Mark Tanner: Qwilr, Innovation and Effectiveness
Interview with Mark Tanner
Having taken on a market considered to be ‘conquered’ by Google and Microsoft, Mark Tanner is living proof that entrepreneurs can still re-write the competitor landscape. Frustrated by PowerPoint and PDF, Mark and co-founder Dylan Baskin created Qwilr – a now global operation offering software for businesses to create elegant web-based forms, proposals and contracts with consistent design principles. Following in the footsteps of Australia’s other design unicorn Canva, Qwilr just raised $10.8 million in a Series A round led by Airtree Ventures and Skip Capital and have their sights set on further expansion in Europe and the US. We chat to Mark in this episode about how he took on the tech giants…and won.
Douglas Nicol: Hello, I’m Douglas Nicol and welcome listeners, new and old to Smart Dust, the podcast that likes to look at the tech and innovation trends and indeed people that are changing our world. Sometimes big mega trends and sometimes as well, the ideas that sit at the fringes of science and technology. As always, I’m joined by digital trends and innovation wonk, Mr. Nick Abrahams.
Nick Abrahams: Hello Smart Dusters, and hello Douglas. And thank you very much. It’s very rare that I get called a wonk and I feel that that’s positive. But coming from you, I know that’s with great affection. So thank you.
Douglas Nicol: Oh, you smooth talking devil. Now Nick, as you know, in this episode, we are lucky to be joined by Mark Tanner, who’s the co-founder and COO of Qwilr. And it’s got to be said that Mark is the quintessential entrepreneur. He worked for, quite a few years, for Google in North America. And then came back to Australia in 2014, where he founded Qwilr with his childhood friend, Dylan Baskind. And as you’re going to hear, Qwilr is a really interesting platform. It creates interactive online documents for sales and marketing teams to present potential clients. And he is on a mission to turn the slow, ugly, dumb process of things like PDFs into something that is indeed faster, more beautiful and more intelligent in our world.
Most recently, Qwilr has raised about 10.8 million in Series A round capital, with high profile investors, such as AirTree, who are investors in companies like Canva and Prospa, as well as GetCapital, which includes Scott Farquhar in the team. Mark Tanner is undoubtedly the quintessential modern entrepreneur. He’s created a fast growing global business in a market that is to be considered conquered by Google and Microsoft. And he’s sort of living proof how entrepreneurs still in this troubled time can rewrite the capacitor landscape. Mark, you’re very welcomed to Smart Dust.
Mark Tanner: Thank you very much for having me.
Nick Abrahams: Mark, it’s terrific to have you on the show. Thanks for joining us. I just wanted to kick off with something which Douglas just touched on, which is this idea of challenging the existing enterprise software world. Now, Qwilr is being compared to Airtable, which is reinventing the spreadsheet. You’re obviously reinventing the PDF. And I recently got a picture of someone who is reinventing Microsoft Word. And so, what is it that’s sort of lacking in traditional enterprise software that it’s not built for the digital-first workplace?
Mark Tanner: Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting question. And I think the way we think about it has evolved a little bit over the time. I will say that when we started in 2014, we had this idea of creating documents as webpages and sort of really making… Yeah, rather than sort of imitating files and sort of trying to build files that kind of worked a bit better in the web, to try to make the web work more like a document in a way. And as we sort of started, there was a lot of people who said this is a crazy and terrible idea. It has been nice to see other companies like Airtable and Notion and Coda and others sort of take up this sort of modern document or, I think, some of them call it like an all-in-one document to some degree. So rethink how these documents work in the web. So when we built Qwilr… You know, there’s so much magic that the web can bring.
And for those of us who aren’t technical, like I myself am not technical. The ability to quickly spin up a webpage and sort of get some of those benefits of the web, whether that’s stuff like analytics, like when you send out a proposal, hated My Customer view it how many times. Being able to have your document actually play nice with other tools on the web. Qwilr, it’s really important. We’re sort of much more focused on external customer facing documents so. Sales and marketing collateral. It’s really important that syncs up really nicely with Salesforce or HubSpot. And also, someone accepts your proposal. It’s important that system can speak to Xero or QuickBooks or accounting software. It’s important that it can host videos and embed Calendlys and other stuff. I guess this sort of makes it interactive. And just all of these little tricks that allow you to make impressive collateral quickly, just really isn’t… Like fundamentally is not possible with a PDF in that sort of technology.
Douglas Nicol: So Mark, you’ve got, I mean, some pretty impressive stats attached to your business. You’ve got, I understand, 50 to 60,000 customers around the world. What are the hot markets for you and this product? Who’s really embracing it?
Mark Tanner: Sure. I think the first thing to say is, obviously, we sell software on the internet. So we’ve been global from day one, and so market-wise, the US has always been our biggest market. Australia and New Zealand, Drop is still very strong as well, but I think there’s now 65 countries where we have a Qwilr customer. Again, to be honest, this has been a bit of an evolution. And one of the things, when we first started with Qwilr, we were a small team in Sydney. Back in the day, our first check we raised was a hundred thousand dollars. Like we didn’t go off and raise a multimillion dollar round to start with. And it was really important, I think, back in the day.
And I think it’s still is in Australia. It’s quite important proof that you can generate revenue relatively quickly in a startup. I think some US companies that’s a little bit more flexible. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, but you know, it is what it is. And so, we were sort of quite quick to sort of start getting our product out to market and start charging. And for us, that meant building a really beautiful webpage builder that can work as easily as a document creator.
Nick Abrahams: And with that 60,000 customers around the world, how did you acquire those customers? I mean, you’re the sort of the dream story for a venture capitalist. An Australian company, but born global. So you were always, I guess, pitching to a global market, but how do you do that? We know that Atlassian has made folklore by the fact that they never had marketing, and so forth until much later in the piece. It was all completely viral. What was your sort of steps to growth globally?
Mark Tanner: Sure. I’m going to push back on a couple of little things there. First of all, I think Atlassian had marketing and even sales. I know they deny it, but I’m going to call them out. I think they’ve had that for a [crosstalk 00:06:49].
Nick Abrahams: Hang on. Hang on. [inaudible] Scott came on your share register.
Mark Tanner: They definitely are, and I’m very happy to call that publicly at all times. Look it was fun. I’ll tell you what was wonderful marketing. What was wonderful marketing was going around claiming, “Oh, we don’t have any salespeople,” when you have a whole team of customer success reps who have quota carrying reps inside the org.
And I think if you look at it now [crosstalk 00:07:13].
Nick Abrahams: [crosstalk] hear first.
Mark Tanner: No, open secret for a long time.
Nick Abrahams: Open secret.
Mark Tanner: Anyway, I think they were wonderful at marketing. And also I think back in the day, there was a glorious period of time where you could buy Google ads for a couple of cents a pop.
Nick Abrahams: Of course. Yeah.
Mark Tanner: And as far as the other thing on our side, so with that 50,000 number, that’s our number of regular paid users. So our actual number of companies as customers is a bit lower than that, but it’s still sort of sticking to the same thing. Look, the way we sort of grew… Look, the starting point was very, very basic. The initial sort of first pass here was, we just tried to find anybody that we could, and we did a lot of sort of, maybe not cold calling, but as close to it, sort of referrals, referrals, referrals, begging, pleading to get anybody to sort of use it early on.
And I think that one of the things that we found that worked for us relatively well early on that is… It can be a little dangerous, is… and we had to go for this prosumer space. And I think in prosumer-
Nick Abrahams: Yep.
Mark Tanner: Free can work wonders. So we had a very strong, free product in it, and then we sort of slowly figured out how to push those people up market into paid roles and sort of started on a path, not dissimilar from others in this space like Canva and others, to sort of try to figure out how can we do something of value there? One of the things that we found worked well for us as well was… In that sort of space, when you’re focusing on prosumers, a lot of their pain points around documents were, “I don’t even really know how to get started.”
Douglas Nicol: Mark, we’re always interested, when we talk to entrepreneurs about people and how you attract and retain good people, because I would imagine getting engineers, the product designers. It’s a pretty competitive market. So how do you attract that talent and keep it?
