5 Tips For Startup Success From VSCO Co-Founder Joel Flory

See why VSCO is a success from the inside out.

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With the popularity of shows like Silicon Valley and films like The Social Network, people have become increasingly familiar with the tech world in California’s Bay Area. For the mobile app industry, building a successful platform is cutthroat, with competitors chomping at the bit to fill the voids within current trends and technology.

The development begins with identifying a problem. For VSCO co-founders Joel Flory and Greg Lutze, this was a serendipitous moment. The two initially assembled the team with the intention to create WordPress templates, but the company soon discovered its true function when founding member Zach Hodges found a way to expedite Flory’s photo-editing process for wedding photography. The new process allowed the team to stylistically emulate film photography, this marked the birth of VSCO Film. What started as a plug-in for desktop editing software, eventually found its way to mobile phones.

Following the release of the iPhone 4S – with it’s upgraded 8 megapixel camera – the world of mobile shooting was on its way to becoming a viable means for photography. And through the help of Instagram hashtags and other photo sharing apps, VSCO soon became the most popular app for photo editing. In a recent open discussion with MAEKAN, hosted at Hong Kong’s Kee Club, Joel Flory shed light on the company and offered tips for success to young startups.

Somebody told us we have to find something we love and we’re passionate about. It’s not always going to be easy.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job Just Yet

For Flory, continuing to work a day job played a major role in learning how to build a healthy company. While working at a startup, that ultimately was unsuccessful, Joel saw the types of poor legal and financial decisions that led to bankruptcy. Along the way, Joel also saw that with the amount of resources available, and the many avenues you can take to fund a project. In 2012, VSCO was already in the early stages of development, and still something the guys were doing on the side. Flory worked as a photographer, while Lutze continued working as an art director.

Find a Problem That Needs Solving

Discovering an existing problem that needs solving is very important to creating a quality product. Before VSCO, the team had potential ideas that they believed could be monetized, but they opted to wait for something they loved and had a passion for. The original 5 founding members came from different career backgrounds. Their mix of experience helped them figure out what was missing from the industry. They already had an idea about what creative tools they needed as creators, but felt the need to supply the average person with the tools necessary to express themselves.

Assemble the Perfect Team

For the guys at VSCO, spending money on building a team is seen as the best investment. With zero knowledge for the technical side of coding, Flory and Lutze used the initial $45,000 from hosting photography workshops to lock Mike Wu into a contract as Chief Technology Officer. Keeping the team happy is also important. At VSCO, this means maintaining a healthy work-life balance, achieved through gym memberships and added benefits. Most tech companies are fairly competitive in the amenities they offer to employees. Flory learned that most startups fail due to internal problems, which is why he makes an effort to learn about organizational health. To read up on these yourself, he recommends Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage by Patric Lencioni.

Prioritize Objectives

In 2015, VSCO grew from 40 to 115 employees, which seemed necessary at the time — but in hindsight, Flory learned that the solution to problems is not always more manpower or funding. When companies grow larger, different teams begin to form their own objectives, and before long they are competing against each other to use the same shared resources. This is where prioritizing the needs of the company come into play. A perfect example of this is how they decide which new features to implement in the bi-monthly updates. With Lutze and Wayne Wu continually adding to the to-do list of over 1,500 new features, they must report to CTO Mike Wu, often referred to as the ‘dream killer,’ who prioritizes these in a practical way.

Build a Community Around Your Product

Forming a community around a product is something that cannot be forced, but doing so is absolutely necessary in growing and expanding the company. When VSCO first launched, the platform did not have an area for community discussion or sharing. It simply existed as a photo-editing tool for external photo sharing apps like Instagram, where VSCO’s community is visible in the form of hashtags — 123 million #vscocam tags, and 96 million #vsco tags. Now with a presence on both Instagram and their own community platforms, VSCO has been able to give back to the people. By hosting its artist initiative scholarship fund, recipients like Street Etiquette have received funding to pursue their creative visions. VSCO has also partnered with companies like Levi’s, NikeLab ACG and HYPEBEAST to offer downloadable presets that are reminiscent of the DNA that VSCO Film first introduced. This close interaction with their community has helped them create a product that can compete with the likes of Adobe products.

Chris Lim/MAEKAN
Eugene Kan/MAEKAN