WeTransfer wants to rule the business of creativity

FiftyThree, one of the best app development studios in the world, has been acquired in WeTransfer’s attempt to become a global platform for creativity.

WeTransfer wants to rule the business of creativity
[Image: Malika Favre/courtesy WeTransfer]

WeTransfer, the file-sharing service with 42 million monthly users across the world, has acquired FiftyThree, the studio behind the cultishly popular creative apps Paper and Paste, and the Pencil stylus. The sale price is not being disclosed.


WeTransfer sees itself as a platform to encourage creativity, and the acquisition is intended to help push that strategy forward. “[When asking] how do we want to take WeTransfer further as a brand into that creative process, we found it very difficult to find companies that shared our values and vision,” says Damian Bradfield, president and CMO of WeTransfer.

FiftyThree’s Paper app and Pencil. [Photo: FiftyThree]

FiftyThree fit the bill since it has worked in that space since its founding seven years ago. The company was cofounded by ex-Microsoft employees employees Georg Petschnigg, Andrew Allen, Julian Walker, and Jon Harris, who were two of the incubation leads on the beloved-but-doomed Microsoft Courier tablet. Through FiftyThree, they built creative tools on par with those released by companies like Adobe. Paper brought effortless sketching to the iPad. It reimagined how we collaborate on rich media over the internet with Mix. Then last year, FiftyThree set its sights on PowerPoint with Paste, a slideshow app that can suck in basically any type of media you throw its way, and lay it out beautifully.

Paste [Image: courtesy FiftyThree]

Paste is used by 20,000 creative teams around the world, FiftyThree says, and it’s growing, but without a bigger push behind it, a company like FiftyThree won’t dethrone tools by Microsoft, Apple, or Google that sit in a similar space.

“Paste is widely used but it’s not huge, with 42 million users, yet,” says Bradfield. “What we need to do is an educational job . . . I think WeTransfer could play an amazing role in helping people visualize how PowerPoint presentations could be made today vs. when PowerPoint and Keynote [apps] were produced.” Bradfield imagines that WeTransfer could act as both a promotional and distribution hub for Paste, as well as an editorial-style demonstrator of possibilities with the product.

Bigger picture, Bradfield believes that FiftyThree can also fill the gaps in its own creative assembly line. Right now, you share a file on WeTransfer. You might work on it in FiftyThree. But where does that project end up? Bradfield suggests, it could end up right back at WeTransfer. The company currently has an editorial page called WeTransfer Presents, which 2.5 million readers a month visit to discover various creative projects.

“For the moment, it’s a platform for us to share and communicate things we’re interested in,” says Bradfield. “But over time, we’d love for that to be a place people can create content, maybe extract content, and use that within Paper and Paste.”

[Photo: FiftyThree]

Bradfield goes so far as to suggest, hypothetically he cautions, that people even might design physical goods using WeTransfer tools that could then be sold via WeTransfer. “Right now we have the ability to spark an idea, create it, and deliver it [electronically]. Right now what’s being created is an InDesign file,” he says. “Somebody needs to work on that physical transfer of products. No one is really innovating in that space.”

Shorter term, FiftyThree users will notice that WeTransfer is baked fully into Paper and Paste, which will continue to receive investment and improvements because all of FiftyThree’s staff of 12 is coming along with the acquisition.

As a strategy, the acquisition makes sense. WeTransfer is great at sharing files, especially on desktops. FiftyThree is great at building creative apps, on mobile. The two can play off each other’s strengths to build better, intraoperative products that can remove the logistical barriers when you want to work on a digital project.

At the same time, the acquisition is reminiscent of Dropbox, which spent $100 million on Gentry Underwood’s Mailbox email app, with the intent of building a slew of apps that could plug users into Dropbox. The strategy bombed. Users didn’t want Dropbox to provide them with a beautiful new photo app–they just wanted Dropbox to be an easy way to share files. Even Mailbox itself was shut down as the company decided to invest more into its core product rather than ancillary services.

Georg Petschnigg, CEO and cofounder of FiftyThree, insist that the marriage of FiftyThree and WeTransfer will be different. Bradfield agrees.

“The big difference to me between [us and] Dropbox is . . . I don’t see us as a technology business. I see us as a design business. It feels more like a merger of two design companies than an acquisition,” says Bradfield. “You’ll often hear in the deal-making process there are acquisitions, mergers, and acqui-hires, which generally means something smaller gets engulfed in this blob that gets consumed and spit out somewhere. This was an organic conversation that had less to do with a ’50s sci-fi film than like-minded teams solving the big problems of today.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach