Can Subscription Save Hipstamatic?
An honest look at the decade-long history of Hipstamatic and our relaunch as a subscription-based product
To catch up, here’s the tldr; on Hipstamatic’s history. Hipstamatic debuted at the end of 2009; it was deemed the best thing since sliced bread. Then Instagram happened. Now we are relaunching the brand, 10 years later.
A Brief History of Hipstamatic
In 2009 the app debuts from our tiny studio in St. Paul, MN. It was just me and Ryan Dorshorst on a cold AF Sunday night after Thanksgiving. We hit the submit button with a broken space heater while wearing fingerless gloves. It took a couple of weeks “In Review” and on December 6, 2009 at around 6p CT, everything about Synthetic Infatuation would change.
A year later Hipstamatic was named App of the Year, and we’ve moved out to San Francisco and purchased a building in SoMa as our new HQ. In 2011, Instagram was the very next App of the Year, and we entered a fight we could never win. By 2012, we had grown to about 25 people and the product line was getting deep. In April Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars. I was on a flight from London to New York and by the time I landed my voicemail was full. Panic mode had set in fully, the media had questions, larger companies wanted to buy us to compete with Facebook, and the United States Government wanted us to tell them why the deal should not go through (for the record, I said it should).
By 2013 the Hipstamatic vs. Instagram story was over, we had lost and everyone had moved on. Meanwhile we were still working to grow our community. We finally launched a ‘social’ product called öggl and attempted a subscription model but we ran into issues with the renewal system, had to compromise, and ultimately that business failed. From 2014–2018 we continued to update and experiment with new things, but nothing really took off. Meanwhile our core business was (and continues to be) sustained by monthly in-app purchases being added to Hipstamatic in the form of new effects for our still very loyal community of users.
Our Business Model(s)
As a company, we have attempted a variety of different ways to monetize our mobile software over the past decade. The default being a paymium model, of which we were the first app outside of the games category to utilize back in 2009 with iOS 3. The company has never taken outside capital, and has been a bootstrapped cash flow positive business since its inception.
Hipstamatic has been a paymium model from the very beginning. It started as a USD $1.99 app purchase with 3 or 4 in-app purchase “HipstaPaks” (sets of new photo filters). As of today the app is $2.99 and has over 100 IAP HipstaPaks available.
Sidenote > There was a brief period where we made Hipstamatic Freemium with the release of v300. It was successful in acquiring nearly 1M new users its first week. Howevet since the app wasn’t designed to be free or have the proper funnels to convert people, the churn and falloff from those users was so bad that we changed the app back paid and had better revenue (though much less new user acquisition).
Swankolab was a darkroom editing app, as Hipstamatic didn’t allow for photo library editing until v300. This too was a Paymium model with IAPs, but we experimented with the concept of a Lifetime Subscription. Again this was 2010, that meant it was a single one-time IAP that unlocked all the filters for $1.99. The plan was to bring the concept to our main app, Hipstamatic, if it worked … it didn’t.
IncrediBooth is a photobooth-like experience. The product debuted in 2010 along side iPhone 4. It was our first product that used the front-facing camera. For the most part it has always been a paymium product (IAP “booths” with new photo effects). However at some point in 2011, we became Apple’s Free App of the Week. Within 24 hours IncrediBooth passed Instagram on the charts and was the #1 Free Photo App and Hipstamatic remained the #1 Paid Photo App. The experiment was successful in terms of downloads. However, those users weren’t converting to paying users quickly enough and we switched back to paid, where it has been ever since.
This was the app that might have hurt our business the most. We knew that we were losing a lot of users to Instagram simply because it was free, so we built D-Series from the ground up to be freemium and “social”. The concept was 24 exposure ‘disposable’ cameras where the camera was shared between friends and once all the exposures were completed everyone got a copy of the images delivered to their iPhone. It was a free download, however you could only create one camera at a time. If you wanted more you had to buy them as consumable purchases.
Apple featured us on launch day and we got a ton of downloads, millions. But there was such a backlash to the idea of “consumable” in-app purchase digital cameras that we were a 1 star app. That hurt. In a panic we blew up the business model, made most of the features free, and were left with huge server bills for the millions of photos being shared. The product wasn’t making even close to these costs, and on top of this, our Hipstamatic sales were now being hurt by D-Series because it was free and had the name “Hipstamatic” on it. Looking back it’s pretty easy to see that it was this product, not Instagram, that did the most damage to our business.
Snap Magazine (2012-Present)
Free w/Ad Support, sorta.
