Greg Lutze and Joel Flory didn’t set out to create an app. Despite the embarrassment of riches generated by a passel of solitary programmers, the founders of VSCO had no intention of dipping into a get-rich-quick scheme. They were doing quite nicely nurturing a little startup peddling digital editing tools to the likes of professional photographers and graphic designers, thank you.
Launching VSCO Cam—and version 2.0 this June—changed everything. The free iOS app offers a selection of presets (i.e., photo filters) and simple editing tools all rolled neatly into a mini social platform. Users can keep their photo "grids" within the app or share their favorites on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Weibo.
With over a million downloads in the first week, the app’s drawn a massive following that goes way beyond professional photographers. Thanks to a hashtag (#vscocam is added automatically when photos are taken or manipulated in its app), amateur photographers are also uploading their postage stamp-sized oeuvres at an astounding rate. Instagram alone boasts over 4 million VSCO-tagged images.
That VSCO (which stands for Visual Supply Company and is pronounced VisCo) even became a success in terms of generating revenue and staying cash flow positive comes as a bit of a surprise to both Lutze and Flory. But they both believe the social component is driving their business to new heights.
The two met years ago when Flory stumbled across Lutze’s design work on a website for Flory’s favorite band, Jimmy Eat World. He approached Lutze to do the branding for his father’s construction business, then came back for his own wedding and portrait photography business. The pair eventually decided to pool their talents and start a side business offering WordPress site templates for photographers in March of 2011.
Keeping their day jobs took care of living expenses, but they still needed to finance this new enterprise. So they dug into what they did best: offering photography workshops to the wedding industry. "That was our seed round," Flory tells Fast Company, flashing a big smile, "Sweat equity in the truest sense."
Site templates quickly gave way to thinking about building an entire platform. Around this time, Lutze brought on Zach Hodges, "our mad scientist," who helped them brainstorm better ways to generate revenue. Says Flory: "We went to creating tools that we would actually use as photographers and that’s where VSCO was born." Their first products were film emulation tools for Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. "From there it just took off," he says, adding that they’ve been cash flow positive ever since.
With that success came an inevitable question: how to scale? "Instead of buying ads, we decided to create a tool to connect our community," Lutze says. That tool became the first iteration of the VSCO Cam app, which quietly debuted in the App Store in 2012 for $.99 a download. With Version 2.0, VSCO is dipping into a freemium model, but the two say that having a diversified business offering professional tool packs that cost about $120 keeps things running.
"A lot of times people say, ‘you do such a good job marketing,’" says Lutze, "That’s not an accurate statement." He maintains that coming from creative backgrounds, he and Flory can tell their customers "love the process of creating." It’s up to VSCO then to cater to that.
Flory points to VSCO’s online "journal," which he says has always been an integral part of their offering. It’s a stunning, visual blog that’s been carefully curated by the VSCO team to showcase how a variety of photographers from all over the world use their tools. New York-based Matt Furman, who just happened to shoot Fast Company’s May cover feature on J. Crew, was featured recently.
"We realized from day one who allows VSCO to exist," Flory says, "Our users. We are community funded and we are going to let people have a say in where this goes."
Is the community clamoring for VSCO to topple Instagram? "We never had any intention of building VSCO to be bought," says Flory, no doubt referring to the billion-dollar gambit Facebook took on Instagram. Instead, he says, they set up the business to be sustainable, and that means continuing to offer more than just an app—even though that can be lucrative. Apple’s shelled out more than $10 billion in royalties to developers in the last five years.
"We run an old school rather than [new technology] startup," explains Lutze, "We make products and sell products. The creative integrity of the brand is more important."
Not that you’ll find either one of them flying into an artistic rage if a preset isn’t used by a customer the way they’d envisioned it. To this reporter’s jaundiced eye, Lutze and Flory aren’t too precious about the results. Rather, like others pushing the maker movement forward (Hi, Brit Morin!) they both seem to genuinely delight in seeing the results of others’ creations with VSCO Cam.
"We really do love film," says Flory, "We geek out on a lot of the qualities of it and I wish everyone had the ability to shoot film." Since they can’t, VSCO Cam comes close to imbuing a mobile photo (even those weirdly proportioned shoe selfies) with that timeless quality.
Next up, VSCO Cam for Android. Though Flory and Lutze aren’t giving a firm date for its release yet ("Android is really important and we want to do it right"), they do say they’ll be starting small with just three devices including the Samsung Galaxy S4, Samsung Galaxy S3, and the HTC One. Nokia Lumina with its outrageous 41 megapixels will have to wait, says Flory. "This is what can we reasonably manage and accomplish," he adds, "We don’t want to launch what we can’t support."
"Megapixels aren’t everything," Flory muses. "The beauty is as hardware improves, the average person taking a photo with their phone wins. That really excites us."
[Images courtesy of VSCO]