Before they had global reach, Qwilr’s founders had to ‘murder’ their online document startup

Qwilr

Dylan Baskind and Mark Tanner, the co-founders of Sydney-based startup Qwilr

Since Qwilr launched in June 2014, co-founders Mark Tanner and Dylan Baskind have raised $2 million in funding for their SaaS web-document builder, which has been used by more than 40,000 businesses, world-wide, to create 200,000 webpages.

The business partners spoke to Dynamic Business about having to ‘change gears’ and ‘murder darlings’ to get to where they are, the value their Sydney-based startup is generating for customers, and why creating art is indistinguishable from building a company.

DB: Can you give an elevator pitch for your startup?

Tanner: File-based documents, such as Word, PowerPoint or PDFs, tend to be pretty ugly and they don’t capture much data, nor do they connect with other software like accountancy, analytics or CRM systems. Qwilr makes it easy to build beautiful webpages that are responsive across devices, have high-calibre security, capture analytics data and connect with the software that powers a business. These webpages, known as Qwilrs, also interact with tools like self-service quoting, forms and data visualisation. It’s the functionality and aesthetic prowess of the web, but for document use-cases like proposals, pitches, brochures and reports. It looks great, but it is also deeply functional. It is easy to use, but it is powerful.

DB: Mark – how did you come to partner with Dylan?

Tanner: Dylan and I have been friends since we were teenagers. I used to go and watch his band, The Winter People, play at gigs across Sydney but when I moved to NYC to work with Google, we lost touch. We reconnected at a mutual friend’s wedding, where Dylan told me about a tool he’d developed to assist him in his career as a freelance developer/designer.

Whenever he’d pitch for work, he’d create a website to showcase his skills in design, code and copywriting. It was incredibly time-consuming but it left a more powerful impression than if he were to merely use Word, PowerPoint, PDF or InDesign, and it helped him land big jobs with likes of Saatchi & Saatchi, Belvoir Theatre and the Victorian Government. To enable him create web-documents in hours, not days, he built the first version of what would become Qwilr.

Listening to Dylan, the concept struck a chord with me. I’d worked at Google at a time when they were working on Google Wave and the early versions of Google Docs… while these improved upon on older systems, document creation remained fundamentally the same. Dylan’s idea allowed anyone – technical or not – to create beautiful and intelligent webpages quickly and easily. The web just allows you to do so much more than traditional files. When I actually saw what Dylan had built, I was blown away! I promptly quit my job at Google and moved back from New York. We started Qwilr, formally, in early 2014.

DB: Can you give a sense of Qwilr’s success?

Tanner: Having gained customers in over 50 countries around the world, our revenue has increased 15x in the past 18 months.  As a result of this rapid growth, we now have 17 employees spread across Australia, USA, India and Argentina.

Although we have users in more than 150 countries, paying customers are the most important indicator of success. You can grow users all you want, but if people aren’t happy to pay for your offering then you haven’t made something truly valuable. Not only should you be growing your customer numbers, but you need to do it in a way that keeps your old and new customers incredibly happy with your offering. We use many metrics, such as Net promoter Score (NPS) to try to keep track of customer happiness and are quick to respond if something starts to impact that.

DB: What value have you generated for customers? 

Tanner: 86% of customers have told us Qwilr saves them time. We’ve also heard from our customers that using Qwilr has increased their sales by 28% on average. In fact, our quoting tool has made customers more than $300m in sales. When you use Qwilr to generate a proposal or quote, you can make it easy for a client to accept it quickly and easily from any device – and this can include E-Sign and Payment, if you wish. While not everyone uses this ‘accept’ feature – the vast majority do. Every customer can see the total number of quotes and proposals that have been accepted inside Qwilr (as well as those that are pending), and we have a simple (but anonymous) dashboard that tallies those totals. We don’t check it every day but we’ll have to have a party when it hits $1 Billion.

DB: What’s been the secret to Qwilr’s success?

Tanner: A marriage of excellent engineering and design PLUS a ‘Murder your Darlings’ mindset.

DB: When have you had to ‘murder a darling’?

Baskind: Well, our entire app IS a ‘murdered darling’! The Qwilr of today is the second version. Mark and I sweated every detail and interaction with the original app, which we’d completed and was functional… but the editing experience wasn’t ‘what you see is what you get’ (WYSIWYG). After much hand-wringing and angst, we decided that for the best possible user experience, it NEEDED to be as truly WYSIWYG as possible. So, we threw out the first version of Qwilr completely – “murdered” it, if you will – and rebuilt it from the ground up. It was a good lesson in one of Qwilr’s foundational principles, “Undeniable Bestness”.

DB: What’s been another challenge with Qwilr?

Tanner: In the very early days, the main challenge was convincing an unfamiliar customer base to pay for new software. The process of turning one customer into 10, and then 10 customers into 100, and then 100 customers into 1000+ was genuinely hard work. As we discovered, the tricks that help you reach your first 100 customers don’t really work as well once you pass 1000. As you grow, you need to figure out how to constantly and effectively shift gears, which is no small feat but totally worth it in the end.

DB: How have you shifted gears in your startup?

Baskind: For us, shifting gears involved a combination of many forces. We reached a point where – all of a sudden – the whole orchestra was playing well together, rather than there being just one virtuoso making the difference. Everything just fell into place, our product and marketing fitted perfectly while the talent we had hired were all hitting their stride. It is hard to describe, but you know it when it happens and before you know it your vision is no longer just a vision – it’s a highly functional reality and successful business model.

DB: Dylan – are you still creatively active outside Qwilr?

Baskind: Very much so. I continue to write, draw, paint and record music (I’ve got an album to release later this year).

DB: Are your passions for business and art comparable?

Baskind: I don’t consider business and art as necessarily separate. Business building can be as creatively demanding an endeavour as music, or writing, or painting. Both start with some spark of inspiration, a sense of an end goal (that’s the easy bit) – and then there’s this marathon of problem solving. Adversity is as present in working out the right formulation of a lyric in a song, as it is in formulating the right way to phrase your messaging. Especially when building a business in a category which didn’t exist before, with no clear antecedents to give us the form or function of what we’re building – to succeed requires a great deal of creativity.

DB: Looking ahead, what do you have planned?

Tanner: We are always releasing new features (or thoughtful updates to old ones) and the recent $1.5m investment from VC giant Point Nine Capital has allowed us to ramp up our efforts in this respect by hiring some truly excellent engineers and designers. The investment has also allowed us to increase our focus on the United States, which is still the biggest software market in the world and accounts for around 40% of our business. We now have a team of five in the US and look forward to growing it in the months and years to come.