We were excited to meet Grant for a few reasons.
Firstly, we actually use Tella a fair bit to make our Troopl product demos. They’re not paying us to say this, but Grant and his co-founder Michiel have built something special that makes it quick, simple, and, dare-I-say, fun to create videos in your browser.
As founders ourselves, we were also very interested in hearing about Tella going through the famous Y Combinator startup accelerator, the lessons they learned, and if it changed their product or trajectory.
Then there’s the fact that Grant is from New Zealand. Now, you may not be aware of this, but when Aussies and Kiwis meet on the other side of the world, we’re required by law to become mates.
Let’s get into it.
What is Tella and who is it for?
Grant: So Tella is video recording for work and education. We're trying to make it easy for people to create video and share it in the workplace, using only a web browser. So whether it's what you know, or whether it's what you're working on, we want to help you be able to showcase that in video.
One of the things that we noticed when we were starting Tella was that video is a great format for communication. But it's just really hard to make. Particularly at work. Work is often about efficiency and typically recording or creating a video isn’t thought of as the most efficient thing. Recording takes a long time. You've got to do a lot of takes. Then you've got to upload it somewhere. Then you might have to download it or render it somewhere. Then you've got all the editing things. So there's all these steps along the way that people just kind of get blocked by in terms of using video.
But work is also about creativity and expression, and video offers a lot of possibilities for people to be creative and get their message across — think about all the crazy stuff you see people making on Tiktok.
So we're trying to make creating a video as lightweight and as fast as possible, so that when people can think about writing a document or an email, they could also think about sending a video with Tella with the same level of efficiency but so much more creativity and expression.
Tell me the story of Tella. Give us the cliff notes of Tella from its inception to sitting on a park bench today.
My co-founder, Michiel, and I used to work at a company called InVision. They are a design company and they were one of the first big remote companies. So from day one, they just started doing the remote thing before it was kind of mandated like it practically is now.
We joined them and obviously they've been doing remote since about 2017 or whenever they started. And I think they'd kind of gone through a lot of the growing pains of being a remote company before everyone else. And one of the things that they were doing, which was fascinating to us, is that product teams would make videos of what they were working on, their updates, and their releases and share them internally.
Then the rest of the business would just go through these Slack channels and consume these videos and basically stay up to date with the product teams based on videos, asynchronously. But it wasn't like the idea of sharing videos asynchronously was super novel, but it was what people were doing in the videos that caught our attention.
People were really producing these videos. They were doing more with the content. They were editing them. They had different kinds of shots in there. They had a demo, they had slides, they might feature a different member of the team. Some of these were really high production value.
The thing that we noticed was that the better the video, the better the engagement and excitement about it. And people started looking forward to those videos. But making that kind of video was a pain. There was no tool that was suitable for recording videos to that quality and that kind of entertainment value.
And so after we'd made a few of these videos ourselves, we were like “This feels like it could be a new way to communicate at work. We should just go and build a tool that would do this”. And then the pandemic hit and suddenly everyone was kind of in this remote world. So yeah.
So Tella came into itself right at the beginning of the pandemic?
We've been talking about doing something with this idea since about mid-2019. I think we started thinking there could be something there. And then it was only in December of 2019 that we started putting some serious prototypes together. And then I think we had a real sketchy working version in March 2020.
And you applied for Y Combinator at the beginning of 2020?
Yeah. One of the things that we've built into Tella that we wanted to do was to make video collaborative. So we started looking for a technology provider who could help us with that part of the technology. And we talked about what we were planning to make and wanting to make. And they were like, "Oh, you should apply to YC. This is a cool idea”. So that was the moment we were like, "Oh, okay. Let's try that”. We had no intention of it because we still just had no idea what we were doing.
And is this the moment you jumped from InVision to Tella full-time?
We were doing it part-time for a little while, just building stuff. Trying to work out how this thing could work. And then yeah, we started showing it to people and had a good idea that we wanted to go on it full-time. So, we quit before we even got the news about YC, but yeah, it all kind of happened together.
Tell me what your thought process was in leaving a full-time job and that stability. What was that jump like?
We were into the idea and were just like, “Yeah, there's something cool here.” The people we were talking to about it – potential users – were into it. And we thought we could build it. And we believed in the direction. Pre-pandemic we saw what InVision was doing with remote work and thought that more companies are going to go like this for sure. There's no reason why more won't. I guess we just thought it would be more of a steady transition. So yeah, we just believed in it. We worked out like how long we could go if we didn't get funding and how long it would take us to sort of build something. So we were pretty confident to just give it a go.
