Houston, Texas. We started selling our prototype to care providers such as neuropsychologists and general pediatricians and found that our assumptions about the market were incorrect, which meant that more than 50% of the code we developed was useless and needed to be thrown away. This was so heartbreaking that we considered throwing in the towel and giving what was left of the investments back to the investors..
After several days of deliberation, we asked ourselves: what if we’ve been doing the exact opposite? What if we pivot from an early screening tool for learning disabilities to a remote evaluation tool for early signs of giftedness? We knew the science we gathered from the medical center and our scientific advisory board could back us up, but the question was, would parents want this?
We advertised on Facebook that we are developing a platform for early detection of signs of giftedness at the Medical Center Innovation Institute, and parents started to come — which proved to us that there was at least some interest in what we were developing.
The test at the medical center revealed many flaws in the product and the product experience. This put us in a catch-22 with our investors: to sell the product, we had to fix it, but in order to fix it, we had to raise more money. We succeeded in raising another 60K and hired additional employees. In February 2020, we realized that we are running on fumes and had very few months of runway left. We applied to three accelerator programs; two of them declined, and the third wrote us a check, which saved the company.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Our resilience had led us to successfully raise funds from “GoAhead Ventures,” a silicon valley-based venture capital firm. Today we are serving tens of thousands of parents in over 40 countries, though the vast majority of our audience is in the US.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are the first company in the world that took upon itself the challenge to democratize multidisciplinary scientific knowledge and turn it into accessible and actionable insights tailored specifically for parents. By leveraging recent advancements in research, we can provide comprehensive child development evaluations earlier than ever before, from as young as 4 years old (when parents are most curious), and deliver these evaluations remotely (from home), independently (by the parent), and at scale (fully automated).
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When we first started the company, everyone told me that I should file a patent on my idea; but I couldn’t afford it. To make it sound impressive, I mentioned that our technology is patent pending in every piece of promotional material. During one of the investor meetings, this line caught the investor’s attention and he started grilling me about it. After several minutes he realized that the only thing “pending” was our decision on whether or not we even have something worth filling for. My key takeaway here are first, when you are just starting focus first on building a great product and worry about patents later on. Second, be very careful with fluff you put on your slide and don’t have a good explanation to back it up.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
After many trial and error attempts to outsource our development work, we hired a superstar developer via a development studio in Ukraine. This developer did a fantastic job of developing one part of our product. However, by that time we had gotten plenty of advice suggesting that we should have the whole R&D team In-house, in one location. We interviewed candidates for over three months, eventually hiring an Israeli programmer that cost us 25% more, was far less competent, and was a bad cultural fit for the team — which caused some unnecessary drama. My key takeaways from this experience were the following:
1) Invest a lot more time trying to understand if the person you’re interviewing would be a good cultural fit for the team.
2) In the early stages, focus on what your company needs right now instead of what people are telling you it will need in the “very near future,” then ruthlessly prioritize it, for most start-up companies that will be speed over in-house programming abilities.
3) Be extra careful with thinking about replacing a really good programmer. Statistically, one out of five programming hires would be an exceptional programmer.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Social skills and persuasion — In the very beginning we had no investments, stock-options or any type of monetary compensation to offer, so I had to convince a friend to help with the presentation and website design, another friend to help us set up the marketing platform, convince researchers to meet me and join our team to get credibility for the science behind our platform. All of this was done through persuasion.
- Becoming a perennial learner — there is no skill called business; excelling in business requires a myriad of skills where the quality of your outcomes is derived from the quality of the questions you ask yourself. And the only way to ask yourself good questions is by adopting a daily habit of reading books even in days when you are busy.
