What drives people to start a business? For some, it’s the desire for wealth and success. For others, it’s to be their own boss or share their idea with the world. Tobias Schelle started 24Slides with one purpose: to empower creatives in emerging markets and create a better future for them.
With its team of graphic designers, 24Slides helps businesses create impactful presentations, use employee time more productively, and save money. With offices in Denmark, Indonesia, Ukraine, and Peru, it’s a global company that delivers presentation design services with fast turnarounds and affordable prices. But it’s not only about what they do, it’s how they do it. 24Slides showcases the incredible talent of designers in developing economies by giving them the tools to compete in the global market.
24Slides is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary. Fully bootstrapped, it’s been profitable since year one and grown every year. In 2021, the company grew revenue by 41 percent. It now has 255 employees spread across five countries and has helped over 15,000 customers, designing thousands of slides per month.
Finding Your Passion in an Unexpected Place
Native to Denmark, Tobias Schelle has a bachelor’s in economics and a master’s in finance from the Copenhagen Business School. He says, “I spent all of my mental capacity doing well during my bachelor’s degree with the idea that I was going to climb the corporate ladder. My goal was to get excellent grades and then secure a job at an investment bank or something similar. But by the end of my bachelor’s, I realized that I wanted to go a different route.”
During his master’s, Tobias’s priorities changed. He still wanted the degree but no longer focused solely on doing well at university. He didn’t attend any of the classes in person but completed all of the assignments. With the time he gained, he worked on a variety of entrepreneurial projects.
In 2009, Tobias cofounded a company right out of university. The startup offered presentation templates for an affordable fee that professionals could customize themselves. While templates were the startup’s bread-and-butter, customers often requested custom presentations. It was difficult to offer custom graphic design while covering the high salary of its Danish graphic designer. To make it worthwhile, the company had to charge customers at least $400 per presentation – compared to $30 per template.
Tobias says, “That was just too high to be feasible for our customers, so I started thinking about a more affordable way of offering custom presentations. I started looking for graphic designers outside of Denmark. To that end, I created an online competition on 99 Designs with a $500 prize for the winner to see what designers would come up with.”
The contest prompt was to create a template based on an existing presentation. The winner of the contest was a designer from Indonesia. “He was really talented and much cheaper than someone in Denmark. I started to work with him and saw huge potential,” Tobias says.
At one point, Tobias went to Bali to meet up with this designer. “I was drawn to his humility. He was so humble compared to the talent that he possessed. But he needed guidance to create the same value as a European or US graphic designer,” he says.
Tobias wanted to teach this person, and others, exceptional graphic design. He decided to go all-in on this idea and moved to Indonesia in 2012. With the proceeds from the sale of his previous company, Tobias founded 24Slides along with a small team of Indonesian designers. While profit drove his previous projects, this one would use the power of business to address society’s challenges.
Bridging the Gap Across Cultures and Markets
On the service side, 24Slides operates more like an agency than a typical outsourcing company. Tobias says, “To be honest, I don’t think our service is unique. How we do it is what makes us stand out. I’m an entrepreneur and I like to build businesses, but my key motivation is to help people.
“In the beginning, it was a way for me to prove that you can teach someone from an emerging country the skills they need to create value in any market. Ten years ago, there was this perception that you can’t outsource creativity to other countries, only basic tasks like making appointments and sending emails. But I could see that the creative talent in emerging countries was the same as that in the US or Europe. There was just a gap in cultural understanding and I wanted to bridge it.”
This is still Tobias’s motivation today. 24Slides redefines the idea of outsourcing in the global market. It creates unique growth opportunities that give designers the tools to compete in the global market. 24Slides now has 200 employees in Indonesia, 10 people in Ukraine, and an office in Peru with 25 employees.
Tobias says, “It’s about the people. People in these countries have different mindsets and are hungrier for opportunities. At 24Slides, we want to show our customers who is behind their presentation design. We are proud of the development of our team.” 24Slides’ project managers are in direct contact with C-level executives in the US and Europe. There are no intermediaries like other outsourcing companies use.
The founder also sees his company as a way to indirectly teach customers how to communicate with people from different cultures. He says, “This is part of a much larger societal challenge. We need to become better at communicating with others. If we can understand each other even a little bit better, we can create a better world. I think that companies like 24Slides have helped accelerate that. Compared to ten years ago, I can now see that our customers have a more empathetic way of communicating with our employees.”
On an individual level, 24Slides is also changing employees’ lives. Tobias asked himself, “What’s uncommon in an emerging country that would have a big impact on people’s lives?” Health insurance was a big one. In Indonesia, they did not have mandatory public health insurance until recently and even that is very low quality. The preferred option is private insurance, but that’s not usually something people can afford. So, an accident or illness could derail their life completely.
