Fredrik Thomassen Transcript

Clint Betts

Fredrik, thank you so much for coming on the show. Pleasure to talk to you. Man, you've had an interesting career, built an incredible company. Maybe we start with what got you interested in entrepreneurship and starting companies in the first place?

Fredrik Thomassen

Yeah, good question. I'm one of those guys that doesn’t really enjoy having a boss and I've had some great bosses. They're definitely out there. But I've always been searching for freedom in a way. Tried initially to go into academia and tried to do a PhD and quickly learned it wasn't for me. It felt like the world of start-ups was the only other way to be free.

Clint Betts

I know before Superside, which we'll get to, you were the CEO and co-founder of another company, Zalora, Indonesia. Is that right?

Fredrik Thomassen

Yeah, exactly. I was part of building up a company. At that point, it was an established company and they had 70 people. I got an offer to come down and help try to build an e-commerce company in Indonesia and it was a fantastic experience.

But wasn't part of the zero to one journey. I wanted to do that. Again, the company went well. I mean, we took it from 70 people to 750 people, the largest fashion e- commerce company in Indonesia. A fantastic journey. Along the way I met some incredibly talented people and just really thought it's pretty unfair that if people live in Indonesia, if they could magically teleport to America, they could make 10 times as much. We wanted to create that magical teleport.

Clint Betts

Oh, that's cool. I love that. Then you start working on Superside. You actually get into Y Combinator. What was that experience like?

Fredrik Thomassen

For us, it was incredible. I'm a big believer in culture and values. I think Y Combinator has a pretty incredibly efficient way of instilling the importance of that into its founders. Helping everyone think about culture and values a lot and really creating a set of values that I believe are very important for a successful company.

They make T-shirts and everything and I think they say, "Talk to your customers and write code." Very few companies actually do that. For us it's been part of our ethos since the start and we're trying to build a company that our customers actually like. We try to ask them what they think instead of just following our gut or based on any other type of metrics. It's been a great experience and we were very fortunate to get some of the Y Combinator partners as our first investors as well. Truly a transformative experience for us in so many ways.

Clint Betts

Going deeper on the whole, ask your customer what they want, how do you serve them rather than just assuming, what are some of the strategies that they've taught you at Y Combinator that you've used over the years to help with that?

Fredrik Thomassen

I think there's all kinds of ways of talking to customers and you have all kinds of tools and ways of doing user research and all these things, but it's not necessarily that complicated. You just have to actually talk to them in a normal way. But I think for us, the crucial thing is to actually listen to the customers and be truth-seeking about it.

Are they really liking what you're selling? What are their real problems? How can you truly help solve them? For us, it's critical that talking to the customer framework is coupled with this very strong sense of truth-seeking. Here at Superside, seeking the truth is our second most important value and it's something that we try to get everyone to do.

Clint Betts

I like that. What was the original idea behind Superside when you were pitching it, when you were starting it? What was the problem you were trying to solve?

Fredrik Thomassen

Initially we were spending a lot of time on Upwork and Fiverr and 99designs and these platforms and were a little bit underwhelmed with the experience. But we still thought freelance marketplaces are the big platforms. They will reshape. They will become the future of work. Then we wanted to build a platform that ensured that all the freelancers on the marketplace were super high quality because we've ourselves had so many subpar experiences on Upwork and Fiverr.

Then over time you gradually realized that it needed so much more than just finding the right people in order to deliver a great customer experience. For us it's been all about making people work together and it's been about creating values and systems and processes. Today we're a hybrid between a freelancer marketplace and traditional advertising agency and really trying to take on that industry with what we call our creative as a service model, which lies somewhere in between, but which is really focused on creating high quality for the customer.

Clint Betts

You made the decision early on, if I'm not mistaken, to be a fully remote company. What was the decision behind that? I mean, I'm sure you're following some of the trends in tech where a lot of tech companies are like, "No, come back to the office. Come back, we don't like this remote stuff."

Tell me what your thought process is on it because it seems like you've been pretty consistent.

Fredrik Thomassen

Yeah, I mean for us, our mission all along since the start has been to create more equal opportunities in the world. We wanted to create this magic teleport and equal opportunities for anyone irrespective of where you live.

I think free migration would be great for everyone in the world, but it's obviously not happening. There's this tendency to just not want to let people into your country. And so really the internet is the only hope in many ways for a fair global marketplace. For us, remote work is really just an ethical imperative more than anything else.

Clint Betts

Yeah, it's interesting. You're from Norway, right?

Fredrik Thomassen

I am, yeah.

