March 9, 2023

Episode 197: Tom Medema, Founder & CEO of Bubbles

Tom Medema, Founder & CEO of Bubbles. Tom pioneered asynchronous, remote work years ago when he was CTO of Bloomon, one of the fastest growing startups in the Netherlands. Now he's CEO of Bubbles, which is likely the fastest-growing asynchronous video tool in the world right now - with 250K users and backing from Bain Capital. Khosla Ventures, and Craft Ventures.

Julian: Hey everyone. Thank you so much for joining the Behind Company Lines podcast. Today we have Tom Medema, founder and CEO of Bubbles. Bubbles. Let you quickly start a conversation with anyone by dropping a comment on anything you see on your screen, and sharing a private link to start that conversation in the context of what you.

See, Tom, it's so exciting to chat with you and, and not only about your founder journey and, and I know you've built companies and, and helped build companies not only in the US but abroad as well in the Netherlands. And it, it's just so fascinating to think about the wealth of experience, founders in your position have because you can see different markets, see different trends, and then you come with an innovative product that I think, a lot of times, especially for Bubbles, I'm excited about how it enables teams to communicate, kind of async.

When, when they have time and when they're outside of priorities making an extremely, extremely productive and, and efficient kind of process. So, before we get into all that, with Bubbles and, and the current company, what were you doing before you started Bubbles?  

Tom: Yes, thanks. Julian. Awesome to be here.

Love the title as well. Behind Company Lines wish I knew about you guys a couple of years ago. . Yeah, so before Bubbles, I was living in the Netherlands in Amsterdam, and I was fortunate to be introduced to one of the former co-founders of HelloFresh. They were actually looking to start a new.

A flower delivery app. We're very ambitious. We're looking to turn this offline flower industry into an online industry of, multiple billion dollars worth. With that experience of, of, Patrick is his name, I was able to really learn a lot and, and help them scale the company from zero to 150 employees.

I was the CTO there. And so I had to hire the engineering team from, from zero to one really as. Learn how to motivate them work on our engineering stack and so on. During that time as well was kind of forced to hire remotely. The, nether, the Netherlands is a small country.

We were kind of scrappy in terms of budget and so, This was back in 2014 where we started to hire remotely and really started to experience a lot of the difficulties around remote work. How do you convey your thoughts and ideas remotely? We'll get to this, but you can see I guess why I did started to itch and why I wanted to solve for that.

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. And I'm so curious because, a lot of times I, I guess this isn't really talked about, but how did you end up meeting your, your co-founder back at your, your previous company and, and how were you kind of able to kinda make that connection? It's funny. Co-founder relationships are always interesting.

They always happen out of just happenstance a lot of times. I'm, I'm curious how, how did you meet your co-founder? .  

Tom: Yeah. So technically I was a founding CTO there. But mm-hmm. . What is interesting there is that I think it's really all about building your network making sure that, you, you work with a lot of smart people, you can learn from them.

And so in my case, I was actually working at a startup in all the way in Bangkok. There were a group of ex rocket internet founders who were starting companies in Southeast Asia. They were then asked the question by, by Patrick do you know anyone who might be a good CTO for us? And I was then introduced to them.

So flew to to Amsterdam had a coffee with them. And before you know it, you are starting this company with nothing more, but an idea.  

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. It's so funny. It, it's sometimes it, it takes just that interaction for a lot of co-founded relationships to develop and then, and then, you kind of off to the races and thinking about scaling a team from, from zero to one is one thing, but also from one to 10 and and beyond to a hundred employees.

Talk about the growing pains of, of scaling, specifically in engineering team. A lot of times you're focusing on getting your MVP up, up, and running. Then you're faced with customer feedback, different things that you could potentially invest in, in terms of feature building or, or maybe even a whole new version of the application.

But how do you do that? Not only thinking about the, the, the scaling of what you're building, but also choosing the right people to, to build along with you?  

Tom: Yes. So one, learn to say no , I think. As, as important as it is to be able to build things, you, it's maybe even more important to be able to say no to building things.

And so if you are able to do that and then realize what is that one thing that I really need to get done, that's really going to be our differentiator then you need to assemble a team around that. And that team needs to be motivated to build that right. And. It's a lot about, I think, upfront hiring the right people rather than hiring people and then trying to motivate them.

It's a lot harder. I would say hiring remotely seems like table stakes nowadays. Yeah. It's, it's just. If you, if you only hire locally, you're just not gonna get the kind of talent that you cook at if you broaden your, your horizon. Yeah. But then you're going to face issues around remote work as well, right?

