I was recently fortunate enough to talk at the Tech Open Air Conference in Berlin.
I gave a ten minute talk on trust, empathy, and digital citizenship entitled ‘Data Theft, Distrust and Digital Stockholm Syndrome’. A nice, light fireside chat. Or not.
The Germans are a tough crowd. Despite wearing my newest T-shirt and my tech-iest uniform, including a pair of polished, bright white Stan Smith sneakers, the reception was cool. Despite using every ounce of my charm to get a laugh, I barely garnered a smile. I get it. The weather was terrible. It was right before lunch. More importantly, it was right before the much awaited interview between Alex Ljung of SoundCloud and the infamous Mike Butcher of TechCrunch.
I finished my talk and spent 30 minutes speaking with the charming and seemingly engaged Handelsblatt journalist Alexander Demling. We then proceeded to leave the exclusive speaker’s lounge and stepped down the spiral staircase into the main theatre for what was to be the main event.
Mike Butcher arrived slightly late, wearing his infamous biker jacket. Employing his gruff London ‘Danny Baker style’ accent, he proceeded to interview SoundCloud founder Alex Ljung.
It was a tough interview. A week earlier, Alex had cancelled appearances at other conferences and was instead entangled in the aftermath of the decision to sack 173 SoundCloud employees across multiple locations. Ouch.
“We had to lay off 173 people from our team, or 40 percent of SoundCloud. All of them are incredible people. It’s incredibly sad. But we’re very focused on doing what we can to support them,” he said.
Earlier in the year Medium let go of 50 employees and shut their New York and Washington offices. In an attempt to ease the pain of those who would end up looking for a new job, they released a Google doc with the names and contact details of the employees. SoundCloud produced a similar doc for their 173 people they’d dismissed.
“We saw the amount of support [for these people] from the SC community. They produced a google doc themselves, which SC is also supporting.”
It was at this point that I stopped listening.
Up until this moment I had been chatting to Alexander, the journalist beside me, about how wonderful it was that SoundCloud had decided to turn up. I had praised them for what they’d achieved. I mentioned how much we liked and respected them. I mentioned how important they were to the Berlin tech scene. I said:
“What if each and every one of them had been offered ten thousand dollars to refrain from getting a job? To leave and start something. To leave and start working on the new future of music, whatever that might be.”
“SoundCloud has always been the challenger. Look what they’ve achieved: they courted, vetted, groomed and trained these 173 people who specialize in music, technology and innovation. It seems sacrilegious to just let them go out and get regular jobs. We desperately need innovation. We need challengers.”
Alexander must have thought I was mental. Who was this Brit beside him unleashing a rant in a mongrel accent from living too many years abroad?
Fast forward two weeks and back at WeTransfer in LA.
We held a few meetings, conducted a few phone calls and had decided we’d put aside a few upcoming projects. Instead, we would back this idea:
We’d email each of the 173 SoundCloud employees and offer them $10,000 — not as a loan or an investment but a gift. (Perhaps Alexander was right after all? Perhaps this was madness.)
“WTF? Why? Sure thing!”
I heard all sorts of responses, but for the most part what rang out from the company was a one resounding sound. ‘Do it.’ Embedded in that response is what I love about WeTransfer. Since 2009 we have been supporting the arts, startups, innovators, students, designers — you name it.
We give away annually 30% of all our advertising inventory to support the arts. Over the past year that’s resulted in five billion impressions. (At $30 cpm, you can do the math). We’ve funded scholarships at Central Saint Martins in London, financed films for the likes of FKA Twigs, helped commission art installations for Kamasi Washington, launched a radio station, Worldwide FM with Gilles Peterson, as well as a university, The University of the Underground with Nelly Ben Hayoun.
And now the company was prepared to fund a whole new direction of talent to help kick start something. Wow.
What if every single one of those 173 people had a genius idea? Would we have to fund them all? Maybe. To be honest, we weren’t sure. We had heard rumours that around 35 had already found work. (Thankfully we’ve been profitable since 2014.)
Hidden at the core of this crazy notion is a very serious idea. We need to keep innovating. Everyone — the folks at SoundCloud included — would love to see these former employees go on to develop great things. $10,000 isn’t enough to build an entirely new company, but it is enough to get an idea going, to design something, or have it designed. It’s enough to get an iOS developer friend to build an MVP that we could introduce or shine a spotlight on. That is, after all, how WeTransfer started.
So that’s what we did.
We sent this letter to each email on the Google doc. Everyone from SoundCloud who supplied an address received this letter:
We have some criteria to try to avoid spammers all of which can be found here https://we.tl/PNtnVvEiIQ.
We want people to create. What could be better? We want to see amazing proposals. Start something — that’s what we’re saying. We’ll do whatever we can to help, but we aren’t VC’s. This isn’t an investment. It’s not a loan. It’s an opportunity. We aren’t trying to compete and don’t want to own anything. It’s a chance to have some fun.