11 October 2017

How the WeTransfer founder made file sharing cool

WeTransfer has gained a global troupe of fans by turning what could be a boring service into a cultural cornerstone.

For his 21st birthday, Ronald Hans threw a party. It was held in one of the clubs he often went to – Bitterzoet in Amsterdam – and it was packed.

‘We invited all kinds of people we knew,’ says Vincent Reinders, his best friend. ‘Rappers, DJs… and they came to perform for free.’

For kids in their 20s who still lived with their parents, the pair had an impressive network. They’d been travelling to hip-hop events all over the Netherlands for several years, and Hans had a blog, nalden.net, where he shared new songs and mixes he liked, listed events and wrote about design, fashion and technology. It had (literally) given him a name in the Dutch music industry: Nalden is the moniker he’s gone by ever since.

‘The energy he naturally has is very contagious,’ says Thijs Remie, who’s worked with Nalden on-and-off for 12 years. He reckons Nalden’s charisma and genuine passion for the things he does has driven his success over time. ‘He’s basically really great with people.’

At a time when barely anyone was blogging, let alone making money from it, Nalden struck deals with Universal Music, Bacardi and Heineken. He promoted a range of Nike trainers. He bought a Lotus Elise. And he came up with the advertising model which is now a familiar part of Wetransfer’s DNA. Instead of banner ads, Nalden selectively offered brands he liked space on his site’s background – as long as their ads looked good.

Preparing for battle

On the face of it, a decade on, Nalden’s world is very different.

He is co-founder of an online file-transfer company, the most mundane of everyday tech services, which runs a sideline in digital billboard advertising. Not, one would imagine, an especially sexy sector.

And yet, somehow, Wetransfer is cool. A massive 75% of its 40 million users work in creative industries, uploading one billion files to its servers each month. It has its pick of the world’s biggest brands as advertisers and has a chunky enough revenue stream to give away 30% of its backgrounds for free to illustrators, artists and photographers, carefully selected by its editorial team. It makes competitors like Hightail and Box look grey and corporate. And, as art and design site It’s Nice That’s co-founder Alex Bec points out, having such a tight grip on creativity gives Wetransfer unique ammo to acquire more corporate users too: ‘All businesses now want to be seen as creative.’

There’s nothing evidently game changing about its transfer technology, but there is something incredibly smart about its business model. The wallpaper ads account for 50% of its revenue (premium subscriptions make up the rest), and helped it reach profitability in 2013, four years after Nalden and co-founder Bas Beerens began the site.

But it’s not enough to help Wetransfer conquer the world.

The advertising model works excellently when tailored to specific markets (its click-through rate is two and a half times higher than the norm); but it’s hard to scale. User habits are changing too – mobile downloads are increasing, and streaming is becoming more common. So, for the past year, since taking on £16.5m in investment from Highland Europe in 2015, Wetransfer’s been quietly preparing for battle. It’s overhauled the site’s underlying technology, beefed up its team (from 25 to 85 in a couple of years), and hired a new CEO with a CV that includes stints at Amazon and Ebay.

On just how Wetransfer will amp up what it does, Nalden is cagey. A mobile app for iOS is set for release at the end of the year, and the paid-for offer is being plumped up with features like transfer history.

‘We’re ready to go beyond file transfer,’ hints Nalden. ‘We’re allowing people to experience content.’

File transfer – and beyond

At the end of 2016, Nalden threw another big party. This time, it was to celebrate the opening of Wetransfer’s first overseas outpost, in LA. The US is a huge target market for Wetransfer: its creative industries are enormous, and influential on a global scale. US customers also tend to upgrade to paid-for services far more than their European counterparts.

Hosted by the Ace Hotel in downtown LA, the acts at the party were brought together by Wetransfer’s newly-announced creative director, British DJ Gilles Peterson. Seemingly a bizarre appointment, Peterson joins Troy Carter (Lady Gaga’s ex-manager, Uber and Spotify investor, and Wetransfer board member) as another creative compass to steer the company as it showcases – and creates – more content.

‘Just like Netflix has its own shows, it would be cool for Wetransfer to produce stuff you have to download to watch, or listen to, or read,’ says Reinders.

Media mogul

Creating content would be nothing new. Wetransfer already makes bespoke backgrounds for advertisers. It has an art and design blog, This Works, linked to the work that features on its wallpapers. It has also produced a stand-alone film series, the Creative Class, launched a podcast series with Boiler Room, filmed a dance documentary with FKA Twigs, and partnered with Moby, Prince and Deadmau5 to give away free music downloads via its site.

Nalden, however, insists the primary motivation behind Wetransfer’s creative content is not to become a media player, but to trigger interest from advertisers, grow users and ‘give back’ to the creative community. Underpinning it all is Nalden’s taste and curiosity: he is either a friend or a fan of the majority of the musicians and artists the site works with.

Arts patron

‘For an independent musician, a person like Nalden is a lifesaver,’ says US soul singer Jesse Boykins III, who Nalden is a long-time fan of. When Boykins’ last two album covers featured on Wetransfer, he gained new fans (and Wetransfer acquired new users). ‘It’s semi like a record label,’ he says of the way the site promotes musicians and helps them reach new audiences.

‘Empowering others is very much in his character,’ says Nalden’s colleague Remie. His old friend Reinders reckons that helping others is the thread that runs through his many endeavours. In 2015, Wetransfer created two bursaries for postgraduate students at London’s Central Saint Martins art school, and for four years has sponsored It’s Nice That’s annual event, ‘Here’. ‘Nalden and Bas are fantastic patrons of the arts,’ says Bec.

Over the years, that’s made him plenty of friends across the creative industry. ‘He believes in music,’ says Boykins. Being genuinely interested in, and in touch with, what the industry needs also impressed his investors. ‘What shone through was how he talked through his vision, and his deep understanding of what users are doing and why they want to use Wetransfer,’ says Highland Europe’s Tony Zappalà.

The site’s ‘virality’ (when users share files, the people they share them with discover Wetransfer) and ‘creative feel’ also stood out. Another selling point was Nalden himself. ‘He has infectious energy,’ says Zappalà. ‘He’s a sort of free radical, making things happen, shaking things up.’

For most of his time at Wetransfer, Nalden’s been wearing two hats; also running a creative studio, Present Plus, which he co-founded in 2010 (after another of his ventures, music label Appletree Records, closed down). ‘I would never recommend starting two companies at once,’ he says. ‘But I was in my 20s – I didn’t know shit.’

Following Wetransfer’s investment round, Nalden brought both companies under one roof at Wetransfer’s Amsterdam HQ. ‘We kept asking, “What if we threw everything on Wetransfer?”’ he says.

Keeping cool

Before the investment round, the question would’ve been how much longer sheer force of personality, passion and good design sensibility can propel Nalden, and Wetransfer, forwards.

Now, with reinforced tech, a bigger team, experienced advisors and a whole lot more money, the challenge will be to keep focused, simple and authentic, and ensure that none of Wetransfer’s publishing ventures stray from adding value to the customer to merely adding gloss to the brand. Nalden will also have to rein in his tendency to jump onto the next exciting idea and concentrate on his current role at Wetransfer as chief innovation officer.

From blogging to running a record label, sending files over the internet to producing films, Nalden’s always been about discovering cool new things, and working out fun ways to tell other people about them. When Courier spoke to him, it was via a startup video calling site Nalden was testing out, while his newsletter is a treasure trove of fashion brands and apps he’s just come across. Nalden’s definitely not done with sharing yet.

First appeared in issue 16 Apr/May

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