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After Prescient Pivot, Aviary Tools Now Seeing 10 Million Photos A Month

In September, Aviary launched a free suite of photo-editing tools that could be embedded in any iPhone or Android app, enabling developers to transform their apps essentially into mini-mobile-Photoshops. Today, the New York-based startup unveiled the second version of its software development kit, or SDK, complete with new auto-enhance tools, filters, stickers, a fresh redesign—not to mention plans for monetization.

When Aviary first took off years ago, however, it looked nothing like the democratized photo-editing service of today. Aviary originally launched as a Flash-based web editor, but after a prescient pivot, the changes have paid off: Aviary is now growing unique users by more than 50% each month, and its tools are helping to edit more than 10 million photos per month across 300 mobile and web partners. "Probably the most difficult thing in the world was pivoting," says CEO Avi Muchnick. "We had growth, and we had a rabid, loyal audience. If you switch your direction, you might lose the value you've already created."

Aviary's new SDK is beneficial for both users and developers. For consumers, Aviary's embeddable tools will allow them to add myriad upgrades to their photos: effects, cropping, rotating, sharpening and blurring, redeye reduction, teeth whitening and blemish removal, adjustment of color, saturation, and contrast, as well as the ability to add stickers and draw on top of images. For developers, it takes only minutes to bake this functionality into their apps, with a fully customizable UI. Aviary partners now include startups ranging from Pixable to Picplz to Pic Stitch.

Last year, "pivoting" became one of the biggest buzzwords in Silicon Valley. It seemed every startup was performing near overnight (miracle) product pivots to find success. But it wasn't until many of these entrepreneurs smacked into a dead end that they changed direction—Instagram, for example, started as a very different app called Burbn, which dealt with game mechanics and the concept of future check-ins, before cofounder Kevin Systrom realized the power of one-click filters.

But for Muchnick and team, the original Aviary Flash-based web editor was seeing strong growth, and boasted more than a million users. "The faster you fail at something, the easier it is to just pick up and do something new," Muchnick says. "But the fact that we had this huge amount of traffic forced us not to pivot as quickly. When you are in this limbo zone, where you actually have some traction, and you're waiting to see if it's going to get better and better, you are really screwing yourself over."

It's a longstanding problem for startups and large corporate giants—an issue covered in depth in books such as The Innovator's Dilemma and Only the Paranoid Survive. When is the right time to pivot before it's too late? For Foursquare-competitor Gowalla, which, like Aviary, was seeing jumps in its user base, the pivot was almost an instance of too little, too late, despite the fact it had millions of users. "It wasn't enough—we were never seeing this hockey stick-like growth you need in a startup," Muchnick says of Aviary's original user base. "We went into the photo-editing business with the assumption our target audience was millions of people because Photoshop had tremendous usage and everyone likes to edit their own photos. But we realized we weren't hitting that consumer market, and we never would with our existing tools."

The next step, he says, is figuring out the proper time to implement that pivot. For a company like Netflix, which smartly saw the trend that its future was in digital and not with DVDs, the prescient pivot perhaps came too soon (or was poorly communicated to consumers), with subscriber complaints creating a PR nightmare for the company after it decided to split the DVD-by-mail business into Qwikster. ("Facebook is probably the only company I've ever seen get away with drastic changes and people have to go along with it because they have no choice," Muchnick says. "That's also one of the benefits of being a free product—Netflix doesn't have that luxury.")

But for Aviary, its decision to pivot was not only a result of its user base but of technology: After the iPhone came out, the team realized the days of Flash were numbered. By creating a free SDK that developers could add to their own smartphone apps, Muchnick realized it was a better way to bring "the service to the masses." Soon, it plans to sell premium effects packs and themes, as well as offer brands the chance to create premium content.

The pivot, Muchnick says, couldn't have come soon enough.

"I probably could've done it in the course of a day if I was a better CEO, but when you have a loyal user base and investors that have invested in your product, you [can get] scared [to pivot]," he says. "We took things slower than we probably should have. If we're growing like crazy now, where would we have been if we started a year earlier?"

[Image: Flickr user Ed Sweeney]