Company Profile: A photo finish for Toronto’s 500px

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Long before there was Flickr, Instagram and Facebook, a couple of Toronto residents were tinkering with an online photo-sharing idea in their apartments.

From humble beginnings in 2002, an idea grew into 500px, now a major success story in helping photographers gain more exposure – while also making them a profit.

“Post your best photos and make money,” is the quick descriptor from Evgeny Tchebotarev, Chief Photography Officer at the Toronto startup.

At 500px, visitors have access to high quality photographs, the stories behind them, and the pros sharing their techniques.

The company has ballooned to 5 million photographers uploading more than 50 million photos. Its 500px Prime division, offering photos for sale, enjoys a community of 100,000 photographers selling 1 million photos.

Primarily, Tchebotarev says, purchases come in for the purposes of ads, commercial products, travel agencies, airlines, book covers, or wallpaper for phones and tablets. Photographers have a hub to sell their work without having to market themselves on a separate site.

According to Alexa.com, 500px is among the top 1,100 most visited websites globally.

From a quick start to a photo finish

It appears the entire endeavor began in a flash.

Tchebotarev caught the photography bug in 2002 – and with his first roll of film, he sold three photos to magazines.

“I really wanted to get better. But there was nothing in terms of photosharing platforms ten years ago, and nowhere to get feedback from people. I wanted to share my photos, and have meaningful discussions about photography.”

Initially, he developed this as a LiveJournal blog. From 2004 to 2009, Tchebotarev had mostly built, and maintained the site, with Oleg Gutsol who joined in 2009, to help transform the site from a hobby to a business.

That seemed a fine idea for Tchebotarev, who graduated in 2007 with a BA in Commerce and Finance from Ryerson University in Toronto.

The Moscow native said those initial meetings and brainstorming began from their Toronto apartments and Starbucks coffee shops.

The launch date of 500px on Oct. 31, 2009 marked the beginning of success to come.

With a community of millions of photographers from around the world, the site boasts more than a billion API calls through app properties per month.

“The Toronto start-up community is kind of small, so we’re incredibly lucky,” said Tchebotarev.

Time Magazine featured 500px as one of the world’s top 25 blogs, and they were named the number one startup on Techvibes Canadian Startup Index. “That helped with visibility,” noted Tchebotarev.

They also got noticed by high-profile investors: 500px closed a round of $8.8 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz and Harrison Metal in August 2013. (Andreessen Horowitz also invested in Airbnb, Facebook, Foursquare, Pinterest, Skype and Twitter). The site is using the investment to “accelerate growth, build current products and offer new and innovative products and services to help photographers showcase, share, organize and monetize photos,” says their media release.

Earlier that year, too, Microsoft’s Bing showcased 500px photos on its homepage.

500px execs knew mobile was the future for photographers, and when they launched their iPhone app in 2012, it generated 100,00 downloads in the first 48 hours.

Meanwhile, they’re looking through the wide lens of opportunity so they can keep a sharp focus on excelling.

“Our business model is changing all of the time, which is what every small business should do,” said Tchebotarev.

The company also rolls out more features to its community to help them publicize their photography. “Those tools will provide visitors with uploads and insights, more sophisticated techniques to track their portfolio, and assistance in promoting themselves.”

Not bad for a couple of guys who hung out at a coffee shop a decade ago to do a little online photo-sharing.

Photo of Evgeny Tchebotarev courtesy 500px

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