GE 232: Damian Bradfield Partnered with Moby in a Genius Marketing Move that Gained WeTransfer 200K Users (podcast) With Damian Bradfield

Damian Bradfield

Hey everyone, on today’s show I had the opportunity to pick the brain of Damian Bradfield, President and CMO of WeTransfer, the world’s largest file-sharing service.  

Tune in to hear Damian share how they managed to build a business through organic growth and acquire 200K users from word-of-mouth, why partnering with artists like Moby and 21 Pilots is a genius marketing move (and why WeTransfer donates a percentage of ad revenue to the arts), and how user design and experience is key to their success.

Download podcast transcript [PDF] here: Damian Bradfield Partnered with Moby in a Genius Marketing Move that Gained WeTransfer 200K Users TRANSCRIPT

Time-Stamped Show Notes:

  • 00:50 – Before we begin, please leave a review and rating and subscribe to the Growth Everywhere Podcast
  • 01:28 – Damian Bradfield gives us a brief bio, including how he started WeTransfer, the biggest file-sharing service in the world.
    • 02:13 – He explains WeTransfer’s revenue streams.
    • 02:45 – He describes WeTransfer’s rate of growth.
    • 03:37 – What WeTransfer’s basic free service entails.
    • 03:58 – What WeTransfer’s premium experience is like.
  • 05:20 – WeTransfer oversees 42 million units per month and donates a percentage of ad revenue to the arts.
  • 07:04 – As the business has grown, so have the operating costs, which has affected their donations to the arts.
  • 7:52 – Benefits of paying for the premium experience if you are a small business.
  • 08:20 – How WeTransfer was “bootstrapped” by the founders and how they managed to have organic growth.
  • 09:46 – 200,000 users were gained from word-of-mouth organic growth.
  • 10:35 – WeTransfer had amazing goodwill from the Dutch press and the Dutch people, because they want to stimulate growth and potentially be the next Silicon Valley.
  • 10:38 – Werner Vogels, the CTO of Amazon, helped WeTransfer migrate from Flash to AWS.
  • 12:22 – WeTransfer was one of the few sites out there focused on user design and experience; accessibility was and is key.
  • 13:20 – How the company is very piracy-averse.
  • 13:50 – Damian attributes trust to their customer retention and success.
  • 15:48 – Partnering with Moby and 21 Pilots has helped as a marketing tool.
  • 16:27 – Personal relationships are what drive WeTransfer’s business and business partnerships.
  • 17:22 – The company’s biggest struggle was managing the grand scale of the business with a small team.
  • 18:40 – The great thing about basing a company in Holland is that the focus is on being lean and pragmatic.
    • 19:15 – The downside to being based in Holland, is that there isn’t the type of voracious ambition that exists in the United States.
  • 19:59 – WeTransfer is going through major changes: they’ve hired a new COO, Head of Advertising, and a new marketing team.
  • 20:45 – Two new programs are coming out this year, which Damian thinks will strengthen their brand and fill in gaps in their business.
  • 21:42 – Damian’s book recommendation is Peter Thiel’s Zero to One.

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Full Transcript of The Episode

Show transcript
Damian B.: It's a very healthy business, so since 2009 we've grown very, very steadily to now 42 million active users per month. We're in pretty much every country in the world, so I think we say we're in 194 countries. Let's say our home turf is Europe. So where we're a household name, where we're really well known, where we generate a big chunk of our business is really within the European market, and the reason that we moved out here is because the U.S. for us is obviously huge. But it's also our fastest growing, and it's the best converting market from free to plus. So the consumer or the users here are the most responsive to the sort of premium features that we offer within WeTransfer.

Eric Siu: Interesting. So what are some of those premium services?

Damian B.: The free service is super simple. There's no sign up, no log in. You can just use the services and pretty much unlimited files to anybody that you have an email address for. And in return for using the service for free, we just serve these non-obtrusive ... We try to make them really beautiful ads in the background. The premium experience is basically yours, so it would be, your own imagery in the background, so the experience that you sent when sending and the experience for your recipient is a really beautifully crafted and curated space that all looks like you or the work that you're doing, and it's about larger file sizes, storage, social sharing features, password protection, all that sort of stuff.
There's sort of a handful of extra add-ons that come with the plus background. The majority of people that choose to use plus or the subscription service, as we call it, are an awful lot of freelancers, photographers, creatives, small businesses that are really looking for that brand, that experience to make sure that when they're sending presentations, videos, whatever, the experience that the recipient gets, which is often the client's, feels like it's coming from you, and it's as beautifully crafted as the work that it is that you're actually putting into the transfer itself.

