In the seventh episode of season 2, Janina Neumann interviews Guy Kobani, co-founder of Novaloop.
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Janina Neumann (00:00):
Welcome to The Bicultural Podcast. The Bicultural Podcast celebrates bicultural individuals and gives insight into cultural differences, to help you improve business relationships. The podcast is presented by myself, Janina Neumann, a bilingual creative, social entrepreneur, and business owner.
Janina Neumann (00:23):
Welcome to The Bicultural Podcast. Today I'm delighted to be joined by Guy Kobani, co-founder of Novaloop. Hi Guy. How are you?
Guy Kobani (00:33):
Hi, Janina. I'm good. How are you?
Janina Neumann (00:35):
I'm very well, thank you. I'm really excited to have you on my podcast today.
Guy Kobani (00:39):
Happy to be here.
Janina Neumann (00:41):
Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?
Guy Kobani (00:44):
Yeah, of course. So my name is Guy Kobani. I'm 38 years old. I am Israeli that has been living in Germany for the last 15 years. Studied here, my bachelor and masters, and also I've been working for the last 10 years in different areas of environmental compliance and sustainability, and last year I founded a new company called Novaloop.
Janina Neumann (01:07):
Oh, fantastic. So tell us a little bit more about life back in Israel.
Guy Kobani (01:15):
Yeah. Well, I think unlike what many people think, I had a very normal childhood in Israel, like everybody else, I guess, depending how you define normal, but yes, I am the third of five boys with a very big family. I'm actually the only one who's not living in Israel at the moment, which is kind of difficult, I think for part of the family and also for me it's sometimes, but, this is how things came to be. So the first 21 years I've been in Israel solely, childhood, school, went to the military for three years. And when I turned 21, I started traveling, I went to South America for one year, I'm backpacked down there. That's actually where I met Bianca, my life partner, and mother of my children. And after that, I spent some time in the US, traveled again in Central America, went back to the US, and after that in 2006, came to Germany.
Janina Neumann (02:16):
Oh, brilliant. And how was it traveling to different cultures? What were your experiences?
Guy Kobani (02:24):
Yeah, it's very difficult to sum it up very shortly, but I think in the beginning for me, it was very important to know the language. So even before I went, I've taken a Spanish course to make sure I will be able to communicate and also travel on my own. Many Israelis travel with big groups and in the beginning, and at least for the few first weeks, I also joined some other Israelis because it's easier and safer to have people that you can speak within your own language. But very quickly, I found that if I do this, I will not experience South America truly. So then I started traveling on my own, which made me deal with the fact that my language skills are not as good as I thought, and also through this challenge, I was able to improve my Spanish very quickly.
Guy Kobani (03:14):
Also traveling on my own gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of other people from many different countries and also many local people. And it was a very unique experience because not every country, but even every region, has its unique characteristics and cultural differences, and being in Southern Argentina is not like being in Buenos Iris, and spending time in Rio is not like being up in the jungles say around Manaus. So it was very unique and it just made me want to explore more and get to know as much of each country as I could, but like every other person that is backpacking, budget is always an issue, so after eight months I had to go back home.
Janina Neumann (04:04):
Oh, wow. That sounds really cool. And how do you think that has affected kind of your skills of like building trust and creating friendships with people?
Guy Kobani (04:16):
Oh, quite a lot, actually. Funny story, because when I started, when I went to study in Germany for the first time, it was actually not planned, so I registered in the absolute last minute and I had to submit a short motivation letter. Why am I interested in my bachelor studies, which was computational linguistics. So where do I have any linguistic skills? So when I wrote that, I spent more time writing about my experiences, traveling in Central America, and learning from native kids about their language by having a notebook and I was drawing something or they were drawing something, and we were trying to communicate this way or my attempts to learn a bit of Quechua and Aymara in the mountains of Peru. And my guide and the person actually read that paper spent a lot of time there and actually knew what I was talking about.
Guy Kobani (05:12):
So that's the main reason they took me because I had zero to no I.T. skills but he saw that I actually have quite a lot of interest in different languages and trying to understand how to communicate with other people. So traveling in South and Central America helped me get accepted to my bachelor degree bachelor programme in a very short amount of time. So that was actually one of these things. And of course, being open to try and communicate with people, helps to open a lot of doors. So even if you don't speak the language perfectly, in many cases, they will try to accommodate you, to support you, to help you along your way. But if you're just asking in English, you usually don't get as good as communication ability from their side, because they usually don't feel as confident talking to you as you are when you try to talk in their language.