Mark Tanner: That’s a fantastic question, and it’s very hard. When we started the company in 2014, and actually if I go even further back, my first startup was an ebook startup in 2008/2009. I think there was… Actually, there wasn’t that much great engineering talent locally. And I would say that the presence of Google in Sydney, in building out a really excellent large engineering org here. Atlassian’s efforts around building a very large high quality engineering org out here. Like they’ve both done, and there are others as well, have done an amazing job at really building out the level of quality software engineers in Sydney and in the country. And I think that that sort of has meaningfully changed around that side, and also there’s now a whole industry of recruiters who try to find wonderful engineers overseas and bring them into Australia to feed those companies and others.
But look, it is relatively challenging. And I think, especially in the early days where you’re really not able to offer much salary. And I think you as always sort of come back to this; I think founders need to be good at sales, because you need to be able to sort of have a vision and have a mission and have a path that you can sort of plausibly talk about how you’re going to get there because people need to take a chance on you. And I think that certainly with respect to how do you retain people? I think you always need to respect and honor the fact that they took a chance on you. Like it’s very much isn’t, we’re not out there paying top dollar. I mean much of people do get equity in the company and… I think we now pay very well to market, but I think especially those early days, you can’t. Especially, if your first check is a hundred grand, you really can’t pay any anywhere near close to market.
Douglas Nicol: Yeah. I’m really interested in what you said about leadership. What do you think are the characteristics of a modern leader, a good leader that’s going to work well in a startup environment? What are you looking for?
Mark Tanner: The three core principles we try to live by at Qwilr are; undeniable business, which is to say, you don’t win by cheats. You don’t win by clever little hacks. You win by doing good work. Work that is undeniably excellent, regularly and consistently. Now, this is somewhat balanced and challenged by our second principle, which is, velocity with valor, which is to say, startups by their very nature, they have to move fast. It’s one of the few advantages you have. And it’s also one of the few things you sort of really do need to do to be able to shift and change and learn. People run their businesses on Qwilr. People have all of their sales revenue through Qwilr. Like we can’t have Qwilr just go down. And this idea of ‘move fast and break things’ just doesn’t feel right with us.
So, you need to move fast, you need to do it honorably. As we look to leadership, I think one of the things that we truly look for is that last piece, is around the collaboration piece, because I think how you get your team members to work together and how you are able to collaborate across different functions, because within a modern organization, it’s not just enough to be a good manager of your team, even though that’s very, very important. You need to be able to understand how you fit into this broader space and be integrated between different groups and teams and be able to be a leader across that side when it’s needed. Look, I’m figuring it out. This is our first time running a company of this size and you try to be thoughtful and you try to do a good job, but we’re still learning. And you know, I think, we definitely don’t come with all the answers.
Nick Abrahams: Yeah, no, it sounds like you’re very much headed in the right direction. It sounds like they say, that compassion is a critical part of leadership and it sounds like that’s very much where you and Dylan are coming from, which is fantastic. But unfortunately we do have to now turn our minds to the ugly subject of money.
Mark Tanner: Yeah.
Nick Abrahams: And so you talked… Yeah. So we talked about your first check was a 100 thousand. Your most recent check was a considerable multiple of that. And congratulations.
Mark Tanner: Thank you.
Nick Abrahams: You achieved your Series A, over 10 million Aussie dollars. And frankly, from really Australian venture capital royalty with AirTree and also where Kim Jackson and Scott Farquhar’s Skip Capital. Could you just talk us through the process for that? Because depending on which sort of fast growth companies you talk to, people say, “Oh, the Australian venture capital community is not interested in Australian venture. They’re all going to the U S or they’re going to Israel.” Clearly you had a great run with your VCs. Could you just give us sort of some views on how that process went?
