How to Play an Awfully Long-Term Game
Interview with Fredrik Thomassen, Founder & CEO of SuperSide
There’s no doubt that more and more business is being conducted remotely these days with the ongoing global pandemic. Of course, some companies like design startup Superside were ahead of the curve. Superside has been 100% remote since Day 1, delivering better and faster design projects and giving customers 24/7 support.
In this edition of the Silicon Momentum Valley Podcast, Roland Siebelink speaks with Superside Founder and CEO Fredrik Thomassen about how the changes in the world have helped Superside and how he hopes Superside can help change the world.
Listen to the full podcast to hear Roland and Fredrik discuss:
- How Superside’s technology and commitment to finding the best designers in the world help separate the startup from its competitors.
- Why it’s so important to Fredrik that Superside helps to level the global playing field when it comes to labor.
- How the purpose of outsourcing has changed over the last 20-30 years.
- Who Fredrik listens to when he needs advice about Superside.
- The vision Fredrik has for Superside over the next 10 years and how that long-term vision has impacted his decisions as the company’s CEO.
Roland Siebelink: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Silicon Valley Momentum Podcast. I am so excited to have today as our guest, Fredrik Thomassen, who is the CEO and founder of Superside. Hello, Fredrik. Thank you for joining us.
Fredrik Thomassen: Hi, great to be here.
Roland Siebelink: That’s amazing. Frederick, you are in Oslo today, I believe. Is that right?
Fredrik Thomassen: That’s right.
Roland Siebelink: Okay. And, tell us a little bit about Superside. We are so excited to hear more about your startup and how well you’ve been doing.
Fredrik Thomassen: For sure. Superside is a 100% remote company. We’re now 130 people in 48 different countries. We focus on design and we deliver faster, better, and cheaper design, mainly for marketing teams that need design executed at scale.
When you have 10 or 20 or 30 concurrent design projects and are looking for a partner to help execute all of these at the same time, Superside is the partner.
Roland Siebelink: That’s excellent. In 48 different countries, did I hear that right?
Fredrik Thomassen: That’s right. Yeah.
Roland Siebelink: Wow. How do you even run a company with people in 48 different countries? We’re all so much in the remote lineup these days that I want to hear more about that immediately.
Fredrik Thomassen: We’ve been doing it since the start. By now, it feels almost natural. Across all time zones, you can essentially log on whenever you want and do some work and chat with some people. There’s always someone awake and there’s always something going on. Always some clients that need help.
It’s really quite a unique experience. And I personally love it. You can have a pretty incredible sense of flexibility and global community to be part of this company and with so many amazing people all over the world.
Roland Siebelink: There’s several companies out there, they will not be named, of course, that offer design as a remote service. Where do you differentiate from your competition? What do you do differently? What makes you more successful?
Fredrik Thomassen: We do two things mainly that I think very differently from most other companies out there. Number one is that we hire only the very best designers out of the established global creative agencies hire all over the world. But really you have to work a few years in the proper creative agency setting before you can start working for Superside.
It’s a really competitive recruitment process, so that’s number one. And then secondly, we build technology to make us more effective in our delivery. We build technology that makes it easy for our customers to see all the projects that they have going on at the same time. Easy to comment on design files, easy to give feedback to us on which tasks are outstanding, easy for us to deliver and keep track of all of our customers all over the world using our internal tools.
Roland Siebelink: Most of the times when I work with startups, you would expect their mission to be related to the very core product they sell. But in your case, it seems like your mission, your purpose, has a broader remit, if you will. You mentioned creating more equal opportunities globally. It’s more to do with the people behind it, with labor markets, with economies in general, if I understand that right.
Fredrik Thomassen: Yeah, for sure. It’s also important to us to make the world a more beautiful place and create amazing designs and all of these things. But ultimately, and that’s why I think all of us wake up in the morning, we’re building a company with principles of equal global pay. We don’t think it’s fair that you should get paid more if you happen to live in the US or Switzerland or Norway, or one of those oil rich places. And so we try to do that and we try to have a blind recruitment strategy designed to limit discrimination.
We invest heavily in on-the-job training so that you don’t necessarily need to have all the skills. You can start working for us and work your way up and learn other skills, and really try to just level the global playing field.
This all sounds pretty obvious six months into the COVID 19 pandemic, right? But it’s really just accelerated, I think, a trend that was inevitable. One year ago, we would hear from our customers that they would be skeptical working with a remote partner. Is it just like cheap outsourcing stuff? All of these skeptical things and now people are increasingly realizing that wow, remote is the future.
And so everything has started to move quite a bit faster for us over the last six months while a lot of the traditional creative agencies that we’re competing against are struggling to adapt.
Roland Siebelink: Yes, absolutely. You would say you’re definitely a net beneficiary of the Covid, corona pandemic?
Fredrik Thomassen: Yeah. Obviously, a lot of our people are sort of personally affected. We have a ton of people in Argentina, a ton of people in Brazil and other Latin American countries. Those are obviously personally badly affected. But we’re in this fortunate position of everyone has always worked from home. And so, we’ve just continued to do what we’ve always done.
