July 22, 2020

Alon Moritz : Turnaround “artist” with 30 out of 30 success rate co-founds Serbian startup

Foreword of the founder and CEO of Tesla Nation, Vukašin Stojkov: 

Ever since I started implementing the Tesla Nation project, and most specifically discovering and attracting amazing people to join the board of its ambassadors, I’ve been awe struck by how many great people were out there and how willing they were to lend a hand in accomplishing Tesla Nation’s mission. 

Reality went very much hand in hand with the ideal, imagined scenario — people with the integrity, a pay it forward mentality, exceptionally accomplished as professionals answered the call to help out Tesla Nation even though they had no obvious reason to give their time and goodwill to such an ambitious project or myself as its humble representative. 

I’ve rarely been as impressed as in the case of Alon Moritz. An American hailing from Israel, Alon is among the most professionally accomplished people I’ve met, as you could see by glancing over his Linkedin profile, or reading through this interview. Even though he’s almost 30 years into his business career, and still busy as ever, he gives off an absolutely incredibly strong impression that he really enjoys helping other people in the best pay-it-forward way imaginable. On top of all that, he’s in love with Serbian people and would like to help Serbia and Serbian entrepreneurs as much as he could, and it seems that he definitely could. 

When we first met in October last year I didn’t want to ask him for anything before proving to him that Serbia and yours truly can provide value to him. He was looking for a technological co-founder to start a new startup and after some back and forth he decided to go with one of the candidates I connected him to under the umbrella of Tesla Nation. Interestingly, they signed their initial contracts at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March. 

Before getting the chance to ask him to serve as a Tesla Nation ambassador and help out further development of the local tech scene, Alon reached out to me for a call a couple of weeks ago and asked me if I would come up with a proposal on how he could do exactly that. I had some ideas indeed and we decided on a course of action for the better part of the rest of this year, and I’m quite hopeful that, as time goes,  we’ll create a lot of value for entrepreneurs from Serbia who want to compete and win in the US and other global markets. 

And before we get to that, I would like to present to you who Alon Moritz is, why I’m psyched to have him on board as one of the people who want to help the rise of Tesla Nation, and why you should be too. Before diving into the interview, here are the highlights: 

  • After serving in his country’s special forces, he founded, grew and exited his cybersecurity company. 
  • He is a turnaround professional, having successfully executed 30 out of 30 total turnarounds.
  • He believes that only type of business deals worth making are those where both sides gain value. 
  • He’s working alongside a number of Serbian folks, and would love to work with more of us. 
  • We’re organizing a number of opportunities for sharing his knowledge and experiences with you all in the coming weeks and months. 

So, back to the beginning, who is Alon? You could say that first and foremost, he’s a tennis player. 

What got you into business and technology?

The passion for technology came into my life when I got a Commodore 64. I started programming and I really liked it. My mom used to be a secretary at one of the computer department stores, so at one point they sent her home with an Apple Macintosh. It looked so amazing compared to the Commodore. That was the first time I got to use the mouse, and became hooked on computers from that point on. 

My first business, which I started when I was 13, wasn’t connected to computers at all. I was born in Israel and at the age of nine we moved to Australia, where I actually first got in touch with Serbs and Croats. I played tennis and soon began stringing tennis rackets for other players, which quickly grew into a great business. 

Tennis was a big passion of mine early on, and still is. I started playing professionally in my late teens and was lucky to travel the world for tournaments. I was lucky because this gave me a very worldly view from an early age, and I saw that there was a lot of diversity and a lot of opportunity. 

After finishing high school, I got the opportunity to play college tennis in the United States. However, I decided that I wanted to serve in my country’s military, so I ended up in the Special Forces. 

Some people would find that choice strange — why did you choose hard army life instead of the life of a US college student? 

One thing that I’ve always believed in is that you should push yourself into areas that you’re uncomfortable with. It might sound a bit cliche, but if you stay within your comfort zone, you won’t get anywhere. 

So I’ve always been very motivated to put myself in positions where I’m going to encounter difficult challenges. I just love being constantly challenged, so that I never feel bored. 

