Why I Gave Up My Front Row Seat in Silicon Valley

Posted by Guest Author /February 6, 2014 / Entrepreneurial Advice, FounderTalk

This FounderTalk guest post is written by Jonathan Levi, a serial entrepreneur from Silicon Valley.  He has one successful exit, is an angel investor and currently resides in Tel Aviv, Israel

Brazil, Russia, India, Germany, Israel, Canada, Mexico, and even Singapore. Yes, Singapore. In each of these countries, startup hubs are blossoming and growing – funded by governments, NGOs, and often private corporations. And yet, if you visit 500 Startups, YCombinator, or other leading incubators today, you’ll find representatives from these and many more countries – entrepreneurs hungry and eager to risk it all for a chance at making it in the legendary Silicon Valley.

So why would I, a 25-year native born and raised in the Valley, pack up and leave it all behind? In the words of so many Israelis I meet – What am I, crazy?

The Journey  

My journey to expatriation didn’t happen overnight. I found myself increasingly disenchanted with the values and lifestyle around me, until I could no longer see my future in the US. I had many personal reasons for making the move. In fact, the very essence of this post is perhaps to champion the relevance of “personal reasons” and preferences. These are far too often sacrificed for increased odds of success, better access to capital, or an improved valuation of your seed round.

In 2012, after selling my last startup and dabbling in angel investment, I was accepted to INSEAD Singapore, and decided to spend 6 months in Israel. Within two amazing, joy-filled months of arriving, I decided that I didn’t want to return to the US, even after INSEAD.

However, when I graduated I had an emboldened sense of purpose and potential, I was in hot pursuit of a new startup idea. Even though Tel Aviv is a hot-bed for startups and innovation, I felt as though a return to Israel would sacrifice our team’s chances for success, since it was a marketing startup serving U.S. brands primarily. So, I planned to go back to Silicon Valley, with Israel still in the long term plan. So much for spending my late 20’s in Tel Aviv – I should put my career first, right? …Right?

Upon landing in the Valley, I worked myself to the bone, setting up meetings, applying to incubators, and seeking out the kinds of top-level talent that Silicon Valley is known for. Three months in, like many entrepreneurs, I didn’t have much to show for it – but that wasn’t the issue. In fact, I’m no stranger to failure, and I realize the sometimes crooked and treacherous path to success when I see it. The issue, then, was something much more personal. Not only did I miss the adventurous travel, constant stimulation, and incredible diversity of my INSEAD experience, but more than anything, I simply didn’t want to be where I was. I no longer belonged in Silicon Valley.

I spent long nights talking to my very supportive and understanding friends and family, sorting through the emotions of defeat, unrealized potential, and selfishness that overwhelmed me. Indeed, leaving the Valley, my first home, would be a slap in the face both to my incredible family and to the tremendous privilege I had been granted. I grappled with the fact that to pack up and leave would almost guarantee me a less “successful,” less impactful, and less ambitious career. While Israel is, without a doubt, the #2 startup scene in the world, it is by no means Silicon Valley, and the chances of success here are significantly lower than they would be on my home turf. Indeed, so many of the most successful Israeli startups have clamored to establish US offices as soon as possible. How, then, could I justify leaving?

I ultimately made it just 2 months before I began arranging my return to Israel. Not long thereafter, I put the startup project on hold (where it remains today), packed my worldly possessions, and boarded a plane to Tel Aviv without the slightest idea of what I would do next.

Why do we do it?

I once saw a great interview with Silicon Valley veteran Guy Kawasaki, where he said the following:  “One of the things that’s pathetic about Silicon Valley, is [that] everybody wants to be something they’re not. If you’re the venture capitalist, you want to be the entrepreneur, if you’re the entrepreneur, you want to be VC. Me? I just want to be a hockey player, ok? So, everybody wants to be something they’re not.”

I’ve found this to be tremendously true when I was working in the Valley. I felt this tremendous pressure to be the next huge, 25-year-old success story. This pressure often drove me into an unhealthy cycle of comparisons, unrealistic aspirations, and demoralizing frustrations. Because of the mythic proportions of the Valley’s success stories, it has always been too easy for those of us “in the bubble” to lose track of what’s really important; meaningful work that inspires and excites us, and just enough success and freedom to live the lives we want to live. I didn’t get into entrepreneurship as a kid to become a billionaire; I got into entrepreneurship because it suited my desired lifestyle more than working for others.

Over the course of the last few months I’ve come to realize this: as entrepreneurs, the very reason we eschew traditional employment is to improve our own quality of life. Indeed, if you were simply passionate about a project or an idea, you could much more easily pursue it through “corporate entrepreneurship,” the safer, better-funded type of entrepreneurship that has brought about such innovations as Gmail, the SR-71 Fighter Jet, and Amazon Prime Air. Whether it is because we wish to set our own hours, answer to no one, realize our potential, or bypass bureaucracy, we’ve each turned to entrepreneurship for a similar overarching reason. We’ve decided that we are willing to risk it all in order to lead work lives that serve us, to make us happy, and give us purpose – no matter what the cost.

Given this framework, is it really that crazy to consider building your company where your heart is? One of my inspirations throughout this journey has been Zvi Band, the CEO of a startup called Contactually. Though Zvi made it to Silicon Valley through the 500 Startups program, he made a conscientious decision to return to his home town of Washington, D.C., where he has also founded Proudly Made in D.C. Though Zvi and Contactually might maybe benefit from some additional buzz, a bigger talent pool or  some extra customer confidence if their address read Palo Alto, Zvi has come to the same conclusion that I have: no amount of additional success is worth being somewhere you don’t want to be, and if you’re passionate enough about your project, you can make it happen anywhere.

More and more, I think entrepreneurs are coming to the conclusion that despite the added rocket fuel of being a Silicon Valley company, the cliché of the tireless entrepreneur who sacrifices anything and everything to succeed is simply outmoded. During my time as president of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization Silicon Valley Chapter, I met scores of entrepreneurs with similar stories. Entrepreneurs who wanted to work from home and see their kids more often. Entrepreneurs who wanted to travel more than two weeks a year. Entrepreneurs who simply didn’t like how things were done at big companies.

For me, at this current junction, success means living where I want to live, pursuing projects not for recognition or for money, but for passion. I may still be looking for that next big, meaningful, and exciting project, but that’s not important. What’s important is that I’m very happy to be exactly where I am. Everything else is secondary.

Are you doing what you really want to do? The best way to get started is with the right people. Don’t wait.