How Do You Build 2 Successful Startups And How Significant Are The Mindset And Desire Along The Way?

Natan Linder,
Co-Founder & CEO of Tulip, Co-Founder & Chairman at Formlabs

Natan grew up next to his granddad's wood shop, always building things with his hands. At the same time, his dad, who was an engineer, taught him  about  programming, and he started doing that at an early age as well.

As a teenager, he was interested in getting stuff done with more people, so he started his first company at the age of 17, and caught the Entrepreneurship Bug. Still being a highschool student, he came to experience a totally different world of meetings and thinking as the COO of the company, the things he only saw in movies before.

After he graduated high school, he served in the Air Force Intelligence, where he did operational and  technical roles, which meant a lot of responsibility on his hands. When he finished his service, he stepped out to a different world - it was the end game of the “.com” era, and he found himself writing a lot of code.

He was drawn mostly to embedded systems - he liked the combination of hardware and software. 

One friend sent him to the IDC, because he was interested in their scholarship for entrepreneurship, tech and leadership and asked Natan to take the application forms for him. As he helped his friend he thought to himself - why wouldn’t I fill one for myself as well?

At the time Natan was studying political science at the Open University Of Israel - Jean-Jacques Rousseau was as exciting to him as c++, but at the end - he found himself getting the scholarship and reevaluating his direction. He decided to do his Bachelor Degree in computer science.

He met Eyal Toledano in this program - a good friend and his co-founder. Both of them were in love with mobile, and searched together for what was most interesting for them.

Natan managed to work during his studies full time. They were working on getting downloadable apps on mobile phones in the early 2000, when mobile phones mostly knew how to send text messages and do very simple things. Then came the 2008 crash, and while they had great ideas, they couldn’t raise money. 

Samsung reached them, as they had no R&D in Israel at the time, and although they were dreaming of making a company of their own, Samsung managed to convince them to join. 

And so, at the age of 23-25 - Natan found himself being the GM for the mobile division for Samsung in Israel, an experience which he describes as his Grad School.

Moving to the US

After 5 years in Samsung, Natan decided he wanted to try and build a company of his own.

He came to the conclusion that for that he needed to become a VC or work in a VC, which in retrospect he suggests not to do.

He met Harel Margalit. and joined JVP as EIR, where he had a lot of freedom to do what was interesting to him, when his wife was accepted to do her MBA in MIT - an opportunity of a lifetime. 

It was a no brainer, and he decided to put his work aside and come with her.

That’s how he landed in Boston. At first, he was confused and didn’t quite know what to do after working in tech for a decade, but he knew this could be a fresh start for him. He thought he might try MIT as well, the Media lab specifically.

At the same time, he started working with Prof. Rodney Brooks, whose company is responsible for iRobot & rumba, and pioneering robotics in general. Meeting Prof. Rodney was like meeting Michael Jordan for a basketball fan, as he was a very impactful and known figure in the worlds of machine learning and artificial intelligence. 

Natan joined him in the new company he was building that signaled the dawn of collaborative robots, robots that would be safe to interact with humans and would be programmed by teaching.

He was 29 years old at the time, and after considering the tradeoffs he decided to join MIT, and his amazing journey there started, which ended with a PhD. He found new opportunities for himself from within the realm of the unknown. Natan explains that he appreciates the beauty in the dichotomy of the entrepreneur, of “organized chaos” - he didn’t have a solid plan, but he had his anchors. He came in with the mentality of -

“we’ll figure it out. In the worst case - I’ll get a job in a big company. And I tell that to new employees as well - people have the wrong impression of how risk works - because in the worst case you'll go back to the market and get a normal job.”

This belief is crucial for entrepreneurs, because we need to navigate all the time within the unknown, we can't have it all planned out and go exactly according to plan. We need to have trust in ourselves and believe in our abilities, and know from that deep place that no matter what, we’ll figure it out.

Product-Market fit

Media lab is a very hands-on place at MIT where you can explore and have a lot of creative freedom, and also get sponsors who come from industry and interact with the students. Natan came to MIT after decades of experience in engineering, and shares that it’s difficult to unthink this way of doing things, so the entrepreneurial mindset never really left him. 

He was working on projected augmented reality, and created Formlabs with two of his classmates.

Today, Formlabs is a decade old company with 700+ people, selling over 100,000 printers for design and engineering, but also for dental care. It became a Unicorn.

“You can’t really plan which company will hit its product market fit and when.”

- Their decision to put their complex and expensive HW - SW product on Kickstarter was a risk, as the platform wasn’t really used to that type of product - but it turned out to be a huge success, with 3M$ of product orders - that was an early product-market fit for them.

“No regret decision”

Natan made the difficult decision to leave Formlabs and found Tulip, and shared that:

”it was a moment that Jeff Bezos defines as a “no regret decision”, where you don’t evaluate your decision based on what you know now, but based on thinking how regretful would you be if you looked back as an 90 years old man at this choice.”

Formlabs was pretty stable, and Natan realized that this is the chance to build a very important second company, he couldn’t imagine a reality where someone else does this instead of him - so he went all in.

“It doesn’t mean that you're comfortable and know exactly all the things about the decision, but the conviction that this is something worthwhile building was extremely clear.”

Managing it all

Having 2 companies, a wife who's also a very busy executive and kids - how do you manage all the stress of having so many balls in the air at the same time?

Natan shares that for him it didn't become so stressful overnight. He made the progress and the building of the company slowly and gradually on purpose - his bar for building a platform was very high, and he was preparing for the longhall.

As for the stress, he shares that for him there's only one thing that can give you balance, and that’s the people around you - the family, his teams, the investors. Even as for stepping down from an operational type of role in Formlabs, it wouldn’t have been possible without a great co-founder on the other hand.

When I asked Natan about navigating between his personal and professional life, he shared that he grew up with 4 siblings and 2 hardworking parents, so the idea of a demanding career and kids together was not foreign to him, it’s just life. 

The practical reality is that as parents you take turns and cover for each other - there is no magic answer. Although they’re far from their close family, there are other parts of the family and a community that they’ve built over the years, and they make the best of it - there's always trade-offs.  Still, he shares he’s living in a constant reality of wanting to be with his family more and spend more time with his kids, but having said that, the other side of the coin is that they’re being good role model for their kids, teaching them the value of work and the entrepreneurship mentality - “no matter what they’ll choose to do when they’ll grow up, it teaches them about life.”

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