The Renaissance was a cultural period of flourishing arts, technology and philosophical evolution, similar to the progressions we see today. Maybe not so much in the form of Impressionist painting, but in the sense of esoteric thinking and technological innovation. Enter the Startup Renaissance: an era of modern enlightenment and new business brought forth by the following 12 creatives who have bestowed inspiration across the photography, technology and media industries.
“The obstacle is the way” – Ryan Holiday, media strategist and author
When Ryan Holiday, author, media strategist and former marketing director at American Apparel, was beginning to write his first book, Trust Me I’m Lying, he had recently moved to New Orleans and was riding his bike to the French Quarter from Uptown. About halfway through his trip, as he made his way downtown, his front tire got stuck in the streetcar tracks. Before he could react, his body flew over the handlebars. He had broken his left elbow.
“I’m totally fucked, I can’t type,” he thought, especially since he’s left-handed. “I’ve quit my job, moved across the country and put everything I have into this book. Now my entire writing schedule is screwed up.” But this may have been before Holiday came to terms with the Stoic philosophy he follows today. It’s the same philosophy that would become the title of his third book—The Obstacle is the Way—which is, not to mention, the same advice he offered for this story.
“Since I couldn’t ride my bike and I’m not very big on running, for exercise I started to go on these super long walks,” Holiday tells me. “During these walks, I had all of these conversations with people and started to think about things in a different way. The book ended up being much better than if I hadn’t gone through some sort of adversity or disadvantage.”
More or less, Holiday believes that although we can’t control what happens to us, we can control how we respond to the things that happen to us. This thinking is drawn from Meditations, a series of personal writings by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, stating, “The impediment to action becomes the action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” And to Holiday, the obstacles you face are simply a chance for entrepreneurs to “move the ball forward, metaphorically, and do something you couldn’t otherwise do; to move yourself along a line that maybe you weren’t originally intending, but still forward along what is perhaps a different trajectory.”
After the accident, Holiday limped to a nearby restaurant where his girlfriend worked. He visited the hospital the next morning, and was put in a sling for six weeks while attending physical therapy. About five months later, he completed the first draft of Trust Me I’m Lying, which debuted on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list in 2012.
Ryan Holiday dropped out of college when he was 19 years old and practiced under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power. He has served as the marketing director at American Apparel and published three books before the age of 27. Holiday has also advised over a dozen New York Times bestselling authors and continues to work as an author and writer for a handful of publications.
“Be Adaptable and Fearless” – Mark Homza, co-founder and CMO at Flixel
“You’re dealing with ambiguity, the unknown,” says Mark Homza, co-founder of Flixel. “Every six to eight months the entire landscape can change,” which is why Homza believes it’s crucial to confidently let your business and ideas evolve, even if it’s not what you initially set out to create.
Flixel is a company that pioneered the idea of “living photographs,” using its award winning Cinemagraph Pro software. With the software, users can easily fine-tune motion in a single frame using unique live-masking feature. Now entering its fourth year in business—which Mark says is a pivotal year in the tech environment—Flixel has migrated into the professional sphere as a desktop platform, and far from the original idea the Flixel founders had in mind. “In 2011, the idea was to become a strictly mobile platform for living photos and our grand vision was to become the next Instagram for hybrid photography,” Homza says.
Towards the end of Flixel’s first year as a company—and at the same time they begun a partnership with Tyra Banks and America’s Next Top Model—Homza realized that the idea of simply creating a new form of Instagram should be refined. “We quickly saw that people weren’t going to do 13 cinemagraphs a day,” Homza explains. “It’s an art form that takes a bit more time and the frequency wasn’t going to happen.” And this was when the company discovered its niche user base—professional photographers, marketers and advertisers—and the only way to reach them would be to fearlessly shift from the mobile to desktop space. “We went from being a consumer friendly social platform to a proper, creative tool for photographers, content creators and people who take the art form seriously.”
And yet, Homza tells me that he would’ve never made it this far if it wasn’t for his life-long friend and business partner, Philippe LeBlanc. “Phil was the one to push me to have self-belief, trust my vision and know that things will absolutely change and to expect them to,” says Homza. “We’ve been working together for seven years, and what really helped me become fearless was choosing the right partner.”
