Yoav Vilner’s first startup was a marketing firm for tech companies—and with 600 clients, it offered him an unparalleled education in the challenges startups face, and the methods to succeed.
“I was very, very lucky to see the ins and outs of hundreds of startups, in different industries, trying to do different things with different budgets,” Yoav says. The education paid off. After that first startup, several others followed, all of them enjoying varying degrees of success.
On this edition of Founders Journey, Yoav takes us through his career, including what he learned in that first marketing firm, his startup that helped save children from predators—and why he ultimately left that company to found his current startup, Walnut.io, which creates codeless software demos for sales and marketing teams.
More information: https://www.walnut.io/
Yoav Vilner is CEO at Walnut, the world’s first Sales Experience Platform. Prior to that, Yoav co-founded an anti-bullying startup, as well as one of the world’s first tech marketing companies with over 600 clients. Yoav was also named “Tech Marketer to Watch” by Forbes Magazine, has been mentoring startups in accelerators by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Amazon and the U.N, as well as writing for publications such as CNBC, Inc, Entrepreneur, TheNextWeb, FOX news and more.show more
Walnut helps sales and marketing teams become customer-centric. As the world’s first Sales Experience platform, it allows teams to create personalized, failure-free and efficient B2B demo processes, not relying on any back-end team such as R&D, product and design.
Walnut helps fortune 500 and tech companies such as Adobe, NetApp and Varonis, and has recently raised a $6M seed round from top Silicon Valley investors.show less
DISCLAIMER: Below is an AI generated transcript. There could be a few typos but it should be at least 90% accurate. Watch video or listen to the podcast for the full experience!
Yoav Vilner 0:00
Our product was super early. But I know from my previous background that if you announce something first, that’s going to say
Alexander Ferguson 0:14
welcome to UpTech Report. This is our founders journey series UpTech Report is sponsored by TeraLeap. Learn how to leverage the power of video at Teraleap.io. Today, this is our second part episode, definitely go back and listen to part one of my guest, Yoav Vilner who’s based in Tel Aviv, he’s the CEO and Co-founder at Walnut. Their product is a no code platform to create customized and interactive sales demos of software. Good to have you on again, man. Thanks, it’s been a while. Now this is a continuation of our discussion, hearing more about your journey, what I what I wanted you to do is take us back, go back all the way as far as you’d like. And help me understand like how, what were the data points in the directory that got you where you are today that your third company that you’ve you’ve run it and started and launching this whole new category? Not your first time and a new category, too?
Yoav Vilner 1:07
Yeah. So I tend to say that I got a little bit lucky when I was 22. Because I just wanted to do some freelance marketing for startups. And it ended up being the biggest and the first company in Tel Aviv to do that.
Alexander Ferguson 1:22
So if you’re the first company in Tel Aviv to do any marketing for SAS tech companies, yeah. So you hit the mark before anyone else there was, which meant that you actually had a lot of opportunity for growth that really does scale quickly.
Yoav Vilner 1:37
It scale, you know, it’s not a VC business. So scale was like, no, it’s relatively speaking. But it was, for me, it was a roller coaster like it was just me and a friend. We wanted to be freelancers, and everyone needed it. While nobody else would was doing it. While a lot of Israeli startups were starting to, you know, raise really significant rounds, and become the startup nation that it is now. So all of that together, and the brand that we built, caused about 600 startups to hire us. And we grew to be dozens of employees with offices in London and Manhattan. So I was the CEO there for like seven years. And during that time, I was invited to be like a mentor and advisor in most of the different startup accelerators and write about my marketing experience in publications such as Forbes magazine, Inc, magazine, CNBC, and more.
Alexander Ferguson 2:31
That was ranky. Is that correct? ranking? Gotcha. And then you go on from there saying I’m ready for my next thing is how did you kind of leave that you didn’t use us you sell you sold? Your your part of it? Is that what it was?
Yoav Vilner 2:45
Yeah, I can’t I came back from Manhattan to Tel Aviv. I’ve done a lot of thinking in Manhattan. It was like the best year of my life living there. Because just an amazing place. And I told my co founder in Ranchi, I think what I think I’m done here, and he was like, but you are ranking like, you’re, you know, you’re, you’re the guy like you’re the CEO of that. And it’s since it’s not a VC business, all you have is you. So if you’re out, everyone’s out. And I told him, that I’m totally aware of that. But he can keep doing it. And we’re still good friends up until now. And he kept on doing it for a while. But for me, it was about just shelling selling my share and moving on to something more like technology based.
