Former New York Times writer Benji Lanyado of Picfair.com explains how his company is changing the world of online photography.
Tell us about your business?
I’m Benji Lanyado, the CEO and founder of Picfair.com. Picfair is a photography platform that powers over half a million photography portfolios across the globe. Our free store builder helps any photographer sell their images in multiple formats at prices they choose – with ecommerce, print production and global delivery all neatly baked into the design.
What was the inspiration behind your business?
I used to be a travel writer for the Guardian and the New York Times, and spent a huge amount of time sourcing imagery for my pieces. It drove me crazy that the only options available to me were crappy, inauthentic agency stock images.
I started digging into the mechanics of buying and selling images online and was amazed by how broken it was. Amateurs were almost completely excluded, the licensing systems were a quagmire, and the agencies were shafting their photographers by keeping the vast majority of the royalties to themselves. I became obsessed with creating a platform that allowed any photographer to sell an image to anyone, in any format, simply and fairly.
I quit my job and learned how to code at night classes, then built the first version of Picfair myself. It was initially a marketplace, but the business really exploded when we took the technology we’d developed for the marketplace and baked it into a standalone store product – giving photographers all the tools they need to showcase and sell their images, and doing all the heavy lifting (licensing, print production, global shipping etc) when they make a sale.
We now have over 500,000 photographers from across the globe using Picfair-powered stores, which have become the main focus of the business.
What does your role in the company consist of?
As Picfair has grown, I’ve generally attached myself to whatever I think the most important part of the business is, before then replacing myself in that role. Initially I was writing code, then I was doing sales, then I was managing product, and then I found people much better than me to do all that stuff. These days I’m focused on performance advertising and brand marketing and growing the team.
What sets you apart from your competition?
Our product is comprehensive – we deal with everything from image metadata enrichment to watermark protection to ecommerce to print production and global shipping. And it’s wildly simple to use – the vast majority of our users are launching an online portfolio for the first time. We’re also the only platform to offer both a store builder and a marketplace with a single point of upload, and we’re the only platform to offer an entry-level product for free (photographers can upgrade their store functionality for a subscription fee).
How do you spread the word about your business?
We’ve been very active on social media – with almost 200k followers across various platforms. We’ve also baked viral hooks into the product – the free versions of Picfair stores display our “powered by Picfair” branding on it, meaning every time someone launches a store, they’re also launching a little Picfair advert. Recently, we’ve invested in performance marketing on Facebook & Google, which we do all in-house.
How has business been during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Really strong. A lot of people turned or returned to photography as a hobby during the pandemic and launching your first photography site was a good way for thousands of people to pass the time while locked down. We grew from 100k to 400k photographers in 2020. Encouragingly, the momentum has continued as the pandemic has abated in our core markets (UK, Europe & North America).
How do you see your market evolving over the next few years?
We’re most excited about a whole generation of iphonographers starting to take their photography more seriously, as the power of smartphones and mobile editing software improves exponentially. Owning a DSLR used to be the number one indicator that you’re a potential Picfair user. Now if you’re a young photographer who takes their time choosing the right instagram filter or loves fiddling around with mobile presets and post-shot editing apps, you’re just as likely to be a Picfair photographer as someone with a Canon 5D.
What’s the hardest thing about running a business?
For me, it has been raising investment while Picfair established our product and market. Raising money is a huge time drain that entails a lot more failure than success, and it pulls you away from the thing you want to be doing most – building the business. It has become easier as the business has grown, as I’ve been able to move from pitching with my heart to pitching with a financial model (and heart).
We’ve got an amazing array of investors. There are a few institutions on our cap table but it’s mostly angels – including Alexis Ohanian of Reddit (otherwise known as Mr Serena Williams), Anthony Eskinazi of Just Park, and Chris Sheldrick of what3words.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Recently, it’s been onboarding new team members while working remotely. I’m a real convert to remote working and Picfair team members now work wherever they are most productive and happy, but onboarding new starters is really tough via Zoom. So much of what you learn in a new role is via osmosis. It’s meant we’ve had to really double down on how we introduce new team members and support them as they integrate.
What’s the best decision you’ve made so far?
Experimenting with a standalone photography store product to complement the marketplace – it exploded the business. Also hiring a social media intern in the early days of the company who has gone on to become our COO.
If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?
I wasted a lot of time in the early days of the company trying to raise VC cash because I thought raising VC cash was the cool thing to do. I’m very glad everyone rejected me because it would’ve been the wrong kind of investment at that stage of the business. In retrospect it was my ego that drove my VC pursuit – I was told that it was impossible for a first-time founder to raise VC cash so became determined to do it.
What has been your proudest achievement so far?
Getting the business off the ground in the first place. I think that’s the hardest bit – working out how to make an idea into a real thing that people actually use.
What are your hopes for your business in the next five years?
That Picfair becomes the number one brand in online photography. We want every photographer on the planet to have heard of us.