March 30, 2020
Today is bittersweet for the Focal team. For the last eight months, we have been pouring our hearts and souls into building a brand new platform designed to empower photographers more than ever before — every day, imagining this moment when we get to unveil it to the world.
At Focal, our mission has always been to help photographers. Like us, they are dreamers. They are people who have the courage to pursue their passion and love for art despite the challenges. So to see the profound impacts of COVID-19 on the businesses and livelihoods that they have worked so hard to build is heartbreaking.
In light of this, our team has been working tirelessly to figure out what we can do to help. In collaboration with our photographers, we have decided the best course of action is to go ahead with the launch of our new platform. By doing so, we can gather feedback and continue working to improve our platform to better serve our photographers and customers.
We can also continue to bring awareness to our vision of a fairer photography industry. Focal envisions an industry where customers can easily find the perfect photographer to tell their important stories and photographers can succeed on the basis of their art and service — not SEO, Instagram, or ads.
While today marks an important new beginning for Focal, I think it’s equally important to look back at where we’ve come from. There have been many times in the past two years when it would have been easy to give up, or just settle. But we’ve learned from our mistakes, and we continue to forge ahead more determined than ever.
It’s ironic, but when I started Focal two years ago, I thought photography was no more than a decent camera, clicking a button, and some fancy editing. I wanted to create a marketplace for amateur and hobbyist photographers where they could offer their services at half the price of professionals.
I believed it so passionately that I spent 1,000 hours learning to code and then another 1,000 building the Focal iPhone app. We signed up a roster of amateur and hobbyist photographers and launched in Victoria.
I learned quickly. It was an expensive lesson on why professional photographers are professionals!
I went to our very first shoot, and while the photographer did their best, it was clear they were in a bit over their head. They had trouble getting the clients comfortable, gave poor directions, and struggled to control the flow of the shoot.
Discouraged about providing a disappointing experience to our customers, I gave them a refund. It prompted me to rethink the whole premise behind Focal... maybe I was totally wrong about trying to connect hobbyist photographers with customers.
It was around this time that Marlboro Wang, a full-time professional photographer, heard about our app and asked how he could sign up. At first, I was confused. Why join an app designed for hobbyists and amateurs? But Marlboro explained to me that despite being well-established, his photography business is still like a hotel room: it expires at the end of the day if nobody books him.
Soon after that, we got an inquiry from a customer who was looking for photos of himself and his wife. They were leaving Victoria after over a decade and wanted to capture some memories of them at prominent Victoria landmarks. Their budget was only $300 — much lower than Marlboro's normal rate, I knew — but I decided to ask him anyway. He said sure!
"[A] photography business is like a hotel room: it expires at the end of the day if nobody books [you]."
Seeing Marlboro shoot was the polar opposite of our unsuccessful first shoot.
He had this disarming charm that instantly made the clients relax. While shooting, he took control by directing the clients to make sure they always knew what to do. He set up softboxes, and the big flashing lights would draw looks from passersby — the clients told us it made them feel like movie stars.
Meeting Marlboro completely reversed my perception of the photography industry. We did dozens of shoots with him, and every one gave me a little more appreciation for what it takes to be a professional photographer.
It was from then on that Focal’s mission became about supporting professional photographers by helping them convey to customers why they are so much more than just a decent camera, the click of a button, and some fancy editing.
Last year, when we launched our site, we never expected it to have the impact that it did. We had a simple goal: make it easier for customers to find the perfect photographer. With the average photoshoot, customers and photographers typically send 10-30 emails back and forth before a booking is made. (Which is crazy!) But it’s because customers usually don’t really know what they’re getting when they go to book a photographer.
We helped our photographers make clear, distinct packages and listed them on our site like e-commerce products. The idea was that if we could create packages that were tangible to the customer as opposed to the typical photographer pricing of “1 hour, $300, 40 photos,” then maybe we could eliminate those 10-30 emails where the photographer has to explain to the customer what they’re buying. We could also help convey to customers what made each photographer special — and do it in a simple, digestible way that made it easy for customers to pick the right one.
And it worked! We started having customers coming on the site, browsing different photographers, choosing a package, and booking easily.
But something wasn’t quite right. While we were happy to be getting our photographers more shoots, we realized that we had become a middleman. In some ways, we were competing with our own photographers. Our photographers were getting more shoots through Focal, but that’s all they were — shoots. They were under the Focal brand, and our photographers were shooting as “Focal Photographers.” Which meant the shoots we were providing them weren’t really helping them or their business besides one-off income.
"Our mission has always been to help photographers, not take advantage of them."
A lot of other companies would have stopped here, and many have. Some of the large photography service companies in the industry have been perfectly content growing their businesses on this model.
But at Focal, this just didn’t sit right. Our mission has always been to help photographers, not take advantage of them. So despite the success of the site, we started to brainstorm new ideas for how we could evolve.
What if there was a non-zero sum game? A win-win-win for customers, photographers, and us? We honed in on creating a new platform that provides value to photographers far above and beyond one-off shoots. Could we create a tool that would truly make photographers' lives easier — and, in the process, make it easier for customers to book shoots?
Before even starting development on our new platform, we went to our partner photographers and asked them to tell us everything that was wrong with the old one. We even interviewed some of the most prominent and established photographers in Victoria, BC to get their feedback on our vision.
We heard photographers wanted their own branding and control over managing their portfolio and packages. They also wanted the ability to talk to customers directly. We put those things at the top of our development list, and also created a new pricing option with a reduced commission and a small subscription fee for photographers who do a lot of shoots with us.
"We heard photographers wanted their own branding and control over managing their portfolio and packages. They also wanted the ability to talk to customers directly. We put those things at the top of our development list."
We started development eight months ago and made it a priority to have our photographers’ feedback every step of the way. With every feature we built, we had a photographer test it to ensure that it would help them with their business.
Then, a month ago we began beta testing and Marlboro graciously offered to try the platform with one of his own clients. He created a session package and sent them a booking through the Focal platform. They paid and confirmed the booking without a question. It was so easy, he couldn’t believe he’d been sending those 10-30 emails all those years!
It was around this time that COVID-19 began to impact the industry, and we began to question our plans for launching the new Focal platform.
With weddings being cancelled, broad financial impacts for most Canadians, and social distancing a priority, most companies wouldn’t even begin to consider launching a new product. But for us, we felt compelled to — because now more than ever, the industry needs support, and we want to ensure we're there to help photographers recover from these difficult times.
This new platform isn’t just a new website and some software. I think it speaks to our responsibility to always improve, our value for art, and our never-ending commitment to our photographers. At Focal, we're quite proud of the changes we've made.
I hope you find them beneficial, too.