Alexander Ferguson 3:33
He just had a desire to create something versus just service space. Continuing on. Exactly. The trajectory brought you to the anti bullying startup is that was that was the next venture that you started.
Yoav Vilner 3:45
Right? So I actually had a different idea for a startup I was really excited about enabling. Well, first of all, I’ll say thank God, I haven’t actually done that startup, even though I was offered the seed round for that. But it was about helping what is now referred to digital nomads, like you know, the the cool people that are traveling, no strings attached. They live, they live anywhere, they work anywhere. So I wanted to, I wanted to enable a lifestyle that will help them optimize, you know, where they’re going next, and where they’re going to make more money, pay less taxes, you know, better accommodation, like build your upcoming like the upcoming years of your life. And it’s a super cool idea. But imagine if I’ve done that, and then Corona, so nobody was traveling for a year.
Alexander Ferguson 4:36
So you’re kind of glad that you didn’t push that into that one too much.
Yoav Vilner 4:40
Yeah, so that was my idea. I was really proud of it, even though it’s not a good idea right now, you know, when I look back, and I was talking to like investors, and I know angel investors that I know here in Tel Aviv, and one of them which is a pretty well known tech figure sold the company for like 400 million, and he’s also a star on the Israeli version of shark tank. So I came to him with the with the idea. And he said, Listen, it’s cool. But I’ll also have you know that I want to build a startup designed to save kids from pedophiles. And we’re missing a co founder that was that can be cmo. And I was I was starting to question the idea that I had. Plus not not actually having a CTO yet in place was also like a setback. And you know, these guys have met made companies worth a lot of money. And I was like, he knows how to build big things, saving kids who wouldn’t want to do it, right? Who don’t who would want to be remembered for saving kids? And then we just build a startup, we raised a pretty significant seed round relatively to two and a half years ago, which was 15 million. Today, yeah, this year, it’s like a pre seed or a bootstrap. But yeah, so it turned out to be a really, you know, massive, it was it was all about scaling very fast. So it turned out being like 50, or 60 people, mostly PhDs and data scientists. But after a while, after like, a year and a half, I just realized that I’m, you know, I need to build my own thing again, and be the CEO and make the tough decisions. Because that was not the case. I just had like, an easy life going on. I’m the CMO. Everybody want to work with us. It’s a cool brand. You’re building a category no one else even knows how to do. It was just a little bit too easy. And I just wanted to challenge myself with launching a new startup.
Alexander Ferguson 6:30
What a statement to say is too easy there. There’s a lot of people that want an easier lifestyle or easier job, you’re like, no, give me something hard. Give me something to chew on. As an entrepreneur. Yeah. So then you decide to launch. The next. Well, how long actually was that from when you decided to leave to to start walnut? Do you already have that in mind? Okay, yeah,
Yoav Vilner 6:54
it was about a year and a half until I actually put it through.
Alexander Ferguson 6:59
Okay, walk me through, like the points of the stages of first the idea, then finding co founders, what was what was that timeline look like?
Yoav Vilner 7:11
So lucky for me, when I was nearing the end of my, you know, period at my previous startup. Another very bright technology guy here in Tel Aviv that I’ve known for a while, and I knew about the, you know, the companies that he was involved with were pretty well known acquisitions that happened. And, and he was also working on the enterprise side. So he had like executive tech roles in, in big companies. So he was also starting to look for his next thing. And we started, you know, we started talking and him and a mutual friend that I had was, was about to launch a startup decided that they’re not going to do it. And that was the timing where I felt it’s perfect for me to build my next thing.
Alexander Ferguson 8:02
So you already knew knew these different folks, you’re like, Alright, they’re ready. They’re available. Let’s let’s pull this together.
Yoav Vilner 8:10
Yeah, but before it sounds too easy. So in that round that I had, when I wanted to build something for digital nomads, I was dating CTOs for like five months, and it’s probably the worst five months of my life. Why? Why do you say that? You know, you know how people hate dating, like their regular type. So this is this is even worse, like, you have to decide who you’re going to marry. And it’s people that you don’t even know yet. It’s terrifying to do that. It takes so much time to know if your compliment completing each other and the technology in the, you know, experience level in the personal level, how you’re going to overcome obstacles, you have no idea. It’s like marrying someone on the first date. And it I always felt that I’m not able to be as brave and they felt the same way. So it was like, you know, the weeks of the weeks have gone by, but no one was able to make a decision.
Alexander Ferguson 9:09
So it’s still obviously early in the journey. But what made you suddenly click within the seat, the CTO and co founders that you have right now.