After five years of service in the Special Forces and another nine in reserve, during which I saw a lot of combat, I decided to begin my studies. As most Israelis do, I served in the military first and only afterwards went to college. And college in Israel is nothing like in America where for the first two years you kind of do a lot of soul searching, sit and have coffee on the grass, and enjoy parties or girls along with your education.

In Israel there’s not a lot of that. For almost two and a half years, I had a day job until 5 PM after which I attended classes until almost midnight, with little to no break. One good thing about that is that you don’t waste any time while studying. On the other hand, my finance degree was very focused. It was narrowly concentrated on business subjects and I didn’t study too much about other fields, for instance about the history of Serbia or the Balkans. I just studied business and that was all. The college I went to gave me a fantastic foundation to start working immediately and to be good at my job.

Right after my studies I started working in a big investment bank. The first project I got into was a corporate turnaround where I realized that I can be good at such projects. It was very challenging and required a lot of hard work, but the person I worked for was very interesting. He had a couple of principles that I will never forget. 

The first principle was that you always negotiate really, really hard in everything and never give in. But once you’ve given your word, no matter what, you keep your word. You never renegotiate a negotiation, which I think is great and it helped me a lot. Never break your word, as your integrity is more important than anything else. 

How did you get back into technology? 

I could have gone to Goldman Sachs or a similar institution and have a great career there, but I constantly wanted new challenges. My next venture came right about the time the Internet appeared. As soon as I saw it, I knew that e-commerce would be a huge opportunity. 

It was a tough sell — it is like you’re trying to teach everyone that we will eventually have people living on the Moon. Now it is all so natural to us. When you need batteries, you just get them from Amazon. But back then people would say, OK, it is not that I don’t believe you, I just don’t know exactly how that’s going to work.

And so with my dial up Internet I created one of the first online reverse auction businesses online. Our manufacturing company needed a lot of PPC as it was very capital intensive, with huge costs in warehousing and advance orders. The software I created was not complex, but it was used by many companies in Europe for ordering PPC. It became an additional new multi-million dollar business for us, whilst cutting our costs by half. 

Did that inspire you to jump into cybersecurity?

Many people sort of see Israelis as being great at cybersecurity. Doing cybersecurity is extremely hard but very interesting. I started noticing openings in computer systems around me. During my e-commerce venture, companies like Checkpoint Systems or IBM were providing security solutions, and it dawned on me that computer systems were getting increasingly connected and that breaking into them was a big opportunity and danger. 

Obviously, IDF was the most advanced and innovative military in the world. Some of my friends served in cybersecurity units and we started talking about various ideas. I remember, at one point I had this vision of how it would come together, so I took this big piece of paper, put it on the table and started drawing for a whole day, looking like a mad scientist. Even though I never thought of myself as a great engineer, I had a good understanding of computer systems and I designed an application that would map security vulnerabilities. Those couple of guys I presented it to, who were great programmers, joined me in making the actual software. 

There were already similar solutions on the market, but they were terrible. We created a solution that relied on intelligent databases, not really AI in today’s terms. It got better the more you used it, and it turned out to be very successful. 

One lucky anecdote is that I got funding for the company from a person I played tennis with in California when I was 18 years old, who told me he never saw anyone with a work ethic like mine. I always went the extra mile and it served me well. 

Our first customers were in Israel, and they were very, very demanding and very smart customers. We expanded into Europe, doing projects in Spain, Italy, Germany and so on, but eventually I went to the biggest market, the United States. 

I came with a half million dollars and opened an office without knowing a single person in the US. 

That sounds like a big risk, so why do it? 

The Israeli market was very tough, the European market was only starting to mature, whereas I always saw America as the confluence of an abundance of opportunities, availability of capital and an almost insatiable market demand. The US is the best place in the world where, if you have a really strong determination to succeed and the ability to put your head down and focus, you’ll find yourself in a very good spot. That was the place where I wanted to put all my efforts, and continue seeking out opportunities and success. I’ve been very lucky to have achieved a lot and there aren’t too many places in the world where it would be possible. 