That's a massive jump. Tell me a bit about YC. Some people reading this might not know about it.
Yeah, this friend of ours suggested it'd be worth applying and we sort of thought we have this very early version and practically no one using it and we weren’t sure if that was going to work. But they said “No, no, that'd be okay. Try that. There's lots of companies that apply for it with nothing. And there's lots of companies that apply with multimillion dollar businesses already.” So that kind of made us not worry so much about that. But the interview went well and I think we said in the application that we were prepared to move to San Francisco if we're permitted, but then it ended up being remote.
We had been working remote for the last couple of years, and what we're building is kind of for this space. So we were pretty cool with it. And the batch before had to do part of the course remote, so they kinda got caught off guard. Whereas for us, they really did get to prepare for it.
And I think they did a really good job. I mean, I can’t compare to what it's like doing YC in San Francisco and all that. There's definitely like some ‘X-Factor’ with being there, but we got what we wanted out of it.
How has Tella evolved from what you applied to Y Combinator with?
I mean, it depends who you ask. It could be night and day. It's quite different. I'm not a designer by trade, but I am our designer. I learned how to design and Michiel, my co-founder, is an incredible engineer and product thinker. So between the two of us, with this very fast and loose approach, we just went and built stuff and learned from what we built. Rather than long research processes or anything like that.
We found out what worked, what didn't work, and then kept on moving. And now we're trying to keep that attitude because we think it's the best way to do it. It’s fun and feels the best. But it does mean in this early stage of building a product that you can go through some pretty dramatic swings and changes, which depending on your user base is not always going to be welcomed.
We've had people when we change stuff saying "What the hell did you do that for, Guys!?". It's about the future now. That's really hard and sometimes that really sucks. We've changed stuff that has meant that we've lost users and we've changed stuff that's meant that we've got a lot more and people are liking it more. So I think if we can keep that going, it's just gonna work out.
What were some of the things that you learned in those early days and weeks at YC? What were you wrong about with your product and your assumptions?
Well... we were wrong about loads! We were sort of wrong about the general approach that we were taking with the product. There were parts of the advice that they gave us at YC that we didn't really quite take on board. We should have at the time and we've tried to since and it was basically that we were building something that's far too complex in the beginning for what we were setting out to do.
So that learning comes down to YC’s number one advice, which is you need to be talking to your users all the time. As many as possible. And the more we did that, the more we realised we were diverging a bit from what we'd set out to do with the way we're building things.
So that was the first thing. Yeah, I guess the other thing they make pretty clear is that users aren't just gonna come. They're just not just going to show up out of nowhere. You really have to go and find them, and they really make sure that you're aware of that.
There's a lot of exceptional cases where, you know, people build amazing products that just catch on like wildfire. But I think for the most part, people really just have to go out and do the hard work and find people, and spend time with them, and start building something that they are going to care about, and then tell other people.
There's no easy route to a winning recipe.
Tell us about your early customers and what have you learned from them?
Our early users kind of vary between three main areas. We've got small teams – founders, building software who need a way to be able to share videos and updates, and communicate about their product with video.
And then we have slightly bigger teams where there might be a sales team that wants to use video as part of their outreach. When they're selling, say software, or something like that. There's also internal communication with product teams wanting to communicate about their products as well.
And then the third group is around education.There are lots of teachers now that are faced with keeping the students engaged or just creating their course content. And they've either run out of options from existing tools, or are now looking for something where they can get their content across in a way that’s going to keep kids and students engaged.
A lot of the video recording tools out there have sort of come from the idea of "I need to capture my screen and my camera and that's it”. And that’s kinda been the norm and the expectation. The way that we're looking at it is that you need to capture your screen and camera as the starting point.
Our users are working on things that they truly care about and so they need more creative tools and more control over the end result. Because they’re sharing something that's meaningful to them, they want to present it as much more than just a screen recording.
There's all sorts of other fun stuff that you can do with videos in Tella. Combined recordings, adding other content like gifs and stickers, and interactive elements like buttons. So it's that creative aspect that means that we can help these people. We see it as a kind of higher value types of video communication rather than just "Here's a bug report", but instead, "Here's me presenting my product, or my course, or my story."
Have there been any surprising applications that you've seen Tella used for?