We haven’t had to change much. The only thing that we’ve seen change is that our customers or prospective customers are much more willing to try us out. In that sense, it certainly does accelerate the global remote workplace. So that’s cool.
Roland Siebelink: Absolutely. You talked a little bit about your core customers and that you’ve traditionally been competing against creative agencies. And I noticed that you’re typically more on the premium side of pricing if that’s correct, right? Would you say that you’re targeting bigger customers, more established businesses to take advantage of your remote design services?
Fredrik Thomassen: Yeah, for sure. We mainly partner up with internal marketing teams, internal creative teams either in big companies or in companies sort of 200 plus employees. Many sort of mid-sized and larger customers.
We work with tech companies in probably the largest sector, those pharma, retail, CPG, and other sectors. Our largest clients today are Amazon, Puma, Novartis, AstraZeneca. These big global brands where their main objective is just to have something that’s reliable, fast, scalable, always online. And increasingly, they’re also viewing us as a way to get access to top talent. Whereas in the US, it’s really hard to get the top 1% designer, right? Because they’re working for Google or Facebook or something and working on improving the like button design or something like that.
Whereas, we’re able to get some pretty amazing designers in Latin American and Eastern Europe. And so, increasingly the fight for talent has also gone global. And while outsourcing in the 1990s was all about cost, it is today much more about getting access to the best talent. That’s really a very interesting dynamic.
Roland Siebelink: Yeah. And I love that you are so clear about your core customer. I see many startups that kind of have a spray and pray approach. Let’s try to get any customer we can at whatever price and we’ll figure out how to serve them later. But it seems that the more successful startups and scale-ups are the ones that are able to hone in on a particular kind of customer that they understand really well.
Have you had a long process getting to that core customer understanding or was it clear to you from the very outset?
Fredrik Thomassen: I think that’s a great question, and a great comment. For sure, we’ve moved from spray and pray to now something more assembling a rifle, but not really a proper sniper rifle. And I’m sure there’s a long road to go to further develop the target persona. You can say in retrospect that it is a mistake, right? And it should start narrow, but it’s also really hard, right? And maybe sometimes you just need to start off a little bit broad and see. And just test and learn and see which buyer personas you are the most sticky with.
I think in retrospect, I would have definitely done it differently. But there’s also the chance that we would have started with the super narrow buyer persona and then that’s the wrong buyer persona.
Roland Siebelink: Talk to me a little bit about your fundraising. I believe you raised your last round last year, is that correct? Fredrik Thomassen Yeah, we raised our last round sort of one half year ago from some amazing investors, Freestyle Capital and high off of insurance out of Indianapolis. Freestyle is in San Francisco. It’s been great for us to have American investors that know the American market and know how to operate a subscription business.
Roland Siebelink: I remember Freestyle from when they had just raised their first fund and I was pitching to them back in 2011, I think. They’ve gone a long way as well at that time, Josh and David, right?
Fredrik Thomassen: Ten years now. Maybe they did have their 10-year anniversary.
Roland Siebelink: I guess they must have had, yes, in the meanwhile. They must’ve started a little bit before we were pitching to them in those days. And you have Y Combinator and some Alma and some others in your investor base as well, right? Did you guys go through Y Combinator at one point in time?
Fredrik Thomassen: Yeah. We did the winter 2016. A fantastic experience and really transformative for me personally, professionally, and for the company as well. And really, been very excited to have some of the best YC partners support us as a company.
Roland Siebelink: Yeah, that’s amazing. Can you delve a little bit more into what you and your co-founders learned primarily from being part of the Y Combinator program? Just because I know all the founders listening would just love to get into that program.
Fredrik Thomassen: Yeah. Build your product and talk to customers and really only do those two things. And then to embody that in a culture of not wasting time on bullshit, right? A lot of incubators and accelerators and programs and stuff around there are maybe more heavily emphasized in the social component and incentivized and that it should be fun. And YC is a little bit antithetical to that in that there weren’t a lot of parties; and the parties that were there were pretty bad and everyone went home super early to work on their startup.
And I thought that was great and it really creates a culture of what you need to do for the next 10 years, which is to just roll up your sleeves and work really hard, and don’t listen to all kinds of advisors and all kinds of people telling you what to do. But listen to your customers and ask them what they need and really understand and empathize with them.
If I had followed that advice even more to talk to the customers, in particular, it’s just something that you have to discover for yourself as well. But it’s tempting to listen to advice. It is tempting when you sit across from some amazingly accomplished YC partner to listen to their advice and try to get them to give you some kind of shortcut or whatever. But at the end of the day, they can’t. Nobody can help you, right? You’re in this boat alone. And the only people that can help you are your customers.
Roland Siebelink: Talk to me a little bit about your go to market. Targeting larger companies, big brands must be challenging. How do you get in contact with them? How do you get them to be interested in your services and how do you close the deal with them?
Fredrik Thomassen: Yeah. We have a broad set of top of funnel marketing tactics. We do some paid ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Google ads, YouTube, multi-channel paid programs. We do a bunch of content marketing. We have our own little webinar series. We do social media, all of the SEO things. Pretty broad at this stage. We’ve tried to do outbound email and more traditional SDR or sales development representative targeted outreach to specific buyer personas, which have not really worked that well for us.
