Flickr might be the de facto photo-sharing community, but new entrants are trying to lure photographers and users alike. One of the most popular new photo startups is 500px, a photo community focused on sharing and discovery. But while Flickr and 500px both have systems for liking and sharing photos, the experience is less about ranking and more about showcasing work.
New startup Pixoto has been quietly growing their photo ranking community, with 40,000 members and over 4,000 photos being uploaded daily. Founder Jason Kiefer was formerly the founder of Pictage, an ecommerce and fulfillment solution for wedding and portrait photographers that he took from zero to $40 million in annual revenue. Kiefer sold a majority stake in the company to private equity firm Apax Partners in 2006 and left the company in 2009.
Kiefer started working on the idea for Pixoto a year ago with partner Justin Kifer, who formerly sold his startup CitizenLocal to MyLife.com and still works as a VP at the company. Kiefer started the company because he didn’t think there was a good way to rank images and photographers. “There’s no really good ranking of images, and there’s also no good ranking of photographers,” Kiefer said in an interview. “I thought if we could use some sort of really easy voting system that could compare images, we could create a leaderboard of the best images out there.”
The company originally launched as a contest site for photographers in June 2011, but they quickly refocused on image comparison and ranking. They debuted the ImageDuel tool to rank photos in August 2011, and are now focused on providing a place for photographers to stack their photos up against other photographers. The site rewards the top photos in each category weekly with badges and money. “There is some money available for the top photo in each category, $10 to $100 based on the number of photos in each category,” Kiefer said, though he notes that most people don’t know they offer cash rewards, and are more interested in the feedback and exposure.
The problem with current vote-driven ranking sites, Kiefer believes, is that there’s no incentive to both contribute and rate content. “Where a lot of other contest or user-voting sites fall down is that they have too much content and not enough votes,” Kiefer said. On Pixoto 85 percent of the votes come from “players,” people who also upload photos. He says due to this, the community is targeted at photographers, though anyone can sign up and vote.
The Pixoto team bootstrapped until about three months after launch, when they raised $360,000 in seed funding from former Pictage investors. Because they have funding, and because Kiefer says they could likely cover operational costs by introducing advertising on the site, the team is focusing more on growing the community than on introducing a business model. But they will be debuting pro subscription plans in about two weeks, which allow photographers to advertise their services, and provide stats on photo views and votes. The pro plan will also guarantee users more votes, since without a pro plan images can be hidden if they aren’t garnering enough attention. This could mean the site skews towards paid users’ content, whether or not the photos are deserving of the attention.
Kiefer also said the number one request they get from users is for licensing and stock photography, something the team is actively exploring. 500px recently debuted their Market feature, which allows users to order digital prints for personal use, as well as canvas prints, which puts them in direct competition with printers like CanvasPop.
Existing photo communities already rank photos based on popularity, though don’t offer weekly rewards or prizes. 500px has a Popular page that showcases the highest-rated photos based on user votes, and Flickr showcases popular tags and recent images through their Explore tools. When asked if Pixoto would partner with sites like Flickr and 500px to pull in their photos, Kiefer said they likely wouldn’t partner with anyone inside the photography industry. He said they could easily pull in images from other services, but it would place a lesser emphasis on voting and ranking. “What 500px does is great. They’re not trying to find the best images, they’re trying to find great images,” Kiefer said.
Flickr is the oldest and largest player in the photo community space, and 500px is the new user favorite thanks to its design and add-ons like iPad apps. Whether Pixoto can carve out a niche as a ranking site for photographers, and whether they can build a solid revenue model along the way, will require them to scale well beyond their current user base while differentiating from the current crop of photo offerings.