Ilan Twig – Co-Founder and CTO – TripActions – 1 of 4 – Loving the Machine
14 Minutes of SaaS Transcript
Ilan Twig: You know, I never try to impress. I never try to…I always assume I know less…and I still do. And I think this created space for wonderful relationships and relationships are so important when you start a company. You really … it’s like pushing a mountain. To push a mountain, you know, it takes a village. And it takes time to build a village.
Stephen Cummins: Welcome to 14 minutes of SaaS! The show where you can listen to the stories and opinions of founders of the world’s most remarkable SaaS scale-ups!
The world has changed in the months since we recorded this 4-part mini-series at the Web Summit in Lisbon. Ilan Twig is an Israeli resident of Silicon Valley. There’s a lot of them, and a lot of them are very successful. He’s CTO and Co-founder of TripActions, a company that helps manage corporate travel and expenses. At the time it was the fastest growing software company in history and had just been valued at 4 billion 3 and half years post incorporation. Since that travel has hit its biggest speedbump in modern history. It’s obviously an uphill as they took out a a 500M debt financing from Silicon Valley Bank in February – they were actually still increasing employee numbers aggressively at that point and had reached 1,047 employees. They quickly shed over 121 employees or just under 12% in the following 2 months, and seem to have stabilised in the last month. But the company is fighting – doubling down on product and on marketing, and delivering training and awareness sessions online for companies with large numbers of staff to advise them on travel in a post-pandemic world
In this, episode 107 of 14 Minutes of SaaS, the first in our 4 part series with Ilan Twigg, we learn about how he fell in love with computers as a kid, and how that impacted on the career path he was to embark upon.
Stephen Cummins: We have Ilan Twig. Co-Founder and CTO of “TripActions” here today. I’m absolutely delighted to have you, Ilan.
Ilan Twig: And great to be here.
Stephen Cummins: So tell me a little bit about your life … kind of prior to entering the world of technology … and you’re very much a technologist in the world of technology. Tell me a bit about your life before that.
Ilan Twig: My life before that… Actually, my life, I don’t know if it’s sad or great, but it started with computers in many, many ways. So I got my first computer when I was in first grade in Israel. Could not speak a word in English. Everything was just in English and I remember how I was really fascinated about that. Spent a lot of time just staring at the monitor. This blinking cursor. There were no games. There was no operating system. It was DOS. And that’s how it started. That’s how this whole thing started.
Stephen Cummins: I meet so many founders, actually, where getting a computer early had a profound impact on their careers and becoming an entrepreneur and all of that. What happened when you started playing with computers?
Ilan Twig: Yes, so I was actually this kid that spent his the whole childhood outside of the house. I was climbing on trees. I was playing with the, you know, sand. That’s kind of like what I was doing with all of my neighbourhood friends. One of them became a doctor. The other one is an attorney. But we used to play outside all the time. There was nothing else. Just imagine Isreal in the late 70s, early 80s. The country was very young. There was nothing. There was really nothing. So that’s kind of like, you know, how my childhood was. And then this computer showed up. And I was so fascinated. I remember this curiosity. And really like I just saw this thing and I was like attracted to it like … really so powerful. I knew nothing in English and the whole thing was in English. So my dad had to explain to me stuff. He did not understand computers but he could at least read a little bit in English, which he taught himself. And he explained to me stuff. And I managed to apply it. So he talked about things and I managed to apply it.
And within, you know, minutes I was able to write my own program which was “10-Print ILAN ; 20-GOTO 10.” And it would fill up the screen with ILAN, ILAN, ILAN. And I was like “Woah!” I was really excited. I don’t know, when I think about it now backwards, I don’t know what was this thing that really attracted me. But it was magnetic and it was powerful. It was really powerful. And before you knew it, you know, I got a slightly more capable computer when I was in 4th grade. And I had this computer all the way through High School. And I learned every little beat in this computer. Every little beat of the memory of this computer. Everything. And I built a lot of software. I was really, really, really, really, really into it. It was so obvious that I would end up in, you know, learning computer science in university. It was so obvious. And then this new computer gave me more capabilities. So I remember in 4th grade I really wanted to play Pac-Man, and there were no games. And within a few days there was Pac-Man. You could play Pac-Man. And my friends were like “Whoa we can play Pac-Man!” And it was just one screen. But it was just one screen. It was the same screen all the time. You know when you play Pac-Man you finish one screen then you get a new screen. And so they go bored at some point. So I built a screen designer.
