You’re heading home from a party at a friend’s place. You’re tired, but can still feel the beat of the last song you’ve heard. We’ve all been there— just like the co-founders of Berlin local hero, EyeEm. But wait, in our stories, we rarely stumble on a million dollar idea… EyeEm’s story starts back in 2010 at a poker party at Ramzi Rizk’s (CTO) place, where both Florian Meissner (CEO) and Lorenz Aschoff (CPO) showed up. They drank Ramzi’s whiskey and won his money. Despite this awkward little detail, when everyone else left, the three of them managed to connect over their long-time passion, photography. They chatted for hours and hours, and slowly, the conversation turned into their first product meeting including whiteboards, post-its and the usual startup ideation gear. By the time the sun came up, it had become very clear that they have a business to build.
Teaming up with Gen Sadakane (Creative Director), the four launched the very first mobile photography competition and exhibition worldwide. With over five thousand participants, a community was born. A community, that now engages 22 million photographers who produced 100 million curated photos so far. These pictures serve as the basis for EyeEm’s digital marketplace, where they license diverse and authentic imagery to brands, agencies and individuals.
We recently sat down with Florian and Ramzi to chat about EyeEm’s unique positioning in the photography landscape, and how they use AI to teach machines to judge a picture’s context and understand taste.
2010 was probably the best time to launch a digital platform for sharing mobile images. That’s when the iPhone 4 came out and you could really start taking high-quality snaps with your phone...
Florian: It was exactly that magical time when something revolutionary was happening in the photography space. Before 2010, the camera on your device produced poor quality pictures that no one thought would be adequate for commercial use. But then came the smartphones that allowed you to take decent shots, and more importantly to instantly share them on the internet.
Ramzi: The same year we launched the company, we organized the first mobile photography competition and exhibition globally. The whole thing ended up being a lot bigger than we initially anticipated. It was fascinating to see that people took mobile photography seriously as an art form. We set out to build a home for our participants, and they became the absolute core of our community.
I’m pretty sure you weren’t the only players in the market who came up with this idea. What made EyeEm stand out of the crowd?
Florian: We have to note that this was before Instagram launched…. It seemed like Facebook, Flickr and the likes owned the space. Everyone thought that ours was just a nice little passion project we’re going to get bored of after a while. Our team strategically neglected every piece of advice, and was bullish on our idea of how this industry could take off. All of a sudden, we saw tons of apps emerging, all focusing on that one particular area of editing photos and applying gimmicky filters to them. Most of these companies wanted to sell their startup to Facebook for a billion dollars. That’s cool, but what we were excited about was something that was born on that poker night. And I think, if everyone becomes a creator and starts dumping bad images to social media, then we have a problem. The challenge is not how we share stuff, but how we actually find the rare gems in this oblivion of content, and how we source quality with the help of technology. I’d say, that’s the core appeal behind EyeEm.
Ramzi: I have to add that Berlin had just become really sexy around that time, so everyone was willing to write about the local companies, and push the city to become the next big thing. To be honest, it wasn’t like we were trying to rise from a crowd of startups. There were only a handful of companies doing anything consumer facing, which made it relatively easy for us to get exposure.
Have you ever considered turning EyeEm into a social network, similarly to Instagram or Snapchat, or has your goal always been to create a marketplace connecting photographers with brands?
Ramzi: We never wanted to build a social photo-sharing app, although we were labeled as one for quite a while. We don’t have users, we have creators. We don’t have a social app, we have a community of photographers. Our business has never been about massive numbers, but about connecting, empowering, and inspiring photographers. EyeEm helps them become better at what they do and gives them the exposure they deserve. May this exposure come from our social function, print magazine, exhibitions, competitions, partnerships, or simply through selling images via our marketplace.
And do you consider Instagram and Snapchat as your competitors? Does that affect your strategy in any ways if they come out with new features?
Florian: They are absolutely complementary to what we offer. We tell our community to use every possible marketing tool out there to promote their work. You can be sure that all of them are active users of the platforms you just named, but at one point, they might be reaching a social plateau. What I mean is that you can have all the fame in the world, but that doesn’t make you a better creative. We see this as a funnel. People start interacting with their phone and play with the visual medium. They are getting better and better. When they realize they would like to turn this into a career, they come to us. We are the incubator that helps them realize their goal.
