Israeli tech godfather who made millions with world’s first messaging app reveals his investment strategy

Israeli entrepreneur and investor Yossi Vardi makes a speech after the opening ceremony of 2016 Guangzhou International Innovation Festival on December 6, 2016.
VCG | Getty

Israeli investor Yossi Vardi has a knack for identifying top tech companies.

Over his five-decade career, the 76-year-old has earned a multi-million-dollar fortune and the unofficial title of Israel's hi-tech 'godfather' after investing in almost 90 IT companies, including the world's first instant messaging platform, ICQ.

So what is his winning formula? CNBC Make It spoke to the entrepreneur-turned-investor at technology conference InnovFest Unbound to find out what he thinks is behind the perfect investment.

Strong execution

Many investors champion the importance of 'the idea'. But, according to Vardi, more important than that is the ability to execute on it.

"I don't think the idea matters – it's all about the execution," said Vardi, who is co-chairman of Innovfest Unbound.

Vardi argued that, like the musician who wakes up with the idea to play like Mozart, the entrepreneur who dreams of coming up with the next big business must also have the skills to make it a reality.

Of the 87 companies Vardi has helped build over his career, he said he had to close 30 because their founders, despite being talented people, "couldn't pull it together."

Solid finances

As one of the early adopters of the technology industry, Vardi said he has frequently been willing to take a gamble on "internet situations" — concepts too nascent to even be called companies — so long as they could show a clear structure and path to profitability.

"That's always going to be important," said Vardi. "You need to be responsible with handling finances."

Good people

The businessman, who spent 12 years working in the public sector, also said that his decisions often come down to whether or not he thinks he can work with the individual behind the company.

"I also like to invest in good people. You don't want to surround yourself with a**holes," he said.

"Your life is a reflection of who you surround yourself with – you want to be sure that they're the right people," he added.

A dose of luck

Crucially, though, Vardi said that luck also had a huge role to play in investing.

"I can't stress enough the importance of luck," he noted.

Indeed, when Vardi made his early investment in ICQ, he said he "didn't have any idea what was going on." He invested $75,000 in the messenger's parent company Mirabilis in 1996 after he was approached for funding by its founder, his then-26-year-old son Arik.

"I swear to you, when I gave the money, I thought it was ridiculous," said Vardi. "I thought: 'Who would want to speak on a messenger when they could talk on the phone?'"

The business "took the world by storm," however, and just 19 months later it was bought by AOL for $407 million.

"The most surprised people were ourselves," said Vardi, recalling how his son and Mirabilis' co-founders were initially taking bets on whether the company would even manage to secure 3,000 users.

At its peak, the messaging platform had 100 million registered accounts.

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