Mark Tanner: Yeah, for sure. Look, we raised our seed investment round, which was one and a half million dollars a few years ago from a Berlin-based VC. So I would say that we live in a global world and you have to be open to sort of taking money from outside Australia. There are wonderful VCs all around. Look, a few things. So first of all, again, to go back to that ebook startup in 2008/09, the founders of that company, not me, but the founders raised money because one of them knew a rich person who wrote a check for a million dollars. I think it was one of the partners from Maple-Brown Abbott. Whether it was Vista, Maple-Brown or [Mr. Abbot 00:00:14:56]. Someone wrote a check for a million dollars, and like that was it.
Nick Abrahams: A good friend to have.
Mark Tanner: There was no… Or it was a friend of a friend or whatever. There was no real… I mean, I know there probably were a couple of VCs around there, but it didn’t really feel like it in quite the same way that it is now. And to see where it’s come in the last five or six years, I mean, it is unbelievable. There are a number of… Whether it is Right Click Capital, or AirTree, or Square Peg, or Blackbird, and there’s a whole host of others. But there really are some fantastic VCs out there, and a bunch of family offices and a bunch of angels and a bunch of seed companies and accelerators and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
I truly do think it’s a very special place, but it’s also like… Look, if you’re raising a couple of million dollars, you can most certainly afford a flight to San Francisco and an Airbnb. We’d always known that we’d be incredibly happy to work with AirTree. And look, they progressed their process quickly and it was all pretty straightforward and we’ve been just absolutely thrilled to have them on board.
Douglas Nicol: Mark, I would imagine just picking up that theme of advice that you referred to is, since 2014, I imagine there’s been an awful lot of people giving you an awful lot of advice, sometimes conflicting. How do you filter through that advice to actually make good decisions?
Mark Tanner: That’s a great question. Yeah, how does one do that? I’m not sure…
Douglas Nicol: I mean, do you get that conflicting advice or [crosstalk] great wisdom.
Mark Tanner: I think you’re right. It’s just like…
For me, what I would say is that there are certain topics on which you sort of need to calibrate where the advice is coming from. So we have some investors who are just incredibly strong on finance, as they should be. They’re investors. And so if I want advice on finance, or on how to think about a certain financial problem, I can go to them and know that I’ll be getting expertise. On the flip side, some of them haven’t run a business, like a SAS business like ours before. And so when they give me advice about how to run the business, I take that on, I’m listening respectfully, but I take it with a grain of salt. And you try to balance out with other things. But yeah, it’s a tough question. I wish I had a perfect answer, but I think it’s that process of… Look, you do hear a lot of advice, because honestly you seek it out.
Like I seek out advice all the time. There may well be a time soon where I’m reaching out to one or both of you, asking for advice on various matters. I think you just have to try to let it all sink in. And again, to some degree, have a filter around what you know them to be particularly strong in. If I go and speak to Nick about a legal matter, I’m going to respect his opinion more deeply than perhaps on a software engineering matter. And I think… You know, all those sort of things like that.
Nick Abrahams: Damn, [crosstalk] and you’re very welcome to call me up any time.
Mark Tanner: Definitely not a [crosstalk 00:18:16].
Douglas Nicol: I’d go with the engineering advice actually so.
Nick Abrahams: Given that we’re talking about trading advice, and Douglas and I, would be delighted at any stage to have a chat with you about anything you’d like to ask, but we, I think… Well, I think, I would like some personal advice really, Mark, from you because you’ve obviously been working with Dylan. Well, he’s a long time friends. You are childhood friends. And now, Douglas and I, have actually been friends for over 30 years. And so working at… Now there’s barely a crossword between us, Mark, I want you to know that, but just with you and Dylan, how do you go working with friends? How does that-
Mark Tanner: Yeah. The true answer here is that it’s a real pleasure to work with someone who you are friends with. And I would also… I suppose I should clarify here. Dylan and I, so we knew each other all the way through, well, not all the way, most of the way through high school. We didn’t go to the same school, but the girls school we hung out with was the same, if that makes sense. So we always saw each other at various house parties and things like that. And I always knew him as-
Nick Abrahams: I feel like our listenership is going to start to spike around this time, Mark. So [crosstalk] more about that. We’re not afraid to into tabloids.
