His name is Nalden. Except it isn’t – not really, anyway. He has a firm belief in the philosophy of Louis van Gaal. He thinks Dennis Bergkamp is the greatest player of his generation. He believes that Robin van Persie header was the most beautiful goal of last summer’s World Cup. But above all, he is an individual so devoted to simplicity, so irrepressibly Dutch, that he has succeeded in building one of the world’s fastest-growing file-sharing websites. So who exactly is the man behind the enigmatic moniker? Well, you probably know him as The Guy from WeTransfer.
By Rob Alderson
Photography by Iain Anderson
This article first appeared in Issue Eight of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2015
On 13th June, 2014 I helped organise an event for which WeTransfer was the main sponsor. But as we sat down for the speaker dinner after the conference, I realised that the founder and CMO of the company, Nalden, was nowhere to be seen. A series of increasingly panicky calls to find out where he was came to nothing, and it was a good few hours before we learned that he was in Shoreditch House, an east London members’ club, watching The Netherlands demolish Spain 5-1 in the most memorable game of the World Cup prior to ‘that’ semi-final.
“That was insane,” Nalden laughs. “They have a library where they were showing the game but at first there were like five people in there. Spain got a penalty – I was super quiet – and then van Persie scored this amazing, crazy goal which I think was the most beautiful goal of the whole World Cup. And from there, the rest is history. We kept on scoring and I kept on shouting. I had no voice left, the library was packed after the first half, people started buying me drinks and I was standing on the chairs and the table, shouting. I was the crazy Dutch guy.”
It’s hard to imagine Nalden losing control. In person he’s polite and easy company, quick to laugh and self-deprecating. He’s stylish but not ostentatious, and there’s not a hair out of place despite him having been out until the early hours the night before we meet.
“Before the World Cup I had no expectations, but I had big trust in [Louis] van Gaal,” he says. “The Netherlands had no confidence in their team which obviously changed but I think it’s very powerful to see a trainer crafting a squad, to make them follow his philosophy.”
Here in England, I tell him, I think we’re still trying to work van Gaal out, to decide whether he’s this strict disciplinarian or maverick genius. Nalden argues that he’s both; that even the decision to bring Tim Krul on for the penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica wasn’t a gamble at all. “To him that is totally logical. He was like, ‘This is going to be penalties, Tim Krul is the best at saving penalties.’ It was the plan. Everything went according to plan.”
It came unstuck against Argentina, when van Gaal threw on an extra striker in the hope of snatching the game before penalties, but even then he wasn’t to be cowed in defeat.
“The first thing he said about the keeper of Argentina – I trained him. [It was] when he was managing AZ, the lamest club in The Netherlands. He was basically claiming the credit. ‘Yeah, he’s a good keeper, but obviously I trained him.’
“He’s hilarious. In every language he coaches he creates his own verbs. It was the same with Johan Cruyff, speaking in this sort of Denglish. That’s the same with me.” True to form, he treats me to ‘simplexity’ and ‘annoyment’ during our interview.
Since the age of 14 he’s gone by the nickname Nalden, a play on his real name, Ronald. (He never divulges his last name.) Now 30, he admits “it was a nickname that got a little out of hand”, but thinks the Brazilian stars who played in the Dutch League in the 1990s might be partly to blame. “I think football inspired me to just pick a name. There was Romário at PSV, Ronaldo after that. But there’s a logic about it; it needs to fit on a t-shirt.”
Growing up in the village of Wilnis, about 20 kilometres south of Amsterdam, Nalden was a talented footballer, a pacy striker who scored a lot of goals. “This is the moment I am going to start bragging, but I must say I was really good,” he laughs. “Johan Cruyff lived in the next village to us and so when he retired he would check out the local football clubs in the area at random moments. My parents would be stood watching me play on the touchline next to this legend.”