Clint Betts

I love the story of anyone who builds something and decides to stay in their hometown or their home country and grow that. Rather than everybody going to Silicon Valley or everybody going to New York City or London or whatever it is. I love to build where you are and grow that. I think that's a pretty beautiful concept. What led you to like, "Hey, I'm just sticking around?"

Fredrik Thomassen

We went to Y Combinator and then lived in California for a couple of years. I had a great time in California. But for many reasons related to family and everything, we just wanted to be in Oslo and close to everyone. But still wanted to build a company that competes in the US. Then I think it's really only one option and that is to be remote.

I think if you are in Silicon Valley or in New York or maybe London, you have sufficient depth in the local talent pool to build a huge global company from those hubs. But if you're in Oslo, there's just no chance that you can find all the relevant sales and marketing and product leaders and marketing leaders in the Oslo talent pool. There really isn't any other option.

Today it just feels amazing to be able to run an American company competing in the American market, but take advantage of the lifestyle that you can have in Oslo. Definitely expect more people to do that over the next few years.

Clint Betts

Yeah. Tell me about Oslo, Norway. Whenever I think of Norway, I think of the happiest people ever. They've got everything figured out. I mean, California must have been a culture shock. Was it in some ways? Just how the United States works versus how Norway works. But I don't know a lot about it, I just know what I've read about Norway. I've never been there. Tell us about that and why it's so special.

Fredrik Thomassen

I think a lot of Norwegians really admire America. I think we're also extremely grateful for the very warm welcome that we always get when we are in the US. At least to me it's just amazing, the inclusion and hospitality that we get in the US.

Definitely many, many great things about American society. I think what I like about Norway in particular is the connection to nature. They say that every city sends you a signal. This is a Paul Graham essay, where New York sends you the signal that money is important. Getting a lot of it is going to give you a lot of status here in New York. Silicon Valley sends the signal that you should be this powerful tech person. LA may be more about fame or Paris about style.

Oslo sends you a signal that being in nature and being outdoors a lot and taking care of yourself and being more in balance with that is really important. I'm really proud of that legacy we have, despite the whole oil and gas history. Obviously we have a very strong consciousness around sustainability and the philosophical underpinnings, a lot of that being very present in Norway from the fifties and the sixties. That I would say is the strongest signal that Oslo as a city is sending to new visitors.

Clint Betts

At what point did you realize, "Hey, Superside is going to be something. This is going to work. We've landed on something that disrupts things like Upwork and other sites like that. Makes the quality better. Makes lifestyle better." All that type of stuff. Was there a moment in time where you can think of where it's like, "This is actually going to work?"

Fredrik Thomassen

I guess as a founder you're always questioning your own journey and you're always a bit paranoid. I'm not sure if I still believe in it. You always just want to improve things and there's always stuff that you can make better. There's always problems.

But I can tell a little bit about when we found product market fit. I remember people asking me. Y Combinator partners would ask, "Do you think you have product market fit?" I was like, "Yeah, we're growing. We're doubling every year and we have all these customers."

I was thinking that we had product market fit. But the customers didn't really enjoy it that much. It was more like forcing customers, spending on marketing and being good at that. But it wasn't like growth- driven by people just telling their friends, "Hey, you should really check out this whole Superside thing."

I think in the first three or four years or something, we started to realize that retention just wasn't really that good. We weren't getting that many new customers from word of mouth and we had to do something. We started out as this pre-qualified freelancer marketplace, but over the course of a year we made three important decisions. We said, one, let's go all in on design and be the best in the world at doing that.

Let's go for a subscription model and let's shift to primarily full-time people working at Superside. Still very flexible. You can work whenever-you-want-type of arrangement. But really try to go all in on that. Then after a while, it certainly started running downhill. Customers came knocking at our doors and everything just felt super, super easy.

That's when I realized that we now have product market fit and realized that we didn't have it earlier. I like to say now that the definition of product market fit is that if you're truly honest to it yourself, you either know it or you don't. For us, that was a very apparent moment in, I don't know, 2019 or something. Over the last three or four years it's been just scaling as quickly as we can.

Clint Betts

Yeah, it's interesting. This creative as a service model is pretty fascinating actually. This subscription model, treating it more like a SaaS company than one of these other websites or whatever. Where you go on and you can just pay per project. Why did you think that might work? Was that from the Y Combinator thing? Because they're so ingrained in software as a service models. At what point did you think, "Hey, this subscription thing is really going to work?"

Fredrik Thomassen

We started to talk more and more to customers of a certain size, and a lot of them were just really dissatisfied with their agencies. They felt that their agencies were disorganized. They felt that their agencies didn't think about them first and foremost, but more about awards or making great stuff for their portfolio, not so much about performance of the creative.