Janina Neumann (06:08):
Yeah, that's a really good point. Oh, wow. What an experience and also what a great lesson there as well is to, you know, reflect on the experiences and skills that you do have to progress into other things. So where did your bachelor degree take you?
Guy Kobani (06:28):
Well, not far to be honest. So it was a really good programme in the University of Tübingen in Southern Germany. And it was also the only program, which was mainly in English because, at that point of time, I have not spoken a word of German. I've never learned German before. So that was the only programme I could actually start. The programme itself was pretty good, but I think at some point I felt that programming or it maybe won't be something I want to do further. So I think I wanted to finish the bachelor because I started the bachelor and I've done so, but then I thought I want to actually more be more in the area of business administration, sales. I worked in sales before in the US and also in Israel. And I thought that will be a good idea to look for some international programme that maybe would take me more into that direction.
Guy Kobani (07:19):
So then I found International Management programme in a university, not far from where we live today, which is also an international programme, but had a 50-50 English/German requirements, including courses taken in German, papers to write, exams also. And basically, I had to teach myself German as fast as possible. Luckily, my partner was helping me a lot with that as well. So within one year, I was able to catch up on all the knowledge that I needed to make sure that I can first get accepted to the programme and then also finish it successfully. And one of the focus I've taken there was actually sustainability and corporate sustainability. And I written my master thesis about corporate sustainability programme and management programmes for smaller/medium-size enterprises.
Janina Neumann (08:19):
Oh, wow. Well, great story. And also to be able to learn a language to that level as well to do that course, must've been quite a challenge as well.
Guy Kobani (08:31):
Officially, I never ever finished a German course in my life. Like when first in my bachelor, we had like evening classes of German, but the programme was so jammed packed that it was twice a week between 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM. And I literally fell asleep every day that I had to sit in that class. So maybe I learned some things in my sleep. And then I had the idea of joining a summer course. So I searched for some of them and I found one in the University of Tübingen. But it was kind of more like a summer school for teenagers and me. So I was very out of place in a group of 60 Japanese girls and me trying to learn German that didn't work very well. Then when it became a necessity for my master studies to get accepted even because even the interview process was in German, then I really kind of improvised the German class with my partner and she helped me a lot dealing with different grammatic issues and reading and all that. And that's kind of how I reached the German level like that I needed for that and that improved over time because again, I had to take university classes in German, write exams in German, and then for the last 10 years I've been working here for German companies, in which, of course, most of the communication written or oral s in German. So that of course helped a lot as well.
Janina Neumann (10:07):
Oh, wow. That's really cool. And you know, I'm just reflecting on how you work in sales in America and in Israel, and I just wonder that also those skills, sales, also perhaps helped you understand how to almost sell yourself in those situations and those courses as well.
Guy Kobani (10:30):
Yeah. I think in sales, in general, you usually sell yourself. So we had that in the US for example, with direct sales, so if you keep trying and trying, and you're not succeeding, you have this issue that you're basically you're draining out of energy. So the more you try, the less you're going to succeed. So after a while, I was a sales rep. I actually became a manager. So I was responsible for eight employees. I was training them, motivating them, making sure that they work. And in many cases working harder, didn't actually yield better results. So you need to stay focused and make sure that you are talking to a person that you think has high potential. So you need to screen out very well and very early because if not, you'll just get exhausted by midday and you won't be able to continue.
Guy Kobani (11:16):
And I think that applies even later, because I've never learned, studied, sales, to be honest. It's just a question of energy and also a question of trust. So when you have a good conversation with people and they feel like they trust you, then they will trust the advice you give them about a specific product or service, of course, knowledge is a big part of that. And let's say this way, if you don't have proper backing of your product and service, you can maybe sell it to them once, but they will come back disappointed. So it was very important to me at any job that I had in sales to build trust and also a long-term relationship because a client which will buy a product or a service from you once and is unhappy will just tell that to at least 10 more people, how unhappy he was with this service or product, but if they are happy, they will come back themselves and they will also bring more people to look at what you have to offer. So this is very important, I think for long-term relationship building as well.
Janina Neumann (12:17):
Yeah, that's really important, and it also shows that building those long-term relationships will, you know, you'll have maybe perhaps fewer customers, but you have long-term customers. And also, you know, you've learned so much about them that you can help them a lot more quickly, which is better than, you know, having lots of customers and not knowing anything about them.