Yoav Vilner 9:19
So first of all, knowing each other from before, not not, as, you know, the closest friends but knowing each other from before, at least from the industry here was super helpful. It was very, I was very, you know, I appreciated the stuff he’s done before. he appreciated stuff that I’ve done before. I have my technology as he has this technology and products and all these capabilities that I don’t have and I have this, you know, marketing and business and raising funds and everything and we just kind of it was a very, you know, the problem that we wanted to solve was right on the spot. Everything was just, you know, the stars aligned.
Alexander Ferguson 9:53
Right. I I like to hear the story of co founders that have come together because there are times where people say oh, just a just clicks, it just works. But it’s also helpful to hear that you did have that period of five months where you were trying to make things work, but doesn’t always just click that it takes time now for funding side that was on you, what was that like to be able to it was a pretty easy because the idea was just so right time, right place just like your first one.
Yoav Vilner 10:20
I wouldn’t say it’s easy, it was actually kind of weird because it was we probably started when Corona was still new. And VCs were like shrinking all of a sudden. And they were not investing so much. So we we thought maybe we should like hold on to to, you know, doing this round? Or maybe we should? Like, how should we approach the fact that it’s not a physical meeting? Now? It’s on this weird thing called zoom? And it’s how can we get a couple of millions of dollars from people that don’t know us? So the first thing that we did is talk to people that know us, that’s always a better tip. And the second thing is, we were I don’t know how to call it lucky or? Well, I would say lucky to be, you know, to get the the early belief of some of the brightest investors that we know. And it was all through either our personal connections or our best, you know, colleagues personal connections,
Alexander Ferguson 11:22
you did a 2.5 million seed round, was that correct?
Yoav Vilner 11:26
It was a 6 million, 6 million. Okay. But the 2.5 was the original amount we had in mind. And another 3.5, just like a month or two after when we launched and it was a very successful launch.
Alexander Ferguson 11:40
And to think that’s a seed round, that is the starting point, obviously, people saw the the potential. From there, though, I remember you mentioning, and I actually saw your launch campaigns seem to have worked really well in order to create such an interest in a waitlist. And then a lot of founders would love to have that same waitlist that you had, obviously, you’re pulling from your experience of helping 600 other tech companies in the past? How did it work?
Unknown Speaker 12:07
Why did it work?
Yoav Vilner 12:10
That’s a cool question. I was very, very lucky to see the ins and outs of hundreds of startups, in different industries, trying to do different things with different budgets. And it’s very natural to me now to launch in such a way just, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s just based on a gut instinct, instinct. It’s not even something that I can, if I would help another startup right now, I’m not sure that my tips would be any good. But if I was in their place, and it was, you know, on my back to do this, right, then I probably would you know what I mean, it’s like, it’s not just one formula. It’s not like, if you publish on TechCrunch, or go on Product Hunt, the magic will happen. But I think you have to combine a lot of different things. And I’ll just talk about what we’ve, you know, the approach that we took is, first of all, the wording, the branding that we use, in a very, very early stage was very clear, the problem that we solved was very clear. The approach that we took to it was very clear, like the MVP that we had was really not sophisticated. It was like duplicate your front and edit something. And you can only do it like on one page. But we were super clear on here’s how we’re, you know, approaching this problem that no one has solved before, which is something that got VPS and team leaders very excited. The second thing in the formula was being the first to market. So our product was super early. But I know from my previous background, that if you announce something first, that’s going to stay. And so we went on and you know, people were saying, aren’t you and it’ll be too early to announce what you’re doing. And I just said no. And, and after we launched with a very clear landing page, we started collecting emails, and we saw the list going growing organically, like every day. But the launch that we had was a real turning point. So I was hoping that, you know, in terms of like PR, I was hoping to see like three or four articles go up, and 20 went up. Most of them I have not caused, but they were like, you know, it was like a rolling event. And I was hoping to be somewhere in the top three of producthunt. But we were number one for the entire week and then nominated for like the golden carrier awards for the best product of the year. And alongside the email lists that we had alongside you know, publishing on our different networks. Each each one of us has a lot of, you know, a very big network in different countries and parts of the world. Everything just kind of clicked and for three days, all we did was trying to get what’s going on with our waiting list, it ended up being like a 700 800 company long. And like I said, also had a lot of luck.
