This Entrepreneur Went From F-16 Flight Instructor to Silicon Valley Insider

December 14, 2016

2:20 pm

The entrepreneurial journey is like a snowflake; no two are alike and they fall a lot more often than they rise. One of these entrepreneurs, Ilana Golan has recently made her mark as a go-to Silicon Valley insider for foreign-born startup founders. And her path to entrepreneurship was definitely one of the more complicated journeys in the business.

Golan, who earned a spot on Forbes’ 40 Over 40 list of Top Women to Watch in 2016, started out as an F-16 flight instructor, rising to become the first female commander to oversee all F-16 pilot training in her home country of Israel.

“It was like Top Gun but without Tom Cruise,” Golan explained, alluding to the 1980s blockbuster film that you have to have seen by now.

As an engineer and product manager, she helped launch two successful startups including mobile-based house-hunting platform, Stiya. Golan now runs Golan Ventures, a startup consulting and investment firm that works with founders to find market fit and “sustainable, repeatable sales models” that leverage Golan’s vast experience and network.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Ilana Golan to talk to her about her F-16 days, her career path, her love of startups, and her advice for budding entrepreneurs. Check it out below:

You don’t meet an F-16 instructor, engineer, founder, investor and startup advisor every day. How do you explain your career path?

One thing always led to another. You need to be willing to jump to the next “unknown” and get up if that jump ended with a big fall.

If you find yourself in comfort zone for too long, look up to see where you want to head and plan the next move. Leadership is like climbing mountains. When you start the climb, things progress quickly and you still have lots of energy and motivation. About half way into the climb, you’re getting tired and the peak doesn’t seem to get any closer. This might cause frustration but you have to look up and take the next steps towards that peak.

When eventually you’ll make it, look around you and enjoy the view. The accomplishment feels great. But guess what? On the horizon, you’ll see many more peaks. Some taller, some more beautiful. Some people are on those tall peaks right this second. It’s great to aim high and always find your next peak but remember to look down and see how far you’ve come.

I am a big believer in “fake it till you make it.” If you want a role – act in that role without dumping previous commitments and slowly, people will see you in that role and you’ll become the natural candidate for it. I had to re-invent myself quite a few times throughout my career and this is the best way to do that.

I also believe people should stop from time to time to think: decide what you want to be known for and act on it. Make sure what you are doing gives you satisfaction and keeps you happy.  

Tell us about the start of your career.

In Israel, everyone goes to the army at age 18 and I wanted to do something impactful and special. After a long, painful regimen, I became an F-16 flight instructor and then the first woman to become a commander in charge of training of all F-16 pilots in Israel.  It was a big role with lots of life lessons.

I learned to think fast and make critical decisions even when some data isn’t available and realized I need to take complete responsibility for my actions and decisions. I learned to know my audience, personalize the training, and give feedback even when the pilots undergoing training were very senior and very male.

The experience made me fall in love with computers and I found myself studying electrical engineering and computer engineering at Technion, in Israel. I also started right away at Intel as an engineer. I loved it.

How did you get into startups?

I joined my first startup, Verisity, in 2003. I handled sales engineering and product at this stage because I loved working with people and combining it with deep technical understanding. We were acquired for $300 million two years later. I was ready to start my own company and I did– with two very successful businesses.

Honestly speaking: Startups are insane and I have the biggest respect for founders. It’s a very lonely job, facing a list of perilous unknowns. You need to move quick, make endless good decisions and yet get punished severely for the bad, and you must have the steadfastness to move on when you fail and get rejected for the hundredth time and try to not ruin your personal life on the way. The success is priceless and I guess that’s why we do this. The failure is very painful but you have to learn fast and take the next step with a smile.

So now you are an investor and advisor?

Yes. I’ve seen and built organizations from engineering to product, sales and operations so my perspective is very broad. I help founders find their product market fit and reach sustainable and repeatable sales.  I also know what investors expect and been on both sides, which is a big plus. I love the startup life and working with smart founders is bringing me lots of joy. I am really lucky to meet so many remarkable individuals.

We have a big network of founders who are also angel investors as well as VCs and once we have a startup we think is ready we refer them and help them close a round.

What’s your biggest tip to founders?

Oh hard to decide on one–but if I have to–I’ll say team. A good team can morph a bad idea into a successful product.  A bad team will fall apart in the first “near death” experience that any startup has. This is the first thing I will look at myself.

People many times give too much credit to a good idea. It’s the execution that will make all the difference. By execution, I don’t only refer to the product but to the hundreds of decisions founders need to make in a day. Even if the idea seemed good and product is decent, you may still not have the market fit you need and customers aren’t paying. You may need to tune the messages, change to whom you are selling, change the price, tweak the product, and so much more. A great team will be able to run many tests and figure this out quickly and move to a more sustainable sales process. A bad team will see that market fit isn’t there and argue until they fall apart.

I also want to know that the founders are starting the venture for the right reason. A problem they personally have confronted is the best. Answers to the question, “why” are key. I want to ‘see what startups are like’ or “I want to make money” will not work. Entrepreneurship is too long and rough of a journey and with too much in stake.

You need to love to solve the problem you are solving and need to be well aware that they might immerse yourself in this problem for the next decade. Startups are that slow and hard.

What role do you play in Silicon Valley?

Making startups successful requires teamwork, both from the startup side and from the investor-advisor side. It’s about knowing the right people at the right time, making the relevant intros and opening significant doors when needed.

At Golan Ventures, we are building a community of investors, connectors, VCs, accelerators, and influencers who can help make our startups successful.  The events we host and the impressive startups we bring to the events help shape the beginning of a unique community of the top individuals in Silicon Valley.

Any other message message to an audience of entrepreneurs?

Find your team and enjoy the journey.

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Jordan French is founding CMO of BeeHex Inc. 3D printing, President of O'Dwyer-ranked Notability Partners and cofounder of "Airbnb Police" start up BNB Shield. Jordan French is a technology commentator, biomedical engineer, intellectual-property attorney and business strategist for film and music stars. French works with Billboard-charted artist and multi-platinum producer, B. Howard, who wrote and produced songs for Vanessa Hudgens, Ginuwine, Dru Hill, Akon, Ne-Yo, Jason Derulo, Chris Brown and Wyclef Jean. French is on the leadership team at FOWNDERS, the social-impact start-up accelerator based in Newark, NJ. He is the Marketing & PR director of Scorpion Computer Services, Inc. and consults for executive producer Walter O’Brien, the inspiration behind the hit CBS television drama, Scorpion. As founding CEO and COO Jordan French built Status Labs into a Fast-50 and Inc.-500-ranked marketing firm and represented the people of the United States as an enforcement attorney at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission where he tracked down energy-market manipulators and enforced electric grid reliability rules.