Snap, now known as Scene, is an iPad magazine that we started back in 2012. We had a full editorial staff, New York office, and an army of creative people creating amazing content with our products. Snap was a way to celebrate and showcase the talents of our community. Personally, it’s one of my favorite products we’ve ever created. Snap was free for a long time, though eventually shifted to one-off purchases for each new issue. The readership of Snap between 2012–13 was possibly larger than all of Condé Nast publications combined (Apple even put it on billboards across the country). But we made the mistake of never developing an ad unit or sales team for the publication so it never made much money. Unfortunately because the product isn’t self sufficient its production is always subject to the revenue of other products.
Sidenote > We ended up selling the Snap™ trademark to another company as they IPO’d and we rebranded. tldr; I was filing trademarks for my music startup and caught them registering a bunch of trademarks around ours.🧐
Subscription, sort of
öggl was our first new product after Instagram was sucked into the blue beast. A dear friend of ours, photographer David Loftus, was very much our muse for öggl. Tired of the abusive comments on Instagram, we yet again tried to make a ‘social’ photo app. It was a blend of Hipstamatic and Pinterest, and Tumblr with some Instagram-like things too. Clearly it was focused 😂. We had chosen to make this a subscription product, and were going to use the new auto-renewing subscriptions that were just becoming available on the App Store. Unfortunately we didn’t find out until app submission that Apple wasn’t yet allowing non-media (music, videos, etc) apps to use this new IAP system. That meant we had to build our own manual subscription process that had to remind subscribers each month to repurchase the subscription. Needless to say this wasn’t ideal.
Sidenote > We leveraged the hell out of priate image upload API access Instagram had granted us and secured a partnership that brought öggl to Windows Phone via Nokia. Shortly after, Instagram built a native app for Windows Phone, and Nokia sold to Microsoft.
Started Freemium and ended up Paymium
Cinamatic is something that was worked on for years and years. At one point we had hired an engineer that worked full time on building a processing engine that would allow us to create videos like we did photos. In 2012 we cut our staff down to refocus. Sadly they were part of that cut and the project got shelved for a few years. In 2014 we were finally ready to do video. Video was getting big, Snapchat and Instagram had introduced video around this time. The app launched as free with IAPs, and then at some point we made it a paid app.
Paid, No IAP
The TinType filter has always been one of our favorites. I don’t remember fully, but it might have been at a time when we were considering changing our business to a venture-backed company. Something that had come up time and time again, but we never moved too far in that direction. With TinType we were exploring the concept of turning our love of old camera effects into a fast-fashion like factory of ephemeral apps instead of IAPs in Hipstamatic. Using the Hipstamatic brand and distribution, we could use the hollywood and fast-fashion method of ‘Hit it & Quit it” product development and launch new apps constantly. While the download numbers were really impressive the whole idea really felt slimy and we never pursued venture capital again. Today this is still a fun product, and we update it when we have time, but its not making much revenue.
Hisptamatic v300 (2015-Present)
Freemium then back to Paymium
Hipstamatic 300 was a big and challenging update for us. It came at a time of great growing pains for the product, which are more evident when you look back. We were wrestling with the new flat non-skeumorphic UI design that was ushered in with iOS 7 and also adding in the ability to post-process and edit photos. On top of that we were attempting to make the app free to download in an effort to get more new users. So there was a lot changing at once.
One of the more interesting notes regarding the change in usage of v300 was how dramatic the change in session length was. For the 6 years prior a Hipstamatic user would open the app, shoot a few photos, and close the app. All of these things would happen in about 60 seconds. Then v300 introduced slider buttons and post-processing. After that session length went from 60s to nearly 7 minutes. We took this as a victory. More people were spending more time in our app, that must be a good thing. Looking back I think this was flawed thinking. The mission of Hipstamatic was to help you capture a moment in time. It should be fun, quirky, and quick. Eating away at the time it takes to get the moment captured feels counter productive.
In the end the app reverted back to its tried-and-true paymium model, but again with the trade of of much lower new user acquisition.
Sometimes I wonder if we might be insane, chasing the same problem, over and over and over and over and over… The idea of sharing photos with a small group of people is something that has become our white whale. In 2015 we decide to resurrect the collaborative Disposable Camera concept and try it again, this time use Apple’s CloudKit framework instead of our own servers. The App was free to download, with a single, relatively hidden, IAP to unlock “sketching” on photos and additional filters. We built it … published it … then sorta forgot to tell people? Or maybe no one cared? In the end it didn’t last too long. But it certainly was a fun product. I won’t be surprised when we build it again 🙃.