Guy Kobani (12:39):
Yeah. I think it's not even a question of even helping them more quickly. It's an issue of helping them more reliably. So I had many cases where I actually told the potential company or customers, "Actually check other solutions because I can offer you this, but I'm not sure this will be a right fit for you". And I think this level of honesty of telling a company, "Yes, we have a solution. It may work for this in and this case, but if it doesn't, we have to put it on the table now. If you're still convinced to use this solution, that is fine, but at least you are fairly warned". And I think a lot of companies are kind of surprised when a salesperson tells him, "Please check other alternatives in the market, make sure that you find the product more fitting to you or a service much more fitting to you and not necessarily buy my stuff because I am selling it".
Guy Kobani (13:29):
And I think this level of honesty also gains a much more stable part, because I've had companies saying, "Yeah, I will not buy this from you because I've actually checked around and this other solution will fit better". But they came back as soon as something was actually better fitting because they found that very refreshing to have someone telling them, "Make sure to make your market research, I'm convinced in what I'm selling, but there are other products out there. And if in the end, you will not work with this, then it's useless for me to sell it to you because it's just not going to be used either a product or a service". So I think that's also something which is very important, not just push everything you have at everyone, but make sure you sell whatever you have to the fitting type of company and the user in the end, because if it doesn't fit, you will have to deal with a very unhappy customer for a very long time instead of having giving them honest advice.
Janina Neumann (14:22):
That's really powerful, and also it comes back to your own reputation, but also your brand reputation, about how you deal with customers and how you share your expertise as well. I think that's really important like you say.
Guy Kobani (14:37):
Janina Neumann (14:37):
I'm interested to hear, did you find any similarities or differences between like doing business in America, Israel, or Germany?
Guy Kobani (14:52):
Oh yeah, they are very different. So I think working with Americans, it's very friendly. It's always, I think you never actually reach a point that you don't stay friendly, even if things don't fit or don't actually work. So it's very important I think for American companies or American contacts to be as friendly as they can, even if sometimes it, I would say, hinders the actual discussion and the hard questions. It's not that they don't pose those questions, they do, but they do it in a very subtle way. So sometimes it's not even clear if it is a criticism which comes out and you need to answer for something, or is it really just very... And sometimes it hinders productivity I think in the discussion because you're not sure exactly what the core issue is. I think Germans on the other hand they will be more eager to confront but in a very non-emotional way.
Guy Kobani (15:53):
So they will talk about the merits or the disadvantages, and the discussion can be a very hard type of confrontation I would say. But again, it stays very unemotional. And Israelis on the other hand, they are very direct and very emotional. So they will confront you with something directly and say, "Yeah, this is not going to work at all, the way I see it". And you need to basically find a way to reach out and figure out how to make this connection, but the decisions are also made much quicker. So if you convince them in the first instance, you will have the client very quickly on board. With Germans you can do all the convincing that you need to do, you have all the merits laid out and still, it will take much longer to make a final decision. So I think that's also a difference that I've seen the question of speed on decision-making.
Janina Neumann (16:49):
Oh, wow. That's really interesting, you know, touching on how a culture can be direct, but you know, whether there's emotion behind it or not, I think that's been missed by quite a few business books. I've never heard it being expressed in that way. That's really interesting. And do you find, you know, now that we're communicating more, perhaps over video conferencing calls, do you think does that help you understand how they feel? Because we're now more eager to like set up a video calls than perhaps a phone call. Do you think you're able to judge kind of from the body language or how they say things, whether they're being emotional or not?
Guy Kobani (17:36):
Definitely. I think a lot of the communication that we have is non-verbal communication. I think in 93% in some studies. And I think if you have someone on the screen, you have access to more of that. You can see facial expressions, you can understand more from their body language, at least from face-up because you don't usually see their hands unless you talk to Israelis, so you will see more of their hands. So you do have that access. I think it helps to some extent. And I also think what I found in the last year, especially with Germans, which is positive, that when you have them in a video conference, usually they will go from the official 'Sie' addressing to 'Du' to a personal addressing.
Guy Kobani (18:26):
So this is also something which I found to be quite refreshing that I think this general loneliness that's caused by COVID helped a lot of people a lot of people, I would say to get out a bit out of their shell, and even try to have more personal contact within their business relationships, which I think is a positive step, because I think this helps a lot of people as well on the personal level and also on the professional level to communicate. Still, I think in some cases I would say a face-to-face meeting has added value. But these are at the moment, I would say impossible, hopefully by the end of the year, things will look differently but different, but we'll have to wait and see.
Janina Neumann (19:10):
Oh, that's really interesting. And yeah, I think the pandemic has changed everyone's kind of perception about how important those conversations are in business because we spend so much of our time talking to business contacts. So especially when people are quite isolated, it's interesting to see that shift from 'Sie' to 'Du'. That's really interesting. Fantastic. So tell us a little bit more about how Novaloop evolved.
