Ep. 11 – 500PX – The incredible story of the company by its CEO Andy Yang

Andy Yang

Andy Yang, 500px Show Notes

Andy Yang is the CEO of 500px and an advisor with MaRS’ Consumer & Commerce cluster. He has spent more than 15 years in technology as an investor (angel and institutional), banker, consultant and advisor. Currently, Andy is CEO of 500px, a premium photography community funded by Andreessen Horowitz, Harrison, Metal, and ffVC. Previously he was an investor at Extreme Startups and a venture capitalist at Relay Ventures.

Most passionate about today

  • Currently I’m the CEO of 500PX which is a global community for photographers, so I’m really passionate today about connecting people through their visual story telling. A picture is worth a thousand words, we believe everyone is creative at their core, they were born creative and it’s our mission to drive that creativity out of them. 
  • 500PX’s mission is to enable and rewards visual creativity. We are providing the tools, inspiration and platform for doing that. It’s amazing to see how many people love the platform and are so enthusiastic and passionate about 500PX and photography. So one of my passions is to work with the community.

Your company

  • 500PX was started by two amazing entrepreneurs. The first was Evgeny Tchebotarev, a professional travel photographer. He unofficially started this company back in 2004 and this was a few months before Flicker started. He was searching for a place to post his best images, and he couldn’t find one, so he started a blog on Life Journal and he started posting his best images, and he got amazing traction, a lot of people were reviewing the images and his personal and professional network started asking him to post their images on his blog. He had two rules:
    1. It has to be among your best works
    2. It has to be at list 500 Pixel in dimension.
  • That’s where the name came from. It grew organically for 5-6 years, than Evgeny met his co-founder, Oleg, an amazing developer, and he had the insights and foresights to say let’s take the blog to our own platform. So they launched the company on 2009, then things really started to take off and they opened it to the community.
  • As for how I joined the company, I moved to Toronto six years ago and I covered 500PX as an investment, I was on the venture capital side. I really loved the platform, loved the community and loved the founders. We kept in touch and then I joined the team a couple of years later. I‘ve always been a really big fan of what they were doing and about the global community.

Who your customers are?

  • It has changed over time… as I explained the history of the company, it was definitely geared toward professional photographers mainly in travel, as the founders turn it to a platform, and they started getting a much more diverse set of content and a much more diverse set of photographers who joined in.
  • As mobile exploded it really diversified our customer based.
  • Our customer personas:
    • At the very bottom of the pyramid we have casual users that are in to view images and galleries, hoping to be inspired or to post in our site.
    • As we move up the pyramid there are the hobbyists. People that see photography as a hobby (they also will usually own a dedicated camera). This composes the largest group in our site. They are very interested, they want to learn and to get better, and they invest in their community.
    • As we go up the pyramid there are what we call the semi-pros, they will potentially shoot commercials, are interested in monetizing their work. They own much more sophisticated gear.
    • At the very top of the pyramid is the last group, our pros those are people that are fully dedicated professionally, they will shoot commercials, license images, go on assignment for different clients.
  • We kind of serve those four personas. We found them out over time by interviewing and understanding our audience. So for the entrepreneurs listening to us that starting a community or any customer facing business, you should understand and breakout those different personas and understand how you will define your business and those users. It took us four-five years to really understand the different user base.
  • So that’s one side of the equation, on the other side of the equation we license images on behalf of our photographers. So we will basically would broker these images to brands, agencies or people that want to use it in their story telling or advertisements. We segment those customers into small or medium size businesses or the enterprise businesses. The small-medium size businesses side can go strictly to the site and do the e-commerce transaction.
  • On the enterprise side we will do very custom engagement, custom assignment while we will hand hold the agency or the brand and organize all the logistic, the brief, deliver the images, will do the editing and so on.
  • There is an essential mission for us to be the place where photographers grow. That’s our product vision. We want photographers to grow in three separate ways:
    1. Grow their skills.
    2. Grow their network
    3. Grow their wallet or returns.
  • With the exposer of mobile phones and Mobile content, It’s really hard for photographers to make a living these days.
  • At the highest level our vison is not just photography but other parts of visual media.

Biggest failure with customers

  • There are so many mistakes, and failures… I think our biggest mistake is not talking to our community enough. Or not be proactive or transparent with our community.
  • One example is when we launched a mirrored community in China about two years ago, it was as part of investment we took from a strategic company based in China called Visual China Group, which is an amazing company that does licenses and owns the licensing space in China. We started a joint venture with them and we launched the site without telling our community. And that was terrible. For us it is always about better and more proactive communication with our community. Something we started doing a lot more snice then.

Biggest success due to the right customer approach

  • We launched our licensing platform about three years ago. The challenge was to understand what is the best way to enable our community earn money for their work. Most of our photographers don’t shoot commercially, they shoot their photographs for the passion and creativity and with that new platform they can monetize their work.
  • One of the best stories I like to tell is about when we licensed some photos for a Light House in Canada, they were looking for photos of the place and found us, and they said they have never seen such a high quality, beautiful photos of this light house, and it turned out that these photos were taken by a dentist in his spare time. Because he loved that light house and used to go there every year and this love and passion was defiantly reflected on his photos.
  • There is another great story when we sold a photo for 20,000$ for a global Ad campaign and it was for a photographer from rural Russia.

Recommendation of a tool for customer focus, marketing or sales?

  • We just transitioned to HubSpot we found that it really helps us understand our out-bound marketing and it has been relatively effective for us.
  • In the customers’ side, Google Analytics is the best tool to learn about and understand more of your customers. So for entrepreneurs just starting out it’s definitely my recommended tool. We made some mistakes on the analytics part.

A person like a mentor or a service provider that impact Andy’s “customer focus” success

  • We took investment from Andreessen Horowitz which is the best Venture Capital firm on the planet…! And the resources that they have are amazing, they have a number of podcasts and a monthly newsletters and I would definitely check that out.

The one thing Andy is most fired up about today

  • I’m most fired up about interacting with our community, just last week we had an in-person breakfast and photographers came into our headquarters and got to meet our staff. We are an online community, but that’s really bridge the online- offline gap. Whichever city I go to I try to meet a couple of our photographers there, and that’s where you get the real feedback.
  • Whenever you can, I would say go and meet your customers in-person. I know it’s not scalable but it’s very important to look in their eyes and understand who they are.

What is 500PX one key success factor?

  • This answer maybe upset some people… but I would say timing. Timing was very important to us. When we launched the site it was desktop only and this was before the ubiquity of mobile phones, iPad, iPhone etc. It would have been much more limited without this explosion of mobile devices.
  • At the same time as the founders were raising venture fund, the common reframe in to investment in 500PX was that there was no money in photos. And then Instagram was purchased for Billion dollars. And the world changed and suddenly there is a lot of money in photography. So again a lot of the success of the company was related to timing.

Resources Mentioned:

More resources for Entrepreneurs

  1. Don’t Miss – Customer Focus Strategy & Execution: An 8 weeks Program
  2. Hayut Yogev’s Latest post: How can Entrepreneurs build a strong startup brand?
  3. Former interview: With Nevo Alva, CEO and co-founder of Visualead who shares their customer’s approach, working together with its strategic partner investor Alibaba

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