Here’s the Story of How We Built “Uber for Photographers”

Photo by slon_dot_pics from Pexels

In late November 2017, I met up with an old school friend, Ali Sarraf, for dinner in London. We’d both studied Computer Science at university and had been working on different startups.

I’d recently stopped working on Tripr, a social app to connect travelers crossing paths on their trips. And Ali had recently stopped working on his startup too.

Idea

Although I was working full-time at Facebook and he was working at Google, we thought it would be fun to work on a side project together.

One idea I had wanted to explore for a while was an app to book photographers on-demand, similar in functionality to Uber.

We did a bit of googling and discovered that no app like this existed. The idea grew on us, and after a couple of weeks, we started working on it.

Market

First, we thought about who our target market was. My initial hunch was that Instagram bloggers would love an app like this. We brainstormed a few more potential customers, and wrote up detailed personas for each one.

We quickly realized that the photography market was fragmented. Couples wanted wedding photos, parents wanted family photoshoots, individuals wanted profile pictures, and businesses wanted photos of their products and premises. Each segment of the market would need to be addressed in a different way.

We decided the sensible thing was to start with one segment. So we focussed on individual consumers. We figured it would be easier to reach individuals with Facebook ads and quickly know whether we could acquire them as customers.

Validation

Before we started building the product, we set up a landing page to explain the app, allowing people to sign up for early access. We created a Facebook Page and an Instagram account, and used some of my Facebook ad credit to run a campaign targeting bloggers. In a few days we had over 100 signups. We decided it was time to start building the product.

www.sunrisephotoapp.com

Product

We used a whiteboard to draw wireframes of what each screen of the app would look like, taking inspiration from Uber’s design and UX. We converted these wireframes into Sketch designs, and used the InVision plugin to create an interactive prototype that could be loaded onto a mobile device. We put the prototype into the hands of friends and family, and watched as they tapped about the screens. We got some early feedback, discovered a few bottlenecks and improved the designs.

At this point, we decided to build a functioning product so we could launch and see what real people made of it. From a technical perspective, it was a complex project.

We needed to create an iOS app and an Android app for consumers. This needed to allow signing up, adding and verifying a mobile number, selecting a photoshoot package and duration, setting a date, time and location, browsing our photographers’ portfolios, selecting photographer preferences, adding a payment method and confirming a booking. After a booking, we’d need to send a push notification to all the preferred photographers who were available for the requested time.

So we needed to create another iOS and Android app for our photographers. Photographers needed to view photoshoot requests, with all the relevant details, including expected earnings, location and estimated travel time. They needed to be able to accept photoshoots, message clients and make cancellations.

Customers needed to be notified when photographers accepted their request, and be able to view their photographers’ details, message them, request a different photographer or cancel the booking.

When a photoshoot was approaching, both the customer’s app and the photographer’s app needed to go into a navigation mode, so the customer could track the photographer’s location in realtime, and the photographer could get directions to the meeting point. Both parties needed to be able to call and text each other, but with phone number cloaking for privacy. When the photographer arrived, the customer needed to get a notification.

After a photoshoot, photographers usually produce a “contact sheet” - a print out with low resolution versions of all the raw photos, labelled with their filename. The contact sheet needs to be emailed to the client so they can reply with the filenames of the photos they like. This is a horribly inefficient process for most photographers. We realized we could make this seamless with our mobile app.

So we built a web tool for our photographers to review their past photoshoots and upload photos for them. The uploader would convert large raw camera files into tiny, compressed and watermarked images in the browser, before quickly uploading them to our server. When the upload was complete, the customer would get a notification informing them they could view their raw photos, and select which ones they like, all from within the app. Once they confirmed their selection, the photographer would get a notification and be able to see which photos the customer liked. They would then be able to upload the final, edited photos. The customer would get another notification and be able to view their final photos and download them.

The idea was to make the user experience as seamless as possible for both customers and our photographers, by innovating at every step of the process.

We also wanted to make the code abstract enough such that we could easily expand or pivot into another on-demand service, outside of photography.

Photo by Clément H on Unsplash

After a couple of months working in our free time, we had finished building the product. We fleshed out our website with some terms and conditions, and a privacy policy to make sure we were GDPR compliant too.