Alexander Ferguson 15:09
Wow. So first of all, you said, simplicity and clarity of a product is very simple. It’s very clear of what you’re doing. Then the second was first to market, being able just announce and get the attention. And actually, as long as that clarity, I imagine the simplicity of the message is there it can, it can expand, and then your waiting list gets to 700. Folks, b2b companies ready to sign up?
Yoav Vilner 15:34
Yeah. And on top of that,
Alexander Ferguson 15:38
and luck, it sounds like you’ve already from the your first company, they started just the right place. right time and you you’re pushing forward. But it’s it’s doing everything else. Right? With with luck, sprinkled in, that it that the magic can happen? What would you say? Obviously the tactics change, based off of what your different verticals are. But you What are you if you had to do this again? Or in another way, is there anything you say as far as the tactics that you’re like this, I would recommend, especially on the trajectory that you’ve been on?
Yoav Vilner 16:19
It’s a really good question. I, okay. There’s, there’s a lot of things that I tell founders, by back from the days of helping out in the different tech hubs and accelerators. But I look at things a little bit differently than most people. Like, for instance, most people will tell you that you don’t have to work on brand content, your own personal brand, and everything up until you actually validated something with your startup, like a lot of investors will tell you, you’re wasting money if you’re not just building the product. And I’ll tell you, just from my own perspective, that you’re reducing, like you’re really really shrinking your chances of succeeding if you don’t focus on these things. right from day one. If one if you can get a co founder or a founding team member, that it’s a hardcore marketer, and they know how to work under pressure, and they know how to work with very low budgets, you can get an edge on your competition that they would need months and months to, you know, to overcome. Because eventually we don’t pay for. We don’t pay for features. And we don’t pay for who has, you know, who has raised more money. People are buying from brands, and people are buying from brands that they trust, and people are buying from real people that they trust. And I think there’s a whole lot of work that you have to do starting day one, most startups that I knew in my life would start to do it. Second year. And that’s a gap that’s really hard to fill.
Alexander Ferguson 17:59
And when you say that they need to focus that on that first part, you’re speaking to the the team, because I heard you say don’t miss a work on the brain until you validate the product that I hit. Did I hear that correctly?
Yoav Vilner 18:11
Yeah, there was actually an argument in one of the most popular like, you know, communities hearing in the tech scene in Israel. And, you know, one founder asked, What do you guys think about building my personal brand, building my company’s brand, even before we’ve gone to market, and launch the beta product, and, you know, a couple of investors were there, like saying, we would not events invest in anyone that would put $1 on his own, or the company’s brand before there’s validation before this product market fit. And I really did not agree with them. I think I just saw in my own, I just, I only know to, you know, what I saw with my own eyes. That’s everything that I know. And companies that have illustrated their story, you know, their angle, their category, building, their, why their founders are brilliant people, if you’ve managed to tell that story early on, I think that your launch is gonna be amazing. I think people are going to wait for your launch. I think that people are going to shell the fact that you’ve launched on their social media, as opposed to just being you know, it’s not like the old days where you could work in your garage, oh, under the hood, and stay quiet for two years and then launch and expect something to happen.
Alexander Ferguson 19:24
Wow. So it’s almost a shift on on the whole ecosystem of how you approach it. So you are recommending focus on on sharing your story, your brand building of the category building of what what you’re working on before you even release the product and the features and what you’re doing. Build that awareness so that when you do there’s a following an interest from everyone around you.
Yoav Vilner 19:44
Totally my opinion. Yeah.
Alexander Ferguson 19:47
Okay, I I’m intrigued with your approach. Obviously, you it did work and is working so far for you. From your experience of then building the team, how big is the team today for you guys.
Yoav Vilner 19:58
So we’re about to 22 and we’re growing to be 28.
Alexander Ferguson 20:03
Nice. What can you say as far as the lessons learned in the past year of of hiring and finding the right people for the right job?
Yoav Vilner 20:11
I haven’t seen a lot of founding teams, you know, that are as I think everyone’s is like a character in their own thing. You know, like, first of all, the first thing, the first hire that we had, it was an actual late co founder, but it was a VP sales. And that was even before we had the MVP. And people were saying, you know, what’s, what’s the logic behind that? Right? You don’t need a VP sales. But we’re building not just a tech startup, we’re building a huge sales organization. And any VP of sales is our potential clients, and we want to build the product together with them. So now, when we have so many clients, and we have advisors, and we have investors, we get a lot of that, but he was the first guy to actually build this with us.