His big break didn’t come from Cruyff, but Nalden was scouted by the Dutch football association, the KNVB, and went along to a trial day attended by scouts from many of the country’s top clubs. He wasn’t picked up, however, and at 16 he started suffering from migraines which became so serious that he stopped playing altogether. Intrigued by the internet and the opportunities it brought, he took up blogging. “I think that replaced football in my life. It was an outlet for me to talk about music and design and all these things I was discovering. I was totally fascinated by all the amazing things you could do with the internet.”
Over the course of five years the blog’s audience grew and grew and he became one of the leading voices in tech, design and music culture. “It just went viral. If you keep doing what you love and you keep doing it well then you become better at it and suddenly it gets momentum. OK, you need some talent…”
“When people play in [van Gaal’s] philosophy they get better. Look at Ron Vlaar. Or Daley Blind — what the fuck?”
He’s similarly self-effacing about WeTransfer. Frustrated that his e-mail account was often clogged with large files, he sat down to try and work out a solution. The service he designed and built is now used by 60 million people every month. There’s no sign up, no account and the functionality is seamlessly intuitive. Along with his business partner Bas Beerens, he developed a business model which didn’t rely on traditional banner adverts, but instead gave over the entire background to one image, be it an advert or simply a beautiful photograph, illustration or artwork by one of the many creatives WeTransfer likes to support. Perhaps most tellingly, WeTransfer is well on the way to becoming a verb in its own right, following in the footsteps of the likes of Google and Photoshop.
“WeTransfer is about keeping things simple. That’s super Dutch. Let’s keep things straightforward and let’s make it happen. With digital it’s hard, but we just wanted to remove the complicated part. That’s all I did.”
Of course, the technical know-how and the entrepreneurial spirit that has built this file-sharing behemoth is anything but simple, but Nalden clearly delights in the challenge of distancing the user from this complexity through a combination of WeTransfer’s functionality and design.
“In the end it doesn’t matter how complex it is. Nobody’s interested in that. I am just trying to solve a simple problem. We will do everything we can so you are not dealing with problems.”
His assertion that the ideas which underpin WeTransfer are “super Dutch” reminds me of David Winner’s book Brilliant Orange. Winner suggests that Total Football is a very logical extrapolation of ideas that have shaped Dutch society and culture for centuries. In a country where half of the landmass sits less than a metre above sea level, the Dutch have always thought about space and function in innovative and resourceful ways.
Nalden agrees. “Everything in The Netherlands is designed. Because we have so little space; we are always fighting against the water. You have to communicate well, you have to think about how best to work together. That’s very integral to Dutch culture.
“We grow up with design without noticing it. The signs when you come out of Schipol airport, the way the roads are constructed, the landscape design; everything is so well done. We have all this subliminal knowledge of what good design is; we might not be able to say what good design is, but we certainly recognise bad design.
“Dutch design is not fluffy, it’s pretty practical. That’s the same with WeTransfer. We’re all about removing features instead of adding them because that makes the product too complicated. That removing of complexity is the same with Dutch architecture, the same with the way the Dutch design a door handle, that’s the same with football.”
Nalden believes van Gaal’s approach to the World Cup provided a perfect example of this. “He looked at the squad and thought about how he could best translate that. The best people qualified for each position got to play and each one knew his philosophy and his style. When people play in his philosophy they get better. Look at Ron Vlaar. Or Daley Blind – what the fuck? But when they don’t listen then it doesn’t work. The circle is broken.”
Growing up, he witnessed van Gaal’s first and, perhaps, most impressive major achievement – Ajax’s 1995 Champions League final victory over AC Milan. Boasting Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, the de Boer brothers and Frank Rijkaard, it was a squad packed with stars – and all of them under van Gaal’s total control. Nalden thinks it was possible in part because the players were young and had not yet developed the egos that would rip the Dutch national squad apart in years to come, at Euro ’96 and France ’98.
