Phil Ydens is the Vice President of Engineering at Adobe Systems. Back in 2015, he estimated that there could be approximately 2.5 trillion PDF documents in the world. However, that estimate now feels both understated and outdated; four years on and with millions of additional internal documents that never see the outside world, it’s almost impossible to calculate the actual enormity of a file format that is truly omnipresent. It’s also difficult to think of anything that could replace it.
Foleon was founded by Daan Reijnders and Joost Galama to do just that, and more. It’s a powerful, intuitive tool that allows for the creation of interactive web-based content for both internal and external use. Reijnders and Galama saw that it wasn’t the amount of content produced that was making it hard for companies to be noticed, but content simply wasn’t being made to suit contemporary users. It needed to be visual, measurable, interactive, shareable, usable and tailored to a variety of devices.
If we take these needs of the modern content tool, the PDF seems more and more like an ancient relic; it’s inflexible, unimaginative and repetitive. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its place, and we have to take our hats off to the thousands of PDF documents we’ve all used. But it’s time for something new. An updated way to produce distinctive newsletters, white papers, brochures, proposals, reports, and digital magazines. The list goes on. Foleon underlines the fact that even if there are established ways of doing things, they aren’t necessarily the best. Reijnders and Galama, along with the rest of their team, are in part engineering an exciting shift away from the present and into the near future.
We talked with Daan about the ideas behind Foleon, the growth of both the business and himself and his thoughts about the future of the product.
Let’s start at the beginning, how did Foleon start?
Before Foleon I had a creative agency that created digitized, web-based publications, but when the iPad arrived in 2010, we started looking for a way to make them more responsive to this trend of an increasingly mobile dominated space. However, we couldn’t find a tool to do so which led to my co-founder Joost and I building a solution, that’s how we started. When we onboarded the first clients they actually all saw different opportunities in how to use us, so the number of cases where such a tool could be used exploded. It started with magazines and expanded to brochures, reports, journals, handbooks, job vacancies and more. It became more and more clear that there was, and is, room in the world for a different channel; you have your website and your email, and we are somewhere in between. It’s for all the content that is too specific for a website but too extensive for an email. That’s the kind of content people create using Foleon.
You used to be called Instant Magazine, why did you change your name?
It was primarily because we were suddenly being used for so many different use cases. Every time we did outbound reaches or when people found our website through searching for ‘interactive annual report’ or something similar, they found Instant Magazine but thought “I don’t need a magazine, I need an annual report”. They didn’t realize that our platform could do that. By changing our name, we encapsulated the broader potential use of our product.
What are the main reasons for people using Foleon?
I think the most common reason why people start using our tool is that they obtain the ability to create communication assets themselves, there’s a sense of autonomy that comes with using Foleon and a lack of dependence on others, whether that’s a designer or design agency. They can be in control. And two, the mobile-friendly character of our platform; it’s interactive, it’s more impactful and its readability on the devices that we spend most of our time on is really high, so we see a massive increase in time spent on content. On average a website is given around fifty-two seconds of attention, but with Foleon on average (across approximately 20,000 publications) it’s around four minutes. This is what we see as one of the most important values to using our tool, and it’s something people appreciate.
Adobe founded the PDF in the 1990s and is now the default file format for countless business and personal operations when it comes to sharing information. Is their dominant position a mountain for you to climb?
Yes, it’s a big thing if you say you want to replace the PDF! But I don’t see us replacing it in all use cases. I don’t see our platform ever as some form of a plugin to Microsoft Word where you could have a word document and convert it to a Foleon. Instead, we’re mainly focused on marketing assets; all of that content that really matters and you want to be performing at its best, those kinds of assets should be made using Foleon rather than as a static PDF. The PDF was in part created to provide a uniform file type that could be opened on both an Apple and a Windows computer. Importantly, it started off before mobile devices existed; it was never meant to be opened on a mobile device but it still is. That’s where Foleon differs from PDF documents and why in most cases, it can replace them.
Foleon is growing at an exceptionally fast rate, now operating in Amsterdam, London, and New York. In parallel with this business growth, personal growth is essential. How you do try and maintain personal growth as an entrepreneur?