Guy Kobani (19:42):
Yeah, I think Novaloop is a long story. Although, as I mentioned, we founded the company in October last year, but all four co-founders were all colleagues at the same company 10 years ago. So we all worked together for four years. Then I left that company four years ago, went to another company called ThinkStep, now it's Sphera, where I worked in the life cycle assessment software data and consulting services in sales. So in those four years, I focused more in product sustainability, life cycle assessment of products, and supply chains. And my three current co-founders were former colleagues and well last year, well, two years ago, September 2019, I think it was about Sphera, which has brought a lot of changes, some positives, some negatives, and on top of that came COVID. And I think all of these changes made me think if I want to stay in that organisation under those conditions and under the situation, or do I want to look for something else?
Guy Kobani (20:51):
As I was on my search, I was contacted by one of my current co-founders, which told me that they are actually interested in starting a new company, which will combine compliance requirements with sustainable development, and this is something that I always wanted to combine. So since I've written my master thesis in this area, supporting SMEs with a corporate sustainability 11 years ago, even working for my old consulting company, I tried to always motivate them going into this direction of sustainability and supporting the clients, not just in compliance, and this kind of never went forward, and even in ThinkStep I was working in product sustainability, but there was a department dealing with product compliance and I was trying to work with them in better higher levels of corporation that never actually came to fruition.
Guy Kobani (21:49):
So for me to have the opportunities to start a company with three former colleagues that I appreciate and love very much and dealing with the topic that I wanted to deal with and combined for the last 10 years, it was basically the perfect combination. So as soon as this was offered, I basically jumped the wagon and decided to do this. Novaloop itself, as I mentioned, so we are a consultancy and of course, a service provider for small and mid-size companies helping them deal with compliance complications and compliance market entry requirements in all over Europe, and of course, North America and also helping them understand, not just the compliance requirements, but helping them build their sustainability path and sustainability targets based on their product compliance requirements. So we try to help them deal with both aspects under the same umbrella and not look at these as two completely separate entities.
Janina Neumann (22:56):
Yeah, that's really important. And I think that's also kind of the key to making sure that things work in the long-term as well. I'm just curious, how do you think the awareness of sustainability has changed since writing your master thesis?
Guy Kobani (23:13):
Oh, amazingly. So, it has taken giant leaps. So when I wrote my thesis about implementing EMAS, Environmental Management Audit Scheme, for a small company, back then it was unheard of, it was made for smaller companies, but it was not very well spread. So it was kind of a unique thing to do for small companies. And only a few companies did it, and many of them focused on the low-hanging fruits; changing lights for LEDs, and setting different elements that also help them save money and not just improving on their performance. And even when I started at ThinkStep, if you look at Life Cycle Assessment of products, there was kind of like a benchmark saying companies that make less than half a billion euros a year will not even be interested in purchasing this kind of software because the costs are too high. And it's just not something that's going to happen.
Guy Kobani (24:13):
When I left ThinkStep, we had companies with 50 employees buying this type of software, because they wanted to make sure that from the first instance, from the first product they put on the market, they calculated the impact assessment of the entire supply chain, so they can improve continuously. And we're talking about company as startups, we're not even talking about large companies. So we have seen a huge shift and this is ongoing from companies that I would say, if you look at it, originally these issues are dealt by market leaders company, companies which are under a lot of scrutiny or pressure from external stakeholder holders or companies which decided to implement change and lead the change themselves. And now we are seeing that these large companies are requiring their supply chains to deal with the same issues.
Guy Kobani (25:09):
And these companies are mid-size companies, smaller companies, many of them are struggling just with the compliance requirements. So for them to start implementing sustainable development goals or circular economies or life cycle assessment of their products and supply chains is so far away. So they are the ones that we are targeting as well as at Novaloop because we are trying to help them simplify the process and have it managed under one roof, and not just having some people collecting information for a corporate sustainability, some for purchasing ability, some for product compliance and for corporate compliance. So we're trying to help them have a more harmonised system, and this is what we are trying to support them with. And going from the compliance to the sustainability and making sure that they are future-proofing their products and supply chain, by dealing with it in a very informed, simplified way and not having too many stakeholders within the company and outside the company dealing with all of these issues.
Janina Neumann (26:14):
Oh, wow. That's fantastic to hear that there has been such a shift and, you know, for our listeners who might not be aware of some of the terminology, could you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by circular economy?