Homza is a Montreal native who began his first entrepreneurial company—a corporate wellness program called Hour of Balance—in his early 20s with his current business partner, Philippe LeBlanc. After completing his undergrad at Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal, he went on to study law at Université de Sherbrooke before he dropped out to focus on Hour of Balance. The two then launched Flixel in 2011.
“There’s always a better way” – Mark Sherrill, head of UX and design at Shutterstock
Like most creative kids, head of UX and design at Shutterstock Mark Sherrill’s earliest memories as a child include painting, drawing and taking things apart to figure out how put them back together. Of course, he always set out to make his finished products look perfect, but quickly found that translating his visions into physical work isn’t something that comes easily. “When I got a bit older, I discovered tracing paper,” he told me. “I thought it was the greatest thing ever.”
But the thrill was short-lived. As a person who’s now an expert in design, he soon became bored with simply replicating someone else’s work. So, he moved on to painting, with the intent to create original representations from a more personal perspective. “I was using a paint set my mother bought me, and I still couldn’t get things to look the way I wanted to,” he says. “So I began to trim the edges of the paint brushes so they would leave the kind of marks I was looking for.” And that’s when he realized that there’s always a better way to accomplish your goals than what initially comes to mind.
“It’s the underlying theme for our design team and what I really try to push people to do when they come in each day,” he says. “I think there’s always a better way to do or approach something—a better way to put together the pieces that give users a great experience and express the company’s connection and understanding of them.” Which is, in fact, something that’s inarguably apparent throughout the stock imagery mecca, especially from a user’s perspective.
In 2013, for example, Shutterstock launched its Spectrum search tool, allowing users to browse their massive image library by both keyword and color using a simple slider tool. However, just last summer Shutterstock integrated its Palette feature, offering users the ability to sort through images using an 82-color palette as the main filter. Both of these innovations essentially serve the same purpose: searching for images by color opposed to words. But with such a vast spread of users, for some, one way may seem like a better way than the other. Which do you prefer?
Mark Sherrill earned an MFA from the School of Visual Arts for illustration and design as visual essay. He joined Shutterstock about four years ago when there were only 70 other employees at the company. Now, Shutterstock has a staff of over 500, including Sherrill’s 33-person design team.
“Read first, yell second and sell something” – Christian Polt, general manager at Lomography USA
Lomography is a company that’s a bit of an icon in the film photography world. Initially, but unofficially, founded back in 1982 with the creation of the LOMO LC-A—a camera evangelized by the LOMO Russian Arms and Optical factory—it exists today as a global organization and community dedicated to analog photography, and, also, a company with a vast collection of products and accessories. “‘Sell something’ is the bread and the butter of a business; it must be your goal,” explains Christian Polt, general manager of Lomography USA. “In photography, though, there are so many different types of photos you can take: landscapes, portraits, etc., it’s important to talk to people and find out what they want to do so you can sell them something that fits their needs.”
But to simply “sell something” is only one part of the concept, says Polt. He believes that cultivating a positive company culture and workflow is an essential value for any organization, too. “We live in a time where people are always busy, stressed and sometimes nervous. At Lomography, we have this 24-minute rule for when something happens that you dislike: you should wait 24 minutes to respond.”
In the end, this demeanor—a vibe that’s inhibits the cult-like community behind their products—has been the preface for Lomography’s lineup of notable Kickstarter projects. “I’ve worked on two of our most successful campaigns: the Petzval Portrait Lens and the Smartphone Scanner,” says Polt. “Basically, there are two directions for you to go: you want to reach everyone on Kickstarter, and you want to reach your own customers and community.”
In November 2014, Lomography released the Lomo’Instant Camera, a modern take on instant analog photography that funded over a million dollars on Kickstarter. These donations were about ten times the company’s pledged goal.
After studying business in Vienna, Austria, Polt joined Lomography’s web team in September 2008. For a few years, he managed the company’s online shop and marketing, becoming the international marketing manager. Today, Polt serves as the general manager of Lomography USA in New York City.