At some point we just really felt that there is a way to create a more productized standardized solution for all of those customers that are a little bit dissatisfied today. We felt that a subscription model would give us predictability to invest in talent and build a dedicated team for the customer. We felt it would reduce the cognitive friction in the purchasing process.

I think a lot of the deals in this space are done with very custom RFPs and long processes and pitching and all these things. Then we come and we say, "Hey, this is the plan. You can buy it or you can not buy it, but this is the plan. We've thought a lot about why it should be structured in this way." Then a lot of people just started saying, "Ah, that makes a lot of sense. It's really nice that you've just structured it so that we don't have to fight about things."

Very often agency customer relationships end in conflict. It's one of those industries. It's the same with a lot of builders or carpet or home refurbishment. A lot of industries just have very low customer satisfaction in general across the industry. We just felt that there was a need to try to fix that with a product that is much more focused on what the customer truly needs.

Clint Betts

Now how does AI disrupt all of this? Its seems you got things like DALL-E. You've got things like Midjourney. I mean they're not designing full websites and things like that, but AI is got to be something that's on your mind. How do you adapt to that?

Fredrik Thomassen

Absolutely. We don't really know yet, I guess, whether it's mostly a threat or mostly an opportunity. It is definitely both. We definitely see across all of our product categories that it's possible to do it faster and it's possible for us to reduce cost and deliver more efficient products to our customers.

Then a traditional agency will not have any incentives to do that because you get paid by the hour and if you log fewer hours, then you essentially lose money, and so you face that whole innovator's dilemma. For us it's different because we have this subscription model and so our incentives are much more aligned with the customers. For us now, we are just committed to try to reduce the time that everything takes by 15 to 20% every quarter for the next 12 months. I think across many categories, we will be able to improve efficiency by more than 50%.

For things like banner ads, redesign or illustration and a few other categories, it's possible to reduce by maybe as much as 70%. That's something that we're committed to doing and we're committed to passing those savings over to our customers. Then at the same time, I think there are a lot of customers out there that want to get our help to build an internal AI production engine or various other ways to use AI in their own design. We're trying to help customers with that as well.

So both a threat and an opportunity, but it's definitely happening and there's no way to stop it. We're definitely going with the program.

Clint Betts

What's your overall take on AI even beyond Superside? Do you have any concerns? Is there anything about it that you're thinking, "Hey, this is crazy"?

Fredrik Thomassen

I'm not particularly concerned at this existential risk level. I don't know why. I'm not an expert on this by any means. I just find it odd that humanity as we know it should be disrupted by a statistical model. It's just hard for me to grasp, but maybe I just refuse to believe it. I think that the world of cryptography is a cat and mouse game where the people that are trying to hack weapons systems or hack banks or hack all of these things are always trying to improve their toolkit and take over.

Then there are always people trying to build better cybersecurity and so on. I just don't see that so far the AI tools will provide them a meaningful improvement on the ability to crack encryption. They don't seem to make any progress towards prime. Things like a quantum computer or whatever, if that ever comes online, I would be honestly more worried about because it would just break down all our cybersecurity defenses. But again, this is just free styling for me. What do you think?

Clint Betts

I don't know. I think it's fascinating. I never understand, "Hey, AI's going to kill humanity." Then you ask, "Why," and they don't know. Or how is it even better? How is that going to happen? It's like, "Well, they'll decide to kill someone." Can you just pull the plug and then it's all over? I don't know. I'm super excited, but I think it's crazy. I think we're going to be living in a completely different world from a productivity and job standpoint and what we do all day, which is great. Which is going to make living in Norway awesome.

Fredrik Thomassen

Yeah, for sure.

Clint Betts

Honestly, I think that's actually a big deal. I think you'll see migration out of big cities and people living wherever they want.

Fredrik Thomassen

Totally, totally. It's interesting. It's really interesting. For designers it's mostly a huge win. You can do so much more. You can get your ideas to fruition much more easily. It just amplifies creativity massively. We're incredibly excited about it. We're pretty much all in. I think there hasn't been a meeting in the last six months or so where we haven't spoken about AI.

I think many companies out there are in two camps or people out there are in two camps. It's the group that needs convincing that this is real and that it's happening. Then there's the group that is already convinced. I think as an organization we quite quickly got to that point where we mostly don't need to be convinced. I hope most of our now 700 or so designers and creatives are also convinced of the same. I think that's just a huge win to get there and just to ensure that all our people use whichever available tool on a daily basis. I think we've done a good job there, but let's see what happens. It's like every week now it's something new.

