If Lior Haramaty really enjoyed flying airplanes, he probably never would have opened ZingCycle in Tenafly last year.
He would have stayed with the Israeli air force as a pilot, rather than transferring after a year into a research and development army career.
He would not have met Alon Cohen, who became his friend and business partner as they developed some of the first computer sound cards in the 1980s. Their company, VocalTec, would not have taken off in the 1990s, leading Lior to move from Israel to Tenafly. And if he nonetheless had gotten the idea that he could build a better indoor cycling parlor in 2015, he would not have opened it in Tenafly.
But flying airplanes, the mission he was assigned when he was drafted by the Israeli army, didn’t interest him.
“The way I saw it, you’re becoming a driver,” he said.
Before he was drafted, he had already discovered the thrill of tinkering with electronics and computers. When he was 15, in 1981, he started writing and selling educational software and developing add-on hardware for his first computer (a Sinclair Spectrum, for the record).
He was following in his father’s footsteps. Both Haramatys attended technical high schools. Lior’s father, Yisrael, was born in Petach Tikvah. After high school Yisrael moved to a kibbutz, where he met his wife, Lea. Then the couple moved to Tel Aviv, where Yisrael worked in the Habima theater. Not on the stage but behind the scenes, working on the technical equipment, the electricity and the sound. He started working behind the camera, taking pictures for the theater. Then he branched out as a general purpose commercial photographer; he was so good that some of his negatives ended up in Harvard’s archives. Last year an Israeli stamp featured one of his photographs.
Lior began his working career “being an unpaid kid model for many years,” he said. But he was more than a cute face — Lior also inherited his father’s technical aptitude and initiative.
With his heart in the technical work and entrepreneurship rather than in the cockpits of the Pipers and Fougas he flew, Lior transferred after a year from flying for the IDF to using his technical talents. He was recruited to work in research and development; what he did was classified. His knowledge and experience let him work alongside those who had attended college before their army duty, although he had not.
Lior served a total of five years in the army, and he and Alon Cohen started their first business while they still were in uniform, creating one of the first PC sound cards. This was back in 1985. They had perfected the hardware. It recorded sound and played it back. People were impressed — but they couldn’t understand the point.
“Why do you need sound on a computer?” they asked.
Working with IBM Israel, Lior and Alon integrated sound into a pre-Powerpoint slideshow program. “You have to remember that this was before Windows and multitasking. It was still a DOS environment on very slow computers,” Lior said.
The pair worked with Israel’s Ministry of Defense to develop a program to let blind people use computers. They developed the first Hebrew text-to-speech software. “It was very nice to see users writing their university papers using our system,” Lior said.
VocaTec built a system that allowed the Israeli lottery to read lottery results over the phone. It was Israel’s first automated toll-free number. The pair also built electronic music boxes for ice cream trucks, replacing mechanical music boxes, which would break down because they were locked in the ice box overnight.
They built an external sound device for the 1990 equivalent of laptops — the 20-pound computers with fat-screen monitors designed to fit under an airplane seat, referred to, not all that fondly, as luggables. They called it the CAT (compact audio technology) and started selling it in the United States. “It became the first Israeli technology product on retail shelves in the U.S.,” Lior said.
“In 1987 we started playing with transmitting voice over computer networks,” he continued. “It was way too early for the market, because nearly nobody had local area networks at the time. At the beginning of the ‘90s we started experimenting with that again, because networks within an office environment had become more common. We developed vocal chat, which enabled you to have an intercom inside the office using your computer network. It was very innovative. Most computers did not come with sound cards. We were selling packages of sound cards to enable the system to work.”
Then users started trying to connect with far-flung offices. The software designed for a local network didn’t work well for trans-Atlantic conversation, but the demand led to the next product, which offered voice chat over a wide area network.
“In the early ‘90s, hardly anybody connected to a global network. When the Internet craze started, in ‘93 and ‘94, we worked on something for the internet. In February ‘95, we started selling the InternetPhone, or the iPhone for short,” he said. This first iPhone — pre-Apple — was a program that used patented data compression technology to make phone calls over the internet. And it required what Wired described as high-end hardware: “a fast 486, 8 Mbytes of RAM, a 16-bit sound card.” Oh, and to work well, you needed more than the 14.4k dial-up modem that was the standard way to connect to the internet.
Wired was typically breathless over the new technology, but it understood the impact that voice-over-internet technology would have. As the magazine noted, back then it cost $15 an hour for a phone call from New York to Los Angeles. VocalTec demonstrated that calls could be made for free — and that long distance phone tolls were headed the way of the typewriter.
“We made a lot of noise at that time,” Lior said. “We had literally thousands of media clips in the next few months. This was a huge success for all.”
VocalTec became one of the first companies to do commerce over the internet. “We had to develop most of the system that was doing the sales,” he said. “To give you an idea, credit card charging over the internet was nonexistent. We had a group of temps coming in in the morning to charge the cards.”
Lior was 29 when he took the company public at the beginning of 1996. He had moved to Tenafly the year before. He was married by then, and his son, Ben, was 3. (Dan and Ori were born later.) “I was looking for good schools,” he said. “Everyone recommended the school system in Tenafly. The JCC was by far the best preschool facility I could find.
“There were not so many Israelis in Tenafly then,” he added. “There was a big community in Fair Lawn. I was one of the pioneers.”
Lior’s VocalTech partners followed him, and so did some army buddies.
He left VocalTech’s day-to-day operations in 2000. Since then he has worked as a consultant and started a few companies.
His most recent venture is ZingCycle, a spin exercise center in Tenafly. “It’s riding bikes to music,” he said, with an instructor setting the pace. He had become a devotee of the exercise — and decided he could set the stage for a better experience.
He and his business partner, Laurie Spiropoulos, designed ZingCycle. “Everything from the interior design to the electrical and sound system,” he said.
He views it as a startup. “For the first eight months, we probably spent most of our time there, being literally in almost every class,” he said. “We wanted to create a place that was as welcoming and friendly and easy as possible without compromising the workout.”
While 30 years ago the idea of sound cards in computers was a novelty, today it’s no surprise that stationery bicycles come with built-in computing power, showing how many calories are burned in a session and then sending a follow-up email afterwards. “A projector on a big screen shows a simulation of the bikes with avatars. They can race on a virtual road,” Lior said.
The goal of ZingCycle was to open many sites and franchise the operation. They were close to opening a center in Paramus when space adjacent to their Tenafly studio became available. Instead of expanding to other towns, ZingCycle opened another store next door to ZingCycle. It was a conceptual expansion, with non-bicycle fitness classes including kickboxing and piloxing, a cross between Pilates and boxing, and it’s called ZingroupX.
All told, the two centers offer 64 classes a week.
Lior’s two oldest children — Ben, 24, and Dan, 20 — work part-time at ZingCycle. (Ori, 17, is in high school). Like their father, all of his children are technically inclined. But they’ve been more smitten by one of Lior’s avocations — cooking. One is considering entering the hospitality business, another in attending culinary school. They consider themselves Israeli, said Lior, who still speaks mostly Hebrew with them.
Looking back on his career, Lior said that there are no shortcuts.
“To make a startup into a real company, there is a lot of work that has to be put in,” he said.