RALEIGH — Justin Miller, the CEO and co-founder of the company behind the smartphone apps Deja Mi and WedPics, says the initial idea for the company’s location-based photo-sharing technology came to him during a rock show at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill.
Miller, who is 6-foot-4, was sitting at the back of the venue watching fans hold up their smartphones to take pictures while the band, Circa Survive, performed.
“I realized this is an amazing show but I’m never going to see any of this again,” says Miller, 31, a graduate of N.C. State University’s School of Design who was working for IBM’s internal ad agency as an art director at the time.
How great, Miller thought, would it be to have a way for a group of people – many of them strangers – attending the same event to upload all the photos being taken to a central place. Miller and co-founders Idan Koren, Andy Heymann and Tyler Mahoney have since raised more than $800,000 from angel investors to turn that idea into the startup Deja Mi.
The company’s first app, also called Deja Mi, has mostly been used by corporations that pay to enable attendees at their conferences to freely share content. Among the handful companies to use the service is Miller’s former employer, IBM, which is using it for its Smarter Commerce Global Summit events.
WedPics, the company’s second app, relies on some of the same technology but without the GPS components. It is going after a potentially much more lucrative market: weddings.
Couples pay $99 for a WedPics photo album and are given an access code that they pass along to attendees or anyone else they want to share the content with. Attendees download the WedPics app for free to their smartphone, then enter the access code and take photos that will go directly to the couple’s album. The album can also be accessed through the WedPics website.
“Once they enter [the access code] it’s like a private Instagram at that point so all the photos go right to the bride and groom,” says Mahoney, a former photojournalist who recently got a master’s degree from Duke University’s Divinity School.
WedPics stores the wedding photos in the cloud, allowing the bride and groom to view them whenever they wish or download them for use in other ways.
The app has been used at nearly 500 weddings in 15 countries since launching in August and the company is hoping it can become the photo-sharing app of choice for the $80 billion a year U.S. wedding industry.
For now Deja Mi’s 13 employees work out of the basement of a North Raleigh house, a cramped setup that keeps its cash burn rate low and very much reflects the startup ethos.
WedPics faces plenty of competition, both from established online photo-sharing tools such as Flickr and Facebook as well as direct competitors Wedding Snap and Wedding Party. Interest in developing the next blockbuster photo-sharing app has only increased since Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire Instagram in April.
WedPics is marketing itself as a convenient, safe and cheap alternative to the disposable cameras that used to be commonplace on wedding tables before the arrival of smartphones. There’s no question that the ability for attendees of an event to crowdsource images is appealing to consumers.
A recent television advertisement for the Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone shows users of the phone – at a wedding – sharing photos in real time.
“When I first saw that commercial I almost fell over,” admits Miller.
But he notes that the technology is hardware-based, meaning all attendees of a wedding would have to have the same smartphone to participate. A photo streaming feature offered as part of Apple’s iCloud service has similar limitations.
WedPics is available for both the iPhone and Android smartphones.
Miller argues that an app specifically tailored to weddings is compelling because the online social networks for many people have become large and diluted. WedPics, he says, allows a bride and groom to share content within a secure network that they have control over. The bride and groom have the ability delete photos if they wish, and users can flag any photos they deem inappropriate.
The interface for WedPics has been designed to be similar to Instagram and Pinterest, the two most popular photo-sharing tools. The company spent six months developing the underlying photo-sharing technology that is the basis for both Deja Mi and WedPics.
Although the company continues to market Deja Mi to corporations, Miller says it remains a niche market at this point.
“It’s still not something that’s mainstream at all at these events,” he says.
The success of WedPics is likely to depend as much on marketing as it does on technology, particularly since most of the customers who pay to use it will do so just once. Facebook paid such a premium for Instagram not because of its one-of-a-kind technology but because of its enormous user base.
“It’s definitely a land grab,” Mahoney says.
WedPics has received mentions in popular online sites such as Mashable and TechCrunch, and its executives have also begun attending wedding trade shows. Miller says that in addition to raising more funding, the company is also seeking out strategic partnerships with major players in the wedding industry.
“It’s an industry that’s based on trust and referrals,” he says.
WedPics doesn’t have any plans to sell ads as part of its service, but the company has looked at possibly moving to a “fremium” model where customer gets a bare-bones service and then pay for additional features. One advantage of targeting the wedding market is that $99 is a fraction of the overall budget of most weddings. The average wedding budget was $27,021 last year, according to an annual survey conducted by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com.
Raleigh resident Tiffany Clodfelter, 31, used WedPics for her wedding last month in Wilmington. She checked out the service after learning about it on Pinterest.
“I basically planned my whole wedding off of Pinterest,” she said.
Most of the 125 people who attended the wedding had smartphones and downloaded the app before the event, she said. Clodfelter’s bridesmaids took photos throughout the day, allowing her to see in real time what was going on elsewhere while she prepared to walk down the aisle.
“It was just neat to see what everybody else, all the guests, were doing,” she said. “We’re still definitely looking at all of them.”