Clint Betts

Yeah, you're in an industry that seems to be disrupted a lot. Things like Canva and Adobe's version of that and all that type of stuff. Canva seemed like magic for a little while and then it became like, "Hey, there's actually some limits to this thing. You can't go as deep as maybe you could an actual designer who knows how to do this type of stuff."

But it is interesting how often design is being disrupted. I wouldn't have expected creativity to be the first thing that would be disrupted by AI, but it seems to be going in that direction.

Fredrik Thomassen

I think it's important to bear in mind it's a typical design project of, I don't know, 20 hours. Typically, 10 to 15 hours of that project, even before AI, is spent on doing research, understanding the problem that you're trying to solve, mapping the competitive landscape, looking at previous projects and really building that context.

In the end, a lot of time was spent on editing. That piece in the middle where it's about sketching and doing mood boards and all of these things, and obviously a big part of producing stuff, it's obviously much faster. But I really think of it as creativity being amplified and not as being disrupted. I think we'll be able to see the decentralization of creativity to a much greater extent where you don't need a huge studio in Hollywood to make a compelling film.

You don't need a ton of people. You can have small groups producing something really great almost by themselves. Maybe in the future creating movies will be more like writing a book. It's just one person being able to do everything. I still haven't seen AI by itself moving the needle on culture per se. By itself I haven't seen it come up with anything that is interesting. It is to me just ultimately a force multiplier on human creativity, allowing you to do all the tasks faster. We're just incredibly optimistic. I said I just live in denial about the existential realistic aspects.

Clint Betts

That's all you can do anyways. That's all any of us can do. I wonder how you manage and maintain culture remotely. How do you think about managing remote teams, a remote workforce and maintaining the culture of Superside while you do that?

Fredrik Thomassen

Yeah, I think for us it's important to realize that good management is even more important in a remote context. Bad management just makes it extremely terrible to work in a remote company. Companies that during COVID had to go remote and had bad management. Bad management to me would be there's no clear objective. Roles aren't clear. There isn't any good tracking of KPIs in place. There's no good system for feedback. There aren't pretty basic good management practices in place.

When those companies went remote, everyone was just like, "This is terrible." Or maybe some of them said, "This is amazing because now I don't have to do anything." But for the company and for productivity, I think bad management is just going to be really terrible in a remote context. It creates this imperative to really invest and focus on that and focus on the basics. That's what we're really trying to do mostly. I think we've done a reasonably good job on that.

Then the second thing I would say is also around who you bring onto the team and how you prioritize that. We've been really concerned with hiring based on values and trying to hire people that share the values that we have. Again, that is also even more important in the remote context. I would say those two things are the most important for us. Beyond that, we're not doing anything massively different from any other companies.

There are remote companies out there that basically go all in on async, for example. They're hardcore against doing meetings and we are not really extremist on any of those things. It's important for us to realize there are pros and cons to working remotely. It's impossible to do it in any other way. For us, trying to build this global company and trying to achieve our mission of creating more equal opportunities. For us, we just have to try to make the most of it.

Clint Betts

I like that. Hey Fredrik, thank you so much for taking the time, seriously. Congratulations on everything you've built with Superside. I end every interview with this same question. At CEO.com we believe chances that are given are just as important as the chances we take on ourselves. I wonder if there is someone, as you can think back in your life, someone who gave you a chance that led you to where you are today.

Fredrik Thomassen

Yeah, great question. I think for us it's really Sam Altman who is now obviously gone on to great fame with OpenAI. Doing our Y Combinator period in the very early days of the company, coming one day and saying, "I want to just invest your whole seed round." Then we're like, "Wow, that's incredible. Yeah, of course you can do that." He was already pretty famous by then being Y Combinator president and everything and very quickly the whole round came together. It has given us a huge boost.

We asked, "Why do you want to invest? You've seen us like 10 times or whatever." But he is just like, "Okay, I believe work is huge. I believe services should be disrupted. You guys seem like smart guys. You can probably figure it out."

Then we just tried to do our best to figure it out. But that meant a lot to us and it was the first time someone took a chance on us in a way and took a chance on us in the sense of investing a lot of their own money. I'm going to say that.

Clint Betts

Yeah. Sam Altman. Man, that's incredible. Hey Fredrik, thank you so much for coming on. Really appreciate it. Best of luck.

Fredrik Thomassen

Thank you very much. Thanks a lot for having me on the podcast. Really great to be here. Hope you can enjoy some Utah snow next winter.

Clint Betts

Yeah, for sure. Come on out, man. We'll go down the slopes.

Fredrik Thomassen

Will try my best.

Weekly Newsletter

For Leaders

Subscribe to the weekly newsletter read by the world's most influential CEOs.