[N]o matter what country you’re from, or what you do for a living, everybody shares one common language: photography. At least that’s how Evgeny Tchebotarev – the co-founder of 500px and Ryerson alumnus, sees it. And that simple philosophy has driven 500px to become one of the most popular photo-sharing web services in the past year. With over 250,000 users to date and most recently, 5 million page visits within a month, the Toronto based start-up is on its way to becoming a serious competitor to the online photo-sharing service giant, Flickr. The success seemed to have occurred overnight, but the journey was years in the making.
Starting as a community blog on Livejournal.com in 2003 (with around 1000 followers), Tchebotarev continued to run 500px (500px – or pixels, stood for the maximum width the photos could have at the time) as a hobby through his years as a business student at Ryerson, where he also juggled finance classes and a part time job, “It took maybe like 10 hours per week, so it wasn’t much hassle to do that, and it was fun, I mean you get to see cool photos… It was kind of shifting work and study balance, so at the time I guess I wasn’t paying much attention when I was working because I didn’t have much energy left.”
Tchebotarev later graduated in 2007, and moved back to Moscow, Russia (his hometown), where he was hired as the CEO of Temarium, with the responsibilities of leading the company in preparation for launch in 2008. However, after eight months into the job, investors pulled the plug on the project and the company died. Frustrated at the outcome, Tchebotarev knew that this was his time to take 500px to the next level.
In early 2009, Tchebotarev reconnected with an old friend, Oleg Gutsol (also a Ryerson alumnus, Computer Science), where they would eventually go on to co-found 500px as we see it today. Success began to appear as their first milestone arrived shortly after their launch on Halloween night of 2009, receiving over 30,000 page hits within the first month. However, it wasn’t all a smooth ride, but Tchebotarev knew from experience that it would take patience for everything to work. Pressure from family and peers to quit and find a “real job” began to mount, and the realities of bootstrapping (their main office was in Tchebotarev’s apartment, and their “international offices” was Starbucks) began to take its toll.
Up until early 2011, 500px was essentially a two man team designing and running the website, “It was a pretty big challenge because we were growing quickly… growing from pretty much nothing to something. We moved our servers for example to Amazon and our bills started doubling each month, but we were thinking, ‘how would we pay our next bill?’.”
But it seems that Tchebotarev and Gutsol have made it past their early stage obstacles as they head towards the end of 2011. With $525,000 in venture capital raised earlier this year, 500px continues to create big plans moving forward, which includes moving to a downtown office (500px is currently located in the Ryerson DMZ) and expanding its staff – making the explosive growth of 500px more manageable. “We now have more opportunities to plan for the future, so we have our plans for the next three years and we can have twelve people on salaries. Now we can take on much bigger things.” The 500px team is now currently completing the 500px iPad app, as well as other potential features including a “groups” function on the website and a Lightroom/Aperture plugin.
And the hard work continues. Aside from implementing new features and continuing to learn how to manage a full team on salaries, Tchebotarev recently attended Photoshop World in Las Vegas as a representative for 500px. This was 500px’s first major conference, but he quickly received warm welcomes to the photography world by a few world-class photographers including Scott Kelby, Rafael Concepcion (better known as RC Concepcion), and Jeremy Cowart. “They are really active and they are not shy telling you what they think what direction 500px has to go. We got lots of feedback from them that correlates with our agenda.” However, Tchebotarev also took away some lessons, “It was real surprising that about a half of the people that came to our booth and said, ‘what is five infinity?’ or ‘how do you pronounce it?’ or ‘what do you do?’… but it was fun to get people’s impressions of your service for the first time, but hopefully for the next expo (PDN PhotoPlus International Conference in New York City) we’ll be more prepared.”
500px is often described as “what Flickr could have been” or “the site that’s taking over Flickr”, but Tchebotarev doesn’t necessarily see his company from that perspective, “We’re just looking to get the world’s best photographers with the best photos, so they can create something new and create inspiration for other people… so it’s a different market that we’re in. So I’m not sure that we’re necessarily Flickr competitors… but it’s fun, we got Yahoo mugs on our tables from one of our friends who works at Yahoo.” But with the growth of about 3000 users per day, a goal of half a million users by the end of 2011, along with photographer-celebrity endorsements such as Thomas Hawk, there’s no denying that 500px is on the brink of something special that’s yet to be determined. We’re all just waiting, patiently.
Asked if Tchebotarev has any advice for aspiring Ryerson entrepreneurs or students in photography/film, he replied, “The first thing I would recommend is that if you have some ideas, start it early. I mean if you’re 18, or 19, start something. It could fail or whatever, but take two hours of your day and do something. Or if you want to be in photography, go ahead and shoot something… start small and keep on doing it. It will still take a few years to figure out how to do it best.”
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