On a rainy Sunday afternoon in October 2004, Joe decided to spend the day setting up a simple website in his bedroom where he can post a picture a day and write something about it. The idea was simple.
This website he called Blipfoto and started doing it as an hobby, an hobby and website that by October 2008 would be delivering more page views per month than most of Scotland’s national newspapers..
A lot has changed for Joe and Blipfoto since then, for one, Blipfoto is not an hobby anymore, it is now a growing business with employees and Blipfoto is now a BAFTA Award-winning website.
Hi Joe, How are you doing, great to have you on YHP?
I’m doing well, thanks. Great to be here.
Could you quickly give us some background information about yourself?
I’m still just on the right side of forty and based in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’m the founder and CEO of Blipfoto – the daily photo journal.
How did you get involved in entrepreneurship? Were you exposed to entrepreneurship as a child?
My father was always self-employed, and my first job straight out of school with a small media business let me explore and understand the inner workings of a company very early on. So by the age of 18 I already had a good understanding of the mechanics of business and a sense that there could – and probably should – be more to life than working for the Man.
But work for the Man I did, briefly, until I started my first proper business in 1995 at the tender age of 22. It enjoyed 17 successful years before Blipfoto took off and took over.
So tell me about Blipfoto and how the idea came about?
Blipfoto is based on a very simple idea: take just one photo a day and share it with the world. Most people use this as a challenge to take a photo every day of their lives, others only publish when they have something to share. But everyone who takes part enjoys one of the most friendly, respectful and supportive communities in the world.
We can’t lay claim to the photo-a-day concept – we’ve recently discovered people doing it on Polaroid, long before the internet – but we made it social and accessible, and encourage people to write something about their day too.
What is Blipfoto and how does it work?
It’s as simple as the concept behind it. Take a picture – on a point-and-shoot, fancy DSLR or your mobile – upload it and write something about it. Have a browse around the community and you’ll find others who interest you, subscribe, comment, and you’ll find it’s impossible not to make new friends.
What is your business model?
Early on in Blipfoto’s development, we made the bold decision not to carry advertising. Our users describe Blipfoto as a ‘contemplative space’ and we didn’t want to upset that with ads overpowering every page. I also struggle a bit with the concept of users being your company’s commodity, and your real customers being the advertisers who want to reach them – particularly when people share such intimate moments of their lives.
While it’s free to use at a basic level, at the core of our model is a £25 premium membership, but we also sell exclusive print-on-demand products, and other merchandise. We have a very honest relationship with our users which they value and are quite happy to pay for.
How did you initially attract users to Blipfoto, and how do you do it now?
Historically, Blipfoto’s growth was entirely down to word of mouth. We enjoyed an increasing amount of media coverage after our BAFTA win in 2009, but we still find most new people sign up through a personal recommendation.
Now, most of our own PR efforts go into spreading more widely the amazing stories which appear on Blip every day – of which there’s no shortage at all – but really our current challenge at the moment is keeping up with growth.
What makes Blipfoto different from any service out there? What problem does it solve?
People sign up for a number of straightforward practical reasons – they want to keep a record of their life, share the day-to-day with distant friends and family, or improve their photography by taking a photo a day – but stay for a whole set of different reasons.
Photo sharing platforms typically let you share pictures with people you already know. Blipfoto gives you access to a new, respectful community, and the opportunity to create new relationships with like minded people around the planet. It’s this community, combined with the legacy of their own daily journal, which deepens the relationship and keeps people hooked.
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
The first and most important step was to recognise it as a business! That may sound a little obvious, but it’s not unusual when an online platform starts growing as rapidly as this has for good old-fashioned business sense to fly straight out of the window.
So once we’d established a clear business model, it was all about raising the necessary funding and putting together a strong team – both of which we’ve done in the last 18 months. It’s still early days, but we’ve got a massively strong base on which to build.
What was the most challenging part of starting the business?
Attracting our first round of funding has been, by far, the biggest challenge to date. Whether you’re raising a little or a lot, it’s a roller coaster ride of epic proportions, and no amount of advice can prepare you for it. Our hard work and perseverance paid off, though – we ended up with a team of investors who bring so much more than just money. We raised the funds at the height of the banking crisis, which I think says volumes about the commitment of our investors.
Would you say the business has changed from the first initial idea?
Blip’s constantly evolved and grown, but fundamentally it hasn’t changed at all – it’s still based on the same simple premise and all the same values as it was at the very start. From our users’ point of view it’s all about community and we apply huge effort to protect and nurture that.
Who are your competitors?
It’s easy to compare Blipfoto to other photo sharing platforms – Flickr, Instagram, or even Facebook – but there’s nobody else competing with us in the daily photo journal space we’ve carved out. Many of our members use these other services, but Blipfoto tends to hold a very different and usually more important place in their lives.
What were you doing before you founded Blipfoto?
For the 17 years before Blipfoto took over my life, I ran a very successful interactive media agency here in Edinburgh. We built all sorts of digital things for clients like John Lewis, Standard Life and Adobe. Blipfoto was borne out of that – first as a personal project, then a company project, before becoming a business in its own right.
How have you been able to fund the business?
Through a small, but perfectly-formed group of angel investors. Scottish Enterprise have also given us a huge amount of support, both match-funding our private investment and hand-holding us through the early part of the process. We really couldn’t have done it without them.
What can we be expecting from your company in 2012?
We’ve got a few new top-secret features to roll out this year, but from a business point of view everything now is about growth – both driving it and managing it.
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
I was lucky enough to spend a week at MIT in Boston last January, on their intensive, one-week Entrepreneurship Development Programme. So I’m going to pass on three things which I brought back and have been ringing around my head ever since:
Innovation has two ingredients: invention and commercialisation, but the latter is much more important. There are countless examples of successful businesses where the invention wasn’t the best in the world, but none where the commercialisation was sub-standard.
If you want to fail, keep your options open. When the Vikings reached new shores, the first thing they’d do is set fire to their boats so there was no temptation to turn around and go back. If you’re starting something new, your resources are very limited – make sure they’re always focussed on The Main Thing.
Never stop experimenting. It’s better to learn 80% of what you need to know about something after doing just 20% of the work than going the whole way to only find out 20% more. Facebook have a motto on their wall to this effect, it says ‘Move fast and break things.’