Eric Siu: Awesome. I'm assuming you have many different plans, so I guess probably a simpler question would be what's the average revenue per user?

Damian B.: We don't really ever talk about revenue. We're more than happy to talk about the number of users we have, and we're very happy to talk about the amount the inventory that we give away, and those sort of things.

Eric Siu: Sure. Let's talk about that.

Damian B.: Okay. We have 42 million uniques for month. We have been growing steadily year on year. Our business is supported by these two revenue streams, but the thing that I think most people don't know is that we give away 30% of all of our ad [inventory 00:05:36] to support the arts. So since 2009 when we first started the service, we, as I said in the beginning, we had this full screen advertising platform, and everyone was producing banners. And no one was interested in having to make another sort of piece of creative to put onto the only site in the world that had this four-screen advertising model.
So we started to give a lot of it away, and we had friends that were photographers or illustrators or that sort of thing. So we gave it to them, and people loved seeing that ... discovering stuff through us. So over the years, I'm going to fast-forward to today, we give away 30%, which this year equates to over five billion impressions to support up and coming musicians, charities, start-ups, a lot with the creative community in the arts. In L.A. we've been supporting the Hammer Museum. We're working with MOCA. We would like to kickstart something shortly with LACMA on the top end of the scale. But the bottom end, we over the years probably helped more than 200 musicians reach an audience that they otherwise wouldn't have access to. We've helped tons of illustrators and photographers be discovered or get some recognition that normally you'd have to pay for or hope that a journalist would pick you up and write about it.

Eric Siu: Awesome. So if 30% ... I feel like there's a story behind that because that's such a big chunk of cash. So where did the 30% number come from? What's the story behind it?

Damian B.: It used to be 50%.

Eric Siu: Wow.

Damian B.: As the business has grown and scaled, obviously our costs have grown and scaled too, and we were in a fortunate position that the advertising market had changed, and we've managed to attract major company. So there's pretty much not an advertiser or a media company out there that doesn't buy against WeTransfer today. So the demand on our ad inventory just became bigger, and also the demand on hosting costs became bigger, so we had to reduce it so. So it went down from 50% to 30%. It's not hard and fast rule. I mean, if we have some amazing projects of which we've had some pretty phenomenal partnerships happening this year, it really depends on how much storytelling we have any one moment and how many projects there are.

Eric Siu: Awesome. Great. Just to simplify it for people, like you mentioned, if I'm a small-business owner and I want to send like some PDFs or some videos over to somebody, I can password protect it, right?

Damian B.: Yes.

Eric Siu: And then there's a branded experience as well. So it just makes it look a little more professional, right? That's kind of the simplification of it?

Damian B.: Yep.

Eric Siu: Okay. Great. So 42 million unique users, let's go back to the early days. How did you go about getting your first million users.

Damian B.: Everything that we've done has been organic, so we bootstrapped the company. We didn't have any funding in the beginning. Everything basically came through the original group of sort of founders who put in their own money and their own time. And we were holding down multiple jobs to basically pay the rent and pay the full salaries that we had to pay. The beautiful thing about WeTransfer is if you upload something and you send it to three people, back in 2009 probably one of those three became a user. So one in three recipients became a user.
So our organic growth was just phenomenal. It's funny you ask because the one thing that we can vividly remember back in 2010 that really spawned things for us was stumbled upon StumbleUpon, and it still exists. I didn't know that it was even around anymore, but StumbleUpon is still there. I think back in 2010 it had quite a bit of traction, so-

Eric Siu: It did, yeah.

Damian B.: ... if a site was picked up on StumbleUpon and sort of spat out, you would know it. So there was the moment when StumbleUpon sort of found us or however it worked, spat us out, and we gained 200,000 users pretty much overnight. It wasn't really even a gradual thing; it was pretty much overnight, and that boost, have to say, was one of the things that really triggered a lot more of the virality for us because if that time if one in three recipients became a user, you can do the math.

Eric Siu: So you got 200,000 ... Is it 200,000 subscribers from StumbleUpon?

Damian B.: Not subscribers, but 200,000 users.

Eric Siu: Okay, and then that led to 600 what? You got like another one in three, right?

