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Don’t launch a startup till you play this game

by Brian Blum, Israel21c

October 26, 2012 | 3:12 pm

Ronen Gafni, developer of FreshBiz.

Ronen Gafni, developer of FreshBiz.

Starting a company can sometimes be likened to a game of chance. Coming up with the right idea at the right time, when the market is neither saturated nor in financial free-fall, isn’t always under the business owner’s control, no matter how crack the team.

Ronen Gafni aims to enable entrepreneurs to surmount the vicissitudes of chance by turning the startup game into a real board game. FreshBiz is the result of eight years of development by Gafni, an entrepreneur who is taking his biggest gamble yet with a product that looks like the fabled Game of Life, but is far more practical.

FreshBiz players move through various business stages, from starting a new company to trading on the stock market. Dice throws and “business opportunity” cards help them advance toward the winner’s slot.

Instead of earning $200 by passing Go, players pay “toll passages” along the way. And you have only 90 minutes to do it. The game aims to simulate the world of business and to improve business behavior and industry acumen.

Unlike typical board games, competition is secondary to collaboration. “There can be more than one winner,” Gafni explained. “So it’s not about beating other people. It’s about finding creative ways to make enough money to get to the winner’s block. And if you collaborate, the chances are higher that everyone is going to get there.”

As players move around the board, they can start new businesses whenever they land on an empty lot. It may cost $2 million to open a business, but if you pay attention, you may have the opportunity to start a company for half price — if you find a partner. Similarly, you may be able to trade stocks more profitably if you team up with someone else.

Game translates across cultures

Sounds like you’d need an MBA to succeed in FreshBiz, but Gafni insists that “you’ll pick it up very fast. From the second game on, you’ll be more creative about how you play.”

You can buy the physical game for $50 or download an iPad version of FreshBiz for $7 so you can play against a maximum of four players in your living room or on the Web. But perhaps the best way is to join a FreshBiz workshop.

This is what Gafni has been doing for the last 18 months — running tests with real people around the world, to see how the game works and whether cultural differences matter. He has 30 facilitators (each person pays $700 to buy a kit, after which he or she can run as many workshops as desired) and has played the game in Israel, New York, Spain and Singapore; at banks and financial firms; and with professors and MBA graduates at New York University’s entrepreneurship program.

FreshBiz

Perhaps surprisingly, there are very few differences in game play across cultures. That’s because “it’s a game about our core beliefs,” Gafni said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in India or Italy; we all go through the same experiences. In Israel, people might scream more, while in Europe the game might be quieter. But our insights are very much the same.”

Where is Gafni’s favorite place to play FreshBiz? “Madrid,” he said. “I don’t know Spanish, but I can see how the game is going by the movements made by these top executives.”

The game has, so far, been translated into Spanish, Russian and Hebrew, in addition to English, of course. Gafni estimates 3,000 people have played the game already in more than 100 sessions.

Tel Aviv ‘world tour’

FreshBiz officially hit Israel in July, when Gafni held a workshop with 200 entrepreneurs and business owners at the ZOA building in Tel Aviv.

The cost to join a FreshBiz workshop varies depending on the length, from NIS (new Israeli shekel) 150 (about $38) for a short session, up to NIS 2,000 (a little more than $500) for a whole weekend per person. Gafni hopes that organizations will pick up the tab for their top team members.

A workshop can include anywhere from 20 to 150 players. The facilitator does some lecturing with an overhead projector, but it’s mostly about sitting (or jumping) around the board.

Gafni’s goal is to have 1 million FreshBiz’ers in three years. The iPad app is key, he says, and it will comprise more than just the game. “There will be an entire community for entrepreneurial thinkers, where they can share knowledge and opportunities. They can create events and parties” outside of the digital realm.

His own entrepreneurial path started when he began trading stocks while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. He built a stock portfolio worth hundreds of thousands of shekels until the global financial meltdown. “It was a heavy blow for a young guy like me who was just getting started,” Gafni said. “But it also taught me the philosophy of recovery from a financial crisis.”

He and his wife later worked together in their own marketing consulting and branding company, where he saw “so many owners are stuck playing an old game of life and business. The world is changing around them, with technology, the economy, globalization, society — it’s not the same as it used to be — but they don’t know how to adapt themselves to this new game.”

Gafni, 39, was inspired to create FreshBiz after he realized the new world of business looked nothing like the landscape his parents knew. “They both worked in a bank for 30 years and then got their pensions,” he said. “I knew from the age of 10 that I wouldn’t do that. Knowing how much I’ll earn at the end of the month is boring. It’s cooler not knowing!”

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