If one were to compare the Dutch tech entrepreneur Nalden (yes—he goes by just one name) to anyone in the States, it would probably be a hybrid of the serial entrepreneur Sean Parker and Jason Kottke, the web designer and blogger. Like Kottke, Nalden gained a large following and livelihood by blogging about stuff that he liked—mostly music and DJ culture—and similar to Parker, Nalden is an idea man who is uncovering the hidden possibilities of the digital world faster than most. But he has also become a brand of his own, able to sell big-label products just on his credibility as a style maven.
With blogging now behind him, Nalden is breathing life into his two businesses, one of which you've almost certainly heard of: WeTransfer, a site that makes sharing large files over the Internet easy, and lets users pick high-quality background images for the sharing page. His other company, Present Plus, brings art and technology together in the public domain.
He started as a teen blogger who blogged to let his friends know “what he thought was cool” but ended up becoming a country’s cultural ambassador. When actors like Clive Davis and Sacha Baron Cohen would come to Amsterdam, Nalden would show them around, thanks to his PR connections. His eponymous website became prime real estate for big-name advertisers like Apple and Nike. He was the eyes and ears of a generation of digital natives, with his influence spilling over Dutch borders.
Nalden, whose real name is Ronald Hans, used his childhood nickname to baptize his blog, Nalden.net. The professional pseudonym stuck.
In a 2009 interview the manager of the singer Anouk told the magazine Vrij Nederland, “Nalden knew how to give the zeitgeist a good spin and played a pivotal role in the [hip-hop] scene. With a fresh, fun voice.”
His voice attracted promoters who wanted in on the Millennial demographic. “My site became profitable within six months [of starting it],” he said. Nalden was just 16, and the year was 2002, “before blogging was a thing.”
When Nalden shut his site down in 2012, he received a ton of mail. "One person even wrote me to tell me that he chose his job because of my site. It was amazing. I mean all you see is numbers, but you never meet the people,” says Nalden.
Perhaps the most notable part of Nalden’s advertising scheme was his Wallpaper Model. Sick of seeing every website use unattractive banners to push ads to online users, he was bent on bringing the beauty of glossy magazines to the Internet.
The 29-year-old’s signature Wallpaper Model has made its mark in Nalden’s more recent projects. WeTransfer uses “the same DNA” as his blog, with artistic ads and outright artwork gracing its transfer page. “There’s no clutter. We get a click-through-rate, on average, of 2%. Most banners get on average 0.014%,” he says.
And one of Present Plus’s current projects, Kuvva, makes tons of curated wallpapers from handpicked designers and illustrators available to mobile and desktop users.
When I met Nalden at Present Plus’s Amsterdam office, we took a moment to admire the art pieces that his team curated in their first-floor gallery. “We just finished a show. It was about dinosaurs,” he says.
Somehow, the innocence of the dinosaurs made me realize why everyone wants to get to know Nalden. It’s really simple things that we want to surround ourselves with. Coincidentally, it’s also his design philosophy.
Nalden grew up in the small town of Wilnis, the Netherlands, and started making websites for his dad when he was 13. “My dad is a conductor. So he didn’t really need a website. But it was so cool to me that I could publish this thing and everyone in the world could see it.”
He recalls his first computer that ran Windows 3.1. “I used Microsoft Frontpage and basically taught myself. I still have this website on a floppy disk at home. The first page was just text, pictures, and a treble clef.”
Nalden’s parents never really pushed him to become an entrepreneur, but he had the drive to learn how to improve his site and create new things. When he created his blog, Nalden says he “coded every day to tell a short story,” using WordPress as a foundation.
In the very beginning, he frequently blogged about music. “I was always illegally sharing music with everyone on my site. This was the very early blogging era. It was Universal Music. They basically said, if you don’t stop doing this, we will sue you. But I introduced a new business model for them.” They promoted their music on Nalden’s blog after that.
In the 10 years that followed, he took on major advertisers and relocated to Amsterdam. The design firm Momkai approached Nalden in 2007 to collaborate on his blog, and the Wallpaper Model was born.
“The idea was to do a different layout for a blog, based on a desktop model, taking Mac OS X as a reference and at the same time push beautiful wallpaper images while the content floats on top of it,” Nalden says. He let Momkai handle the coding and maintenance of his site from then on.
Exposure to all of these brands whetted Nalden’s appetite for entrepreneurship. With a couple of friends, he started WeTransfer, aiming to keep it user-friendly. “I told myself the baseline was my dad. He had to be able to use it,” says Nalden. They now have around 20 million active users per month.
Originally, WeTransfer hosted all of the data on their own servers, but their user base was growing so rapidly, and is still growing at 1 million new users per month, that they eventually moved to the cloud and have Amazon Web Services host. “That way, I don’t have to hire any engineers to build server parts. We want to focus on the user experience,” Nalden says.
Half of WeTransfer’s revenue goes into supporting the artistic community and now exists as a separate entity from Present Plus.
Three years ago, Nalden met Damian Bradfield, who was running an advertising agency on the other edge of Amsterdam.
“We talked about how we hated everything and wanted to change it,” recalls Bradfield of when they first met. “I decided to go into business with him. Advertising was dying anyway,” he says.
Present Plus employs 16 designers, developers, and creators with offices in London and Amsterdam. They create video, illustrations, photos, editorial content, and a hosting platform for their clients' work. “Most sites use photos to display their work. They look like photographers. Video really shows what they did. And bloggers will embed those videos. It works,” says Nalden.
Present Plus prides itself on taking care of all of a clients’ advertising needs. “Companies are really, like, ‘Ha! I did my job!’ And then we do the video, coding, everything,” says Bradfield.
But Nalden insists on producing original ideas. “Present Plus was never made to do client work only. We still want to make our own products,” says Nalden.
Instead, Bradfield and Nalden are pushing Present Plus in a new direction, bringing young artists’ work to more audiences through technology. Their new program, called Artists & Algorists, is exploring the future of digital art. For it, the Present Plus team is actively cultivating a community of artists with experience in coding and digital interaction. Their creative lead, Sam van ‘t Oever, has created a handful of original pieces using WebGL and HTML5.
“I think my generation and all the entrepreneurs who are starting businesses grew up with the Internet, and so in terms of being creative, you sort of develop yourself as a different creative person. If you know how to code or how to design a website or at least know Photoshop and know how to transform that Photoshop design to a stylesheet that’s, in my opinion, a new way of being a creative person,” says Nalden.
Their flagship Artists & Algorists project is now an interactive installation in the lobby of the Art’otel Amsterdam. Designed by Present Plus’s club of artists, onlookers have a physical back-and-forth with the projections while their movements are captured with Microsoft Kinect technology.
“When you dive into coding and dig deeper into the code, then you become aware of the possibilities that are out there, and that’s led to a whole new generation, the next level of creative people,” Nalden says.
[Image: Flickr user Steve Arnold]