The International Entrepreneur – Cultural Tips from Israel: Insights from Arlene Marom in Tel Aviv

Temple Mount and Western Wall during Shabbat
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This week kicks off a series on cultural insights from professionals engaged daily in cross-border business. Born in the U.S., Arlene Marom is a long-time Israeli resident and international marketing professional. I am grateful to Arlene for sharing so many tips for doing business with Israelis. Here is my interview with Arlene:

What do you see as unique cultural characteristics of Israelis that comes out in Israel’s business culture?

Israelis are known for a number of characteristics. They are risk-takers, usually not afraid to fail and to try again. They are often ingenious in their solutions to problems – and by nature, they think out of the box. In fact, they hardly ever think inside the box. Typically, they are not fond of too much small talk and like to get to the point quickly. They can be tough negotiators, though they understand that only a WIN-WIN relationship will work for the long haul. They are very informal in their dress, their speech, and their mannerisms, and can be seen as rude when they are actually only being open.

What are Israel’s most competitive industries that compete in world markets?

I would guess that security software and hardware solutions are probably number one – given Israel’s history, its ongoing need to develop technologies to defend its population, and its experience on the conventional battlefield as well as in counter-terrorism. This situation has also led to superiority in networking and communications, including mobile and wireless applications. Israel has also established a reputation for advanced chip design, semiconductors, every type of software, Internet applications, medical devices, biotechnology, and clean tech. It also has a very well-developed diamond industry, and is a major exporter of agricultural products including fruits, vegetables, and flowers – as well advanced drip irrigation systems and greenhouses.

What’s the best way to find potential Israeli business contacts?

I would say that the first stop should be the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute (IEICI), which can provide extensive information on Israeli industry and business opportunities. http://www.export.gov.il. The new English website is currently under  construction, so check back in January 2012. I would also suggest Israel-oriented LinkedIn groups, US-Israel Chambers of Commerce, and of course, the Economic Attaches at Israeli Embassies.

What do you wish people knew about doing business in Israel before they arrive in country?

You should be prepared for Israeli directness, and not be offended by it; be ready to work hard and play hard; be flexible in negotiations; be willing to put logic above convention; don’t assume that Israelis don’t understand your language (this tiny country has people from every corner of the globe); be prepared for impossible time-tables (I never had a client in Israel, whether startup or multinational, who didn’t need the job done yesterday) and pressure to conclude negotiations immediately. But, be assured that your Israeli partners are working at least as hard and as fast as they expect you to do, and they will usually manage to accomplish incredible feats in the nick of time, for everyone’s benefit.

Punctuality is not a strong suit, though it’s improving; be prepared to start meetings a bit late. Meetings usually begin with an invitation to coffee or other drinks; cookies are usually on the table; be prepared to work through lunch with a meal delivered to your desk. Interruptions during meetings are common, and not considered rude; everyone is multi-tasking; phone calls may be answered and people may enter the room to ask questions.

You may find that Israelis have an insufficient focus on marketing, and the line between marketing and sales may be blurred.

If you look at things in months and years, you may not be considered serious or dedicated enough for the project. Israelis are persistent, don’t easily take ‘No’ for an answer – so if  you mean ‘No’, don’t understate it.

Israelis can physically stand too close to you, inside your personal space – but, it’s normal, not pushy. They make direct eye contact but are not so good at shaking hands, which they have learned to do, but their handshakes are often very weak and they often don’t look you in the eye when shaking your hand; don’t take this to mean what it means in the US – it doesn’t. Call Israelis by their first names and let them know that they can call you by yours.

Israel’s have a unique gesture  for asking you to wait, or letting you know that it will take a little while longer … palm up and cupped, fingers together, moving hand front and back at the wrist – often combined with a facial expression. They often shout or speak quite loudly; this is not  necessarily a sign of anger, just emotion. At dinner, ask about family, culture, sports, history, and business – but not about the current government, politics, or religion. If your colleague is religious, be sure that the restaurant is kosher. Most Israelis don’t drink a lot of alcohol, but beer is acceptable.

From your perspective, what’s the business climate like for entrepreneurs (supportive vs. unsupported, culturally accepted profession vs not accepted, etc.)?

Israel probably has the world’s best business climate for entrepreneurs. There is extensive government and societal encouragement and assistance available for startup companies, as well as many sources of solid business information and a number of high quality MBA programs. Most citizens serve in the army, where they have often shouldered significant responsibilities at an early age, and have gained knowledge and skills that can serve them well in business. Founding a startup is a respected career choice, even among those who marry young and become parents early – with the risks being seen as balanced by the potential rewards.

For more information about Israeli entrepreneurs, I encourage you to contact Arlene Marom ([email protected] ). Arlene also regularly contributes content to EntrepreneurCommunityOnline.com as a business advisor.

Stay tuned next week when I interview another cross-border business expert!

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