The FinTech disrupter forged in Israel's Special Forces
By the age of 16, school and Shachar Bialick had run their course, and the Israeli Special Forces beckoned.
His grades were good, but he’d disrupt fellow pupils, talking too much in class when things got too boring.
Recalling his youth in Tel Aviv with a laugh, he said: “I was kind of the annoying person.”
Now 36 and CEO of London FinTech start-up Curve, Bialick is ‘on a mission’ to revolutionise how people see, save and use money.
He wants to push the industry the same way Netflix and Spotify have done for film and music, allowing people to combine all spending into one MasterCard and one mobile app.
Looking back, Bialick is thankful for the life lessons that began with him being booted out of the classroom and joining the army two years later - even if he didn’t know it at the time.
“They kicked me out of class – because I spoke too much when I was bored,” he recalled.
“Then there was a programme in Israel, if you have good grades – or are bored in class – then you can be sent to study the degree of your choice in one of the universities.
“So I went to study computer science when I was 16. Because Israel has compulsory army service, at the age of 18 you’re cut off the programme.
“If you’re a competitive and ambitious person like I am, and you join the army, you might as well do your best so I enlisted in the Special Forces.
“They’ll tell you you’re going to go tomorrow on a 40km journey with 40 kilos on your back, with 40cm of you in the water. You think it’s a joke at the beginning.
“Then you think it’s a joke for the first three hours because you’re about to die.
“But then you find out you actually made it. It took a lot physically and mentally, but you did it.”
Israeli Special Forces in training
He added: “This is very important to building a successful career, successful friendships, and successful family – knowing what can be achieved.
“It teaches you a lot. In general, the army in Israel teaches you your limits. Then by understanding your limits you know that now you can achieve more both physically and mentally.
“It gives you this culture and perception of yourself, and of what can be achievable and what can’t. If you want to give it a Disney quote; ‘if you can dream it, you can do it’. They prove that.
“You don’t know what good teamwork is until you have to do good teamwork.
“The same with leadership, ambition, and what a human being can actually do if they have the willpower.”
Today, he is four years into Curve, his fifth start-up company, which has been used in more than 90 countries to date, processing £15m-worth of payments.
Aiming for one million users in 24 months, he admits his mission is bold, but he has full confidence in his product.
“Today, if the user asks us what we are, we say we are a place you can keep all your money in one place. You download an app, receive a card, and that card becomes all of your cards in one.
“When you travel abroad, you pay like a local. You don’t have to sign up to a new service, you don’t have to have a new card just for foreign purchases… There’re many apps and services that allow you to save and budget. With us it happens automatically.
“It gives you more security, because you never expose your original card details. You only have one, which you can easily lock… If you have rewards cards, and you forget them or forget to show them, we’ve partnered with over 50 merchants in the UK.
“The beauty is everything is in one place. You don’t have to think about it anymore. You can just pay and we’re fixing all the rest.”
The ethos for the The Curve projects follows an ecommerce firm, a company linking employers and interns, then medical cannabis, which Bialick describes as the ‘best project [he’s] had’, even though he lost money.
His ethos behind the Curve is the same as all his businesses and that’s to solve problems.
“Curve is about simplifying payments,” he explained. “The problem we are trying to solve is this disconnected world of money. And we believe the end game would be this convergent platform.
“Create a financial world where you can spend all your money, and constantly get the best deal.
“It’s about celebrating life and using money as a means to an end. Celebrating life without having to worry about those things too much.
“When you want to buy something you know you can without feeling like you have been shackled to the bank.
“Travelling a lot just gives you more points of view, and you’re just exposed to more of the different kinds of problems there are in the world.
“If you look at my previous start-ups all four of them were personal problems that I had been made aware of. And I thought there might be a better way of doing stuff through technology.”
This is the first time Bialick has started a company in the UK. London's trendy Shoreditch, to be precise.
It is a suitable location for a man once named one of the 40 coolest people in FinTech by Business Insider.
Bialick laughs off the accolade, but is keen to point out the difference between being a start-up in London and being one in Tel Aviv.
“My friends laughed at me, and my wife is much cooler than I am,” he admitted. “It’s very easy to open a company in the UK compared to a lot of other places. But to build a company – especially a start-up – in a competitive environment like FinTech, it becomes more difficult.”
According to the 36-year-old, the difference between the UK and Israel is the culture of people – and a lot of that is to do with national service in his home country.
“The entrepreneurial scene in the UK, the government is doing amazing stuff to push it forward. I don’t know how Brexit will impact that, there are some concerns there, but there has been a lot of work done to push entrepreneurship, to increase employment and increase innovation.
“The culture in Israel, most of the people here have been in the army. So the culture of what you can achieve with teamwork and leadership is higher than in the UK.
“The second thing is the ability to fail, or being comfortable to fail. Israel has very little resources, so you constantly have to innovate. And if you’re going to innovate, you’re prone to fail because you’re trying this thing that nobody has done before.
“In Israel it’s okay to fail. If you see someone fail, you will see the people around them celebrate – ‘great! You’ve learned something new, now move on’.
“Here there’s a different culture, where people are afraid of failure.
“This is a main part of what is missing in the UK. Perhaps changing this will take time but it’s very obvious to people who are coming from San Francisco, New York or even Berlin and Israel.”
But Bialick admits there are a lot of things that could be better in Israel.
Pertinently, he hails the UK’s multiculturalism, and the balance between the Israeli people in his office, and the people from Poland, Russia, France and Britain.
“The beauty here in the UK is that you can find a multicultural team to work together. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can do that. It’s remarkable.
“The best idea is to find the right balance between these different cultures and get the benefit from each one.
“Pick up the right things and celebrate them, then kill off the bad things.”
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