I joined the summer of 2010, WeTransfer was five people gathered in a room — or two rooms — on the second floor of an Amsterdam canal side converted house. It had once been the apartment of an old opera singer. The floors were cheap laminate. There was a green built-in bookshelf and only three desks an a semi-moth balled studio flat.
Even back in its embryonic state, all sorts of people recognised WeTransfer was going to be something. Those who made contact with the interface used the service. They clicked on a background. Others questioned our growth, the business model and our desire to change the online advertising business.
One day, early on in the life of WeTransfer, we got a sense of how quickly things were progressing. In London, Nalden and I walked past the offices of It’s Nice That, a publication we both respected. We decided to knock on the door and introduce ourselves.
We sheepishly walked inside, met the founders Will Hudson and Alex Bec and told them we were over from Amsterdam. We were huge fans. We loved their brand and wanted to show our appreciation. They were flattered, very polite and friendly. They kindly reciprocated and asked what we did. When we said we were from WeTransfer their response was immediate: ‘No fucking way.’
‘Hey,’ they summoned the team from the back of the studio to come out. ‘These guys are from WeTransfer.’
Nalden and I looked at each other. We had no idea the business had such reach. We had no idea the business was so recognisable and appreciated. We had no idea these guys would respond with such enthusiasm.
Why? The answer was easy. People were getting fed up with the competition. They were fed up with sign up forms, with the complexity and instability of FTP, with USBs, hard drives, Yousendit. Users loved that we allowed them to focus on creating rather than worrying about delivery. We were already trusted. Though people were discussing WeTransfer, no one quite knew the limits of possibility. We knew this was just the beginning.
Six years later, very little has changed. The company is now fifty people instead of five and we’ve added 32 million unique users per month. Yet the service seems to still be the same. At least that’s the perception.
The reality is different. WeTransfer is faster than ever. When we were first working on the service, the entire platform was built in flash and was running on local servers in Haarlem. (Note the double ‘a’.) Today the service is built in Ruby on Rails and runs on AWS. At peak times we’re pushing 9GB of data per second around the world.
That’s 19,200 copies of Prince’s Purple Rain per second.
So how did we get to this point? There’s never only a single factor.
- One factor is personality.
- Another is approachability.
The others demand explanation;
I. Its about you and me
Back in 2010, we engaged in endless discussions about the use of data. At the time, big data was the hot topic. People like the amazingly talented David McCandless were making data sexy.
Every company bragged about knowing more and more about its users. Data architects, analysts, experts were being pumped all over the world by the likes of Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and SAP whilst Facebook was under fire for knowing too much, for claiming the rights to information people had unwittingly offered up. Instagram claimed copyright over imagery. In general, the market was frantically drawing up infographics to brag about their knowledge.
We asked ourselves if we should use more of our collected data to target users. At that time, we had only gathered hundreds of thousands — rather than millions — of users. Should we start looking at who was using the service? Should we investigate their actions? Could we? What sort of data could be gathered? Much of this conversation was driven by the fact we were boot-strapped. Energy rich — cash poor. We weren’t looking for investors. We were just trying to get the business off the ground.
In the end we agreed we would ask ourselves a simple question. What we would like? The resounding answer was ‘Nothing.’ ‘We should try to protect our users.’
Our goal, we decided, should be to create a safe haven for people to get stuff done. Users shouldn’t have to worry about where their data is being stored. They shouldn’t worry about it being misused. So that’s what we did; Nothing.
We still hold the same beliefs. We treat people the way we would like to be treated. We don’t take advantage of anyone.
Retrospectively, you could call this our ‘small data policy’.
We use the minimal data necessary to ensure we can serve uber premium ads to the right people in order to keep offering a free service to the other users.
For a while we’ve employed terms that are now creeping into vogue: humanistic, authentic, culture-driven.
Although we are technology company, we want to apply technology and innovation to the product without compromise. That means we don’t have to compromise. Users don’t have to compromise.
Here’s an image for you.
Imagine leaving a high street store and noticing a shop assistant in your peripheral vision. As you walk down the road you notice the assistant following, with a shoe in hand from the last store, trying to resell it to you. It doesn’t happen in real life.
Why would we accept or desire that sort of behaviour online?
II. Digging in
I’m ashamed to admit it, but at the same time as we were discussing the possibilities of data collection, we did have a few (very brief) discussions about banner advertising.
We were constantly being told our full-screen advertising was pointless. No one wanted it, they said. It was style over substance. It was a hassle to create, they said, and the future was in programmatic advertising. Therefore we were not the future. We were boot-strapped and struggling to pay salaries. So yes, ashamedly, we did momentarily think about the idea of switching to banner advertising.
Thankfully, we again asked that question. What would we like? The answer was that we all hated banners, pop-ups and take-overs. We would never click on banners. Why would we ask others to do the same?
Today our advertising revenue accounts for 50% of our revenues. We’ve been profitable since 2014. We work directly with the majority of the world’s largest brands, media companies and advertisers. We’re proud to call companies such as Square Space, Netflix, Levis, Burberry, Warner and Nike our clients.
Although organisations such as the IAB still don’t accept ours as the standardised format, the advertising is clearly working. Our Click Through Rates are amongst the highest on offer today and ad-blockers don’t all block us.
Perhaps an even bigger compliment is that many of users still don’t recognise that we carry advertising on the platform. They look at it but they don’t see it. The way we curate advertising means viewers often simply gaze at and appreciate the imagery. They don’t feel they’re being sold to.
