Interview: Phil Santoro & David Kolodny of Wilbur Labs

Phil Santoro and David Kolodny met at Google, where they worked, in 2013. After spending a few years in the company, the two decided to found a startup together. Their startup takes interesting, unique, and disruptive business ideas and turns them into market leaders, realizing their full potential.

Three years later, Phil Santoro and David Kolodny linked up to found Wilbur Labs.

Before he went to Google, Phil Santoro built the free forum hosting platform called FreeForums, which he founded when he was still in high school. By 2007, the platform had become one of the world’s top online destinations, receiving “over 125 million monthly pageviews.” In his second year of college, Phil sold FreeForums to a public company.

Meanwhile, David Kolodny spent his college years studying business at the University of Michigan and working at start-ups, such as Aereo. This tech company lets “subscribers view live TV through tiny remote-controlled antennas.” At the same time, he also co-founded Slinky Charity Group.

Both Phil Santoro and David Kolodny believe that change in business is inevitable, and companies should not be afraid of it. Influenced by this belief, they founded Wilbur Labs as an engine of change in several industries. Phil Santoro and David Kolodny also believe that they can “drive significant positive change” if they focus on solving large problems for a long period, which Wilbur Labs does.

Today, Phil Santoro and David Kolodny enjoy success with Wilbur Labs, which now has a diverse portfolio covering several industries.

Check out more interviews with successful startup founders like Phil Santoro and David Kolodny here.


Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

David Kolodny: What makes Wilbur Labs standout is the time between when we identify a problem, and how soon after we can rapidly scale a company solving that particular issue. We are singularly focused on taking companies from 0 to 1. By focusing on that, we are able to take ideas and scale them into market-leading companies at an incredible rate that isn’t possible without a model like ours.

One example of this is VacationRenter — we launched the company in 2018, and only one year later announced generating over half a billion in gross booking volume. This is the fastest growth in any travel company we know of, and it would not have been possible without the approach and shared resources of the studio.

Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Phil Santoro: It’s important to enjoy the process and not try to rush to some destination. Instead of stressing about a milestone or exit, take a multi-year view and work towards that. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t pushing as hard as you can in the short-term — because you are — but it does mean that you are thinking long-term. This helps remove some of the short-term stress, which often leads to burnout.

Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

David Kolodny: Phil and I often reflect on all the mentors and advisors who have helped us along the way. We focus on taking ideas and building them into big businesses. We operate across several industries, so we rely on several advisors and mentors who do have expertise in other areas.

Chris Fong has been one key mentor to Phil and I. Chris worked at Google with Phil and I, left shortly before us, and started the Xoogler.co community, which includes more than 7,000 current and ex-Google employees working together to help each other in the startup ecosystem. Chris, and the Xoogler.co network, have helped us build the Wilbur Labs community, recruit key hires, as well as make strategic decisions. In addition, Chris has helped us connect with several other ex-Google employees who have now become advisors.

Jerome Knyszewski: Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Phil Santoro: I believe a “good” company is a company which has found a place in the market, creating value by helping solve a problem for customers. A good company takes care of its customers, employees, investors, and partners. The world needs good companies to continue solving problems and taking care of customers and employees in a sustainable way. There’s nothing wrong with being a “good” company.

Now, a “great” company does all of that and more. A great company has a larger impact both in terms of the importance of the problem they are solving, and the scale in which they impact people. A great company has the potential to have a positive impact on the world around it, by helping build the future. A great company has a positive impact on its community and the world, in addition to its customers, employees, shareholders, and partners. Great companies aren’t concerned with short-term objectives, but instead want to solve large problems and drive positive impact over a long period of time.

Jerome Knyszewski: What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Phil Santoro: At a certain point, some organizations generate enough drag that it can’t keep climbing. This drag could be recurring work that takes up everyone’s time, outdated processes and structure, acceptance with “this is the way we have always done things,” not understanding the current market conditions, etc. Getting back to basics and focusing on execution towards your goal can be productive. This is easier said than done, and requires every person in the organization to take ownership and embrace change.

Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

David Kolodny: 2020 has certainly been a great example of an unpredictable, difficult economy. At Wilbur Labs, we focused on a couple key things to maintain and increase growth traction at each of our portfolio companies.

Let real-time data drive marketing decisions — in ordinary times, looking at historical snapshots can be very helpful and informative. In the course of a global pandemic, historical data is largely worthless because whatever happened last month is not necessarily an indicator for what is happening today or tomorrow. Since the beginning of the year, each Wilbur Labs portfolio company has worked on building dashboards with real-time metrics on every facet of each business to ensure that decisions are being made on the most relevant data possible. Though trends are smoother now than they were in March and April, we are still seeing rapid customer behavior changes happening on a daily basis, and real-time data loops have directly contributed to greater marketing efficiencies.

Leverage automation to respond to behavior changes. For the first time in modern history, we are seeing trends, like global eCommerce adoption, that ordinarily would have taken five years occur in five weeks. With such rapid change, it is impossible for manual processes to keep up. By utilizing automation wherever applicable — and connecting it to the real-time data described above — we have been able to ensure that our portfolio companies are maximizing every opportunity available to them.

Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Phil Santoro: One of the most underestimated areas is understanding the role of a founder. Building a company is very different from building a product. There is a mountain of other work that requires the same exceptional excellence as the product itself. Not only this, but the role of a founder is constantly changing. The role David and I had at the beginning, when we were on my couch building our first product, is very different from the role we had once we started hiring our team, which is very different from the role we have now.

I recommend founders predict out how their role is going to change in 6 to 12 months, and work towards evolving now. What skills do you need to build by then? Who should you talk to to prepare? How can you efficiently make the transition? Evolving along with your company’s needs is critical to you and your company continuing to grow.

Jerome Knyszewski: Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

David Kolodny: This is a great follow-up to the question on branding because customer experience and branding are so interdependent. Building a wow! customer experience is a process reliant on identifying gaps, and scaling solutions to as many customers as possible.

Talking to customers, analyzing product data, and consulting with industry experts, are all critical avenues to identify how to improve your product. It’s important to seek out critical feedback and not just talk to fans who are likely to applaud you.

The key differentiator for those creating wow! customer experiences are not just collecting these insights, but being able to translate them into scalable applications. If you can establish a process of capturing insights, building them into a product, and scaling them to your customer base, you will constantly surprise and delight your customers by always improving.

Jerome Knyszewski: What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Phil Santoro: Social media can be a mirror, reflecting back the values and customer experience a company has. Companies which don’t have strong values or don’t have a great customer experience should be concerned with reputational risk.

The fix isn’t to be scared of social media, it’s to improve your approach so you are serving customers better. At the end of the day every company has this challenge and the companies who adapt better will thrive long term.

Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Phil Santoro: The most common mistake we have seen is losing focus. There are a lot of activities and tasks required to start and grow a business. First-time founders in particular can get overwhelmed quickly by the sheer number of items coming at them. Add on the usual amount of firefighting, short-term issues, and before they know it they are only spending 10% of their time solving customers problems. If you are only spending 10% of your time on customer problems, there is going to be a competitor out there who can serve your customers better.

This can be mostly avoided through disciplined planning and constant prioritization. It’s also important to surround yourself with a strong support system of advisors or mentors who have been here before. Many business building problems you will face have likely already been solved. The goal is to spend less time reinventing the wheel and more time solving the problems unique to your business.

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

David Kolodny: A movement for more people to start more bold companies! The best companies solve big problems. Startups and small businesses are the foundation of modern economies, and help build the future. If there were a movement which encouraged more entrepreneurship, it’s like a movement starting up tons of other movements — ultimately it is a flywheel that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

David Kolodny: I’m on LinkedIn and also write on the wilburlabs.com blog.

Phil Santoro: I’m most active on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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