“Take risks and do it strategically” – Michael Hejtmanek, president and CEO at Hasselblad Bron
“One of my former employees used to say that ‘nobody ever makes the headlines for playing it safe,’” says Michael Hejtmanek, president and CEO at Hasselblad Bron. “It’s something I think about a lot, and probably one of the core principles in any business.”
But is there any correct way to take a risk? Where do you begin? And how do you survey it? For starters, Hejtmanek believes it involves much more than just making a decision, and there are fundamental management tactics that entrepreneurs, or really any business owner, should utilize to achieve a favorable outcome. “You minimize the downside, maximize the upside and figure out how to monitor the chances you’re taking,” he says. “You need to be prepared to quickly cut your loses if it’s not working and try to shift or readjust your strategy.”
Although Hejtmanek acknowledges that the idea of taking risks sounds cliché, one of the worst things you can do in business is stand still. To him, this includes simply being satisfied with the same percentage of growth each month or each quarter, even if the numbers are positive. “It’s so easy to say ‘Hey, we sold 1,000 cameras this month so next month we’re going to sell 1,200,’” Hejtmanek explains. “What you should be thinking is ‘Okay, I sold 1,000 this month, now let’s sell 3,000 next month and 30,000 the month after—you have to take risks to do that.”
In fact, Hejtmanek is no stranger to taking a chance and pulling it off. Just two years ago, in 2012, Hasselblad USA Inc. merged with Bron Imaging Group Inc.—a company known for its high-end lighting solutions—to leverage the strengths for two of the professional photo industry’s leading distributors in terms of sales, marketing and customer support divisions.
“When you’re combining two companies like these, there are so many things you need to learn, but you still need to take control quickly,” Hejtmanek says. “When you start to put off your fourth, fifth and sixth priorities, they begin to fester and in a really bad way; they turn into a cancer for the organization.”
Michael Hejtmanek attended Ohio University on a photography scholarship and graduated with an anthropology degree. He later worked in computer programming, serving for software companies in Toronto, San Jose, Tel Aviv, Zurich, Basel and more. In 2007, he began working for Sinar Bron, which later became Bron Imaging Group. He is now the president and CEO at Hasselblad Bron Inc.
“Create something you would use” – Anna Kenoff, co-founder of Morpholio
Co-founder of Morpholio Anna Kenoff is rooted in architecture, a field that is both mobile and social. She tells me that in 2010 her tools were not. The iPhone and iPad were becoming the mobile technology standards, which, at the time, were both powerful devices, yet failed to meet the needs of the industry.
“We didn’t have a way to keep our work in the form of a portfolio on the iPad or iPhone, which were devices we kept with us at all times,” she says, explaining how this demand was the very first stage in the creation of Morpholio—“a suite of apps that provide smart, accessible and intuitive tools for designers, artists, photographers, or any imaginative individual.”
“We began with architects in mind because that’s who we were. But, very quickly, we realized that there was a whole creative world out there using the same tools as us,” she says. “We started out to solve a particular problem; we had an epiphany. If portfolios were rethought in terms of how they fit into [mobile] devices, than the idea of a portfolio itself can be rethought as well.”
With Morpholio, users can constantly rework and organize sets of images based on who they’re sharing them with. For Kenoff, critique is a substantial part in any design-oriented field, which is one of the most innovative aspects of Morpholio: You can always be connected, quickly obtain feedback and use the EyeTime feature to make your profile public. “Feedback is a critical thing for designers and the more feedback you can get the better,” she says. “And that’s what we want to offer people: a smart tool that’s both a utility and community.”
Today, the iPhone 4 has evolved into the iPhone 6 and the creative industries are more apparent than ever. With new technology comes a dynamic need for mobile support, which is why is why Morpholio shines. It’s not just a platform that serves a purpose, but, rather, it fulfills a necessity for an entire industry. It’s this model—to create something you would use—that’s perhaps the most critical aspect in developing unique and original mobile technology.
Anna Kenoff grew up in North Carolina and studied architecture at the University of Virginia. She has worked at Work Architecture New York, a firm specializing in modern buildings, contemporary homes and urban planning projects. She then began attending Columbia University, where she met the three other founders of Morpholio—her husband Jeff Kenoff, Mark Collins and Toru Hasegawa—and has been with the company since it was founded in 2011.