What I like most about my role is that it’s always evolving. If I did something similar every year, I think I would become bored. When it was just the two of us at the start of this venture, I was Head of Support and then I was Head of Sales, Head of Marketing, Head of Finance, taking on everything at the same time which was a learning process in itself. Then we started hiring new people and you have to be able to pass along your approach to new colleagues which is yet another skill to be learned. Then we started expanding abroad which came with even more new things to learn, so it’s always changing. Valuing and using my network helps me to do this; I try to learn a lot from peers and I’m well connected with other entrepreneurs who have made the same steps, so they can help me with my own journey.
I’m also big into coaching. Initially, I had a business coach that helped me with the mental struggles of being an entrepreneur, someone who could give me advice and tactics on how to get the most out of myself. Later on, I started using coaches who were focused on a topic related to a specific time in the business’s growth. If you want to hire someone, you have to be a little knowledgeable about the position you’re hiring them for. I had coaches that explained everything about that process and the questions I should ask. And now I have a coach that is more focused on marketing; he comes from a successful scaleup so there is a lot I can learn from him. There’s always a parallel between the growth in the business and personal growth.
Foleon is in tune with larger societal trends; it’s a product that has originated from people increasingly wanting visual, measurable, usable content that can be made, consumed and shared anywhere, anytime. How do you see Foleon keeping up with trends in the future?
We’re evolving every year as a platform and we’re putting a lot of our investment into the product itself. Because there are so many trends which move quickly, there is a lot you can go after. However, for us the next step is personalization and being part of a bigger marketing ecosystem. We’re investing more and more into integration with marketing automation platforms such as Eloqua and Marketo so then we have the ability to personalize content.
I’ve been saying this for years now, but some of our clients still have issues in making decisions to personalize their communication assets and information overload is becoming more of an issue, especially with younger generations. The attention span nowadays on branded assets is eight seconds (which is less than a goldfish), we don’t read anymore but instead we just absorb eight seconds of content, and based on that we make decisions. That’s a trend and a challenge for us, so we certainly believe in relevancy and personalization and we see the importance of it growing.
An example of this is Volvo created a brochure about winter tires about three years ago using our platform and they had winter tires for each model. When we started distributing the brochure the idea was to only include the winter tires that would match the car you had. If you drive a Volvo V40, it wouldn’t make sense be offering tires for a Volvo XC90, because it’s not relevant to you. But clients still find it scary to eliminate content because they have always been in the mindset that says, “but if we show how great a Volvo XC90 is, people might consider buying that one”. But that’s not the case and that’s why we see personalized content as a trend that will gain momentum in the future.
Foleon appears to have met the increasing demand for such a product at the right time, but what have been the main difficulties for the business?
Scalability is always difficult. If you have a small team, it’s easier to learn and you hear feedback from clients directly. In one ear you hear the support team answering questions whilst in the other you hear the CSM team talking, and with that learning you can adapt quickly. With the rapid growth we’ve had (there are now 110 people in the team), it’s becoming more complex to create one version of the current status of where we are and where we are succeeding and not. It’s harder to pin down the causes of things we want to do better.
Looking forward, what motivates you about the future of Foleon?
It’s always the product. I’m very much product orientated; if we don’t hit our targets, I can get frustrated but if we have a turning client it’s even worse. I want our tool to be used in the best possible ways, in the ways I know it can be used. In the early days, I went through all of the publications made using Foleon and gave advice to customers on how to improve them, how to make them look better and if people didn’t get the results they expected, I would always think hard about solutions. I’m always thinking about the product, sometimes too much!
On the other hand, it’s the team itself that motivates me. If the team is performing well, if people are learning new abilities so they can push ideas and develop themselves personally, that’s amazing. And seeing the inter-personal interactions between team members is a real driver. We have colleagues from all over the world; Venezuela, Canada, New York, Turkey, India, Ukraine, Germany, Sweden and more. It’s a melting pot of cultures and personalities and it’s great to see them working together and enjoying what we do.