Yet, when I came here in 2002, it wasn’t easy. 

I literally didn’t know anyone, but I just started going out to conferences and meeting people. I rented an apartment and I worked literally seven days a week and then went to more conferences, met more people and asked more questions. 

Eventually we became very successful with the cybersecurity company in the States as well. Yet after eleven years of doing that, I was a bit tired of running the company so when I got an offer to sell my stake, I didn’t think twice about it and exited the business. 

About six months after I sold it, people started coming to me for loans and I began doing turnarounds.

What are turnarounds actually? 

A turnaround happens when a business is not doing well and struggles on many different levels. At that point, someone like me, comes in and takes over the management of the business with the idea that within 9 to 18 months, sometimes less, they put together a plan on how to fix things, execute it and the business is then in good shape. 

I prefer turnarounds to giving out loans to people, because it is more challenging to me. Doing a turnaround is very lucrative but very, very difficult. You get into the company, you have to understand the problems and find solutions quickly. And if your solution isn’t working, you need to quickly find a different one. You don’t have time to do a test over six or nine months, but rather you have to see quickly if it’s working or not. In terms of a challenge, it actually suits my personality. 

One of the most exciting times of my career was the day when I came into the business that had $2 billion yearly revenue and 7,000 employees, and overnight I became the CEO of that company. So far I’ve done 30 turnarounds!

Of those 30 how many were successful? 

Thirty. 

But I have to underscore that I never, ever, ever underestimated the challenge in a turnaround. So it’s a very tough answer to give because I don’t want to come off as cocky or someone that feels like they know everything. That’s not the way it works, especially not in turnarounds. If I treated the fifth one like – OK, this is a no brainer, I’m going to get it done because I’ve done it before – I would’ve probably failed. 

I always get nervous about what I need to do. I never feel like, OK, just because I’ve done it twenty nine or thirty times, now it’s easy.

I was very successful in this and had great partners but decided to move on because I had major ethical differences with some of them. No matter how many business deals you do, every deal has to be a win-win. People make money and you do too. You do it appropriately and in the right way. 

And there’s plenty of money for everyone in a deal, there’s never a need to step on people’s throats. 

Why does a deal have to be a win-win?

The first reason is, if you’re doing a right, professional deal, it should be a win-win. It’s not a deal if you’re somehow screwing someone over, at least it’s not a deal to me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a deal when I’m getting screwed over either. 

The second thing is, you know, a deal is not a one time event. When I create a relationship with you and we spend time together, it’s not just about the relationship with you, it’s also a relationship with Serbia, the Serbian people and entrepreneurs from your country.

It’s just a part of my whole life. In fact, if you can’t figure out a way in a deal for it to be a win-win, it’s just never going to be good.

At the end of it, all it matters to me is that my kids, one day when they walk down a Belgrade street on a vacation and come across Vukašin, who is an older person now, recognizes them and tells them that he worked with their father. And I would want him to tell them that he was a good man, who helped many people, had integrity and did good things. To me it’s about my family’s credibility. 

I turned down great opportunities because they weren’t win-win and I’ve never looked back. I believe I got incredibly better opportunities exactly because I held on to my values and met people who knew how to appreciate such partners. 

We connected over the fact that you love Serbia and wanted to do more business with folks from here — how did that emotion develop? 

It might be hard to explain but I just found a deep connection with Serbs. Getting to know Dushan and Doleac, and the rest of my great friends from Serbia, I found them to be such special human beings. I feel that folks from Serbia are good people and I feel they’re misunderstood by the world, which for me is an interesting challenge as well. 

Perhaps one of the reasons I developed this connection is because none of my Serbian friends ever pushed me or asked me to do anything for them or their country. And this was one of the reasons that I reached out to you to see how I could help out, as I just feel like it’s the right thing to do. 

I’m very excited to work with people from Serbia, learn what their challenges are, understand the norms and mannerisms and see where we can go from there. Hopefully I can be of some help to Serbia, at least when it comes to business.

You are a seasoned businessman, do you foresee any particular business interest? 

