Queens, New York CityJuly 31, 2011

Sell your photos apps : Why it’s a bad idea

This week, on the same day actually, two companies released a new mobile photography marketplace app. Both with same underlying concept : With this app, anyone can shoot and submit their pictures to be licensed to image buyers worldwide. In a world where everyone  snaps an images every 3.5 hour of their waking life, why not built a marketplace where people can submit some of these images so that others can license them. Great idea, no ?

No. For many reasons :

They are building an offer first. In the photo licensing world, like in many others, it is not because you have an offering – in this case a large database of images – that you have value. You actually need clients, people wanting/needing to purchase that offering. You have to fill a demand. In the case of phone apps, where anyone submits whatever they capture, you are not filling an actual demand, you are just populating a database.

While at first look, this might seem like a highly scalable business, after all you need not to worry about producing anything, it is not. You need a highly agile curation engine. Something that can filter out from the massive influx of images, those that are technically and aesthetically adequate ( in  focus, not porn, properly framed, etc.) . Currently, no algorithm is capable of delivering perfect result. You need a battery of trained human editors which becomes more massive as your business scales.

No one cares. Image buyers, from institutions and major publishers to your local bakery website do not care what camera was used to take photographs. While some few might specially need a image taken by an iPhone, the vast majority couldn’t care less as long as the image, both technically and in content, matches their need. Creating a marketplace just for mobile phone images is a bit like opening a supermarket offering sauces only. Established photo agencies have already tried it with limited or no success at all.

It only works for editorial usage, which is a dying market. Brands or advertisers, those who pay the most and consume a lot of stock images, cannot use a photograph if it doesn’t have a proper release form. If a person is recognizable in a photograph, you need their signed consent to use their image in an ad campaign. Same for a vast array of architectural landscape and designer items.  If not, you face major lawsuits. Asking your average person to carry a pen and model release with them so that every time they photograph a relative, they can also have them sign an agreement is bound to fail.

Meeting expectations. This relates very much to our first point to why this is a bad idea. With no client base, no real demand for those images submitted, there is a great chance that the majority will remain unsold. While you presented your app to the general public as a “make money from your photography” tool, you will be disappointing many very quickly. In our highly connected environment, word will spread around as quickly, destroying your brand faster thank you can snap a picture.

Those are some of the main reasons these apps are prone to fail. One of the app launched this week was done by an existing image stock company who already has over 26 million images made by professional photographers in their database. Their supposed competitive edge is that they already have clients unlike most others. However, they are unwilling to provide prospective shooters with actual requests, leaving them in the dark as to what kind of images to submit. Thus, the result will be exactly as if they didn’t have any clients.

While seemingly an attractive business plan, the “sell your photo” app, if not attached to real market demand, is bound to complete failure. It is one these business idea that keeps on resurfacing ( they are at least 15 of those apps in the App Store today) only to be abandoned a few months later. Those who have a real chance of succeeding in this space are the apps that put the demand first ( like foap.com, scoopshot.com, eyewi.re,  imagebrief.com)  which wrote about earlier.

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is the founder of Kaptur and Managing Director of Melcher System, a consultancy for visual technology firms. He is an entrepreneur, advisor, and consultant with a rich background in visual tech, content licensing, business strategy, and technology with more than 20 years experience in developing world-renowned photo-based companies with already two successful exits.

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