In the early days when we still didn't know what we were doing, we had someone try and edit a cooking show on Tella… Which was a disaster. It was a real disaster. Michiel and I were trying to help this person with the video and we were like,"What are we doing with our lives right now? This is not what's supposed to happen”. Because it was… it was a nightmare. It was really long, and they wanted to treat us like a real traditional video editor. And that was when we realised that we’d set ourselves up for failure.
That sense of building something that could be interpreted in too many ways. And so since then, we've tried to make it much clearer and simpler around what you can do with the video. So that was the first one. I mean, it was fun. It was fun in reflection
Were they successful?
They were just experimenting. They weren’t planning to air this or anything, but they really did go and upload like 40 minutes of cooking, then try and edit that, and add other content to it. Yeah, it was a challenge. But I mean, the more realistic things, they have been really interesting.
Our users have made some really cool onboarding videos made for their customers, new hires, and partners. So they basically build a mini video program. The viewers can watch these videos and they get like a five-step video with links that'll appear throughout that they can click to follow up on other content. It's personal and it's asynchronous. So the people making this video can feel like they can connect with these people because it's much more personal than just a step-by-step text document. And it saves a huge amount of time There’s no need to schedule big boring Zoom calls.
What have you learned about how people learn?
That's a good question. I don't know if there's been anything groundbreaking that we've discovered yet in that regard. But one of the things that we're trying to do at Tella is to make that experience for the viewer more than just watching a video. And we’re still learning. I’ve never been a big reader, I prefer more visual ways of learning, and video can be awesome for that. So I suppose we’re trying to test what’s possible for other people like this.
For example, one of the features that we have is a thing called ‘slides’. Which is where you can import slides, and present the slides directly in Tella and instead of just doing a screen recording of the slides, we can then make that a better experience for the viewer by giving them an interactive deck that they can click through.
Viewers can then watch the video, but they can also click through the slides. Like they would a regular deck, and then jump to that point in the video. So it becomes this augmented experience between video and a traditional deck. So we're just trying to find ways where we can take video beyond one dimension. We’ve seen a lot of teachers put together lessons and courses in this format and they like that they can give their students richer viewing experience.
You've come all the way from New Zealand. Tell us a bit about how you ended up in Amsterdam.
Basically, you get to a point in New Zealand where you get to your mid-twenties or something and you feel like “is that it?”. That’s not really fair on New Zealand, because it is a wonderful place and it definitely “isn’t it” when you’re that young. But there’s no doubt a lot of people in their twenties want to leave New Zealand and explore.
I wanted to go and do something else. So I just looked for a job in Europe. I searched for all the companies that had job listings for what I was doing back in New Zealand. I found a list of about 10 companies that had roles that were vaguely similar. And one of them was a company here in Amsterdam called Bynder. I applied and they hired me from my Aunty’s basement (where I was staying at the time) over Skype two days before new year’s eve in 2014.
What does it mean to you to be based in Amsterdam now?
It's a super international and connected city and it's very multicultural in the sense that there's a lot of people from all over Europe that are working here.
So you do feel like it's one of the hubs for Europe. But at the same time, it's way smaller than a lot of the other big places. You don't get this sense of being overwhelmed or that you're in this giant, never-ending metropolis like London or Paris or something. Here, it feels very manageable and comfortable, and welcoming, and human.
But at the same time, there's all this really interesting stuff happening with big companies here. There’s a thriving technology and startup scene. So you kind of get the good stuff out of a big city and you don't have the bad stuff out of the big city.
So what is next for Grant and Tella?
Yeah we've still got loads of work to do on the product and getting Tella to where we want it to be. Right now it's just about focusing on getting to another launch that we can share with more people. So that's really exciting and we're building some fun stuff that we're going to base that launch around.
What else can I say in this regard? We'll be growing our team. We’re three at the moment. It’s Michiel, my co-founder and I, and our first hire, Ozan, joined us back in December. We'll be hiring again soon. Probably in design and engineering.
For anyone reading this who is eager to learn more about Tella, how can they do that?
The Amsterdam Founder Series is a Troopl initiative with the goal of shining a light on entrepreneurs in Amsterdam and how they are unlocking growth in their companies. If you are, or know of, a founder in Amsterdam who would like to be featured, please get in touch.
Each interview is combined with a portrait photography session conducted by Tristan and Benjamin, co-founders of Troopl. Portraits are made available to participants free of charge.