So think about remote culture. Think about are, are these folks, people who are excited about remote work, who want to work remotely, and folks that you think you can trust because you're potentially not gonna have as much visibility as you would have in an office environment. .  

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. And, and when you can think about kind of the, the remote culture for, founders who are thinking about or, or are working with remote teams, what are some ways that you not kind of or reinforce, I guess the culture reinforces kind of a harsh word, but I guess keep people.

in, in the right in the right direction with, with understanding where the company is going versus, getting lost in task and, and just going about your day, kind of seemingly completing things. But, how do you reinforce culture as as a founder? What are some strategies that you use?

Tom: Yeah, so I think culture is, is really based on what you do more so than what you say. And so, for example, your leadership team should really be remote. , I don't think you should have a local office and then a couple of remote people. I think that would be really difficult. At least in terms of making the remote folks feel as as, as much part of the team.

And so, that's one you should really be remote in, in my opinion. If you are going. And then second like I said, make sure that you hire people who are actually willing to be remote, cuz it, it's a choice and I, I think that yeah avoids a lot of trouble down the line. Third, we do, do local let's say offsites in, every, every quarter or so, we'll fly to the same location and spend a couple of days not just working together, but.

building a relationship. Yeah. And so that has really helped us Bubbles. But also you, you do need to think about how are you actually going to execute remotely? Yeah. Because many, many startups feel, because they don't have product market fit. But I've also seen many startups feel, because they just couldn't execute.

You have limited resources, limited time. Even if you have the right idea, you, you're still going to have a very challenging job ahead of you. Yeah. If you are remote, in many ways that can be amplified, especially in terms of how do you make sure that you're working on the right thing, that people are aligned, that there's visibility, and that the assumptions that you might normally kind of figure out at, at the coffee machine or during lunch with your colleagues.

Those assumptions are suddenly made explicit rather than implicit. Right. So use tools to do that. In our case, we were having a lot of issues with live video, so we were on Zoom a lot. And that resulted in a situation where especially engineers were taken out of context and easily lost an hour even before and after the call cause they had to try and get back into it.

Yeah. And so we are trying this kind of radical approach. basically don't do live meetings except for a standup in the morning. Yeah. And all of our other meetings are completely asynchronous. Of course we use Bubbles for that to, to be able to achieve that. .  

Julian: Yeah. And what inspired the original idea? You mentioned, remote, remote working culture was kind of, a challenge and, and not only is, doing things where you're trying to zoom and, and everyone's trying to get maybe the idea of what's going on, but you know, in particular, what, what inspired the idea and, and why did you build the product the way you did in terms of, screen sharing, but also having your yourself on there versus just screen sharing and showing. A direction without having the personal component to it. What, what made you go in this direction?  

Tom: So it started with a personal frustration of something that should be trivial, which is just conveying your thoughts and ideas. Actually, I find it to be really difficult over email or Slack. And I've been in so many situations where in the end we were like, well, let's just jump on a call.

And so, we are going to repeat the whole thing again. Just takes so much time and so much, yeah. Trouble. And so it started with that, how do I make it easy to convey thoughts and ideas and so I needed a rich medium things like screen recording and so on. Yeah. Then I there were already some tools out there to do things like screen recording but I felt they were very lacking in terms of actually being able to go back and forth.

They felt more like broadcasting. Yeah. Rather than, let's say this kind of threaded conversation that you might be used to from something like email or Slack. And so, yeah. know, Imagine Zoom and Slack having a baby. That's kind of what I imagined as, as a solution to, to this problem.  

Julian: Yeah. And thi thinking about just like the, the, the storing of all the information and the.

how, how easily accessible from a customer standpoint, from a user standpoint is it to, go through and, and look at say, repository videos or, or, or connect it with a certain idea that you were working on. Cause I feel like a lot of times we, we make these great products. We have, some founders will make these great products, but it's the, recall of those products.

That becomes a challenge to make sure. Accessible. How did you think about building and designing something that not only you could use, say, once to explain an idea or thought, but that you could reference and continue to be so dynamic? How did you, how did you think about building that and also how did you get people to stay on it?

Because I know a lot of times, people will see a cool new, tool or, or, and, and functionality, but it's, it's the retention of that to continue getting them back. That's, I think, the more challenging part. How did you think about building and how did you think about retaining people who were using the product?