24Slides set up its own health insurance plan, paying into a dedicated fund monthly. It offers the same coverage as private health insurance, but at a lower cost to the company and free for employees. “You cannot get this benefit at any other company in Indonesia. We’re setting a new standard for how to treat your employees,” Tobias says.
24Slides also offers a unique emergency loan program. If there’s an emergency that puts financial stress on an employee, like a flood or a family member passing away, they can anonymously apply for 24Slides’ loan program. If the loan is approved, employees pay it back through their paycheck with a realistic repayment plan – and no interest.
Tobias says, “These benefits are life-changing for our employees. And from a business perspective, it makes financial sense for both sides and creates unparalleled loyalty to the company. Just after we launched the health insurance plan, one of our employees got cancer. We paid for all his treatments and surgeries and he was out of work for over a year, with full pay. Luckily, he recovered. When I met him after his recovery, he said: ‘I will never leave 24Slides, you saved my life.’”
Evolving Your Business Model as Your Startup Grows
When Tobias launched 24Slides, he had around six months to make it profitable before his money ran out. The startup broke even before that deadline. For the first year, paid advertising and affiliate marketing were the primary drivers of growth. Tobias used Google Adwords to ensure prospects found 24Slides through common search terms like custom presentation, design, presentation templates, and so on.
24Slides partnered with presentation template sites for affiliate marketing. These sites agreed to refer people asking for custom designs to 24Slides in exchange for a share of revenue. That created a steady stream of first customers who often returned to 24Slides for more custom presentation design.
While both paid and affiliate marketing allowed 24Slides to acquire customers quickly, it was not a profitable and scalable strategy in the long term. Tobias says that as time went on there was more competition for Google Adwords and it became harder and more expensive to acquire customers. The same applied to affiliate marketing due to the proliferation of template sites.
Fast forward to the present day and 24Slides has completely changed its customer acquisition model. The company had originally focused on people who needed custom design services for a specific project. Tobias says, “We still serve this target audience as they often come to us with a one-off presentation they need help designing. These customers pay a fixed amount per slide, paying us on a project basis. That’s the business model we started with, but there has been a slow progression from individuals to organizations.”
Now, 24Slides targets enterprise companies that have ongoing design needs. It has changed to a subscription model where it sells presentation design as an ongoing service, becoming the preferred partner of that enterprise’s different departments. Now, the majority of 24Slides’ revenue comes from its subscriptions and the rest from its pay-per-project option.
The latter has also helped generate leads for 24Slides. It can reach out to potential customers and get a foot in the door by offering a one-off design project. After experiencing the quality creative work that 24Slides delivers, those one-off customers often subscribe.
This change in business model has been instrumental in the company’s continued growth. Tobias says, “There’s a trend right now towards enabling your workforce to spend their time on the most valuable task possible. Anything that is outside of their core skills can be outsourced, which often includes writing copy and creating graphics. Our shift in target audience and business model aligns itself with that trend.”
Hire for Skill First, Then for Potential
Until 2013, Tobias was in charge of everything from customer service and project management to marketing and operations – except for graphic design. He decided to return to Denmark to set up the strategic units there. Although 24Slides was built to make a difference in the world, it still had to generate revenue as a bootstrapped company.
Tobias learned an important lesson along the way: “You want to avoid having knowledge gaps in your bootstrapped startup. If there’s an area of the business where you don’t have anyone with the competencies in that field, like marketing or operations, then you need to hire someone senior. If you don’t have the budget for it yet, it’s worth waiting until you can hire a person with a lot of experience.
“Often startups hire someone junior because it saves them money. But the mistakes you make as a business because of that are much more expensive than hiring someone at 20 or 30 percent more who knows exactly what needs to be done. After you’ve filled that key competency within your company, you can start hiring for raw talent – and then nourish that talent. I wish I would have known that sooner myself.”
Now, 15 full-time employees work from Tobias’s first (and only) European office in Denmark. After nailing down operations, sales, and marketing, the founder could revert his attention to the “people side” of things. 24Slides recently hired an HR Director and Corporate Social Responsibility Director to make an even bigger impact on its employees.
Tobias has since also moved back to Indonesia to be closer to his growing team (currently 200 employees and counting). But that expansion presented challenges. The founder says, “Since our team is so big, we’ve had to move offices several times. Every time we’re in a building we like, the landlord raises the rent price however much they want for the following period. There aren’t any laws here to protect renters. It was vital for us to solve this problem because we didn’t want it to slowly destroy the company and our team.”
Now, 24Slides has leased 2,000m² of land in Indonesia to build an office that will fit the whole team. Tobias wants to provide the best possible work environment, unparalleled to anything currently available in the country: “We’ve locked in the price for the next 20 years, securing everyone’s future. Imagine a Google or Facebook office, but for 24Slides, in Indonesia.”
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