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In recent years, there has been no shortage of well-funded, well-staffed photo-sharing startups vying to become the next Flickr. But all the financial backing in the world can’t buy one of the most necessary components for startup success: dedicated users. Almost since it was founded in 2004, Flickr has remained the destination of choice for many great photographers. In many ways, Flickr’s biggest competitive edge is its passionate user base.
In recent months, Tortonto-based startup 500px seems to be becoming the new favorite site of a lot of Flickr “power users.” Some 27,000 of the site’s 67,000 current members joined in the past two months, founders Oleg Gutsol and Ian Sobolev told me in an interview this week. What’s especially remarkable to me is that the company, which is bootstrapped and currently has just four full-time employees, has attracted all this growth purely through word of mouth. “We didn’t have the money or manpower to dedicate to marketing,” Gutsol said. “So we concentrated on developing a good site, something that we also would like to use ourselves.”
500px won’t be a stranger to money and manpower for much longer, if all goes according to plan. The company is currently in the process of raising an undisclosed amount of venture funding from a group of New York-based investors, Gutsol tells me. The money will be put toward bringing on more staff to help accomplish a variety of goals, from site translation for worldwide expansion to developing plug-ins for Adobe (s ADBE) Lightroom and Apple (s AAPL) Aperture.
500px is targeted mainly at professional photographers and highly skilled amateurs, people whose photos would be at the upper echelons of a site like Flickr. “We see Flickr more as a photo storage site, where anyone can upload all their photos in one place and share them with their friends,” Gutsol explained. “We’re interested in getting the best photography in the world in one place, and growing the best photography community.” 500px’s main revenue source is selling $50 per year premium accounts that allow users to create unbranded portfolio websites. The company also allows users to make their photos available for purchase, and 500px collects a 5 percent commission on all printing sales.
500px started eight years ago as a community for photography buffs within the social blogging website LiveJournal. In its early incarnation, photographers had to submit their images to 500px for moderation, and the community’s curators had to approve of a photo’s quality in order for it to be published. Gutsol and Sobolev eventually realized that 500px’s original format wouldn’t scale, so in 2009 they got to work on building a site with algorithmic photo evaluation capabilities that would still appeal to high-quality photographers without needing so much editorial oversight.
500px in its current, mostly automated incarnation was launched on October 31, 2009. “We worried that with scale, photo quality would decline, but it has not been affected at all. The more people are joining, the better it’s gotten,” Gutsol said. “I’m blown away daily just looking at the front page of the site.”