The Edit

The Brains Behind a Brand; an interview with Carl Waldekranz of Tictail

Up close and personal with the precocious entrepreneur and co-founder of Tictail Carl Waldekranz...

To turn the video on or NOT to turn the video on – that is the question, whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' - or remain oblivious - such is the dilemma of the Skype interview. So who will hit the button first? Me or Carl Waldekranz; precocious founder of upwardly mobile Swedish start-up Tictail; the self-styled ‘Tumblr of e-commerce’- the platform that launched in May 2012 and aims to put the power back in the hands of the people, giving them an easy way to get their goods online.

In the end it's me - a good call because not only do I get to see just quite how smiley Waldekranz is (this is one founder who has a knack of making you feel positively ebullient) but I also get a guided tour around the Tictail offices in Stockholm. And what offices they are, another giant tick to the tenet that light, bright, hipster surroundings full of inspirational mood boards have a significant effect on the happiness/output/productivity of a start-up’s employees. This one has it all; ‘a conference room, a washing machine and a bedroom.’ What sorry, rewind? A bedroom - in the office? Isn’t that a bit Gordon Gekko? ‘Yeah, yeah,’ Waldekranz laughs, but qualifies the statement with; ‘But it’s not just for me, it’s for everyone. It’s kind of like working from home only your home is your office!’

The bed in the office set up is actually a curve ball; because the company culture down at Tictail is as far from the Gordon Gekko-styled 'work hard, play hard' mentality as it’s possible to get; an egalitarian grindstone if ever there was one, with Tictail’s staff enjoying flexible working hours and (shock horror) equal pay (yes all of them). So where did this positively Utopian ethos stem from? ‘It started by me and Kaj and Birk (Waldekranz’s co-founders Birk Nilson and Kaj Drobin) meeting up every Friday in my kitchen, (when we still had our day jobs), working Friday to Sunday, every week for six months. Then every month we took half of our salaries and put it in a joint savings account. We started out extremely bootstrapped, and then we’ve continued to act and live that way.'

‘The point I’m coming to’, he continues, ‘is that I think that culture is created in the things you do that you reward and the things that you act on consistently. We are quite consistent on a few things. We try to reward people in higher stock options rather than higher salaries… Actively reward thing we want to nurture in the culture, like people taking care of each other. In our recruitment process, if we’re looking for a developer or designer, we always hire them to be that, and an entrepreneur, and a product person. When I think about our company, I don’t think of me as some kind of sole, visionary CEO, like some kind of Steve Jobs that will just lead our company to riches. It’s more about enabling all these people to come up with their own product ideas and build those ideas in our company.’

This evolutionary mentality leads us neatly onto a tangent: Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. The seminal work, which presented the theory that 10,000 hours of practice are the aforementioned ‘tipping point’ before the leading lights of any given industry reach the pinnacle of their success. Does this theory follow for Waldekranz as he looks back on his own journey from the tender age of 27? ‘Yes,’ is the simple answer and it all started at the age of 18; ‘After high school in Sweden – most kids go off for like 6 months to Asia, travelling around trying to find purpose in life and themselves. I wasn’t so keen. I really wanted to have a company. It didn’t matter much what that company would be, just the idea of having a company seemed terrific to me. I really liked the stationery,’ he smiles, ‘and to have an office to go to. I was really interested in design. I had met a guy at high school, a close friend of mine' (Kaj Drobin the fourth musketeer). 'We just set up a design agency, not really knowing what a business looked like, how you get clients, how you actually do real work.’ 

Despite the ‘not knowing,’ Waldekranz (clearly the ‘leap and the net will appear’ type) invested in an office (‘this cliché first kind of office, you know, a basement outside of the city’) and hastily set about… doing nothing. ‘We just set up shop there. I mean, pretty much for six months we had no clients. It wasn’t this glamorous entrepreneurial story where you just sort of start, but you find your way forward. I worked extra in the weekend as a sub teacher. We worked at a lot of events, carrying sofas, fixing lights… Not getting any jobs is how we got our first real client. We were working at this event space just to get some extra cash in, and spending all of that time in these night clubs and event places doing work that we weren’t supposed to do, we saw this opportunity that ‘Hey, whenever there’s an event, there’s no good way to handle guest lists.’ And since we didn’t have any clients we had a lot of spare time. So we took that spare time and we created this basic system to handle guest lists, and that became a really good business. That is the entrepreneurial side of us; we really started to understand how you create a company and a product. It came from that random series of unfortunate events.’

