Nalden, a man who goes by one name, thinks of his file-transfer startup as a museum.
His company, WeTransfer, is still small, but biting at the ankles of companies like Box and Dropbox. Further down the road, his competitors are Apple, Google, and the email attachment.
But along the way, Nalden wants to be distracted by the view.
The key to the Dutch startup’s success are large, gorgeous ads on the service that both make money and enable Nalden’s favourite word: discovery.
“I’d like to see WeTransfer not as a utility that is handy, but as a great museum where you can discover great work,” Nalden, the startup’s cofounder, said.
It’s not a statement you hear from Box’s Aaron Levie or Dropbox’s Drew Houston. But WeTransfer, a stylish cousin to Dropbox, is designed to be simple and beautiful. It doesn’t require a sign up, and the only ads are the background images of the service. It’s been popular in Europe because of its simplicity, lack of a sign-up, and for not having ads that track you.
One leg up it might have over its US competitors: it’s already profitable.
The key to WeTransfer’s profitability goes back to Nalden’s days as an internet blogger in the Netherlands. In 2002, the 16-year-old started a blog, Nalden.net, to chronicle his curiosity and thoughts on music. Within six months, he says, it was profitable.
Instead of placing banner ads everywhere, Nalden used wallpaper ads as the background, and insisted on bringing magazine-style imagery into the advertising.
WeTransfer evolved out Nalden’s curiosity and connections to the creative community — and a hassle in his everyday life.
Realising there was no easy way to share large files, like music or movies, Nalden and his co-founder and CEO Bas Beerens created WeTransfer in 2009.
WeTransfer had to be easy enough for his parents to use, and he took with him the idea of the wallpaper advertising background to be a backdrop.
The first priority was making it simple. Its homepage features a small box that lets users add files, put in an email address to send to and one to send from, and then a message. There’s no account sign-up or need to click through to a special page.
He eventually shut down his blog in 2012 as WeTransfer began to grow, but Nalden’s design roots stayed with him.
“It sounds a bit elite, but we truly believe in less is more. You shouldn’t send us an ad with too much copy and too much text that it feels like it’s shouting at you,” Nalden said. “It should be as unobtrusive as possible so that people actually get interested and click.”
Since the company doesn’t have much data about the user beyond country or region, the ads aren’t targeted to an individual like you normally see on Facebook or Google. Instead, Nalden compares it to billboard advertising where one third of the ads are devoted to the creative community.
“I like the fact that I’m not put into the small box that analyses me on raw data. I like to discover new stuff,” Nalden said. “You always have an uncle or a friend that gives you a new experience, that takes you to a new concert so you discover this band that you didn’t know.”
Advertising is also what helped drive it to profitablity within two years. The startup remains profitable to this day, deriving about half its revenue from ads and the other half from its WeTransfer Plus program.
Things are different in the U.S.
“We doubled in team size in past year. That just means we’re 40 people, but that’s nothing compared to the over 900 people at Dropbox,” Nalden said. “We’ve learned one thing, and that’s go large in the US.”
The company has seen 50 million file transfers in the US so far, with more than 180 million files shared and four million monthly unique users in the US alone. Globally, the site has 35 million monthly unique users and set a new record for 4.3 million transfers a day in September.
One difference he’s noticed coming to the United States: Here, security is emphasised. People communicate a lot with fear compared to Europe, he said. Dropbox and Box both advertise themselves as “secure file storage” systems while WeTransfer is just about “file-sharing.”
“It’s very much privacy by design. That’s how we set up WeTransfer and the end user, people, are in our first thought,” Nalden said. “I think that’s a very nice naïve way for starting and growing the business. In some ways, it’s very European. That’s why it’s a lot of fun to come into the US market because its totally different.”
During its time in the accelerator, WeTransfer is starting by focusing on how it can help musicians to share their work with their fans, creating specialised backgrounds for their pages.
Meghan Trainor’s manager and venture capitalist, Troy Carter, told Business Insider in September that the startup has already gained traction within the music industry. “All of our clients on the music side use WeTransfer, so here we have this opporunity to reach 70 million people per month through advertising,” Carter said at the time.
Artists like Prince and Childish Gambino have released songs for people to download through WeTransfer, and Madonna’s manager has e-mailed with questions about the site, Nalden says. In a new partnership, Pitchfork is letting readers download its new podcast via the site.
Music is only the start. WeTransfer already has other partnerships down the line with companies like GoPro to find better ways to transfer large files and showcase them.
“We grow slowly, in terms of steam, in terms of expansion, in terms of marketing spending. It’s all very Dutch in a way. Which is OK because we’re still here now,” he said.
These days, Nalden is spending his weeks flying back-and-forth to Amsterdam to spend the weekends with his newborn son and appearing at startup events in LA and the Bay Area in between. In the Netherlands, people are more afraid to fail, but Nalden’s caught up now in the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial spirit.
“Since you’re in the epicentre of where everything happens online, things move so much faster. Like a month in Silicon Valley or San Francisco is like a year everywhere else,” Nalden said. “Things move just faster here. I love the energy and I love the optimism Americans have. The sky isn’t the limit, people are.”