Alexander Ferguson 20:58
So hiring someone that is ideally even somewhat related to your end client could help make sure you’re building the right product. Yeah. I really, really like that. From from there, you guys are in a couple of different locations? Where is it mostly in Tel Aviv or
Yoav Vilner 21:16
so we’re mostly Manhattan, Tel Aviv and London, and a little bit in the valley also.
Alexander Ferguson 21:23
And for you, both the team and marketing outward internationally, what lessons learned, have you found a building the right culture and communicating at really in a in an international type of environment.
Yoav Vilner 21:37
So you know, I’m not a fan of this whole remote thing, like, I just missed the days where you had, like, you know, dozens of people in the same office, like having pizza, you know, you know, making friends sharing problems. And, you know, some so much value in just like that, those small talks that you get to do in real life that I don’t think you can actually do on zoom and slack. So first of all, I would love for everything to go back to how it was for people to be in the same office. But you can really get the best talent right now, if you’re, you know, just on one location. We try to we try to be as global as we can. So you know, everything that we do, like cross company would happen around midday when everyone can attend. If we’re shipping something to, you know, our employees here in Tel Aviv, we would also find a solution to, you know, shipping to everyone. And if we’re announcing something, everyone’s exactly the same part of it no matter where they are in the world. And we’re trying to keep the employees close to the market as possible. So our focus is in the US. But so far, it’s been going surprisingly smooth.
Alexander Ferguson 22:47
I let you share all these tidbits of wisdom first on announcements and communicating midday helping with with the global hours of folks. And if you can’t, if you’re going to send something make sure you can be able to send it to everybody by heard that correct. It’s like all these small things that add up to the right culture, the right working environment, when when you’re having to be remote. I’m curious as a leader, you have Where have you gotten your insights? Is there any books, podcasts, audio books that you’ve read and enjoying would recommend?
Yoav Vilner 23:15
I think the best the best podcast I heard the past few years is masters of scale by Reed Hoffman. I don’t know. It’s just there’s something so unique. You know, it gathers like, first of all, it’s like a storytelling event, right? There’s like background noises and weird, all kinds of funky stuff. He turns out to be a very funny person. And he just he gets like the best founders, you know, ever, like, you know, the founders of like Spotify and Facebook and everything. And then he just grabs like the best insights from from the hour of conversation. And I think that’s a lot of a lot of, you know, shows and programs and podcasts and videos, they make you wait a long time until you actually get value. And I think this is something he has managed to do a bit better. So I would recommend that besides that all of the other generic books every founder reads
Alexander Ferguson 24:12
love they just did Eric books all all the ones that read last last question for you. What kind of future tech predictions can do you see happening in the near term next year too, and long term next 510 years?
Yoav Vilner 24:28
I think that we’re starting to see less than less human touch in a lot of industries and, and aspects of society where there was a lot of friction in the past and this year has been like a revolution to do like, expedite everything and make everything much much faster. So you know, I think if you take like gig economies and stuff that people do right now, for money without without having an official employer, and without having to obey any rules. Right now, it’s mostly we like food. deliveries and laundry and everything, but I think we’re gonna see it with a lot of a lot of things, a lot of aspects of our lives that we can’t even imagine right now we would click a button and someone to go and do that for us. I think this is a direction that technology is going right now. You know, there’s already like a lot of marketplaces for babysitters for dog sitters for whatever, but I think we haven’t even seen like, you know, the main part of how it’s going to act out that people are going to make money of doing all kinds of crap for for each other. And besides that, I guess that just anything that removes the human touch, you know, so like synthetic people, virtual sales, people running the demo, not having to speak to anyone to get something done. This is, this is what I, how I see things.
Alexander Ferguson 25:50
The future world with no touch, whether gig economy or synthetic robots being able to deliver content, which is funny, because it comes back to what you said earlier, like you miss being able to be connected with people, it’s gonna be that future of a balance of,
Unknown Speaker 26:03
Alexander Ferguson 26:04
enable that, but at the same time, still connect with different, maybe a smaller group of people versus a larger one. Interesting future. Thank you so much for your insights to sharing the journey that you’ve been on. I definitely recommend for those that go back and listen to part one, our discussion of the product Walnut, knowing more about what they’re doing, you could also go to Walnut.io, to be able to get a demo of their product or be able to get exploration of that. Thank you so much, Yoav for being on here. It’s great to have you. Thanks. We’ll see you guys on the next episode of UpTech Report. That concludes the audio version of this episode. To see the original and more visit our UpTech Report YouTube channel. If you know a tech company, we should interview you can nominate them at UpTech report.com. Or if you just prefer to listen, make sure you’re subscribed to this series on Apple podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcasting app.
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