Business, like love, can be mysterious.
You may think you will spend your life with a particular customer or romantic partner, only to discover there's someone better out there for you. Consider the history of Olapic.
Today Olapic provides the technology that allows brands, such as Coach, Pepsi, and New Balance, to turn customer photos and videos into shoppable images. Sourced from Instagram and Twitter, these images stand out as being very different from the de rigueur gloss and glamour of marketing photos, showing featured products in the wild. It seems to be working: With Olapic, brands have been able to increase their sales by about 10%, and in the case with New Balance, the number can reach as high as 39%.
But it took some time—and company pivots—before Olapic carved its niche in crowdsourced images for e-commerce. While studying at Columbia Business School, Jose de Cabo, Pau Sabria, and Luis Sanz worked on a photo app that aggregated wedding photos from various sources into one place. The concept was there, but they weren't married to the idea.
When the three Spaniards graduated in the spring of 2010, they applied for a program with the New York Daily News, which saw potential in adapting the wedding app for news. Olapic would become a way for them to crowdsource user-generated photos by tags. The newspaper incubated the product, which was subsequently also picked up by People magazine, Time, and Vice, among other media outlets. "Here our rationale was that media companies need fresh content," de Cabo tells Fast Company. "They want to be social as well and have that social content coming in, and we can be that fabric, that technology making it happen."
Eventually, the trio started noticing people using Olapic in ways they hadn't expected. "People weren't just sharing photos of things they found newsworthy, but they were also taking photos of things they love," de Cabo recalls. That got them thinking about the retail space and adding a transactional element to the product. "We learned a lot from powering sites like People, the New York Daily News, and the Los Angeles Times. It was a great playground for understanding photos and engagement," says de Cabo.
By the summer of 2012, Olapic shifted its focus to brands and e-commerce. De Cabo hesitates to call this shift a pure pivot because the company still serves its media clients, but it seems clear that the future of Olapic is with brands. New clients come in from the retail side, and its marketing and sales teams primarily serve that business. A year ago, Olapic had three brand clients, but its roster is now closer to 90 clients. In one of its most high-profile uses to date, Pepsi tapped the startup to crowdsource photos for a Super Bowl commercial in 2012.
Investors have been supportive of the change in direction. "They all told us that they where investing in the team and on our vision around extracting value from photos and videos," de Cabo said, noting initial investors Great Oaks and Scout Ventures participated in a $5 million series A round in July. "Ben [Lin, managing partner] from Great Oaks, the investor who led our seed round when we were powering media companies, told us from the beginning that he saw more potential on commerce than on publishers. It took us a few months to validate the opportunity but he was right."
De Cabo attributes several factors that helped take a humble wedding app in a new, ambitious direction. Jumping to retail was easy to justify as an analytics-driven company, as it could show retailers the precise impact Olapic has on sales. As a result, the company is exploring a new pricing structure for brands, moving from an annual licensing fee to one with a base fee and variable pricing that's dependent on how much additional revenue Olapic helps generate. "Any company needs to find where they can add the most value to customers," he says. "That's the rationale we've been following for moving from vertical to vertical. It's all around the same theme of photos and videos and visual communication. We saw visual commerce as where we can add more value to clients."
There is perhaps something that's even more important than data: the right business partners. Though de Cabo says the shared language and cultural background helped bring the three cofounders together, Olapic wouldn't have been possible without trust. "It's something deeper than nationality for me," he said. "There's some people that you can go to war with, and you know they have your back and you have theirs."