From such viral hits as I Can Has Cheezburger to helpful tools like Walk Score, hundreds of startup companies have their roots in Seattle’s thriving entrepreneurial community. This Q&A is the third in a series of interviews with Seattle-area startups.
Shane Brinkman-Davis, Founder and CEO of Imikimi
When was Imikimi founded?
Development began in July 2006. The site went live in May 2007.
What does Imikimi do? What makes your company unique?
Imikimi.com is an online community where people create, re-mix and collaborate on digital images in a fun and easy way. Imikimi artists have created more than 1.7 million original photo-frame templates. A digital photo frame is an image with one or more sections—drop-ins—where photos can be placed. On our site these frames range from e-cards (Thank You, Happy Birthday, etc.) to basic frames (both fancy and plain) to silly (face drop-ins).
Other users can customize these templates with their own photos and share them with their friends. Users have uploaded a quarter-billion photos into Imikimi photo frames.
So you have thousands of users creating templates that millions of other users customize and share. Everyone gets to be an artist whether they have only a little or a lot of skill.
How and why did Imikimi get started?
I’ve always had a passion for good UI, and I love using graphics programs. It was a joy to create Imikimi’s easy and powerful editor, and it’s gratifying that it has now been installed by millions of users.
But, to be honest, my original goal was to create a business that could become a platform for testing and supporting my research into core computing technologies such as parallel processing, programming and runtime environments.
What was your initial target audience? How did Imikimi change in response to users?
Originally I thought our site would attract artists and website creators, which turned out to be only partially accurate. There are thousands of artists using our site, but they comprise less than 1 percent of our users. The other 99 percent was completely unexpected.
The digital photo-framing space that we now occupy totally took us by surprise. In fact, I’m still trying to grok the implications.
Our current demographic is primarily women, ages 13-30, using social networks.
What’s been the biggest challenge for Imikimi?
Keeping a large site operational while trying to continue development on a shoestring budget.
How do you make money? How has your business model evolved?
Our plan was to make money with advertising. We still get the majority of our revenue this way, but it is only about one-tenth of the revenue we expected to generate. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why.
We also attempted to get our customers interested in purchasing physical prints (on everything from mugs to calendars to hats, etc.) of their creations, but that didn’t take off.
Last summer we added premium features for a nominal subscription ($3/month with discounts for signing up for a year).
What do you predict will be the next big thing in digital media?
That’s not easy to answer. I could list many things that will happen sometime in the next 20 years, but which one will hit in the next 1-3?
One interesting thing that I think is just around the corner is virtual actors. Very soon it will be possible for computer graphics to convincingly create photorealistic humans. I’d expect to see actors licensing their face in the future.
Another thing that might radically change our computer-interfacing in the near future is SixthSense technology. SixthSense is a wearable device that enables new ways for the real world to interact with data. As everything becomes digital, this technology has the potential to tie the digital back into the physical.
What’s your favorite gadget or application right now?
I’m still in love with my iPhone. It is such a pleasure to use. It is good-to-excellent at most of its core tasks, and with all the apps, its functionality keeps expanding. For example, Imikimi just launched its own iPhone app.
What’s your advice for wannabe entrepreneurs?
You are going to make mistakes both big and small. There is going to be too much to do by a factor of 10. Just remember to cut your losses as quickly as you identify them. Don’t dwell on the past. Just stay focused on the core things (3-5 max) for making your business a success.
The next time I start a business, the most important thing I would do differently is to get funded. We were self-funded for way too long. We struggled to keep up with our initial crazy growth curve. We then struggled to keep up with all the operational maintenance issues. The result is that we have very little time and money left to put into forward development and providing value to the customer.
I’ve read that most successful startups are founded by people with at least 5-10 years of experience in their industry. This gives them the contacts and operational experience that you don’t have time to acquire while running a startup.
Peter Luyckx is the Managing Editor at Flip the Media. Recently, he worked as a Web Producer and Editor at Microsoft’s MSN Health and MSN Shopping (now Bing). He co-founded and published the environmental newsletter The Frugal Environmentalist. He is a graduate student in the MCDM program and can be followed on Twitter @peterlux.