Recruiting

The next step was to recruit the best photographers we could. We created a basic Google Sheets form, explaining our app and asking candidates for their contact details, a portfolio link and their availability. I set up a Facebook ad campaign targeting photographers in London, and we received over 200 applications. We manually reviewed each one, rated portfolios on a scale from 1 to 10, then arranged in-person interviews with the best candidates. We explained the app, showed them a demo, discussed pricing and commissions, then got their account and device set up, ready to receive photoshoot requests. We on-boarded around 30 photographers in London - taking the top 15% of all applicants. We wanted top tier talent to offer an unbeatable customer experience.

Marketing

After we launched, we emailed everyone who signed up for early access, replaced the signup form on the landing page with app download buttons, and started a Facebook ad campaign optimizing directly for app installs.

Within a couple of days, we had our first photoshoot booking from a blogger who wanted pictures of herself to post on Instagram. She turned out to match our initial hypothesis for the target market perfectly. Over the next month or so, we had a few more bookings.

Feedback

We had set up Mixpanel tracking in the app, so we could see every action taken by a user. We learned what kinds of photoshoot packages people were selecting, what their motivations were, and where they were based. But we needed to learn more. So we sent a mass text to everyone who had signed up so far. I introduced myself as one of the creators of Sunrise, gave a link to my LinkedIn profile and asked if they would be willing to share some feedback with us. Around 10% of people replied. We set up in-person interviews to better understand what problem we were solving for them, what alternatives they had considered, and how we could improve the app. We also observed them using the app to identify potential UX improvements.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

These interviews were incredibly valuable - the product iterations we made would not have occurred without them. One key insight, for example, was that users wanted to browse portfolios of each photographer, and select which ones they liked before confirming a booking. This was a feature other photography agencies didn’t offer.

At this point, we’d made significant progress. We’d built a product, acquired early customers, spoken to them, gathered feedback and improved the product in response. But we were still unsure of which direction to go next given how fragmented the market was. Although we knew we were solving a problem for a niche group of people - bloggers - we wanted to expand to other market segments.

Sales

We tried to target businesses who needed photography regularly, as they would be frequent, repeat customers. We identified event management companies as a good candidate so we scraped Google to make a list of 100+ small to medium-sized event management businesses in London, with their website and phone number. We started at the beginning, and cold called each one.

Funnily enough, the best response we got was from the very first cold call I made. It was a small event management firm made up of just a few people. The woman running it struggled to book photographers at short notice for events. She explained that when organizing an event, she had a million other things to think about, so having a mobile app where she could quickly and conveniently book a photographer at short notice would be ideal. She signed up and ended up booking a few photoshoots over the next couple of months. She also mentioned that the event management industry is quite closed off, and we’d probably struggle to break into it.

Unfortunately, this ended up being true. Most of the other companies we called weren’t interested as they already had “preferred suppliers”. One man told me:

“I think it’s brilliant! But for mums and dads. Not for us.”

So we went back to the drawing board, and decided to try another consumer market - families.

Startup School

For the previous 8 weeks or so, we had been participating in the Y Combinator Startup School program. This is an online course where startups watch weekly video lectures from YC partners and special guests. They also get assigned to a group with other participants who they have weekly meetings with. Every week, each group had to submit an update with what they did and how much revenue they generated.

Towards the end of the program, we were invited to apply to the core Y Combinator program. We didn’t think we had a high chance of getting in, but decided to apply anyway as we thought filling out the application would be a great learning experience. Indeed, answering the questions on the application prompted us to think deeply about many areas we hadn’t before. We sent it off and didn’t expect to hear back.

Y Combinator

To our surprise, we were sent a link to schedule a video call with one of the partners, Dalton Caldwell. Before the video call, we prepped for all the usual questions. Dalton began the call by asking:

“So guys, this is a pretty crowded market, what’s different about what you’re doing?”

We told him we intended to beat the competition by offering a superior user experience for both customers and photographers. This is why we built a mobile app, with Uber-like functionality.

He responded by telling us the story of Airbnb. The founders had a really bad product to start with, but the market was massive, and that’s what enabled them to grow. Was the photography market big enough?

He then probed us on our motivations. Did we really believe in the idea given that we still had jobs? And when exactly did we intend to start working on this full-time? He reminded us that many founders think that raising money will validate their idea and give them the confidence boost they need to commit to their startups. But this just points to a deeper problem with the idea. He also asked whether we’d spoken to our users, gathered feedback and iterated. We explained that we had and saw a slight smile emerge on his face. It seemed that we ticked at least one of his checkboxes.