“Create the playground you want to play in” – Mario Estrada, VP of special projects at Hipstamatic
As the VP of special projects at Hipstamatic—also known as the official director of fun—Mario Estrada believes it’s important for entrepreneurs and creatives, regardless of the project, to always be working on the things they love. That way, you become your own target audience, and there’s no one you know how to please better than yourself.
“It’s important for us to keep doing what we do well, which is photography, but creating it in a way that people will actually use,” says Estrada. “And when we stick to an idea that we love, it always works out much better than when we try to figure out what other people might want.”
As a San Francisco-based photography company that consists of seven apps—Hipstamatic, Cinematic, Tintype, Oggl, Incredibooth, Swankolab and Snap Magazine—they aim to encourage the photo community to tap into their inner artist. This is where Estrada’s role comes into play, pun intended. To do this successfully, it’s Estrada’s job to organize and maintain events that users—or in this case himself—would enjoy taking photos at. “We work on creating photo moments. At first, we did gallery openings, but when you bring photographers into a space where a photographer is being featured, no one takes pictures,” he says. “Now we offer a place for creatives to hangout for happy hour that’s not at a bar. It was something we didn’t see so we decided to create it. And that’s what we do with our products, too.”
In October, for example, the company introduced Cinematic 1.5, which integrates manual controls for shooting mobile video. Although some argue that mobile video has yet to be perfected, creating the ability to alter exposure, focus, white balance, shutter speed and ISO is unquestionably the first of its kind. Not to mention, it was ranked in Apple’s Best of 2014 Apps next to BuzzFeed, Uber and Camera+, to name a few.
“There was a void in taking really beautiful mobile videos that can be done easily, but with finesse,” Estrada says. “The goal of Hipstamatic was always to develop a platform that, in the end, delivers what feels like a final product.”
Mario Estrada grew up in Milwaukee and double majored in graphic design and Spanish with a minor in photography and art history at the University of Wisconsin. There, he met the other founders of Hipstamatic—Ryan Dorshorst and Lucas Buick—in a painting class. He has worked as a photographer for MTV, a graphic designer for Bloomingdale’s and is also the editorial director of Snap Magazine.
“Look at your business from outside your own perspective” – Wendell Lansford, CEO and co-founder at Offerpop
Offerpop is a digital marketing platform for marketers to engage consumers to drive brand awareness and product discovery. Basically, it’s a modern digital market that allows users to not only spread, but to share and create fresh content with the touch of a finger. According to Wendell Lansford, CEO and co-founder of Offerpop, online consumers trust their friends’ and families’ opinions the most, with strangers’ opinions as a close second. And this is why Lansford sees so much value in looking at your business from every perspective outside of your own.
“This is my third startup and it’s a lesson that doesn’t come easily,” says Lansford. “We all have our own ideas and perspectives but you have to keep yourself in your customer’s or investor’s position.”
But that doesn’t mean completely disregarding your personal ideas, Lansford says, especially when it comes to pitching ideas for new projects. “Right now we’re going through a very large product release that’s going to be a key part of developing an overall platform for digital workers. I think having our own vision and understandings are a key part of any successful fundraising process.”
Although Lansford couldn’t mention much more than that new product is “related to consumer data and insights based on social behaviors, social actions and mobile activity,” the general concept illustrates why others’ perspectives are so important in business: A company cannot survive without consumers, so their ideas, actions and behaviors should influence the products your company is creating.
“There’s a whole new world of insights that can be gained through the use of technology based on social activity,” Lansford explains. “We’ll be providing a new set of tools to help marketers capture, organize, manage and gain insight through data inside and outside of Offerpop.” So maybe it will no longer be difficult to view your business from an outside perspective after all.
Wendell Lansford earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Tulsa. For graduate school, he studied business and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In the mid-90s he worked as the director of technology for Conde Nast and has co-founded Internet Consulting Corporation and Sitebridge Corporation. After working as the COO and SVP of business development at Systinet, which was acquired by HP in 2006, he co-founded Offerpop about four years ago.
