Start locally, expand globally – Tal Kollender, CEO and co-founder of Gytpol

| Tom Davis

Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of meeting Tal Kollender at the RSA conference in San Francisco. Tal is the co-founder and CEO of Gytpol one of the most exciting cyber-startups I have come across in recent years. I knew right away that I wanted to hear more about Tal’s journey, and I was grateful that she agreed to sit down with me for an interview.

I started where I always try to start by asking Tal what drove her to start her own company.

I used to work at Dell EMC as a security architect. Whatever project I worked on, I ended up writing the same code over and over again for different organizations. We couldn’t copy the code from one to another because of security concerns, so I just repeated myself a lot.

Eventually I said to myself, why do the same thing over and over instead of developing a cookie cutter solution that I could provide to everyone?

I met up with one of my best friends at a pub in Tel Aviv and ended up writing down the whole idea on a pub napkin and, essentially, everything on that napkin is what Gytpol is today.

It’s been an amazing journey because we knew that we wanted to do it ourselves without raising any money. We were determined to do whatever our customers wanted so they would love our product and we proved that we could sell it.

How many great startups have begun as ideas sketched on a napkin? I pushed Tal to go back a little farther and asked her whether the desire to be a CEO had always been there, even before she found herself coding the same thing time after time.

I think I always wanted to help people. First, I wanted to be a doctor, but that changed when I was conscripted to join the army. I started training as a fighter pilot but ended up in a cybersecurity intelligence unit and that shaped my career moving forwards.

Like many graduates from those units, I thought about working for a Microsoft or a Google, but Israel is known as the startup nation, so sooner or later, everyone thinks about founding their own company. Still, I always thought it would be an untraditional startup. My ultimate goal is still to help people, and I believe Gytpol is contributing to that, by helping to keep all our users cybersecure whether they are using financial services, enrolled in a healthcare program, or any of our use cases.

There is a strong tradition linking entrepreneurship with philanthropy and it’s exciting to hear that tradition being honored. I wanted to revisit those early days when everything fit on a napkin. I wondered what the practical steps were to turn a vision into a company.

My colleague, who is also called Tal, used to work at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). I made him go door to door in the office corridor and read to me the job titles, sysadmin, CISO, IP admin until he found someone that I could tell my story about what we wanted to do. Then the napkin became four slides: our company name, problem, solution, and thank you. That’s it. I had confidence in my ability to answer any tech-y questions and they seemed to like what I was saying.

They said to me that Israel Aerospace Industries has 30,000 employees but they had never been a beta site for anyone or any product. However, they told me that it sounded like they needed Gytpol right now and asked me how soon I could implement my solution. This was in November 2017 and there was not even a single line of code written. I promised I would bring them a prototype by February 2018 and they told me they would wait.

At the end of February 2018 I delivered a prototype. It was ugly and not very user friendly but by the end of 2018, they licensed the product for the next three years. I’m pleased to say that at the end of 2021, they signed up for another three years.

They were our first customer and it snowballed from there. Signing IAI as our first customer and first adopter really opened doors for us in the local market.

We’ve seen this before – the importance of signing that first customer and getting validation for what you are building. I asked Tal whether she was the one furiously coding to meet that first deadline.

I’m just the T part of Gytpol. The G and the Y are my co-founders, Gilad Raz and Yakov Kogan. They are both super talented and 10 years ago they sold the company they founded to VMware. That’s the main reason we didn’t have to go out and raise money for our startup. I have a background in coding but I’m not as good as Gilad and Yakov! I still spend maybe an hour or two a week coding, but I don’t have much time anymore.

Yakov Kogan, Tal Kollender & Gilad Raz

Building a company from scratch is a fascinating process. I was curious about Tal’s philosophy around when to hire and how to grow the business.

It was just the three of us for over two years and we managed to bring on more than 50 customers. We were self-sustaining without raising any funding. As the business grew each role became necessary at the right moment. We made our first hires in R&D and marketing around the same time, which helped us set up processes to continue our expansion. Once we reached 100 customers, we knew we needed more people. We wanted to develop more capabilities to serve our customers because their needs are really the most important thing for us.

It’s very hard to hire great people in Israel because the competition for talent is very high. We had to be very focused. We knew that our current product was selling, so we had to determine if we needed more professional services, more sales, or more development. Then we hired according to that decision.

Our philosophy has been to hire according to what we need. All our development is done in-house, but if there is a service we need for a finite amount of time, we outsource.

It’s fascinating to see a self-funded company tackle these issues because they have to be extremely customer driven. It’s an interesting way of putting guardrails around a company’s expansion. I quizzed Tal also on developing a company culture during rapid expansion.

The good thing is that we don’t have any bureaucracy right now. Everyone can get involved and new ideas can come from anywhere in the team.

Everyone in Gytpol works from home, so you have to be proactive about getting your job done and thoughtful about collaborating with the rest of the team. Everyone has plenty to do and we don’t believe in micro-management. Our employees are trusted to understand their tasks and find the best ways to execute. We see the results in the feedback we get from our customers, which is amazing.

Tal’s commitment to her customers is infectious and is clearly serving Gytpol well. I wondered where she saw the company heading over the next few years.

We already doubled the size of our team in the past six months, and we keep growing. Our customer base continues to expand, and we will need to take on more people to meet demand. There is so much potential. We are creating partnerships, including the work we are planning with Microsoft, which will help us continue doing what we love and delivering a great experience to our customers.

Gytpol team

I prefer to do rather than talk but it’s been great to get back to face-to-face meetings and get to know our own team and our customers better.

I’m very proud of everything the company has achieved so far and there is still so much more to come. Gytpol is my first baby and I’m definitely a proud mother.

It’s astonishing to watch this young company continue to bring on more customers without raising outside funding. Gytpol has shown that it understands the needs of its target market and the value of being utterly customer committed. I have enormous admiration for everything Tal and her team have done so far, and I look forward to watching their continued success.

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