Other Products and Revenue Streams
In 2010 we introduced PrintLab, a mail order print service, which is very much still around. In 2011 we had a t-shirt line and made iPhone cases which were sold at every Apple Store around the world. For a number of years we developed sponsored HipstaPaks for brands like Levi’s, Nike, Milk, Warner Bros. Many of these were attempts to bring the brand off the iPhone screen and into the hands of people. The analog experience is a cornerstone to our brand and company, and will very much be part of our roadmap moving forward.
The Quieter Years (2016–Sept 2019)
Personally I took a few years away from the company. One thing about the unexpected rise and fall of a company you didn’t know you were starting is that burnout is real and ambitions change and friendships get stressed. The guys at Hipstamatic are my best friends, we knew each other long before we made this app and I put a lot stress and pressure on the people that have worked at Hipstamatic. I haven’t always been a great person to work with, let alone work for. I’d like the think that my time away from the company allowed me to reflect and grow as a human (not literally as I lost 75lbs thanks to my newfound love of Peloton and cycling). In that time I moved to Los Angeles, built a venture backed music startup, advised other companies, invested in a few, and then burned out so hard I moved to a home in the wood of Wisconsin where I’ve been for nearly two years.
During this time my BFF and Co-Founder Ryan has run the business, product, and literally everything else all while being the sole engineer at a tech company that from the outside has always appeared to be much larger than it actually is. He and Mario, Aravind, and Allan have all continued to improve the products to a point where almost every product has been rated 5 stars.
It’s precisely because of all the hard and thankless work that went into the products during this time that we’ve been able to celebrate our 10th birthday as a company this year.
Pied Piper & HBO’s Silicon Valley
Sometime in 2018, an episode aired and made Hipstamatic a punchline about things that used to exist. I’m watching live, and apparently so are a bunch of my friends from the Bay Area. My phone starts going off and everyone is both letting me know about the episode and also asking if Hipstamatic is still around. There is something about this moment that annoyed and inspired me. Yes. The company was still around. You’re my friend, are you not using Hipstamatic every day to take a selfie? WTF? But then I realized that I hadn’t used Hipstamatic in a while either.
Something happens as products age and evolve. Features continue to get added with each update. You build and build and build as more and more feedback comes in, and one day you wake up to a product that no longer solves the thing that made you build it in the first place. That’s the feeling I got when opening Hipstamatic again after all those years.
Rebuilding a Masterpiece
In the summer of 2018 we started breaking down Hipstamatic. The goal was making it simpler to use, faster to capture the moment and get back to the moment. It needed to be easy, like easier than the original Hipstamatic easy. We settled on a point & shoot style camera, but with machine learning to choose the filter automatically. We would spend countless hours chasing down ideas, design changes, and features.
Ultimately we decided to start over from zero and rebuild. Making dramatic changes to the existing product was both too risky and a bad idea (lesson learned from v300 launch). Starting over, while overwhelming for a team of five with only one engineer, was the right thing to do for both us and our users. By starting over it allowed us to focus on both business model and product at the same time. My time away from the company gave me a fresh perspective, and I fought hard internally to make serious changes that focused on being a new user that had never held an actual camera let alone heard of Hipstamatic. I wanted to build something that my 10 year old nephew would be able to use and enjoy with his friends. I gave him a Fujifilm Instax mini at our Christmas party last year and asked him to photograph the whole thing. The results were remarkable.
Hipstamatic X has more literal blood, sweat, and most of all, tears into it than anything I’ve ever worked on. I’m extremely proud of the people that built not only this product, but all the products we’ve created at Hipstamatic over the past decade. Without all those lessons, wins, and failures we wouldn’t have gotten here. I feel like all of us have found a rejuvenation for the brand, and look forward to bringing in another decade of photography with our HipstaFamily.
Simplify & Amplify
These have been our guiding words as we rebuilt Hipstamatic. As you’ve read above, we’ve done a lot of things over the past decade. I feel like the company has been pretty fearless in its willingness to chase big ideas and risk its past in pursuit of future innovation. It hasn’t always worked, and that’s okay.
As we started down the path of “starting over” making something that was easy and joyful to use was the core mission of the redesign. Of course we are a technology company at heart, and the massive amount of progress that Apple has made in both hardware and developer frameworks over the past decade was equally inspiring for us. While our app is a simplification of old analog camera experiences, under the hood is a fairly impressive stack of technology.
The addition of machine-learning not only makes the future of this product more personalized to each user, but it also achieves the mission of making the camera simple. The ultimate goal would be to shoot a photo that was the perfect representation of the photographer’s feeling of each moment. and ML is certainly a step in that direction.