I am definitely a businessman and I am always on the lookout for opportunities, and if they arise I will try and make the most of them. But I don’t have any particular vision. I would just like to meet more great people, try to help and see what happens. 

All the Serbian people I’ve worked with left a deep impression on me as being very honest, very smart and hardworking. I value such people very much. I would like to work with them and help many other people. 

And I definitely see a special potential in Serbia, which I visited for the first time a couple of years ago. I’ve been to many countries around the world and I felt something special in Serbia. Unlike in many other countries, I felt a strong entrepreneurial spirit among people there. I feel that Belgrade could be one of the top cities in Europe eventually. 

However, I also felt that there was something missing. If you imagine the most powerful military jet, for example F-35, but there’s no fuel that would make it fly, you have so much potential just sitting there. I feel like this is the situation with entrepreneurs in Serbia. There’s something missing and hopefully we can contribute to this based on the experience we had in Israel. There we have created a startup nation – a nation of opportunities where every startup made all their employees prosperous and entrepreneurs supported other entrepreneurs, contributing to this great success. 

So we just have to get those fuel tanks for the jets, but how? I see only one way. We go one step at a time. We get one jet to take off, see that it flies well and then get another one, and another. Those already flying will pull others in. 

Soon enough you will have created a group of 200 or 300 people that actually know how to fly, and those 300 people go on to teach another five or ten or a hundred more people. That way you can achieve your goal. 

But you have to take it one step at a time. Find an interesting person and help them become successful, which is already a good thing on its own. Yet success creates more success for more people. When one company succeeds, others will follow. People will work in those companies and then start their own. Israel became very successful that way and perhaps this might be a model for Serbia as well. 

Thanks to you and Tesla Nation, I have already started a business with an entrepreneur from Serbia. We even signed the first round of documents during the height of the pandemic. I love working with them. The guys are great, very serious and I am super excited to do a soft launch as soon as this Fall, which is much sooner than we planned. I hope this company will turn into one of those flagship companies that will inspire many more to form. 

You’ve been through several big economic crises, and are a turnaround “artist” — what’s your advice for entrepreneurs in this current crisis? 

As I mentioned, the most important thing for me was to never underestimate any situation, no matter how successful I was in the past. So I’m a bit concerned that if I say something in regard to this question, it might be interpreted as a silver bullet, which of course does not exist. 

I think that every business in this situation needs to figure out, first and foremost, what it will take for them to survive the next 24 months. Everything and anything that is not in the 24 months survival category, unfortunately, needs to be put aside. I say unfortunately because it’s people’s lives and livelihoods. But if you don’t do that, your whole ship will sink with everybody on it. So you have to decide who is key for survival and who is not, in order for your company to survive. 

The next thing you do is execute the next 24 months plan. It is important to keep your eyes on the path you’ve chosen. From time to time, take a look around to make sure you’re aware of any opportunities or dangers, but just for a short time because you need to continue moving down your path. And sooner or later, opportunities that will get you out of the crisis will come. 

Opportunities always come in business. 

So that’s what I would say — make a 24 month survival plan, strip down to essentials, spend 90 percent of your time on tactical execution of your plan, and 10 percent on strategic thinking and looking out for opportunities. 

There could be competitors that haven’t been as disciplined and unfortunately might be closing up. Thus, you might buy them out for pennies or a dollar, and even expand your business. There’s a lot of things that can happen. But the only way towards a good business is for it to survive in the first place.

Alon Moritz is just one great example of what happens when an amazing businessman is connected with the expertise of Serbian engineers. Many Serbian tech experts are looking for co-founders worldwide in order to form joint ventures and increase scalability of their ideas. One of Tesla Nation goals is to help them get there. If you have any inquiries, please be welcome to contact vukasin@teslanation.org to connect you to a wellspring of engineering talent inspired by Nikola Tesla himself. 

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Tesla Nation™ is a project by SEE ICT / Startit started with the goal of choosing the best technology inventors and professionals of Serbian heritage and connect them to partners from all around the world,
inspired by the vision and ambition of Nikola Tesla.