So there they are - the auspicious circumstances that provided the bedrock for the eventual launch of Tictail; a Scandinavian hot house in which a legion of Swedish start-ups are hitting the ground running (if you don’t believe me just check out the Swedish Startup Space Twitter feed). But in this environment it is the Tictail business model that sets them apart, yes it’s all about ‘sales of the apps’ – the essential add-ons (‘the ability to give a discount out, do campaigns, or send out weekly newsletters’) though all basic services are free; ‘We charge nothing per transaction. We charge nothing for the store,’ Waldekranz says with pride. But isn’t this a slightly risky approach? Giving so much away for free? ‘When I look at e-commerce and how it’s growing, I don’t envision this as a place where we are satisfied with having a hundred thousand stores,’ he says with conviction. ‘I look at Tictail as a business where you have millions of stores. I do believe in this sort of economy, where we make something really great and available for everyone. The best way to do that is to remove all thresholds. Cost is one of those thresholds. I believe if we create a good product and a good platform where people grow and they make a good business then they will also want to extend that business – and then apps will become an obvious choice for them. So I don’t believe it’s a high-risk model, I do believe it’s a long-term model, and I think those things are two very different things.’

The sheer scale of Tictail (the company currently hosts over 17,000 stores, 2500 of them UK based, with an aim to run this figure into the millions), has made them an attractive investment opportunity, even amongst the myriad of start-ups leaping from Stockholm’s digital scene. They were ‘extremely careful with who we took into the company and how we built up our team’ - no doubt one of the defining factors that marked them out, but now that some significant investment has been raised (£1.03m from UK firm Balderton Capital and Swiss investor Klaus Hommels) what are the next challenges moving forwards? ‘First up it’s that everything changes so fast. When we quit our jobs our biggest challenge was: where do we sit? Like, we can’t stay in my kitchen. That, at the time – for a week or so – was a big, big challenge.’ One nevertheless superceded by more current and pressing matters. ‘We’re just launching this thing called Tictail Apps' (a push to bring on a whole host of new developers to build apps for the Tictail app store). 'It’s the biggest technical challenge we have taken upon ourselves and I don’t know how we will ever find ourselves on top of this. It’s almost impossible. But I know that in the beginning of September we will have figured something out, and I will still be alive!’

We’ve mentioned them briefly but Waldekranz’s co-founders are core to his success; ‘I’m actually, truthfully very inspired by them,’ he says, a statement which leads to perhaps the most spine tingling moment of the interview, yes just as we’re wrapping up Waldekranz unleashes an anecdote that perfectly embodies the iconoclastic traits that have embedded the foursome so decidedly within the moral fibre of e-commerce. Six months after they had quit their day jobs, they put up ‘one of these pages that start-ups have, you know: “sign up for early access” or “sign up for beta”. The different thing about this page was that if you opened up the source code, at the very bottom there was a hidden comment that we had put in. We were like: “If you find this message then you are probably as eager a developer as we are. You have to get in touch.” This was May 2011 and nobody knew about Tictail at the time. Like, nobody. A month goes by – and I remember this as if it was yesterday – I was in the subway and Birk calls me and he’s like: “Carl. You will never believe this. Somebody just emailed us.” I was like: “No way!” And this somebody was Siavash Ghorbani. He just came in here and he was at Blocket at the time, Sweden’s biggest site. He came by the office the day after just to have a cup of coffee with us and hang out. That coffee turned out to be a four hour conversation, which then ended up in us four going out for dinner. And then, pretty much every day after work, Siavash would come by and would start helping out at night times and evenings. At weekends we would hang out at his place and we would continue to work on things there. Then three months later, we asked him: “Hey, this is crazy – we had never heard of you before – but what do you say? Do you want to quit your job and become one of the founders of this company?” And he did. I’ve known Siavash for as long as I’ve worked on Tictail and today he is one of my best friends. He’s like a brother to me. No, it’s crazy. The crazy thing is that that code was on our page for another year or so, but he was the only one who ever reached out.’

Interview by Alice Kahrmann 2013.