After the call, we felt a bit demotivated. Things at work became more busy for both of us, and our output slowly decreased.

But to my surprise, I saw an email notification popup on my phone a couple of weeks later with an invite to interview with Y Combinator at their HQ in Mountain View, California. They offered to cover the flights and accommodation, so we decided take up the opportunity. Regardless of the outcome, it would be a great learning experience. We got on a flight from London to San Francisco in early November 2018.

Photo by Nils Nedel on Unsplash

During the flight, we rehearsed the answers to all the questions we were expecting and decided to present a strategy that focussed more on B2B, as a way to capture a larger market than a consumer app could.

On the day of the interview, we reflected on the fact that we had travelled over 5,000 miles on a 3 day trip for a 10 minute interview. The interview felt a bit surreal and finished in a blur. We mentioned all of our key points and answered basic questions about the number of customers we had and how we had acquired them. We finished the interview by reiterating our strategy on the B2B side.

After the interview, we walked out the building into the Californian air, took a deep breath and appreciated our sunny surroundings. We took an Uber to San Francisco and met up with some friends who were working on their own startup. We explored the city until the jet lag got the better of us, and finally ordered an Uber to take us back to our Airbnb. On the ride back, an email notification popped up from one of the partners who interviewed us, Adora Cheung. She let us know that they weren’t going to fund us. They were concerned that they couldn’t see a clear path to a billion dollar business. This didn’t come as a surprise as our proposed B2B strategy was very much thrown together at the last minute.

Pivot

Arriving back in London, we were both pretty exhausted. It had been almost a full year since we started working on the idea together. Building a startup while working a full time job at Facebook had taken its toll. I had spent less time with friends, less time with family and less time at the gym. I didn’t have time for many other hobbies or interests. My life had just become work, and although I was doing well in my job at Facebook, I wasn’t exactly smashing expectations.

The early excitement of building the product and on-boarding photographers had waned. As our growth plateaued, we became a bit more demotivated.

The next month, in December 2018, I went on a 2 week holiday to Thailand. It was a great opportunity to relax and reflect on the previous year. While there, an email notification popped up from Y Combinator Startup School, telling us that we had been selected as one of the top 100 startups out of the 15,000 startups in the Y Combinator Startup School program. We had been awarded a $10,000 equity-free, cash grant along with $1,000s worth of other benefits such as Google Cloud and Stripe credits. I felt a small wave of validation - our hard work had been recognized somewhat. We decided to use the money to experiment with different paid marketing methods, to find the most effective one for us.

But in the end, we didn’t quit our jobs. We agreed with the YC partners in that we couldn’t see a clear path to a billion dollar business with our current idea. And it just didn’t make sense for us to commit full-time unless we were solving a big enough problem. I decided to make room in my life outside of work, and commit to one thing at a time. There was an opportunity to switch to a new team at Facebook to solve a big problem in the advertising space in a way that had never been attempted before. This really excited me, so I made the switch, and decided to commit.

Lessons Learned

In hindsight, we had fallen in love with our product. I still love what we built - it was a great feat of software engineering, design, recruiting, marketing and sales.

But in a startup, you should fall in love with the problem you are solving and the customers you are solving it for, not the specific solution you have built. If you are not in love with the problem, it might not be big enough to be worth solving.

Michael Seibel, CEO and partner at Y Combinator, has a great framework for evaluating startups. He asks the following questions:

Is it solving a problem?

How frequently do people have the problem?

How intense is the problem?

Other great questions to ask are:

How big is the market?

Is the market growing?

Ideally, you want to be solving a big problem that lots of people have frequently, where the number of people having the problem will continue to grow.

Final Thoughts

Looking back, I’m proud of what we achieved. Sunrise is still available on iOS and Android. People still book photoshoots with us. Our photographers still fulfill them. One advantage of over-engineering the system from the beginning is that we don’t need to manually intervene day-to-day. Most photoshoots happen from start to finish without us getting involved. We continue to help photographers boost their income. We made something new that some people want and learned a huge amount in the process.

Bamboo Beach, Ko Lanta, Thailand - Photo taken by me


Thanks to Ali Sarraf, my co-founder, for reviewing this post.