Nalden, the entrepreneur with a single name is not a creative director, artist or designer, yet many of the people who fill these roles will immediately recognize him for the way he’s made their lives easier by inventing WeTransfer, the digital delivery service that allows people to seamlessly send large files across the internet.
Nalden started WeTransfer as a side project to his successful blog to counter the slow and impractical nature of large-file sharing amongst people in the creative community. WeTransfer’s user-friendly design and interface, along with its free-to-use offering, has resulted in a dedicated user base. Today WeTransfer boasts 100 million monthly users sending over a billion files. In turn, the company, which has offices in the Netherlands and Los Angeles, reinvests back into the creative community by giving away 30% of its ad inventory to artists who can use the space to feature their own work. WeTransfer also produces Creative Class, an award-winning video series featuring interviews with leading creatives.
With a conductor father who fed him a healthy diet of Bach, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff and a teacher mother who instilled a love of sharing knowledge, Nalden seems to have found a way to forge the foundation of his childhood into the business. Here, Nalden shares how he turned his side project into his main business, why he started a digital agency to fund WeTransfer in its early days, and why even the most digitally-minded, on-the-go, office-forgoing entrepreneurs should “never underestimate the power of the dinner table” for fostering meaningful business interactions.
You started your career as a teenage blogger. How did that evolve into creating WeTransfer?
I quit school at 19 when the blog I started at 13 gained traction and I was lucky enough to make a living out of it through wallpaper advertising. On my blog I shared whatever I was interested in at that time. It started with music, then went on to a much broader life and global view with art, travel, architecture, and technology. The blogging was never about me.
Blogging was my way of publicly learning and failing. It made me more entrepreneurial, kept me curious, and widened my horizon. It also allowed me to try several side projects. Some became businesses (Present Plus / WeTransfer) and others went bankrupt (my music label Appletree Records). WeTransfer was the side project that ultimately became my real business.
How did WeTransfer come to life?
Because of my blog I met my co-founder Bas Beerens, an avid reader who liked my business model. We kept talking about building a service allowing people to share big files seamlessly. It all started from a place of frustration with service like YouSendIt (now Hightail) where it was always a hassle to send large files. We wanted to make it as simple as possible to send big files.
What we started with was just a simple interface that even my dad could understand. You didn’t have to create an account and you could immediately start using it for free to send up to 2GB. From launching that, pretty naively, we grew rapidly and didn’t expect this growth at the beginning. So the first few years were all about catching up on the growth on a technology level, a team level, a financial level, and a management level. Today WeTransfer is one of the simplest ways to send your files and 40 million people actively make use of it every month to send over a billion files.
You initially didn’t take any outside capital. How did you fund the operation?
In the beginning WeTransfer was only costing us money, so I had to make money. I didn’t want to grow my blogs into a magazine, so I started the digital agency Present Plus. I had a very personal, authentic voice on my blog and it helped me create an audience. Brands wanted to connect with me because of that audience, and I learned how to work with brands like Nike and help them tell their stories. Last year WeTransfer decided to acquire the Present Plus team. They are fully responsible for the product design and brand identity for WeTransfer. Integrating one side project (Present Plus) to fuel the other (WeTransfer) was an easy decision to make. When we launched WeTransfer Plus — our subscription model — that made us very profitable.
At WeTransfer your wallpapers are a big part of your product. How do your control quality?
We have our own studio in-house that creates wallpaper ads for the brands so when we pitch advertising, we always try to help with the latest campaign assets that they have and make the advertisements for them to get the best results for advertising on WeTransfer. We think it’s an extra service that we have to do for our users: make advertising look better. If it’s nice for the user, it’s better for the advertiser. Today advertising feels like people are shouting in your face. I just want someone to gently say, “Hey Nalden, look at this. You should check it out.”
Give us some insight into your process of creating the new WeTransfer site.
It’s like we had to buy a new piece of land and rebuild the whole foundation before building a new house on top of it. That’s basically what we’ve done. Every part of the new WeTransfer has been re-designed and rebuilt. We had to do that to make it more future proof and more scaleable, allowing us to iterate further on top of that new foundation and introduce new features faster. We also wanted the ability to introduce our eco-system into new devices. It took us 10 months from start to finish to launch the new WeTransfer. In that time we went from 35 to 75 people in one year, especially after acquiring Present Plus.
How did you manage the culture change that comes with going from 35 people to 75 in a year?
It’s not easy, and never will be.There’s this quote of Alvin Toffler that goes, “The illiterate of the future are not those who cannot read or write, but they are those who cannot learn, un-learn and re-learn.” I think that’s spot on, and I challenge myself to live up to that quote.
That way of living comes with a lot of failure, but along the way we all learn in the journey. Give people purpose and clarity and empower them to go for it. Then it will all be fine.
As a famously bootstrapped company, how has funding affected your path and why did you decide to raise $25 million in 2015 when you were already profitable?
As founders you get to a point where the company is growing so fast, you start to get in the way. You think you know it all, so you are limiting yourselves. Bas and I had no real management experience and it’s often your own limits that slow you down with a fast-growing company. We wanted to overcome this problem before it became a real issue. So we went on a search to find the best partners to have a seat at our table, bring expertise and experience to take the company further, and grow the team and, ultimately, the business. The fact that we were already profitable gave us the luxury to choose which partners we wanted to have at our table. That is a huge luxury.
When Highland Capital Partners Europe approached us, we had an instant connection. In addition to supporting us with funding, they also offer us advice and expertise to help us achieve our goals. We are using the investment to continue to innovate and develop our product and build the brand further, with our main focus on the U.S.
WeTransfer opened an office in Los Angeles recently. Why is a physical location important in today’s world of social media, video chats, and file transfers?
Never underestimate the power of the dinner table. In the end, people make the difference, so you want to look them in the eyes, have a laugh or two, and collaborate and make decisions together. That’s why you need to have people on the ground. For sales, marketing, and support it is also crucial to have a team in the U.S. because of the time difference. We now offer round-the-clock support Why L.A? The creative scene in L.A. is booming and we love being right in the middle of where things are created. Supporting the arts has always been a key priority to us. To be able to form partnerships and discover talent, it is great for us to have a home base in L.A. where many artists start out.
What are the goals with WeTransfer’s art projects?
The goal is to resonate with our audience. Show that we are not only part of the content creation process, but also that we highlight the end result, whether online or offline. Apart from promoting the world’s leading brands through beautiful full-screen advertising, we also support the creative community by giving away 30% of our ad inventory to artists. That’s up to $20 million a year! We collaborated with Ace Hotels recently on a billboard outside their hotel in downtown L.A. and with Pioneer Works on a photography exhibition. I also really like the storytelling partnership we did with McSweeney’s.
As someone who is not what one would typically describe as a “creative,” how do you describe your own role within the creative community?
I don’t make shit, I make shit happen. That’s my credo right now, and it all comes down to my upbringing. I am the son of a conductor and a teacher, so it was always about the arts over money. Because of my parents, music has always been really important to me and so has sharing knowledge. Everything I do comes from the lessons they taught me.