We generate leads to a bunch of various marketing programs and they book a call with our sales team. And then our sales team helps the prospects get started, choose the right plan, choose the right way of working with us. And then we get started. It’s pretty simple. But as you know, it takes a lot of time to build out the go-to market.
Roland Siebelink: Yeah. It does sound like in your funnel, you’re able to get leads from people who can make a decision for themselves. Is it just like that individual taking the decision? You’re not struggling with a big departmental approval process or something like that?
Fredrik Thomassen: Both cases. Sometimes it’s a big departmental approval process. Remarkable how different that is from company to company. We’re priced competitively and we’re not a big creative agency or consulting firm that will latch on and extract millions and millions of dollars.
People are less scared of working with services like us. And that allows us to have this B2B cost type, marketing and sales flow, which is very much on the customers. Premise them and they can choose how fast they want to go. It’s not like this top down partner driven customer acquisition model consultancy and a bit of agency we have where the CEO decides, “Okay, now we’re going to do this program.”
Roland Siebelink: Because they had a good round of golf with somebody, right?
Fredrik Thomassen: Yeah, exactly! I think that’s going to be a broader shift in the marketplace in a way where people are looking for more bottom-up, self-service solutions, specialized on a particular use case.
Roland Siebelink: Many founders often ask me, when I scale, how should I think of the balance between let’s call it product and engineering resources versus sales and marketing resources. How have you guys solved that at Superside? What do you think about that?
Fredrik Thomassen: We scale up sales and marketing to the point where it no longer makes sense on the return on investment basis. As long as you can add more marketing, people spend more on paid social, add more sales reps, they pay themselves back in four, six, eight months. Then you really should add more of those people, right? We make the decision based on that. And then the split is more of the outcome from that ROI calculation. On the marketing side, we end up now with roughly one-third on sales and marketing, one-third on operations and general running of the company and finance functions and so on. And then one-third on product and technology.
Roland Siebelink: And these 130 people, does that include all your designers or is that just purely the core operations?
Fredrik Thomassen: Yeah. That includes all of our designers as well. We’re about 30 people working in let’s say the overhead, not adding value to our clients part of the business.
Roland Siebelink: Don’t be so disparaging. Come on. These are the geniuses behind everything, right?
Fredrik Thomassen: Yeah. In a way, we’re trying to just keep us super lean and automate things with technology. And build tools to enable the people that do actual work to just do that in an easier, faster way.
Roland Siebelink: Overall, through this journey, we’ve talked about YC but, of course, you’ve been in business for longer than that. What have been some key learnings that you personally had as a startup founder? And what other founders have you learned from in particular?
Fredrik Thomassen: I would say that Warren Buffett’s advice of getting rich slowly is really good. And it is very tempting to do things fast, right? Anything and everything that resembles a get-rich-quick scheme or people trying to make shortcuts and so on, it’s something that we’re very much against. We have time to play an awful long-term game with very long-term oriented people. And I think I was 27 or something when I started this company. You think, “Okay, I’m gonna do this for five years.” And then over time you realize it’s going to at least take 10 years, probably more.
And that’s completely fine. I’m having a fantastic time. That’s not the main point. The main point is that on the decision-making side of things, if you make decisions on a 10-year horizon versus a five-year horizon, you make different decisions. You do things more properly, more accurately. You prioritize retention over acquisition. You hire people that you think that would be nice to work with for 10 years. And it really just changes how you think about the world, your life, and everything.
Roland Siebelink: Anyone listening to this podcast, how can they help Superside deliver on that vision? What are you looking for? How can people get in touch with you?
Fredrik Thomassen: We understand most of your listeners in the business world or in a mid-stage venture or companies like that. And I personally love to chat with people. You never really know what you can help each other with till you’ve explored a little bit.
This concept of serendipitous, I’m a big, big believer in that. I’m happy to chat with anyone and everyone in similar positions such as me or anyone looking to just understand what we can do to help. I think, in particular, people that work in companies that have a large number of concurrent design projects, we would love to figure out how we can build technology to scale their design operations.
Yeah, anyone and everyone, you can email me at Fredrik spelled in Norwegian, not Swedish or Danish way, at Superside.com.
Roland Siebelink: For those that are not familiar with the specifics of the different Scandinavian languages, I will spell it out as a Foxtrot, Romeo, Echo, Delta, Romeo, India, Kilo is the right way to spell it, right? So Fredrik@Superside.com. Frederick, if people want to learn more about Superside’s product offering, where should they go?
Fredrik Thomassen: They should probably just go to our website, to be honest. And hopefully, we’ve built it in a good enough way. And just book a call with our excellent sales team. They love to help. Super nice guys and girls.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. Very good. Well, thank you so much, Fredrik, for joining this podcast. It’s been a big honor to have you on here. I see Superside as one of the big growing companies in the startup, scale up phase. Again, it’s been an honor. Thank you so much.
Fredrik Thomassen: Likewise. Great to be here.
Roland Siebelink: Thank you.
Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.