Tom: Yeah, that's a great question. So we, we now have about quite a million people. Two 50,000 people have used Bubbles and we've spent very little on marketing. So most of that comes from the way we've built the product. By making sure that it has an inherent product loop. So you want to share a bubble because that's how you can start a conversation as well as by making that kind of first time experience very simple and have a kind of have this experience, this aha moment immediately.

That's why we, we basically removed things like signup the requirement to install something and so on. Now in a way, there's some tension there if your question around retention, because if you make it super low commitment for the user to try your product, then they may not be necessarily be committed, right?

Right. And so the way we think about it is, well, let's focus first on having them experience a, a, a great. , but then give them, let's say superpowers if they install something. Yeah. In our case, that's a Chrome extension. I imagine in the future that would be a native app, a mobile app, et cetera. And so we've seen that that works.

So, even people who, who just experienced the web experience, Yeah. Even there we see pretty good retention. But also when they don't install the Chrome extension, I think retention, I think quadruples if I, if I remember correctly. Yeah. So basically try to get them in the door and then find, find ways to continue to be present.

Yeah. One interesting tension as well is are you going to ask them for their email address so that you can later on try to re. . We've been very extreme on the side of not asking for emails and not really doing any nurture campaigns and so on, but we're slowly, slowly starting to experiment with that.

Yeah. All the while though, keeping in mind that we, we must have, we, we must have people experienced that aha moment knowing that. There are a million other apps that are trying to get their attention. They don't have a lot of time during the day to suddenly try out a new tool. So keeping that friction really low, I think is, is, is most important.

So if you go to use, you click on the main cta, you can actually immediately start a recording. Yeah. You don't need to install anything. It's, it's, it's completely web. If you then have a good experience you'd likely want to install the Chrome extension because it will then allow you to more easily start this conversation.

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. And how did you define, say your, your business model? Are you kind of, is it like a gateway of, of features that you're limiting for free users and then once you want access to them, you give them access? Is it a subscription model? How do you essentially think about. Balancing out that, the commitment, getting people on board, getting traction, but then also finding a way to monetize because it's, it's difficult, you can do in so many ways, but it really depends on the customers and, and how they want to consume the product.

how have you thought about kind of, in terms of monetizing the, the platform and ways that you can use it, the monetization and, I mean, vehicle two say incentivize users to, continue to go back to the platform? Mm-hmm. .  

Tom: Mm-hmm. . Yeah. Great question. So we, we are quite ambitious in that. I, I, I didn't like the way that remote workers were forced to work odd hours.

Yeah. Try and adjust their schedule to other people. Yeah, actually we did a survey with about 500 people and I think 30% or so on a daily basis had to work outside of working hours just to be able to accommodate for their, their teammates. Mm-hmm. , 80% of them thought that many of their meetings actually were redundant and could have been done over asynchronous video or email, et cetera.

Yeah. So, they're really big problem. . The challenge is if you, if you want to resolve, solve for really big problems, often you need to instill a behavioral change, right? You, mm-hmm. . You want to show your users how, how they might do this differently. And that's diff difficult cuz they're, they're used to certain workflows, certain ways of working.

So first and foremost I think you have to decide are we going with a venture backed model where you may not necessarily have to be profitable in the short run but you're going for that really big vision and, and VCs are helping you move towards that. Or are you going for a bootstrap model, in which case you're gonna have to find something that is immediately Obvious to the user in the sense that they will immediately want to pay for it and you would potentially be okay with moving towards that vision.

Much later on with Bubbles, we've consciously been looking for investors who are really excited by that remote remote's future. You could even say present, but this future where we're not just working remotely, but we've also adapted our ways of working to working remote. And so really trying to be on the, the frontier of that that means that we don't necessarily have to be profitable, for example, this year or next year.

But of course we do need to show things like willingness to pay because that ultimately validates product market fit, right? Yeah. Now, in addition to that I, as a founder believe that if we want. Democratize this way of asynchronous working a bottom top model makes a lot more sense than a top down model.

Mm-hmm. , just because we cast a wider net and we will basically have a lot more people collaborate asynchronously. Mm-hmm. . And so, a product first approach made sense for us. , of course monetizing, but in a way that it is very accessible to let's say the, the individual, the freelancer who might be our early adopters, start sharing it with their clients.