Because we aren’t that technically advanced yet, we did include features for lightweight editing. For these the mission was speed. We don’t want to have a product that sucks minutes out of someone’s day. Life isn’t perfect, and photos don’t need to be either. The result of social media, specifically Instagram, as been a decrease in creativity. I think that is an unexpected result of a generation that has such a high visual IQ. Perhaps the basic human need to ‘fit in’ is just being amplified as we all try to recreate things we see instead of seeing our own new things. I don’t think spending five minutes pulling sliders helps.
One of our biggest challenges in redesigning Hipstamatic was having the hard conversations about what we ARE and are NOT as a company. It turns out that we have no business trying to build a social network. We are NOT building products for ‘professional’ photography. Meaning if you need manual controls over aperture, exposure, white balance, etc., we won’t have the right product for you. Even as we dove deeper into the resurrection of analog it became clear that we are NOT historic preservationists, we aren’t scanning and measuring grain of old expired out of production film. (If that is what someone wants there is a company that is attempting to do just that, and personally I think they are pretty good at it.) Perhaps its the collective art school background of the team, but I think we are very much inspired by old photographs and cameras, yet we are hoping to build something new. A product that feels familiar but is often unexpected.
We are quirky, novel, and imperfect. That is exactly why we have such a loyal and demanding user base. Most importantly we need to develop products and features that are FUN. It’s just that reason that we didn’t follow the design trends of flat UI. Hipstamatic needs to be skeumorphic. It has to be emersive. It has to be different, it has to be retro.
On October 1, 2019, we released Hipstamatic X
The app is a separate download and has a subscription which unlocks our entire archive of IAPs and some new features. We have big plans to make it unlock everything across all of existing and future products, but that will take some time. We have so many challenges ahead of us to get to where we hope to end up, but as of today, I couldn’t be happier with how far this product and the team behind it has come.
We are moving to a subscription business model for a couple of reasons. First, Paymium hasn’t worked on the App Store for a long time. We’ve learned this (see above). Second, subscription is a lot simpler. Its simple for us, and its simple for new users. Do you want to join our tribe? Subscribe. Most importantly, if we are successful it allows us to build products and features for each member equally. There will be some you use, others you ignore … Like Amazon Prime, you pay for the free shipping but one day you realize you like their video product, or music service, or one of a billion other things.
Moving to subscription allows us as a company to support not just the most popular products and features but also the niche ones. We certainly have our challenges ahead of us, starting with how to communicate this idea to a loyal user base, many of whom have been paying monthly for years already. As I write this the feedback has already been pouring in. Like anything its been polarizing. We’ve had many angry emails and one star review regarding the subscription. At the same time we are encouraged by the blind faith that thousands of users have already purchased a Lifetime Membership without fully knowing what the future of that means (since we haven’t communicated all the future benefits of the subscription). It puts the pressure on us as a company to deliver for those users. I’m excited to continue developing Hipstamatic Maker’s Club as an essential product for any photographer regardless of skill level.
Moving to subscription gives us the ability to really make privacy a key feature. This one was massive for us. The lack of transparency in how most Silicon Valley companies collect and share your data has long been counter to Hipstamatic’s values. Moving to a subscription model has allowed us to cut out any sharing of our users data, except for whatever Apple might collect from the device itself. And honestly we trust Apple with data much more than any of the other Titans of Tech, since their business is selling hardware and services, not data for ads. For us this means no servers, no feeds, no photo sharing, no google analytics. The only way we know what photos you take are when you share them outside of our product.
We may not have sold to Facebook for a billion dollars, nor are we one of the tech unicorns about to IPO, and that’s okay. I used to feel bad when people in Silicon Valley would call Hipstamatic a ‘Lifestyle’ business and use it as if it were a slur … My response today? Whatever man, it’s not that serious … We aren’t here to change the world … we’ve left the tainted bubble and dropped all of the god-complex that comes with being a Silicon Valley darling. We are exactly that kind of company we need to be right now. The company’s name is literally a mashup of the words “hipster” and “automatic” … saving lives was never going to be our business. Our job is simple … make it fun for people to capture their life moments. I see some of our competitors taking venture capital and sounding way too serious about photo filters, and changing the world one preset at a time. I’m sorry, perhaps I’m jaded, but I just don’t share that view any more(Yes, in the past I’ve said silly things like that too). I’d like to think I’ve grown as an entrepreneur and leader in the past decade, but who knows. I’m at the very least a tiny bit more self-aware.
Time will tell if the shift to subscription will be success or just another story we write in our history. The one thing I know for sure is that there aren’t many app companies older than Hipstamatic, and we intend to still be here in another 10 years. I’d rather build a Phoenix than a Unicorn any day.
Because, Photos Just Wanna Have Fu-un!
Lucas Allen Buick