So for me, I had endless patience for that. Endless. I could…I had dreams about it. Really it was so, so deep. As a kid, I think it’s the curiosity when you are a kid. By the way, if you manage to … the more you retain this curiosity; the more you are. That’s what I think.
Stephen Cummins: Absolutely.
Ilan Twig: And a lot of people, at some point, you know you watch TV. It kills curiosity
Stephen Cummins: It does.
Ilan Twig: It’s like your brain shuts down. There’s no room for anything creative or…different. But as a kid, there was no… there’s nothing else.
Stephen Cummins: And on your computer you could just program in Basic. There was nothing else there.
Ilan Twig: Basic, yeah.
Stephen Cummins: So from the very beginning you were locked into creating an interesting world, as opposed to receiving one … which is crucial.
Ilan Twig: Pretty quickly with the new computer I mastered Basic. And very quickly I switched to Assembly.
Stephen Cummins: Okay.
Ilan Twig: And I was writing Assembly.
Stephen Cummins: Wow. Machine language …
Ilan Twig: And you know it was so natural, and so native because as a kid, again, you’re not biased to anything you don’t think about that’s a lower level. You don’t think about…
Stephen Cummins: You don’t think about how close you are to the machine. Yeah.
Ilan Twig: It makes sense. Now I can literally catch the thing. I could literally write software with, literally, zeros and one at some point.
Stephen Cummins: That is incredible.
Ilan Twig: Yeah but Assembly. I remember when my dad got me this cartridge that I put inside the computer that enabled me to … allowed me to code in Assembly… it was the best gift of my life.
Stephen Cummins: Incredible.
Ilan Twig: I remember the moment until today and I could do all these things. And then, you know, it really helps. I did more complicated stuff as a kid in Assembly than what I did in university later on because it was so natural. I just spoke the machine language.
Stephen Cummins: That’s Incredible.
Ilan Twig: It was like that. When I was 13 I had this plotter. It was like a printer of the old days. It’s also a very sophisticated printer of these days. So it’s a plotter. The page comes in and out and you have four little pens that move sideways, only sideways, and the page, kind of, goes up and down. And I managed to draw circles and a bunch of creative stuff. And then I created this software that prints pictures to this plotter. Now there was a commercial software, but it took three hours to print one picture. And I realised there was a much more efficient way to do it.
Stephen Cummins: Because you were writing directly to the machine…
Ilan Twig: Directly to the machine…
Stephen Cummins: Everything went … [finger click] … like that …
Ilan Twig: It was quick but also just the understanding that you know, you instead of drawing pixel by pixel by pixel by pixel and that’s what it did. And drawing one pixel is very complicated with a plotter. The page needs to go out. The pen moves. The page goes back. It’s complicated for one pixel.
Stephen Cummins: Yes.
Ilan Twig: What I ended up doing is realising that sometimes, you know, that if you have, I don’t know, a desk which is brown then you can just have, you know, a lot of lines, long lines and then drawing that. So the result was that I managed to print out the same pictures in two minutes.
Stephen Cummins: So like, repeat, repeat, repeat. Or repeat, loop space, repeat.
Ilan Twig: Exactly.
Stephen Cummins: With an event listener that switches off at some point.
Ilan Twig: Exactly. It’s easier to draw long lines than to draw this pixel, and then pixel, then pixel. It’s just, mechanically it’s just very slow with…So it was much faster and I ended up selling this software to a distributor in Tel Aviv.
Stephen Cummins: At what age?
Stephen Cummins: Oh my god!
