Hello 2014, Goodbye Consumer Photo Internet Service
After spending 7 of the last 10 years founding startups in the consumer photo internet space I’m saying goodbye.
I’m Jaisen, an entrepreneur working on Trovebox, a multi-user whitelabeled photo service for businesses.
My decade long rendezvous with building photo sites for consumers started while I was an engineer at ClearChannel. The year was 2004 and my friend and co-worker pitched me his idea at First Watch for what would become FotoFlix (see FotoFlix via the Wayback Machine).
The Internet looked a lot different back then. No one had heard of Flickr or Facebook. Digital cameras were starting to become popular. Just a handful of people had smartphones. No one was carrying a photo capture device with them at all times.
But the writing was on the wall and the potential was enormous. We started working on FotoFlix and quickly launched to the public. I wish I had more than just these screenshots. The stories you could tell using the slideshow editor was as good as what you can do today, a decade later.
We started seeing other photo sites crop up and decided to quit our jobs. The VC environment in Cincinnati, Ohio isn’t anything to write home about. We successfully received a few small business grants and pitched to every local angel investor we could find. There was a lot of interest but the investors couldn’t get past there not being a physically tangible product. Much of the people with money in Cincinnati came from P&G or Krogers.
As far as we knew things were going well. We were signing up more and more users. Some of them were upgrading and paying us via Authorize.net (puke). And we were the first photo site to let you post photos directly to Blogger using some weird RSS/Atom contraption.
It wasn’t until 2006 that we secured financing. $500,000 from one person. With that we embarked on a pretty major relaunch that included a name change. Later that year we launched Photagious (see Photagious via the Wayback Machine). Thankfully I have more than just these photos of my Photagious days. The source is up on Github.
We survived until 2008. Shutting the service down was a very sobering experience. We received a lot of emails from customers who were sad to see us shut down but the most painful email came one year after we shut down from a customer who didn’t see our shutdown email.
Subject: PLEASE help me with PHOTAGIOUS account
Its all I had for the last 5 years of my life, all the memories...
At the time I wasn’t sure what all went wrong. I was certain we made mistakes but I didn’t know which yet. And I didn’t realize just how much luck is involved in building a start-up. The type of luck you do have some control over.
Anyways, I had recently gotten married and after shutting the company down we packed up and moved out west. I spent the next 3 years at Yahoo! detoxing from start-up life.
I was still working on ideas that I had once I got home from work and on the weekends. With another friend I launched a peer-to-peer textbook rental platform and a student collaboration service as a Facebook app. I never quit my job to pursue them though.
In 2010 I had my first child and found myself taking tons of photos. Photos which I was most interested in preserving for a couple decades. Briefly, I built a mobile app that made it easy to document my son as he grew up. It might even be in the app store still, who knows? I did find my post to Hacker News for it.
It was around this time that pieces of a puzzle my mind had been working on subconsciously had started to fit into place. Very quickly I realized that the preservation problem I faced was finally solvable.
The first thing I did was to ask folks if they’d pay for such a service. Fellow hackers on HN were mixed. I submitted it to Kickstarter and they approved it. So I had the validation method I needed. If people would pre-pay for this type of online photo service then there’s probably a viable market.
I realized quickly that it felt much different this time around. I wanted to solve a very specific problem and solving that required me to make unconventional decisions in the start-up and business world. I couldn’t do this if the work wasn’t open sourced. Data ownership and portability sort of require that the underlying software be open source. It also meant that leaving the service would be trivial since the concept of ‘lock-in’ was a conflict.
So I quit my job and launched a Kickstarter project for Trovebox (formerly OpenPhoto). It raised the target of $25,000 at a time when no project had raised more than $1,000,000 yet. I got press coverage from the usual suspects; Techcrunch, ReadWrite and The Next Web.
With the help of the open source community we launched 3 months after starting. A few months later Patrick joined me as a co-founder. A ton happened in the two years which would follow. We gained a loyal user base, continued to get press and were in final negotiations to get photo.com.
In September of 2012 I received a fellowship from The Shuttleworth Foundation. Prior to that I’d gone one year without a paycheck and Patrick had gone about 6 months. The foundation has been an incredible partner, shares our goals and has been supportive in every major decision we’ve made.
The most recent decision started in May of 2013 when we saw that we weren’t getting to the scale we needed and the revenue growth just wasn’t there. I’d been down the acquire users now and worry about revenue later path before. This venture couldn’t be that.
In November of 2013 we flipped the switch and are now focused on selling our service businesses. We talked to countless people between May and November and our confidence in the switch grew with each conversation. Coincidentally another photo start-up in a similar space came to the same realization about the consumer internet space.
That leads me to today; December 31, 2013. I’ve tapped out of the consumer photo space. I can’t say I won’t return though. Each time I arrive I do so equipped with more experience and knowledge. But for 2014 we’re going after businesses!