Damian B.: In combination with in Holland, the company is Dutch. I don't know if I said that, but it's started in Amsterdam. And the stat-up community is reasonably big, but it's a village. Amsterdam compared to New York or Amsterdam compared to L.A. is tiny. So there were a handful of start-ups that were doing some stuff at the time. And the start-up community was relatively small, and there was a huge desire in Amsterdam, as I think there is in Berlin and other places just to want start-ups to succeed to make the next Silicon Valley to do something.
So we had amazing good will from the Dutch press and the Dutch community. One person in particular who's made a big difference in our lives was a guy called Werner Vogels, who's the CTO of Amazon, who's one of the only public-facing people for Amazon and undoubtedly one of the most influential people within Amazon. And he helped us massively in migrating from what we had in the early days, which was site built in Flash, hosted on some low service and to migrate to AWS. That came from real good will. It was him being Dutch and wanting some success stories to come out of the Dutch market.

Eric Siu: How did you even meet him?

Damian B.: Werner's hugely ingrained in the Dutch start-up community. If you have a start-up and you've got a little bit of traction or you've turned up to a few event, Verner will be there. He's a very generous, very committed guide to seeing I think a lot of young people succeed.

Eric Siu: That's awesome. Okay. So backing up a second, when you mentioned that one in three people, one in three users ... I guess my real question is was there some kind of referral mechanism where people could find out about WeTransfer if somebody transfers something? Like, what happened there?

Damian B.: It was purely organic. There was no referrer mechanic. Dropbox at the time had a fantastic member-gets-member scheme. We didn't have any such mechanism in place at all. We were totally relying on the quality of the product that we were putting out there, and the differentiation, and the way that it looked. And you have to remember back in 2010 the focus was very much on technology. So we had it the CTO or the developer was the rock star. Those guys were building technology that everyone was excited about. And no one was really that bothered with their interface or user's name.
We were one of the few sites out there that was mainly focused on user design and experience. And technology wasn't an afterthought; we just wanted it to be invisible, so we had quite a bit of standout because we weren't the guys talking about the complexity of the code or anything else; we were really just focused on making sure it's accessible to everybody, and it really meant that our service could be used by somebody who was 12 or 90. You didn't need to create an account. You didn't need to do anything. If you want to send something, just send it.

Eric Siu: Interesting.

Damian B.: And on top of that, you have to remember that our competition at that time were RapidShare Megaupload, a lot of companies that were not necessarily the best sort of type of companies in the world, not necessarily doing the greatest work, and they were all getting shut down. Their business models were based on an openness towards piracy. And the music industry was working pretty hard to close those guys down, so we were also in the right place at the right time doing the right thing, being very piracy averse. And we wanted nothing to do with pornography, and we wanted nothing to do with the illegal distribution of films or anything like that. So we were just in the right place at the right time, I think.

Eric Siu: Got it, yeah. Timings one of the most important factors, right?

Damian B.: Absolutely.

Eric Siu: Great. So you talked about how you got to the first million or so. What's working for you today in terms of customer acquisition, just one thing that's working really, really well?

Damian B.: It's never just one thing, but if I tried to distill it down to a single thing that I think is a big differentiator for us, it probably comes down to trust. I think that the experience you have from using WeTransfer is one that is quite revolutionary online that we don't try to lock you in by forcing you to give away any information, or slowing bandwidth down, or anything like that. We have a net promoter score of 87%, and I think this is down to a few of those elements combined that generally when somebody uses WeTransfer and they're recommended to use it by somebody else, the sentiment and the response is so positive that it will generally trigger fantastic referrals just word of mouth or email referrals. That's probably working the hardest for us in terms of the long-term outreach and the long-term electronic acquisition.
We don't spend massively on marketing. We do a fair bit, which is obviously to 30% stuff, which is about highlighting different projects and making sure that people receive and experience creativity online. But a big chunk of what we're doing really goes against highlighting how people produce things, so highlighting how Kamasi Washington is a very big jazz musician and how we help him produce a film. That film is then showcased at the Whitney Museum in New York, and we try to demonstrate how using a tool like WeTransfer helps enable that creative process and that workflow.
We don't lean very heavily on email marketing. In fact, we try to limit the amount of hammering that we do or email reach-out to people to try to make sure that they don't feel bombarded. Where we do spend a fair bit of time is on social. So we've seen that when we've done a really good partnership with somebody like Moby or Twenty One Pilots and they've released their music through WeTransfer, if we push that socially, it works as a marketing tool. People will go to the site, download the album that Moby is giving away, and obviously talk about it, refer other people, share, discuss.

Eric Siu: Interesting. So how do you know, I mean, like MOBI, for example, these other companies, how do you know these are the right partners to go after because it sounds like this is not something, a customer acquisition thing that usually people talk about?

Damian B.: Moby is an artist. He's a musician.