Ilan Twig: He ripped me off but … to me it was like, I don’t know… for today’s kids, they go to, I don’t know what would be the dream place for the kids to go to….but for me it was this store where I could go and …
Stephen Cummins: You say you were jealous of my languages earlier. Well I’ll tell you, I am totally jealous of anyone that could do that at age thirteen. It’s off the charts. I mean it’s amazing. I have two small kids. I started kind of late in life with kids. I have a two-year-old girl, sorry a two-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl. One of the challenges for me is their exposure to screens; but also, you know, I do want to give them a computer at some point, you know. Have you thought about that? How you can get a computer but yet keep them away from all the distractions and crap that you have. Have you any thoughts on that? Or have you got to that point yet?
Ilan Twig: My son is nine years old; he’s not exposed to a computer yet. I haven’t exposed him to a computer. I don’t know how to do it because today computers when you turn them on, you are already in such a… so far away from the actual machine already because the operating system is so … you know, visual and everything is beautiful drag and drop and it’s so sophisticated and really it’s like you’re so far away…
Stephen Cummins: Absolutely.
Ilan Twig: …from the CPU.
Stephen Cummins: Well you are, yeah. It’s all super level.
Ilan Twig: When I was a kid my fingers were literally on top of the CPU.
Stephen Cummins: Of course. Yeah
Ilan Twig: Now I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I haven’t decided it. I think it still much better to really understand how it works. Really how this thing works. I think it makes you…I think in general you need to understand how things work. You figured out how languages work, right?
Stephen Cummins: I did. Yes. At least I interpreted it better than most perhaps.
Ilan Twig: Yeah, exactly.
Stephen Cummins: I don’t fully know, but I interpreted it better perhaps, yeah.
Ilan Twig: But just judging by results it leads to… it unlocks so may beautiful things later.
Stephen Cummins: It does.
Ilan Twig: So much more powerful things. So when you…That’s why I think if you figure out how this box works, really, inside … I think it unlocks so much more power later on.
Stephen Cummins: Totally.
Ilan Twig: So I don’t know how to…Maybe I should get him…I actually still have the computer in my house…the one that I grew up on…
Stephen Cummins: Wow.
Ilan Twig: I just emotionally could not… let go…
Stephen Cummins: Yeah, It’s amazing. It’s amazing to have that connection and that passion with something. So, I know you had a kind of star-studded career as a technologist with R&D teams and development teams and into the world of being a CTO. I think you’ve twenty years experience pretty much in that. Tell us about that period of your life.
Ilan Twig: I think. You know, I spoke about it with my Co-Founder Ariel Cohen as well when we started TripActions and it started to pick up. We spoke about it because we did not take it for granted. Its like… at least when it comes to myself, the realisation was that TripActions was like the sum of all my actions in life since I was in first grade, or maybe even prior to that … all the way to starting TripActions. And everything that happened in between. A lot of it was acquiring a lot of, you know, technical knowledge on my side. It was really understanding how to build software. Starting from touching the CPU when I was a kid and having the curiosity to really understand how it works. Which gives you, you know, an amazing foundation.
Stephen Cummins: Yes.
Ilan Twig: Later on when I acquired higher-level languages like Java and C and C++ … and then HTML, everything made sense. It was much easier to grasp. And I think the understanding… I think this foundation was a key.
Stephen Cummins: Yes.
Ilan Twig: The second thing is creating relationships and this is how you are or what you are. If you are (I think, you know, Greg heard me talking about it) but I think that if you are a genuine person, you’ll have wonderful connections in your that last for a long time.
Stephen Cummins: One hundred per cent.
Ilan Twig: You know, I never try to impress. I never try to…I always assume I know less…and I still do. And I think this again created space for wonderful relationships … and relationships are so important when you start a company. You really … it’s like pushing a mountain. To push a mountain, you know, it takes a village. And it takes time to build a village
Stephen Cummins: In episode 108 of 14 Minutes of SaaS, the 2nd in our 4 part series with Ilan, we learn about how Ilan put away 1 third of his savings and a considerable degree of fear, to co-create StreamOnce … and then knew he was going to have a lucrative exit after just 7 months
Stephen Cummins: You’ve been listening to 14 minutes of SaaS. Thanks to Mike Quill for his creativity and problem solving skills, and to Ketsu for the music. Thanks also to Anders Getz for the transcript. This episode was brought to you by me, Stephen Cummins. If you enjoyed the podcast, please don’t forget to share it with your network, subscribe to the series, and give the show a rating.