From Pink Floyd to PowToon: A Nomadic Entrepreneur’s Tale

By David Knight |

“We love PowerPoint for what it does, and we hate it for what it doesn’t do.” So says Ilya Spitalnik, the man behind online ‘explainer video’ tool PowToon, who is one of the more fascinating characters to have shown up in Berlin in recent months. Having lived in the divided city as a young child, and ventured back in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall to hone his entrepreneurial skills, Ilya has once again been returned to the German capital – this time drawn to by its growing startup community.

And he is convinced that his latest project will provide the ‘wow’ factor that he says is missing from other presentation platforms and disrupt a space where short promo animations can cost young companies thousands of euros.

An open manner, passionate about what he does, and keen to talk at length about the science of startups – at first glance, Ilya could pass as your average Berlin entrepreneur. But he has a breadth of experience which many don’t possess.

Having moved to West Berlin from the USSR at the age of four, he went to school in the UK before returning to a newly Wall-less city as the 1990s dawned. He attended the legendary Pink Floyd concert by the Brandenburg Gate in a city he says was abuzz. And this was when his entrepreneurial instincts first kicked in.

A Massive Technology Gap

“I saw these two countries melting together, East Germany and West Germany,” he said, “but in a greater sense, the Eastern Bloc and the West – and there was this massive gap in physical technology. People in Russia or East Germany still had these TVs which to all intents and purposes used a bulb. And I saw that there was going to be a matching in technology.”

He returned to London and visited the electronics shops along the Edgware Road looking to buy in bulk, before returning to Berlin and selling them to similar retailers in desperate need of Western stock at a tidy profit.

It was a huge success – for a time. “When you [were] supplying the Eastern Bloc you [had] to deal with elements you [didn’t] want to be dealing with. Some very heavy set men frightened me to such a degree that I picked up and left. [But] it was really great for one season.”

Unlike today’s entrepreneurs, perhaps, the Ilya of more than two decades ago didn’t then look around for his next startup project, but rather attended university in London before becoming a banker. He spent time in London, Paris, Frankfurt and Russia for various financial institutions including Deutsche Bank, where he worked on the first foreign online system where clients can interact.

Pockets Lined with Cash

But by the turn of the century Ilya had fallen in love with startups and the Internet. He left Deutsche Bank and started working on his first company, pockets lined with cash he had saved up.

“By the end of the year, I was almost bankrupt,” he added. “From that point, I really understood that setting up a business is not a fly-by-night kind of affair. You can’t just hope for the best You really need to know what you are doing.”

That experience, he said, has given him a fascination and obsession with best practice in startups and business in general. As a self-confessed startup nomad, he has spent time in London, Israel and, for three years, Berlin.

“Coming back to Berlin now and seeing all this startup activity… it’s amazing; it makes me think I really could find my place here now. My passion is for startups and my passion is for helping startups grow.”

And that brings us back to PowToon, his most recent project. It was, Ilya says, an exercise in best practice on how to take a startup from idea to reality with what he terms “rapid validation.” That involves testing an idea before launching into your business. See whether the market will respond – create a landing page, drive traffic to it and see what happens. With a static page there is a massively high bounce rate, but if you add a video, that drops significantly.

Something a Bit More Than PowerPoint

But the cost of these video was too high for him – upwards of $5,000. The tools already in existence to create your own videos and animations weren’t up to scratch either, he believed. “All I wanted was something that was a bit more than PowerPoint, that gave me a bit of animation; something, anything, that grabs my viewers’ attention.”

When Daniel Zaturansky approached him with an idea to start a studio with top Israeli animator Oren Mashkovski, Ilya scented an opportunity: “I said, let’s extract the skill and ability and design from this animator and bottle it into a software that we give to everybody.” The resulting presentation methodology is called the attention lasso – like interspersing a one-way conversation with short clips.

With Ilya and Daniel as co-founders and Oren and CTO Sven Hoffman also part of the founding team, the first line of code was written on January 1, 2012, and the public beta was launched in July. They face a great deal of competition in the space from the likes of Prezi, GoAnimate and Animoto, not to mention future iterations of Microsoft Office. Many of these tools, like PowToon, pride themselves on their ease of use. Having tried some of them out, PowToon does have one of the better user experiences. The desktop editor is simple and provides a range of styles, characters and props, and even someone who mocked by his own teachers for his brilliant inability to draw can create something usable in a fairly short period of time:

Plenty of people agree – the platform now has more than 50,000 users and has seen more than 100,000 PowToons created. It works on a freemium model, with individual credits or subscriptions available for features like removing the logo and time constraints and HD exporting. The subscriptions cost from $9 to $127 per month.

After an initial period of self-funding during the research stage, PowToon was given $180,000 in seed funding by Kima Ventures in December 2011, and closed a $600,000 round from Startup Minds a year later.

Based in London with an R&D team in Israel, don’t be to surprised to see a German presence before too long. Just like for the German capital, Ilya is predicting a disruptive year in the presentation space: “Around 95 percent of the market is dominated by PowerPoint, and people simply don’t love it. We love PowerPoint for what it does, and we hate it for what it doesn’t do, and what it doesn’t do is really grab you attention. So there is really space to improve the presentation experience.”