And then, yeah, for those clients, those teams, they will want to pay because of certain features that those teams need. So in our case, we have a typical freemium model. You can use Bubbles for free. It's free forever. But if you need certain things like more granular access control things that we expect primarily teams will need who are serious about remote work, then you would wanna upgrade.

And it would only cost you $8 per month if you pay annually. No, now that's important because at the end of the day to reach that kind of skill, we cannot hire enough sales people right to do that. And. We need our users to be advocates of Bubbles. Right. And so, right. Creating a really good free plan is, is, is, is an integral part of that.

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. It, it seems such a, like an intricate way to, to go about building because it kind of hinders on, not knowing or knowing a lot about your user, but also testing a lot of different ways that might be, whether it's features or, or other incentives that allow users to stay on track with it and then, It's all this testing and, and getting all this information and it, it, it seems like the more challenging model.

But like you said, I think it, long term it's a more effective model of, of, building a product, especially one that affects the individual consumer so much. We had another founder that was talking about, if the employees love it, then the managers have to use it. Versus the other way around.

If you sell it to the managers and then, then their, their employees are, are. I guess, requested or, or they're required to use it. It's a little bit less sticky in that respect and you have a lot more friction. But tell us a little bit more about the traction. How many teams are using Bubbles?

What's exciting about the growth you've seen so far and where you, where you headed in this year and what's exciting about this year's journey?  

Tom: Yeah. So this year is really big for us because we are actually Are we introducing our paid plan? So we've waited with that for a long while because we're really focused on can we, can we actually convince people to try asynchronous video and try to converse an asynchronous video where before maybe they were used to broadcasting, can we convince them to go back and forth over, over video?

And so now that we feel that we've. Correct that we are moving to the next step, which is are businesses willing to pay for this? And so currently in terms of active users is about 30,000 people or so that actively use Bubbles that use it for team collaboration, to replace meetings, eliminate meetings, et cetera.

We're, we're happy with that to start, but of course this year will be really big for us where we'll want to grow significantly and, and also start to focus a little bit more on, on the s and b. Markets where previously we were in ours, very much used by startups, freelancers, and Yeah. And  

Julian: agencies. Yeah.  

Yeah. What are some of the biggest challenges that Bubbles faces today?  

Tom: Today, I'd say one of the hardest things is, is trying to. Not build everything, but also the things that you do need to build to, make sure that they both make impact, but that they also bring you closer to that, global maxima, right?

You, you don't necessarily wanna dig a hole that you can't get out of. And a lot of that is, Based on who, who are your current users versus who are your future users? And yeah. Are there too compatible, can you, can you find a way to, move from where you are now to, to that you know that, that, that platform that you're working on?

Yeah. And, and vision. So that's really hard. You will always think that you need to hire more people. You always think that you need to hire more engineers, more designers, more product managers, et cetera. . So that's never gonna go away. But if, if you can make the right decisions in terms of what to do and what not to do I think you'll be really good at executing.

And I think that really for a lot of startups, post product, market fit is probably their major challenge.  

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. If everything goes well, what's the long term? .  

Tom: So long-term vision is, is to literally kill the nine to five workday. So, I wanna see a world where life and work are in harmony.

If you're, if, if, if the kids need some extra attention, that should be fine. If you need to do the laundry, that should be fine. If it's a great sunny day and you wanna go to the beach, that should be. fine Your work shouldn't stipulate how you live, but at the same time, you should be able to be very productive and really move the needle for the company whenever and wherever.

If you are, if you prefer to work on a Saturday, that should be up to you. Yeah. This idea of only working on specific days and specific times predefined by society, I think is, is something that we need to move away from. Now we already see that remote work is suddenly being accept. . I think what you'll see next is that remote workflows will be accepted, and I think as a result you'll see that suddenly there's a lot less people will care a lot less about, okay, where do you work from and when do you work? As long as, we, we see the work being done.  

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. I'm always interested I always like to start this next question. I call it my founder faq. So I'm gonna give you some rapid fire questions and we'll see where we go. So first question is what's particularly hard about your job?

Tom: I'm, I'm the cfo, I'm the cpo, I'm the cmo. And trying to balance all of that is, is really hard. Um mm-hmm. , yeah. that's it..  

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. What, what strategies do you use in terms of finding that balance? Is it, and, and that you could give advice if another founder is, is, in the similar position wearing multiple hats, having different responsibilities.

What's something that helps you stay on track that you would share with another founder?  

Tom: Two things. So every week, think about what are the, 3, 4, 5, 6 criticals that really need to get done, and then every day, , pick one of them and, and don't stop until it's done. Also, don't really do other things right.