III. Field of dreams
This is where money makes its entrance. I’d be lying if I said money wasn’t important to me. However, it’s important in the same way oxygen is important. You need it to breathe, but once you have enough to breathe, ideally you stop thinking about it.
Have I mentioned we had no money in the beginning?
Often we weren’t able to pay any salaries. We worked multiple jobs to pay our mortgages. We caught a few lucky breaks: we were able to sell a couple of white labels and had one advertiser who accidentally paid us twice. This came like a gift from the gods -– though we did actually let them know and paid it back.
In the beginning, we questioned every aspect of the business. Our job was to secure a stable revenue stream in order to keep the service alive.
This search meant doing deals that perhaps were not entirely beneficial, especially in the early years. They cost us time. They spread our focus. But that cost was never passed on to our users.
We didn’t take funding early on. This meant that we were able to do our own thing. It bought us the time and space to think.
It meant that we had the opportunity to discover a revenue stream, set our benchmarks and work at our own pace. We didn’t have to detour from the chosen path. Most importantly, we were able to make mistakes comfortably and give ideas the space they deserved, whilst doubling in size year on year.
In January 2015 we did finally take investment, but we were selective in choosing a partner. Highland Capital Europe fulfilled all our criteria. Since Highland joined, we’ve added financial security to the platform. We’ve introduced two new board members who contribute, bring insight, positivity and access to their networks. Thankfully, at no point has their involvement meant cashing in or embarking on a needless detour.
Over the last 6 years we have given away billions of impressions. We’ve given them to friends, artists, illustrators, film makers, charities and start ups. If it wasn’t a structured partnership we never asked for anything in return.
What could we offer in return for beautiful or surprising imagery? Reach.
This is important. To most people, WeTransfer is nearly invisible. We’re just the transfer box. The background belongs to someone else, but it accounts for 95% of what people recognise as the brand. Therefore curating and showcasing and working with other people and brands has always been and will always be important.
Today, when we highlight someone’s work, we reach more than 80 million people per month. I’m proud to say that we now also have a home for the back story to a lot of the artists we feature; This Works.
That can make a huge difference to an up and coming artist. And if there is something I really get a kick out of, it’s seeing an artist grow and get somewhere, thanks in part to this exposure.
One of the most satisfying projects I have been involved in is working with the amazing Giles Duley. We helped Giles both design and build his platform Legacy of War and then helped him reach his kickstarter goals and raise awareness. You’d have to be heartless not to support Giles in his journey. I’m honoured to call him a friend thanks to this relationship.
The exposure and sense of discovery we have offered to people has not been a huge driver in the success of the business.
V. Minimising disruption
During my time at WeTransfer I’ve done a few good things. I’ve introduced to the team both the amazing Nelly Ben Hayoun and the legendary Troy Carter. We’ve taken a long term view with Central Saint Martins, signing a 10 year partnership to support rising talent. We’ve produced projects like the Creative Class.
However there is nothing more powerful than our development of the reasoning and logic behind what makes WeTransfer…well, you know, WeTransfer.
The user experience behind our service ensures our entry barrier remains low. First, there’s the lack of a sign-up. Then there’s the deliberately minimal experience. These things combine with our ability to send large files, most of which are audio files and images, to produce a service that is hugely — monstrously — appealing to the creative industry.
This class happens to be a bunch of strivers and perfectionists known to be unique, demanding and hard to please. These are the people trained to see through marketing bullshit.
What makes us fundamentally different to the majority of the tech industry? We stumbled on an idea. We firmly believe in a product that does one thing. It keeps our users in their flow.
Because we believe great things happen when things just flow.
This thought process leads back to two people; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Sir Ken Robinson. In Ken’s book, The Element, he explains it perfectly: ‘When you’re not in flow, five minutes can feel like an hour: when you’re in flow, an hour feels like five minutes.’ — Sir Ken Robinson
By removing so many of the barriers, irritations and interruptions of the web we have created a tool that allows people to carry on doing what they do best. With luck this is just the start of a development process enabling creativity without disrupting it. Developing products that genuinely aid and fuel ideation.
VI. Introverts, extroverts and ambiverts
This leads me to probably what is the most important element in the success of WeTransfer. I believe WeTransfer is an ambivert.
Adam M. Grant in his report; Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage states that; “Ambiverts naturally engage in a flexible pattern of talking and listening.”
As a service, WeTransfer is adept at talking and listening. We use values any decent human being would employ.
- We don’t talk down to anyone.
- We can keep a secret.
- We’re trustworthy and respectful.
Of course we make mistakes, and these are mistakes we don’t try and cover up, but instead openly discuss.
As a company, the founders — me included — are all what I would classify as ambiverts. We are both extrovert and introvert. At times ambiverts are comfortable in the limelight. At other times they are most happy in a small group, far from the centre of attention. These same values are visible within WeTransfer. They’re noticeable in the traits of the team, but also in the way we communicate. WeTransfer often takes a back seat, allowing others to remain as the centre of attention.
I’ve often engaged in conversations with sales people who publicise their ability to sell and brag about their sales pitch. Often they miss the opportunity to connect. They forget to ask questions, to listen and understand the needs of their client, or anyone else around them. Their goal is either to bore or badger the other into submission.
This is often true of companies as well, certainly true of more traditional companies, those still broadcasting, advertising, shouting and preaching. These are the companies most of us would rather avoid.
The best salespeople, best brands and people are excellent listeners. The best employees are those able to adapt. The best companies are those able to switch between from being introverts and extroverts. They’re able to display human qualities. They’re ambiverts.