We’re Selling Koken

The photography content management system is looking for a new home.


UPDATE (September 15, 2015): We’re thrilled to report that Koken has agreed to be acquired by NetObjects, a company with considerable experience developing, marketing and distributing website publishing software. You may read more about this acquisition in this blog post.


Five years ago we hatched a crazy idea. Our little company of three was going to build a new content management system from scratch. We had built a smaller CMS once before with SlideShowPro, but this time we set out to build something bigger and better. We envisioned a new type of CMS designed for managing and publishing photography-based web sites. A system that was powerful, beautiful, and extendable through plugins and site themes. A system that allowed photographers to publish photos to their own personal web site without leaving Lightroom. And best (or perhaps craziest) of all, we wanted to give it away, for free.

We knew from the beginning that creating an entirely new CMS was going to be a huge challenge. Nearly everything would be created from scratch, from the back-end to the front-end. We wanted everything in the app to be dynamic, drag-and-drop, fluid and fast without any page reloads. Searching, filtering, tagging, categorizing, grouping, publishing — all of it had to feel natural, easy and intuitive. We dug in and got to work.

Then along the way, something amazing happened. We actually built it.

Koken’s Library interface — Screenshot is from my own personal photography site.

Borrowing its name from ancient stagehands in traditional Japanese theater, Koken was a true labor of love. It was a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity for three misfit web designers and developers to exploit every ounce of available talent, knowledge and experience we’d accumulated over the years. We were focused completely on craft and the satisfaction that comes from giving something your all. We weren’t out to build just another content management system, but rather a complete system built for and around photography, through and through. Like a photographer chasing the perfect exposure and composition, we experimented, refined, and labored over every detail to make it the ideal photo management and publishing platform in the self-install market.

Work began in late 2010, and by a year later we felt we had something worth sharing. A select pool of users were invited to participate in a private beta, which was the first time anyone outside of our small circle were even aware of the product. We fixed bugs, improved features, and by mid-2012 were ready for a public beta. In the following couple of years we continued to refine Koken’s underlying architecture, launch new features, create new themes and plugins, listen to user feedback, and provide free technical support late into the night for a community which was expanding by 100 new installations a day.

In the spring of 2014 we launched the Koken Store — finally fulfilling our long-term goal of offering an integrated marketplace for themes, plugins and add-ons (both free and paid). We developed new plugins for importing Vimeo and Instagram content, image protection, watermarks, plus two completely new themes.

After nearly four years without a revenue stream we were finally earning something. We weren’t popping champagne corks by any means, but at least we had cash coming through the door and had proven to ourselves that our risky freemium business model might actually work.

In the months thereafter (late 2014) we began focusing on our next series of goals. We knew we had to create more themes and plugins and implement new features, but we also wanted to launch a cloud-based version of Koken to increase revenue and expand our audience. We also wanted to ramp-up our customer service with a dedicated agent or two, premium support and possibly offer paid installations as well. Incorporating third party themes and photography products into the Koken Store was also high on our list.

After years of intense development, the months following the Koken Store launch was the first opportunity any of us had had to lay off the throttle and think about our lives and families outside of Koken. We had achieved so much, and had worked like mad to get there, but in a strange way we felt like we’d only just begun. Independently, and at different times, each of us assessed our day-to-day lives and arrived at similar conclusions — it was time for us to move on, pursue new career opportunities, and pass the torch to someone new who could give Koken and its community the attention they deserve.


As painful as it is for us to say, our chapter with Koken has ended. But for someone else it could be just the beginning. That’s why we’re looking for just the right company or group of individuals to acquire Koken and all related assets to bring new energy and investment to the platform.

In the interests of openness and transparency, we’ve compiled the following summary of usage statistics, revenue and technical specifications.

Stats and sales

Koken is bootstrapped, privately owned and profitable.

  • ~80,000 total Koken installations since our first beta in 2011.
  • Of that total, ~40,000 Koken installations since the Koken Store launched in April, 2014 (which means nearly half of all installations were last year).
  • ~100 new installations created daily.
  • $12,000 in gross revenue per month, on average.
  • ~$200 in fixed monthly costs to operate (AWS, Desk, site hosting).
  • ~65% of new installs visit the Koken Store and install at least one additional theme/plugin. Of those, ~10% purchase a premium item.
  • ~25k subscribers to the Koken email newsletter list.

Assets

  • Core CMS featuring a robust photo management interface, essay and custom page editor, web site previewing and styling through a simple settings panel (no HTML experience needed).
  • 8 responsive themes, 3 of which are premium at $60 each.
  • 15 plugins, 5 of which are premium at $20-$35 each.
  • Free Lightroom Publish Service Plugin for automatically publishing collections of images to the web without leaving Lightroom.
  • Complete customer knowledge base and service portal powered by Desk.
  • Integrated Koken Store where themes and plugins may be purchased, downloaded and installed from inside the CMS.
  • Supported by all major hosting providers including MediaTemple, GoDaddy, Dreamhost, InMotion, DigitalOcean, and more.

Technical specifications

  • Koken itself is a single-page application built with common, open source tools familiar to many developers including PHP, MySQL, jQuery, and Knockout.js.
  • The Koken Store is a custom e-commerce application built using Laravel, Braintree merchant account, DigitalOcean hosting.
  • Easy to use local development environment built on Vagrant, Docker, and git.
  • Custom-built “Lens” PHP template engine for publishing web sites and responsive, Retina-compatible images.
  • RESTful, JSON API (built with PHP using CodeIgniter 2) that manages all backend data for Lens, the admin console and plugins.
  • Command-line tool for easy publishing of all product updates.

Future opportunities

We believe — with the right development team and leadership — Koken could be even more popular and profitable. We foresee a number of growth opportunities for the platform, including:

  • Offering Koken as part of a cloud-based subscription service.
  • Backend photo management and site publishing system for a mobile photography app.
  • Paid, premium customer support packages for customers who need expedited support.
  • Design, develop and sell additional site themes for a wider variety of options and increased revenue.
  • Expanding the integrated Koken Store beyond Koken add-ons by offering Lightroom presets, prints, photo books, photography accessories, etc.
  • All of the above.

Make us an offer

If interested in acquiring Koken, or if you have questions concerning the sale, please email me (Todd Dominey) at todd@koken.me. Serious inquiries only. We are absolutely committed to finding Koken — and our existing user base — a suitable team that believes in the product and will continue to grow and expand the platform.

If you’ve never seen Koken up close you may download it here. Takes only a few minutes to setup with your favorite web hosting provider.


What will happen to Koken in the meantime?

This announcement will not harm anyone’s installation of Koken or their web sites. External services including the Koken Store and new installation downloads will continue to operate as normal. The minute anything changes regarding new ownership we’ll let you know.


Closing thoughts

We’re so incredibly proud of the work that’s gone into Koken, and can’t thank our customers enough for supporting and believing in the product. We will do everything we can to ensure this isn’t the final chapter, but rather the start of something new and exciting for us all.

— Todd Dominey, Product Designer and Co-Founder