Mark Tanner: So Dylan was this interesting guy who was in these bands and… Again, we sort of went to a bunch of house parties since we were teenagers and sort of… I’ve known him for a long time. We weren’t actually super close friends. Like we sort of been friendly for a long time. So A, there was this sort of nice balance there of… When you start working with someone, a co-founder relationship, way of coming up with that person, about six years in, we’ve got a long way to go. You know, it’s going to be at least a decade. It’s not the same as a marriage, but it is. It’s a very deep relationship.
And I think that you want to make sure you work with a partner who you can do that with. So for Dylan and I, when we started out, I do think having some degree of… Because we had so many mutual friends, because we already knew each other to some degree, it was quite easy to sort of build trust quite quickly because I think… If either of us really jerked the other one around, there would be quite a lot of awkward social consequences from it. Even with that, we still started out very informally. We started working together. I worked out at his house a couple of days a week for free, just working on a product and sort of thinking about it and trying to get this to the next phase before we really dived in and sort of put it all together.
But past that, I mean, I think a few things that sort of helped. So one is that Dylan is a software engineer and a designer. And I am someone who is very comfortable and strong on the operations side and in sales, anything customer-focused, so support sales success. And so that relatively clear delineation of tasks and areas I think is… Look, there’s a few messy areas in the middle, but that part, I think, does make it easy in a partnership. I think also, you need to respect and embrace the differences. Dylan is someone who thinks very much about the longterm future, and I am someone who sometimes spends more time, sometimes in the present or, even in the past. And so I think that what has worked previously and how do we keep sort of doing that, et cetera.
And I think that that’s good, that there’s some differences there. But you do need to be thoughtful as to how you recognize them and whatever else. I’d also say… So look, we’re very early in our journey on the side, so like massive caveats, but we’ve just started seeing an executive coach, sort of playing around with that sort of part there, which… It’s not quite marriage counseling type vibes, but I think it is, even that-
Nick Abrahams: Are there two catchers in the room?
Mark Tanner: [crosstalk] by Zoom of course. So far.
Nick Abrahams: Of course.
Mark Tanner: But I hope one day we can have two sort of shade lounge, sort of lie back instead of, tell your story.
Nick Abrahams: You would have made it then.
Mark Tanner: But I think all this is to say is that relationships aren’t static and you need to keep investing in them, and keep trying to find new ways to sort of build deeper relationships and understand the other person and you know, situations change and people change. And this is one of the most important relationships in your life. And if that’s true, you need to keep investing in it, and need to keep sort of trying to understand the other person and sort of taking that seriously.
Douglas Nicol: Mark, it has been an absolute pleasure hearing about your Qwilr journey, your journey as an entrepreneur. Thank you so much for joining us today on Smart Dust.
Mark Tanner: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Nick Abrahams: And thank you very much too for the relationship advice too. That is helpful, Douglas.
Douglas and I may need to go see a coach.
Mark Tanner: Listen, if you can get a company to experience it, it’s a glorious experience. We’ve been enjoying it so far. And it does give you a little bit of a new perspective on a few little things, which I certainly… Even [inaudible] one of the things with the coach was like… She was like, “Oh, you think about things this way.” And I was like, “I do think about things…” Just like those obvious things but I think it yeah… Look, we’ll see. We’ll see how it goes.
Nick Abrahams: Brilliant. Thank you.
Douglas Nicol: I’ll book it in Nick. It seems like a [crosstalk] for me. And that wraps it up for this episode. Smart Dusters. As usual, there are some links and notes, prose for this episode in the iTunes program notes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please rate us on your podcast platform of choice and indeed go crazy and subscribe to Smart Dust. Thank you also to the great content creators at Daresay, who produce this podcast. Now, if you’ve enjoyed hearing about Life As An Entrepreneur, today with Mark, you’ll probably love a Smart Dust episode from October, 2019, where we chat to Fred Schebesta, owner of the world’s top comparison site, Finder.com. So check that out. So for me, Douglas Nicol,
Nick Abrahams: And for me, Nick Abraham. Goodbye.
Douglas Nicol: Goodbye.