A giant inflatable clownfish floats around the Powtoon office on occasion – not all that unusual for a company that has built an animation presentation platform.

You have probably seen one or two of the 14 million Powtoon clips that appear on company websites and Youtube tutorials. Medisafe, for example, used Powtoon for their first explainer video. (The startup has since raised $6 million.)

Videos like this one were precisely the reason that Ilya Spitalnik and Daniel Zaturansky teamed up to create Powtoon three years ago.

At the time, Spitalnik was consulting for startups and realised that ‘there was no way we could explain the product in a 90 sec clip without spending upwards of $10,000.’ That figure refers to the cost of video production, which for explainer videos, runs somewhere between $5,000 – $10,000 per minute. There are also time costs: most professional videos take between two to three months to complete. For early stage startups that need initial traction, those costs are simply too high.

At the time, Spitalnik thought of building a program so that the companies he was advising could make short video clips in the same way that they made Powerpoint presentations for investors. But Spitalnik did not have the time or expertise to work on such a project. ‘So the idea sat on my imaginary this-product-will-surely-exist-soon shelf.’ When old time friend Zaturansky said that he wanted to start an animation studio to undercut expensive production companies, the imaginary product came to life: cartoons could communicate.

Remember Schoolhouse Rock!? The Saturday morning cartoon series taught children about maths, science, and grammar. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

‘Ever since childhood, we’ve been conditioned to love cartoons, and associate them with fun harmless entertainment, rather than business or sales language,’ says Spitalnik. ‘We naturally let our guard down when watching cartoons and our minds accept the messages they convey with far less criticism or defensive attitudes.’ The suspension of disbelief inherent in cartoons is the ‘special sauce’ missing from boring presentations, he reasons. But it’s not because people lack creativity that presentations are uninspired. Rather, people lack the right tools. So rather than churn out videos like a production company, Powtoon would offer a suite creative tools to bring what the company calls ‘awesomeness to presentations.’

Spitalnik, Zaturansky, Chief Animator Oren Mashkovski, and Chief Developer Sven Hoffmann began working on a beta product in a shared office space, a fraction of the size of their current premises opposite the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. Before the days of WeWork and Mindworks, coworking spaces operated more along the lines of tenement buildings; landlords packed as many small businesses into a fluorescent lit room with plastic chairs and poor acoustics. ‘We had so much yelling from our neighbours, we put up a temporary wall to block out the noise,’ Spitalnik recalls. It took six months to develop the first version, which he insisted ‘had to be as simple and as familiar as Powerpoint.’

The mad scientists who invented Powtoon: (L-R) Chief Animator Oren Mashkovski, CEO Ilya Spitalnik, Chief Developer Sven Hoffmann, and COO Daniel Zaturansky.

The mad scientists who invented Powtoon: (L-R) Chief Animator Oren Mashkovski, CEO Ilya Spitalnik, Chief Developer Sven Hoffmann, and COO Daniel Zaturansky.

The leap from Powerpoint to Powtoon is indeed a small one: the frames flow down the left, the tools for animating images standout on the right, and in between appears the current frame, which can be populated with drag and drop characters, backgrounds and text bubbles. However the storytelling in Powtoon is a far cry from Powerpoint.

In their many tutorials (in multiple languages), Powtoon encourages its users to first write down their story. With a simple scriptwriting guide, Powtooners draft their narrative before they delve into the visuals and soundtrack, which is important because as TED Presentation expert, Nancy Duarte, explains, ‘The way ideas are most effectively conveyed is through story.’ And you can’t tell a story through graphics alone.

Part of the way that Powtoon helps its customers to tell their stories is through weekly webinars, during which marketing team members Ari Sherbill and Nirel Matsil delve into what makes for good storytelling by examining public speeches, successful ad campaigns, and effective Powtooning.

Not only have these free webinars garnered the attention of thousands of people, but viewers attend for professional reasons. ‘Even if you’re a middle manager delivering financials to your department in slides, you’re telling a story,’ insists Duarte. ‘A manager is constantly trying to persuade, contrasting where their team is today versus where they want them to be.’ Perhaps then it’s no surprise that Powtoon’s client list now includes Fortune 500 companies such as Starbucks, Cisco and Pfizer.

Nancy Duarte on the importance of storytelling. 

Now with 50 people globally Powtoon is a profitable, almost entirely bootstrapped company. ‘We raised initial funds from Kima Ventures, and then the next round of investment we never used,’ Spitalnik says.

One might reason that Powtoon’s growth parallels that of internet video. According to Mary Meeker from Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, video accounted for 64 percent of consumer Internet traffic and 55 percent of mobile traffic in 2014. But Powtoon’s success is not only down to its product offering, which now includes Slides – Powtoon’s take on PowerPoint slide decks. ‘It’s about personal branding,’ Spitalnik believes. ‘We are helping people better communicate their message, creatively.’ Such is Powtoon’s special sauce.

And it’s not just for marketers and salespeople. It’s for anyone with a message. To that point, Powtoon is giving away $10 million worth of subscriptions to schools to help better engage students in the material that they are learning.

Teachers using Powtoon in the classroom.

‘I’ve been using PowToon to teach kids of 10, 11 and 12 years old,’ commented a teacher in rural Mexico. ‘They’re usually not interested at all in school as they just want to join their parents working in the fields or making craftworks, but now they’re getting more creative, more receptive, and more dynamic in each class.’

From teacher feedback, Spitalnik realised that PowToon is not just a technological tool. ‘It’s actually a facilitator, directly positioned at the intersection between technology and creativity.’

It seems that was the idea all along.