Guy Kobani (26:28):
So there are different areas of circular economy. So if you look at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, they've developed a cradle-to-cradle methodology in which you can look at each products from the sourcing of raw materials to the assembly, to the use phase and the end of life, and you can implement different circular aspects within that supply chain. So let's say if you're sourcing materials, you may source materials from recycled content, or you can use virgin materials. This goes for the product, this goes for the packaging, even in the use phase, you can integrate different circular options. So if you're talking about repairability that you are offering as a company, so if a product of a component or a part breaks that you can actually write a company and they will send you either cost-free or for an extra fee the replaceable parts, so you can replace and repair it yourself, or you can send it to them to repair it for you and send it back.
Guy Kobani (27:27):
Even if you are looking at end of life, how can you first avoid going to the dump too early? So again, repairability reusability, or if it has to be recycled, then it's easy to disassemble that it doesn't have too many different complicated elements that needs to be either thrown away or cannot be recycled or upcycled. So they have to be incinerated. So how can you avoid all of these things? So there are different elements that you can integrate within your supply chain to reach a higher circularity score index. There are other methods as well that you can use. You can also implement the Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations into your products' supply chain so that different elements of sustainable production and sustainable consumption. So you can also integrate those, also reduce energy consumption, et cetera, et cetera. We can talk about that happily in more detail, but I think we might not have enough time, but these are just some sustainable elements that you can, of course, integrate as part of your sustainability method. Or you can even say, I want to make sure I combine these with my compliance requirements, and this way you have a more robust sustainability definition and goals set.
Janina Neumann (28:50):
Wow. That sounds really interesting. So what would you recommend for people who are interested in taking that step? What's a good first step in making sure that they start their journey from compliance to sustainability correctly?
Guy Kobani (29:10):
I think the first step is understanding where you are now. So having a round table within your company, talking to different stakeholders from logistics, from sales, from R&D from packaging, even from C management and trying to understand what has been done so far, because again, you can run your own compliance audit check. Are we compliant based on all the relevant requirements in our relevant markets, so usually companies where they are at. So a German company will usually have most of their, or if not all, the compliance requirements in their HQ country set. Some companies, of course, will take extra measures to make sure that they are also compliant in their other markets. But as soon as you expand to new markets, you need to make sure that you have some sort of a, I would say, quick check audit either internally made, or we can do that for you.
Guy Kobani (30:05):
But the point is having kind of like a folder with what legislation areas do I need to deal with these issues when I go to these markets or not? Is there a similar legislation to Germany? Is there a different legislation? Are there labeling issues that I need to deal with? Are there fees I need to pay? So you can do that per product or product group for every market you are active in. And of course, you need to make sure that you have a system that is continuously audited and checked because legislation tends to change every once in a while. So you need to make sure you are up to date. And if you say, I have a good compliance set up, I have the information I'm in good contact with my suppliers, and also with my distributors, everything is green. Everything is working.
Guy Kobani (30:52):
Then you can say based on my current system, what steps can I take within my supply chain to ensure Sustainable Development Goals to reduce my waste stream, so reduce the amount of packaging I'm using or having more environmentally friendly packaging. So what can I integrate in order to improve my environmental performance to reduce my ecological footprint or to have more circular products? And this you can also do on your own if you can learn this, there are a lot of courses available online, some also for free. So you can actually educate yourself and build yourself as the key contact person within a company. Or if these resources are lacking, if the information is lacking, that's where we, as Novaloop, are happy to support in any type of relationship needed. So if you need a trainer, we can do that. If you need someone to be your external sustainability or compliance department, we can do that as well and everything in between.
Janina Neumann (32:00):
Oh, wow. That sounds brilliant. So if people love listening to you Guy, how can they connect and perhaps also work with you?
Guy Kobani (32:09):
Well, they can always contact us via our email address at firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also look us up. We are in LinkedIn, we are in Xing, we are in Twitter. You can find our website so we can always reach out to us as well. We also post up article news, so whenever there isn't a relevant update to our network, we posted there also in different groups and on some different occasions we do have also a short video shorts, as news as well. So you can always reach out to us through the different chat functions in all of our networks.
Janina Neumann (32:49):
Oh, fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Guy. It's been such an insightful chat and it's been fantastic talking to you and thank you very much for your time.
Guy Kobani (32:59):
Thanks for having me Janina, it was great talking to you as well. And I hope your listeners will also find our conversation interesting.
Janina Neumann (33:06):
Yes, I hope so. Well, I certainly learned a lot so I am sure they learned a lot too. Thank you, Guy.
Guy Kobani (33:13):
Janina Neumann (33:17):
So, I hope you've enjoyed this episode. Please don't forget to subscribe to The Bicultural Podcast. Thank you for listening, and bis bald.