- Focusing on foundations — the ultimate foundations are mathematics and logic; if you understand logic and mathematics, you can have the basis for understanding the scientific method and hone your critical thinking. Once you understand the scientific method, you can understand how to separate truth from falsehood.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The understanding that just because you’re doing a lot doesn’t mean you’re getting a lot done. A busy calendar and a busy mind will destroy your ability to do great things. You need free time and a free mind to reach breakthroughs.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
In tech, I think one of the biggest sins is to think you know better than the market. The market knows what it wants best. This is a common misconception among young tech CEOs. Michael Scibel from Y Combinator gives this great example of many young CEOs that think that Steve Jobs is this person they should emulate, but they have a false picture in their heads of why Steve Jobs was so successful. They think that he dreamed up perfect ideas out of his head and into the world. But the iPhone didn’t just enter the market as this perfect, magical device. It went through countless iterations. People often don’t realize that Steve Jobs was iterating at every step. I like to remind people how clunky the first iPhone was. First iPhone, had no 3G, back when 3G was a standard feature. One carrier. Horrible battery life, a Screen that cracked all the time and no App Store.
In order to avoid this mistake you need to study how to become a great user interviewer:
- Seek out feedback from your users. Never rely on feedback from your friends, investors, or family members; they will lead you 100% astray.
- Talk about their life instead of your idea; if possible, don’t mention your idea at all. Ask them how they’re dealing with it and why they’re doing it that way. Learn about them and their real needs, and let that guide you.
- Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or hypothetical about the future, instead of asking would you ever, might you ever, could you ever, ask them what they did last time when they had this particular problem your solution can potentially solve, get specifics in the past.
- Avoid asking questions like “would you buy this product if it did X.” This question is bad because it’s hypothetical. Questions like “would you ever,” “might you ever,” are non-committal. You are asking for opinions and hypotheticals from optimistic people who want to make you happy. The answer to a question like this is almost always yes, which makes it worthless.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
- The value of continuously refining your user interview questions to dig deep and understand with high probability why a user would pay for a particular feature.
- Asking your users to describe to you how they would describe your product to their friend who could be potential users to see the very few words from your marketing messaging has the biggest impact on your users.
- Spending less time in meetings, less time on PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets and more time with customers; trying out your own product on a weekly basis thinking about ways to improve it, or scheduling free time to get inspiration from how successful products in other industries are solving similar problems/creating exceptional user experience. Challenging assumptions and creating deadlines — although first principle thinking now became a big buzzword thanks to people like Elon Musk, I think very few people practice this and really ask themselves important questions such as how do I know what I’m thinking is true, what evidence do I have to support that?” If I have evidence, are they from good sources? “What if I thought the opposite? Additionally, In the early stage of a start-up company, founders tend to underestimate the importance of deadlines to test if their hypothesis and strategy plan are correct.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) You can test almost all of your customer hypothesis with a well-designed landing page and sophisticated targeting on social media via deep engagement indicators. We at GiantLeap could have saved a lot of money and effort had we known the importance of this advice early on.
2) How valuable it is to learn the skill of being a great user interviewer and understanding that facts about the user’s life are gold and opinions are usually worthless. In the past, I used to confuse people’s politeness with progress, and user interviewing from pitching. I used to think that if a user responded yes to a question like would you ever use this product then that means we are making progress.
3) Understanding that my primary responsibilities are generating revenue and talking to users, all the rest are other people’s priorities or tasks of lower importance. Before getting to this realization, I used to get distracted by anything that was competing for my attention, which harmed my productivity.
4) The fact you can dramatically reduce your workload and stress by using automation tools like MixMax, Calendly, Docusign, Intercom, and hiring a virtual assistant. Before using these tools, I used to write every email and put endless reminders for follow-ups and tasks, which made me feel burned-out.
5) The understanding that just because you’re doing a lot doesn’t mean you’re getting a lot done. A busy calendar and a busy mind will destroy your ability to do great things. You need free time and a free mind to reach breakthroughs.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
Exactly what I’m doing today, leveraging technology to create a movement for democratizing the science of child development for parents, which I genuinely believe that, if adopted, will help us create a better society.
How can our readers further follow you online?
LinkedIn = Ori Hofnung
Facebook = Or Hofnung
Twitter = Ori Hofnung
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!