“I vividly remember watching that final,” he says. “We were all so proud. I was fucking spoiled by watching that team, but I didn’t recognise it then. After that, the team and the Dutch league became less and less interesting and you start really appreciating what you had back then. But you sound old, being nostalgic, and that sucks as well.”
Nalden’s affection for another former Ajax star, Dennis Bergkamp, meant that when The Iceman swapped Milan for north London in 1995, he was always going to keep a close eye on Arsenal’s progress. By the time Marc Overmars joined him at Highbury two years later, there was little doubt that Arsenal, almost by default, would be Nalden’s team.
“Bergkamp is one of the few players who has infinite kudos from the whole country. He just stayed normal.”
For someone who insists he’s a football fan but not a fanatic, he’s evangelical in his praise of Bergkamp. His excellent English occasionally trips as he gropes for the right words with which to describe the forward’s brilliance. He reminisces about the coolness of Bergkamp’s touch as he cushioned a 70-yard pass from Frank de Boer in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, firing the ball past Carlos Roa with one graceful flick of the outside of his boot. He laughs at the memory of a hapless Nikos Dabizas, left in a heap on the floor after being spun by Bergkamp’s outrageous turn at St James’ Park. But in the end, Nalden insists, Bergkamp wasn’t a star in the Cruyff mould.
“He was a fucking team player. He orchestrated everything but he wouldn’t shoot if it wasn’t the best thing to do for the team. He was like the queen in chess; he had the most options and the most vision. But Dutch people also judge people with how they are off the pitch and Bergkamp is one of the few players who has infinite kudos from the whole country. He just stayed normal. He doesn’t like flying so he just takes the boat. Dutch people love that. He’s just quiet, not crazy with his money. That’s the key word in The Netherlands – normal. Even with celebrating his goals he was typically Dutch with his behaviour. Just chilling.”
As with the Ajax side of 1995, he’s nostalgic about Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ on the tenth anniversary of that astonishing season, waxing lyrical about the two Dutch masters and their combinations with the peerless Henry, the bruising, battling Vieira in his pomp, David Seaman’s rock-solid reliability. Even the shirts don’t escape his misty-eyed reminiscence. “Remember that yellow and blue away top with SEGA on it? That was the first Arsenal shirt I ever owned. It was so dope…”
Now though, he’s one of those fans who thinks it’s time for a change at the Emirates. “I think Wenger’s a legend, but of course his time’s up. I think there’s some friction in the squad. Maybe young kids today need a different kind of coaching, maybe there’s a disconnect between the management and the staff and the players.”
He’s clearly interested in how you get the best out of the talent at your disposal. As a kid he was addicted to Championship Manager, and spent days on end crafting winning squads for either Arsenal or AC Milan. His go-to signings were always the same – Javier Saviola and Luke Chadwick. (That may be the first time these two have ever appeared in the same sentence.) Similarly, he enjoys Career Mode on Fifa, and plays as Sheffield United, of all clubs. “I wanted a challenge and so I was looking at the teams in the second league. Their logo was the most attractive to me so based on that I became a fan and knew all the players.
“I like building something, working towards something. I did it in the game. I do it with creatives in real life, attracting a talent pool of designers and developers. Young people interact differently with the web so you need their input; they’re changing the rules.”
I think Nalden recognises this because he himself once changed the rules. In that sense he’s like Cruyff, the superstar turned leader and mentor. And just as the petulant prima donna occasionally threatened to shatter the veneer of the elder statesman, the excited young tech blogger still makes the odd appearance in a conversation with Nalden.
He gleefully recounts the story of a recent encounter with Pharrell in London when, after introducing himself to one of the Sony chiefs, Pharrell interrupted and said: “Yo, you’re the guy from WeTransfer?”
“That was really funny. That for me was the moment that I realised how big it was. You see it every week with KPI reports and stats and everything but numbers don’t translate as much as Pharrell saying, ‘Yo, you’re the guy from WeTransfer?’”