So, you will have to focus and you will be able to, you'll have to be able to say no to, to the things that are not as critical. Second, I like to take couple of hours each week where I block. Basically a, a brainstorm session for myself. Literally with a whiteboard, I'll, I'll think about where do I wanna be, where are we?

Mm-hmm. , just keep redrawing that kind of path because even though you might have done that already a month ago, a week later, that path might have changed. Radically, yeah. That you might also catch yourself not necessarily following the path, right? So yeah, you can, you can make a plan, but it's, it's hard to stay on track.

And so yeah, by doing that for a couple of hours a week, I think I'm able to make those kinds of decisions and, and really we do the more impactful work. .  

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. Whether it was early in your career or now, what books or people have influenced you the most?  

Tom: So, I'm mostly influenced by people that I work with very closely, or close friends of mine, more so than books.

Yeah. I mentioned Patrick who come, he was the one of co-founders of HelloFresh. Mm-hmm. , amazing person. He's actually the, the one who's. taught me to, to think about a dream state and then reverse engineer it. So really first principle approach of trying to break something down and then creating an actual plan and moving executing very tightly.

Now the other person is very good friend of mine. He's the CEO of, of Flyer Labs a very successful company. He has taught me not just to plan a hat. To really seize every opportunity that comes your way, even if it wasn't in your plan, and to basically readjust that plan, all the time while still moving towards that, that goal that you have in mind, right?

So you don't wanna be changing direction every day that's going to result in you not really achieving any of these goals, but you do wanna. realize that the environment and the opportunities change every day. And so to be able to get to that goal, you may have to actually do different things than you had originally anticipated.

So yeah, those two combined, and those two people I think have really influenced me on executing well. Lastly, I'm a software engineer. Originally I was being quite technical and product minded. There's one book that I, I did appreciate in, in terms of becoming a, a leader of, of a team. And, and at some point having a, a company of, of 150 employees Yeah.

Which was, I think it's called 15 commitments of, of conscious leadership are 14 commitments of conscious leadership, . I, I think it's a great book for really being conscious about how you lead and being aware of that there's a certain power dynamic in the position that you feel, and being aware of that helps you, I think, present yourself in a way that will, will help your, your team feel motivated and really do their, their best.

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. I know we're coming to the close, the episode, and I do wanna give you a chance to let us know your websites and your LinkedIns. But before we do that, is there anything I didn't ask you that you wish I did or that you would have liked to answer?

Tom: You know, As a, as a founder, you're going to get a lot of advice from all kinds of people, to be honest. Sometimes all that advice is more NOIs than it is helpful, and so, really, I would say stick to not necessarily your plan, but, but remember your over your higher level strategy and then yeah, opportunistically, keep redefining your plan.

If the feedback you get from folks is, is related to that and actually helpful, then act on it. But don't change your approach. It's your company. There's a reason why it's your company and not theirs.  

Julian: Yeah. Yeah. I love that advice piece because, you're bombarded by so many people, even people in your inner circle, but I, I, I agree.

It's, it's somebody told me once it's like, keep, keep the information tightened up so that it doesn't impact your day-to-day workflow, but, spread the idea. Get, get, all the necessary pieces or feedback that you. But trust yourself. At the end of the day, it's, it's trusting yourself.

Last little bit is where can we find, where can the audience find Bubbles? Where can we support you as a founder? Tell us all your LinkedIns, your, your your, your websites. Where can we start using the product and, and even be a supporter of you as a founder?  

Tom: Yeah. Go to It won't take you more than five minutes to really experience.

So, try to, to, to make some time for that. I think it will really help you eliminate a lot of live meetings. It will help you save a lot of time. So it's use and then you can reach me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Tom Medema or find our contact details on our homepage.

Julian: Amazing. Tom, it was incredible learning about your founder's story and, and kind of how you, connected with your co-founder and are able to launch an incredible company that's really making the, the remote working environment, seamless and also extremely efficient. And I'm one that is not the biggest fan of meetings that are synchronous.

And, and I love thought of, meeting up and, and connecting on way in, in ways that really fit around, our schedules and. Our circadian rhythm and, and things that are naturally, energize our body in, in mind. So it was incredible to talk to you, learn about your company, and I hope you enjoyed yourself on the podcast today.

Tom: Yeah, it was great. Thanks a lot.  

Julian: Of course.

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