March 30, 2020
Today is bittersweet for the Focal team. For the last 8 months we have been pouring our hearts and souls into building a brand new platform designed to empower our photographers more than ever before. Every day imagining this moment when we get to unveil it to the world.
However, with these unprecedented times the demand for photography has been decimated and we are left feeling very helpless. Not because the market conditions for launching our new platform are unfavourable but because of the impacts we are seeing for our photographers and the industry as a whole.
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’s been many times in the past 2 years that it would have been easy to give up, or just settle. But we’ve learned from our mistakes, and we continue to forge ahead no matter the cost.
It’s ironic, but when I started Focal 2 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 1000 hours learning to code and then another 1000 building the Focal iPhone app. We signed up a couple amateur and hobbyist photographers and launched in Victoria.
All I can say is putting 2000 hours into building an iPhone app 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 that they were in a bit over their head. They had trouble getting the clients comfortable, gave poor direction and struggled to control the flow of the shoot.
Discouraged and sad about providing a disappointing experience to our customers, I gave them a refund and contemplated the whole premise behind Focal…maybe I was totally wrong about trying to connect hobbyist and amateur photographers with customers.
It was around this time that Marlboro, a full-time professional photographer, heard about our app and asked how he could sign up. At first, I was confused as to why a professional photographer would want to join my app but Marlboro explained to me that despite being established for a number of years, his photography business is still like a hotel room that 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 some photos of himself and his wife around some prominent Victoria landmarks as they were about to move out east after being in Victoria for over a decade. Their budget was only $300 which I knew was a lot lower than Marlboro’s normal rate, but I decided to ask him if he wanted to do it - he said sure!
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 know what to do. He set up softboxes, and the big flashing lights would attract the looks of people walking by - the clients told us it made them feel like movie stars! You could tell how much he was a perfectionist by how he would wait for the wind to die down so as to not catch a moment with hair in the client’s face.
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 helping 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.
The Old Platform
Last year, when we launched our Shopify site we never expected it to have the impact that it did. We had a simple goal, which was to make it easier for customers to find the perfect photographer. With the average photoshoot booking, 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.
So we helped our photographers make very “tangible” 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’s special about each photographer in a simple and digestible way so that it’s easy for them to pick the right one. Here’s an example: Each photographer has their unique style, for some it’s a documentary style where you hardly know that they are there and the moments that are captured are truly genuine. While other photographers strive for the perfect shot, which means that as a customer, you have to be a lot more involved in the photoshoot, but the results are grand and dramatic. Our goal was always to try and make this clearer to customers, so that they could pick the photographer that was right for them.
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 started to realize that we had become a middle man. In some ways, we were competing with our own photographers. Our photographers were getting many shoots through Focal, but that’s all they were - shoots. These shoots were under the Focal brand and our photographers were shooting as “Focal Photographers”. Which meant that the shoots we were providing them weren’t really helping them or their business besides one-off income.
A lot of other companies would have stopped here, and many have. Snappr, Mmeero, Ssnapwire, 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 Shopify site, we started to brainstorm new ideas for how we could evolve.
We began to hone in on this idea of creating a non-zero sum game, or a win-win-win for Focal, customers and photographers. We wondered if there was a way that we could create a new platform that provides value to our photographers far above and beyond just getting them more shoots? Could we create a tool for them that is so useful that they integrate it into the fabric of their business because it makes their lives easier - and by them using our tool, it makes it easier for customers to book them?
The New Platform
Before even starting development on our new platform we went to our photographers and asked them to tell us everything that was wrong with our old platform. We even interviewed some of the most prominent and established photographers in Victoria BC to get their feedback on our vision.
We found that things like having their own branding, control over managing their portfolio and packages and the ability to talk to customers directly were important to them. So we put those things at the top of our development list. We 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 started development 8 months ago and made it a prerogative to have our photographers’ feedback every step of the way. With every feature that we built we had a photographer test it, to ensure that it would help them with their own business and not just ours.
Then, a month ago we began beta testing and Marlboro graciously offered to try out the platform with one of his own clients. He created a tangible package and sent them a booking through the Focal platform. He said 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 think about trying to launch a new product now. But for us, we have no choice but to, because now more than ever the industry needs support and we want to make sure we are 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.