A few months ago, Shai Magzimof found himself in the pitch meeting of his life.
Of course, tech entrepreneurs like Magzimof are pitching venture capitalists all the time on their ideas. Magzimof (center, in the image above, with colleagues) had recently spent several months at Y Combinator, the seed funder for startups, so he knew that as well as anyone. But Magzimof, who was fresh out of high school in Israel, wasn't pitching a VC on his idea for an Android app—he was pitching a general in the Israeli Army. And he wasn't asking for money—he was asking for time.
Israeli citizens are expected to serve three years in the Army after high school. But Magzimof had his idea for his app now, and he wanted time to work on it. "At the beginning," he tells Fast Company, "I sent a lot of letters, I didn't know who to talk to," to gain an audience with a decision-maker in the army. He asked around, and finally, one day, he got a call from a general, who said, "I want to meet you."
"He asked me questions about what is it," says Magzimof. "I had to explain in detail who I am, what is Innobell, and what I planned to do in the future. I had to make him fall in love with the idea." So the general, like a venture capitalist, sat and listened skeptically while a then-19-year-old kid pitched him an idea.
This is how Innobell would work, explained Magzimof. Have you ever been on a call with someone, or texting someone, when you wanted to do something or share something across the phone? Innobell would make that happen. While on a call from one Android phone to another, there would be a background screen of icons—a YouTube button, a PayPal button, a Locations button, and so on. Say you want to quickly share a video while chatting—just press the YouTube button and send it. Say your cheap friend is about to buy two tickets for the movies for you, but wants you to pay him up front—just click PayPal button, and a connection is instantly forged (no need to press home, go the browser, load the site, remember your friend's handle for payment, and so on). Or say you got in an argument and wanted to settle it in the classic way—with rock, paper, scissors. There would even be a special app to make that possible.
In his pitch Magzimof also added some details about how this would be an Israel-based company that would create jobs for the country and reflect well upon the homeland. The general said he'd think about it, but didn't make any promises. To allow a deferral of Magzimof's commitment over a business idea would be unprecedented.
Magzimof went home and crossed his fingers. Not long afterward, he learned that he would be granted a year to make his app a reality.
An exemption like this was so unusual that it garnered Magzimof national media attention in Israel, like this Hebrew-language TV report from two weeks ago:
Innobell launches on Android today. Here's a video of some of the call add-on features in action.
Currently, Innobell enables nine add-ons. Eventually, Magzimof and his software developers Chaim Kutnicki and Noam Modai want to open up their API so third parties can make add-ons of their own for Innobell. Almost any app, in theory, could have a place on Innobell. Once you install Innobell, it's smart enough to know whether you're calling another Android phone, and thus that it should show all the add-on buttons, or whether you're calling a landline or other phone that's not Innobell-enabled, and thus doesn't need to clutter the screen.
Innobell only works for Android right now (the GSM/LTE phones, specifically). The iPhone call menu is locked in, so in the current version of iOS, call add-ons are not possible (features could be enabled in chat, however). Magzimof hopes that when demand for Innobell or products like it rises, the folks at Apple will equip the iPhone to use them as well in a future OS update.
Will one year be enough time for Magzimof to get his startup off the ground? He hopes so. But if not, he has been talking to the Army about the possibility of extending his deferral one more year. With his app launching today, he should have more fodder for his next pitch. Maybe he and the general could settle it remotely, with a game of rock-paper-scissors.