Ramzi: Players like Instagram and Snapchat are constantly copying each other, and fighting for advertising dollars, which is not our business model at all. They are going further and further away from our niche. It took a couple years for both VCs and the photography community to understand that, but I think now we have a unique proposition.
You’ve built a community of over 22 million photographers, which is huge. Engaging them is usually the tough part. What’s your secret?
Florian: Our approach to community building is blending online with offline, and finding the right balance. We never paid marketing dollars to get users. If you think about it, it’s insane to get to a 22 million photographer base without a substantial marketing budget. We have ambassadors throughout our 150-country-footprint. We encourage them to contribute, help us set up local events, we’ve even managed to make the localization of the app a community project. In Indonesia, for example, we translated the app within 48 hours with 80 community members on the ground.
You’re using revolutionary technology (EyeEm Vision) for image search and analysis, offering automatic curation based on aesthetics. How are you planning on fine-tuning and globalizing this technology?
Florian: Most companies, including the giants like Getty Images or Shutterstock, still work on photo selection and curation manually. Their curators need to handpick the best images, manually tag and curate them, which of course costs lots of money, energy and time. We found that in order to find the best visual content, you need to crack two things: understand what is in an image, as well as which images are better than others and why. Three years ago, we acquired a tech company and built an incredible team of researchers around it. This team helped us build an AI tool that can do just that what photo curators do, but within milliseconds. It’s quite fascinating to think about it that we were one of the first companies who doubled down on this technology.
You need taste to decide which picture looks better, and that’s still the job of a photo or content editor. Do you think AI and machine learning can ever replace the creativity of a human being?
Ramzi: We can teach machines to understand taste — we’ve actually done that — but good versus bad always depends on the context. Whatever is good for a sixteen-year-old posting a selfie on Instagram, is probably not good for a Fortune 500 company starting a new marketing campaign. The focal point of what we’re doing is teaching a machine to understand that context, and what is high-quality imagery based on that. Saying that we’re replacing photo editors or curators, would be a bit of an exaggeration though. We’re actually opening up the doors to many more creatives. The reason why so many amateurs could never sell is the fact that stock photo companies have these really tough gatekeepers, simply because they can’t handle the volume of content.
Florian: Take the director of photography at Time Magazine, Kira Pollack. Her team of curators is probably the best in the business. These people are looking at thousands of images on a daily basis, when they could be looking at millions of images. Our technology augments what they do on a daily basis, by simplifying their workflows and automating parts of it. Instead of having a selection of a hundred photos from twenty photographers, we’re giving photo curators a selection from millions of photographers, exposing them to more content, more diversity, and empowering them to process more content faster.
You’ve partnered with Getty Images. What does this partnership entail?
Ramzi: Well, it’s really simple. Getty is the largest stock photo company out there, but they have a big problem because their content comes from a very small selection of artists. They realized that companies and agencies prefer real, authentic imagery with a more sophisticated visual language than the typical stock photos you see. My favorite example is when you search for “business” and you get pictures with two old white men wearing suits shaking hands. That might have meant business thirty years ago but fortunately not anymore. Getty’s challenge now is how to source authentic images from a wider and more diverse talent pool, at scale, and in a cost effective way. That’s where EyeEm comes in: We have the community, have the imagery, and now we have the technology to actually source and distribute content on the fly. According to our partnership, Getty can sell photos that come from our community. Of course, it benefits our photographers because they are more likely to earn money for their images instead of just earning likes and comments.
It seems to me that the gap between professional and amateur photography is closing. Where do you see your market in 5 years?
Florian: We had a beautiful moment beginning of 2016, when we paid our first million dollars to our photographers. It felt incredible when we realized that the product we’ve been working on for years, enables us to impact the lives of the people in our community. These people can now buy better equipment from the amount they’ve earned, and try to get even better at what they do. Our mission is to touch the lives of people and let them tap into their creative potential. The marketplace is something where we’re just getting started. The first year we monetized, we built a team in New York with ten people focusing on distribution. We’re not chasing a quick exit, but striving to build a sustainable business. Our new technology opens up incredible opportunities for us.