Eric Siu: Oh. I thought it was MOBI. Okay, Moby, the musician, got it. Never mind. Never mind. I get it.

Damian B.: A lot of those relationships, to be honest, whether it is company or whether it is Moby the musician is all about personal relationships. We don't go into any sort of partnership looking on a short-term basis; it's got to be a long-term thing because although there's this perception around tech that it's super fast and can develop and iterate incredibly quickly. If you're building for the long term and you're trying to build trust, it takes time to build out and experience that people really can enjoy spending time with it and happy to spend time with.
We spend a huge amount of time meeting people, doing real face time, trying to understand what they would like to do and how they would best like to get their message out there in the world and then really trying to facilitate that and make sure that we could enable that rather than manipulate it and try to construct it in a fashion that suits us.

Eric Siu: What's one big struggle you've faced while growing this business?

Damian B.: It's probably scale. We were bootstrapped until 2015, and it meant that we had a very small team. I think in 2014 we were probably just 20 people or something like that and supporting a business that I can't remember exactly the numbers, but we were doing an excess of $20 million, $25 million uniques a month. You would never have a company that scale in the U.S. with such a small team. It was only in 2015 that we took investment. In 2016 we got rid of all of the other companies that we were involved with to sort of keep the lights on and focus purely on WeTransfer.
I would say that through the course of this year we've gone through significant changes in scaling the team. And we're now at 82 people in Amsterdam and 10 out here in L.A. our struggle has been getting enough people and the right people onboard fast enough, really to keep up with the business and to keep up with the ambition that we have. I'd say we were slow to that. This year's been fantastic. Next year is looking better.

Eric Siu: Got it. Sounds like you guys had a really healthy business. When did you guys start it, again?

Damian B.: 2009.

Eric Siu: So you've waited six years to raise. So why did you guys decide to raise money?

Damian B.: I think being based in Holland, there's some amazingly positive things, and then there's some things less positive. The great thing about starting a company in Holland, and I would recommend it to anybody, is that it's very pragmatic. The focus really is on being lean and get into like an MVP as fast as you possibly can where there's little resources and as little money as you need. The issue then is once you've got something, and it's got some stickiness, and you've got some traction, is then taking it to the next level.
In Holland, it's just not the case that there is quite as much ambition as there is in a country like the U.S. I think the great thing about where we are right now is we've got the best of of sort of both worlds. You've got the fantastically productive, pragmatic, Dutch team with we're building out here in the U.S. in marketing sales, customer support, business development. And I think those two combined is an amazing combination. If it was just the Netherlands on its own, I think we would've struggled.
I think we thought that we could probably do it all on our own for quite a while and slowly over the years we're going to realize actually we're not very good at doing this bit. We need somebody more operational. This year we've gone through some massive changes, and we brought on a new CEO. We've just hired a COO. We've hired a new head of our advertising business. We brought in a couple of people from Rebel Marketing to run marketing out here. And we've just scaled it up, all up a little bit, and I think before maybe it was ego, but we thought we could probably do it all on our own. You know?

Eric Siu: Yep. Makes sense. What's one new tool that you've added in the last year that's added a lot of value? So it could be like a Evernote, for example.

Damian B.: The things that we've added are always small, so it's not something that I'd say, "This is like the revolutionary thing that we've done in the last year.

Eric Siu: It could be yourself too.

Damian B.: It definitely wasn't me. What we're going to add towards the end of this here is a bit I'm really excited about. So we've got two new things about Oscar, around ... because I can't go into too much detail, but there were two new things coming out that I think are really exciting because they will help I think shape a lot more the sort of the creative workflow for a lot of people, and it's not just for creative people; it's for creative minds or anybody that's producing stuff.
Where we've been fantastically strong is in the web-based product. It's sort of steadfast and solid, where we haven't been that strong as historically been in mobile. And I'm really excited towards something that we're going to bring out later on this year that will hopefully fill that mobile gap where I'd say we've not been the strongest, but I think we will be come October, November.

Eric Siu: Great. What's one must-read book you'd recommend to everyone?

Damian B.: I'm not a huge fan of the author anymore, given his political stance. I think Peter Thiel's Zero to One is one of the best business books I've ever read.

Eric Siu: Awesome. Great book. It's funny. Once you said the political thing, I immediately knew it was him. Cool. Well, Damian, this has been great. What's the best way for people to find you online?

Damian B.: On Twitter probably respond best to [inaudible 00:22:05] Twitter.

Eric Siu: Got it. Awesome. Well, Damian, this has been great. Again, thanks so much for doing this.

Damian B.: Thank you very much.

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