Tel Aviv library makes room for tech startups

An ailing public library in Tel Aviv was partially turned into a co-working space for up to 60 entrepreneurs at a time. (Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality)

TEL AVIV, Israel — For Yehuda Sabag, the biggest fear about launching a tech startup out of a public library was the noise.

That might seem like a strange concern: Libraries, after all, have a reputation for silence. But this isn’t just any library. It’s a mixed-up space where patrons browsing books in the stacks share a floor with clumps of tech entrepreneurs huddled around their laptops. Any disruptions on either side of this co-working experiment could prove distracting to the other.

That hasn’t been a problem. And what has emerged is one of the most interesting reinventions of a public library anywhere in the world.

A decade ago, the library inside Shalom Tower, a 34-story late-modernist mess of a skyscraper, was facing the same existential question any library in the digital era must contend with: how to stay relevant. The number of visitors was down to a few a day. The families who once packed the surrounding area and filled the library had long since left for the suburbs. Only a legal loophole prevented city hall from shutting down the library for good.

But the neighborhood is changing. Now, the Shalom Tower sits in the center of a dynamic high-tech startup scene whose offspring are plastered all over the Nasdaq. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv is seeing a revival in urban living, with new residents clamoring for more community services — like libraries.

[See: Tel Aviv’s Digi-Tel: an e-government app and smart card, all in one]

The idea to merge the old world of books with the new one of tech startups came four years ago. That might seem like an obvious connection to make, but it wasn’t. Entrepreneurs without offices often gravitate to libraries, if only for the free Wi-Fi. The idea of actually turning over a chunk of the space to them and for them is a breakthrough.

“No one expected this solution for either one of the problems,” says Michael Vole, founding director of the Young Adults Unit for the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality, an office serving the most common age group of techies. “But that’s the thing about innovative solutions — they pop when you merge disciplines that normally don’t go together. Now we have many more readers, and a great service for entrepreneurs.”

Civic innovators preferred

The public library at the Shalom Tower is on the 3rd floor, accessed by an elevator. The co-working area is called, appropriately, The Library. A US$100,000 investment from city hall removed stacks from a dwindling book collection and cleared out a wide space for long black work tables. Empty floor area is filled with colorful bean-bag chairs, which can be moved to make way for networking events and other gatherings that take place here for the tech crowd.

A monthly fee of $US76 per person fetches one of The Library’s 60 workspaces, plus free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, coffee and a small meeting room. That’s very affordable by Tel Aviv standards, which has generated a long waiting list for the space. The Library can accommodate a dozen start-ups at a time.

The public library and the co-working space are located on the third floor of Tel Aviv’s Shalom Tower. (Avishai Teicher via PikiWiki)

There is a screening process. Applicants must prove they have a legitimate intention to start a business, not just hang out and surf the web. Teams must consist of at least two people but no more than four, and at least one member must reside within Tel Aviv city limits. The team must work out of the space at least four days per week; stays are typically limited to six months.

The biggest requirement is that startups here be involved in some aspect of civic innovation, whether it’s focusing on improving city services or urban quality of life. That criterion suits the municipal flavor of the enterprise. But civic tech is also a sector that can use a boost.

“In the early stage it’s very hard to survive and private space isn’t cheap,” Vole explains. In a city of small apartments, working from home isn’t always practical, and coffee shops can only take a company so far. “We don’t want social entrepreneurs to feel like beggars,” he says.

Making connections

The Library is not as flashy as other co-working options such as WeWork, the global co-working chain that now has three locations in Tel Aviv. But for civic entrepreneurs, there’s value in being located within a municipal facility. It allows for cross-pollination between city officials and the tech marketplace.

The LIbrary’s on-site manager is a city employee who can make introductions at city hall. For Eyal Feder, who runs ZenCity, a suite of services to help city governments improve their municipal apps, this access was a key selling point of The Library. “We have a contact point,” Feder says, “so when we need to talk to the transit department, we can get hooked up.”

Tel Aviv officials also facilitate contact with other markets. When mayors from other cities visit Tel Aviv, The Library is a frequent tour stop. These are exactly the customers Feder hopes to cultivate. “We have the chance to pitch to officials from other cities without leaving our offices,” he says. During Feder’s six-month stint at the Library, ZenCity has pitched to Wellington, New Zealand; Munich and Freiburg in Germany; Paris, France; and South Africa.

[See: Can co-working on a deadline create better public policy?]

“We believe in the role of government in helping to develop civic tech,” Feder says. “And we believe that we can work with government.” It’s also their business model: Tel Aviv city hall has purchased ZenCity’s products, although that was not a condition of their selection to work at The Library.

The setup also works for companies not intending to serve the public sector directly. Yehuda Sabag’s company, Urbanist, offers an online marketplace for residential apartment rentals. Space at The Library is vastly cheaper than the US$909 a month he previously paid for a garage-like office. Urbanist has also benefitted from its city hall access to secure GIS files of city neighborhoods.

And Sabag’s initial fears of a noisy library proved unfounded. “Here the bonding and help has provided extra value, it’s very much appreciated,” he says. “It starts with the connection and goes through troubleshooting.”

The Library’s success rate is impressive — 70 per cent of companies still exist a year after they finish their stint. A few have expanded so fast while at The Library that they had to leave because their growing team exceeded the available work space. A digital marketing company called Appsflyer, which spent time here, raised US$20 million and was recently sold to Instagram.

But for Vole, the numbers are not the measure of success. “As the department in charge of young people, our goal is not the individual success of a certain startup but the strength of the entire ecosystem,” he says. “The space is all about putting great people together and letting a community grow, and by that strengthening the city ecosystem.”

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Greg Scruggs is Citiscope’s Habitat III correspondent. Full bio

LEARNING FROM TEL AVIV

  • Part of an ailing public library was turned into an incubator space for tech start-up companies.
  • The space costs $US76 per person for companies of at least two but no more than four people.
  • The companies must in some way be working on civic innovation or improving urban life.

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