How this founder went from being a professional basketball player in Israel to launching a buzzy cloud startup in Boston worth $105 million
- Idit Levine is the founder of buzzy cloud startup Solo.io which is worth $105 million, according to Pitchbook.
- Long before she became involved in tech, Levine worked as a professional basketball player in Israel. She eventually left basketball for computer science, but the drive she fostered on the court would continue off it, too.
- Here's how Levine used her grit and competitive spirit to build a firm that she hopes to grow into a billion-dollar company with a wide range of products.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
As entrepreneur Idit Levine started raising money for Solo.io, the developer startup she launched in 2017, she received an onslaught of inbound interest from investors. One eager firm even tried to seal itself a space in her funding round by sending her a basketball with the phrase "We want to win with you" written on it, signed by members of the VC team, along with other gifts.
The gesture was a nod to Levine's experience playing professional basketball in Israel for seven years. That phase of her career imbued her with a fierce ambition, which has carried over into her life as a startup founder. Solo has raised $36.85 million to-date at a $105 million valuation, according to Pitchbook, nabbing customers like Carfax and Sumo Logic along the way for products that help companies manage app security and features more efficiently. She hopes to eventually grow Solo into a massive firm like Apple, selling a range of technologies and products.
"I specifically chose a name that's not related to anything that we're doing," she said, "Because I don't know what we'll be next — I don't know what we will attack next."
Here's the inside story of how Levine transformed from a basketball star into the founder of a buzzy cloud startup:
Her basketball career taught her to outsmart competitors
Levine's grandparents were World War II refugees who settled in Israel and her parents grew up in survival mode. An electrical engineer and a school administrator, they spent their days working while Levine's grandmother, armed with a wealth of feel-good recipes, raised their four children in a crowded but love-filled home.
"She was worried about the fact that I don't know how to cook," Levine said of her grandmother. "She said to me, 'Who's going to marry you?'"
A self-described "wild child," Levine often stayed outside until sundown shooting hoops with the neighborhood children after school and joined her first official basketball team in seventh grade. Basketball fueled her competitive drive and her talent shone: When Levine was 17, one of Israel's professional women's basketball teams, Elitzur-Holon, recruited her.
At 5 feet, 8 inches tall, Levine was one of the shorter players in the league, making it crucial for her to quickly size-up competitors to find their weaknesses and out-maneuver them on the court.
"I wasn't the quickest, I wasn't the tallest, but I was the smartest," Levine said. Then, checking herself: "Not the smartest, but smart."
Her three-point shooting abilities didn't hurt either.
At 18, Levine juggled her basketball schedule — which required as many as six hours of practice a day, as well as tournaments — with Israel's mandatory military service. Meanwhile, her older siblings' careers in technology also piqued her interest and she began teaching herself how to code. After her military service, she enrolled in an Israeli university with dual majors in computer sciences and biological sciences, all while continuing to play basketball professionally. She maintained that jam-packed schedule for a while through grit, but it didn't feel tenable:
"It got to a point that when I needed to choose: Do I want to do a career in computer science or do I want to do basketball?" Levine recalls. "It made more sense to go to computer science."
'I was passionate about the cloud. I am still.'
At 24, she married her college sweetheart and the duo moved first to San Diego, then Boston, while Levine — through a spate of software engineering jobs — dreamed of running her own company. Then, in 2009, her experience at cloud firm DynamicOps "seriously changed my life," she recalls.
At the time, business spending on cloud was expected to reach a humble $9.6 billion, which is less than Amazon Web Service's third-quarter revenue in 2020. New use cases for the cloud were constantly emerging and as the needs of DynamicOps customers evolved, she felt inspired by how her coworkers met the challenges of scale and execution.
"I was passionate about cloud — I am still," she said. "I think there's always innovation there, so there's always something to learn."
After her time at DynamicOps and two subsequent cloud software jobs, Levine knew she still needed leadership skills if she wanted to be a startup founder. She interviewed with Dell in 2014 for an executive position in its EMC division, which sells cloud data storage, virtualization products, and more.
She was clear with the company from the beginning that her time there would be limited, telling her interviewer, "I will learn and then in two years I will start a startup," she said.
She landed the gig and became EMC's chief technology officer. Her boss paired her up with John Roese — now CTO of products and operations at Dell — who became a trusted mentor. Levine was technically skilled — her boss once told her he could lock her in a room with a Diet Coke and she could solve any technical problem — but needed guidance on managing employees, especially given her lingering language barrier.
"People said, 'She's too direct,'" Levine said. "'She's brilliant technically, but she's hard to work with,' and so on."
Relying on Roese and an executive coach, Levine eventually learned how to better communicate with her employees and peers.
"Basketball is a small team, no politics whatsoever, that's going to the same goal," she said. "It's definitely not the case in corporate America."
Levine launched Solo, a $105 million modern API infrastructure company
In 2017, a little past her two-year mark at Dell EMC, Levine kept her promise of leaving to begin her own startup, even though she didn't know exactly what she wanted to build yet.
"It was like, 'I just need to make money and get some money from the investors, and I will create this company that will be successful,'" she said.
With that confidence in tow, she launched Solo.io with a tool to help companies better manage the security of their application programming interfaces (APIs), which connect their apps to other products and services. In 2018, the company emerged from stealth with an $11 million Series A round from Redpoint Ventures and began rolling out other cloud software products, including Gloo, a tool to "glue" apps together that are built through a hot infrastructure design method called service mesh. Service mesh is a containerized approach to building products that allows different parts of multiple applications to "talk" to each other.
The company has grown quickly, raising a $23 million Series B in October and doubling its employee headcount in the last three months to a team of about 40 employees, plucked from Red Hat, Kubernetes company D2iQ, and (in some cases) straight out of college. Business Insider named Solo.io one of the top 100 startups of 2020.
"The quality of the people, the ideas running here: I think it's basically like working at Google, just without the politics of the big company," Levine said.
Solo has dozens of customers — including data aggregation firm PredictHQ and shipping service company uShip — and Levine said that all its new customers are in-bound, as opposed to Solo.io's sales team reaching out to them.
Her competitive spirit — which drove her to challenge with her siblings during chores (unbeknownst to them), heightened during her basketball career, and now spurs her to race her husband when she cleans a room — guides the way she builds her company, too. She wants it build it into a billion-dollar company on the scale of HashiCorp or VMware and is actively looking into new markets.
"I'm a very competitive person," Levine said. "You don't even know when I'm doing a competition with you."
And while her life as a successful entrepreneur feels worlds away from her childhood in Israel, she still kept her grandmother's advice in mind and her husband, with whom she's raised three children, has a crucial skill:
"My grandmother was very worried," she said, "But he's a good cook."
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