If patience is a virtue, Evgeny Tchebotarev must be an extremely virtuous entrepreneur.
Consider the growing popularity of 500px.com, a Toronto-based online photo-sharing service for people who want to showcase and share their best pictures.
While 500px has seen the number of users jump eight-fold to more than 225,000 since the beginning of the year, the company's roots go all the way back to 2003, when it was started as a blog on Livejournal.com.
For five years, 500px was run as a hobby by Mr. Tchebotarev, an avid photographer. As a business student at Ryerson and, after graduating, a CEO for a start-up in Russia, he was content to let 500px exist as a small community with a few thousand avid users.
It wasn't until 2008, when he met Oleg Gutsol, that Mr. Tchebotarev decided to see if 500px could be taken to the next level. In late 2009, a newly designed website was launched with auto-discovery technology that made it easier for people to find and share the photographers they liked. At the time, 500px had 6,000 users.
In 2010, 500px saw steady growth to 28,500 users before everything changed in a spectacular way earlier this year. Without the time or the money to do any public relations, Mr. Tchebotarev said the surge in users was mostly fuelled by word of mouth – not in its own backyard but in countries around the world such as Indonesia, Germany and Brazil.
Another key development was the embrace of influential photographers such as Thomas Hawk, who decided to move to 500px from Flickr, the world's leading photo-sharing service.
Mr. Tchebotarev says he is obviously surprised by his company's surging popularity, but he credits patience as a major factor that allowed 500px to be discovered by people looking for a new and user-friendly photo-sharing service.
"We've had so many different things happening at the same time," he said in a recent interview. "I am happy all these things happened at once but it takes a lot of effort and time to get to this point, and I hope other startups will have the patience to get through the ignorance of the public for many years."
The company's growth is being buoyed by $525,000 in venture capital raised in May from a trio of U.S. investors: High Line Venture Capital, Deep Creek Capital, and ff Venture Capital. Mr. Tchebotarev says 500px actively pitched to Canadian VCs but its story failed to resonate because investors were worried about the competitive photo-sharing marketplace, and they were looking for more mature businesses.
To raise its profile, Mr. Tchebotarev says the company posted a profile on AngelList.com, an online service that helps start-ups and investors discover each other. With some help from AngelList's Brendan Baker, 500px improved its profile, and it soon started getting calls from VCs, including high-profile ones based in Silicon Valley.
Mr. Tchebotarev says that as 500px was talking with VCs, its presentation deck had to be continually updated because the service continued to see strong growth, which is a nice problem to have when you are trying to court investors.
With money in the bank, Mr. Tchebotarev says the company plans to expand to 10 employees and move to a downtown office from Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone, a workplace designed for young entrepreneurs.
500px offers a free service, as well as a $50-a-year premium option that includes more features such as unlimited photo uploads, a custom domain name and no advertising. Mr. Tchebotarev says there has been so much interest in the premium service that 500px became profitable just before its financing deal was closed.
He says the premium service is popular with semi-professional photographers looking for a place to display their portfolios. Mr. Tchebotarev says there have also been people who signed up for the premium service simply because they liked what the company was doing.
"If you compare photo services, we're the least expensive," he explains. "We don't have as many options but we're attracting people moving to a semi-professional service because it gives them some freedom but it's really simple to set up. It's a nice niche for a large pool of Flickr photographers who might want to switch to us because it's the next level of service."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, a communications and marketing strategic consultancy that works with startups and fast-growing companies to create compelling and effective messaging to drive their sales and marketing activities. Mark has worked with four startups – Blanketware, b5Media, PlanetEye and Sysomos. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshmarketing and meshwest conferences.
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