“Always be working on your personal projects” – Jake Nickell, founder and CEO of Threadless
About 14 years ago, when he was a sophomore in college, Threadless founder and CEO Jake Nickell created a thread on Dreamless—a popular but now-defunct digital art forum—called Threadless. At the time, he worked as a web developer and used the forum to collaborate with other artists, combining his two passions of art and technology. “The first five Threadless shirt designs came from that thread on the forum,” he says. “It wasn’t until six years into the business that I was able to devote myself to the company full-time.”
Sure, it may have been a slow growth, Nickell admits, though it was never intended to become such an eminent company. It was merely a side-project he used as a creative release from the day-to-day work fatigue that mostly everyone can relate to. “People think that if you work in a creative field you always get to be creative,” Nickell adds. “But that’s not the case, especially when you have to work for clients, and we all need something to take our minds off of our work.”
After a few more years as a web developer, however, Nickell quit his job to do freelance work, founding eight different spin-off companies: There was 15 Minutes of Fame, Extra Tasty and I Park Like An Idiot, to name a few. But it wasn’t until the demand for Threadless t-shirts became so great that he and his partner, Jacob DeHart, hired their first employee and took on the project full-time.
“If your measure of success when starting a business is that you want to make a ton of money, then the odds are you will fail,” says Nickell. “But if you’re passionate about the project and think it would be fun for you to do, then you’ll be successful. That perspective keeps you focused on doing it because it’s something you want to do.”
Today, Threadless has grown to over 70 employees and sells millions of t-shirts each year. There are over 1,000 designs voted to be printed by users each week. And, of course, the artists receive commission on every shirt sold.
Jake Nickell is the founder and CEO of Threadless. He attended the Illinois Institute of Art, launched Threadless in his sophomore year and dropped out at 20 years old to pursue his passions. In the past, he has worked as a delivery driver for Pizza Hut, a programmer for Cyberworks Media Group and a temporary professor at The Art Institute of Chicago.
“Never, never, never give up” – Simon Moss, CEO at ImageBrief USA
After chiropractic manipulation on his neck, ImageBrief CEO Simon Moss awoke one morning with a pounding headache, blurred vision and no feeling in his fingertips. “It felt like I had buried my hand in snow for the past half hour,” he says, adding that it was so severe he couldn’t dial the numbers on his phone to call in sick to work. He quickly alerted his wife and the two drove to the hospital, which was fortunately located just a few miles away.
According to Moss, when he entered the emergency room, the nurse at the front desk was alarmed. He was then hurried in for a CT scan, only to find that the doctors’ suspicions were correct: Moss’s carotid artery had torn and blood was no longer flowing to the right side of his brain. He was having a stroke.
“They told me that I may not be able to walk or talk and I could potentially die,” Moss says. “There were a lot of quasi-goodbyes given between my wife and kids, and that sort of thing really effects you emotionally, physically and spiritually.”
And at that moment, Moss adds, he pledged to never waste another of his life if he survives. “At the time I was working for other companies, but as I laid in the hospital bed I decided to pursue my dream, which was to start my own company.”
It’s been about three years since then, and Moss has made a full recovery and founded ImageBrief—a worldwide marketplace connecting creative professionals to a global network of high-quality professional photographers and content partners—in 2012.
“Photographers are basically entrepreneurs, who ultimately need a way to work out their business,” he says. “One of the things we are passionate about is building a platform that gives photographers a place to build their business. And I’m not talking about something as simple as a website, portfolio or enthusiast community.”
Simon Moss grew up in the UK, moved to Sydney, Australia in 1995 and spent the next 10 years in international software sales and marketing management. In 2005, Moss and his wife Meg set up niche photo library called Picdesk. Following that, they founded ImageBrief together in 2011, and in 2012 moved to New York with their two children, Zen and Lola, to further develop their business.
“Think outside the box… or shipping container” – Laura Roumanos, executive director at United Photo Industries
Whether it’s visual arts or music, the launch of a festival typically draws a few thousand people at most. But of course, there are always exceptions. There’s Art Basel, for example, that drew about 30,000 attendees when it first entered Miami in 2002. And then there’s Photoville, New York’s premier free photography festival that turned out 45,000 people during its first year at Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2012.
“We don’t do anything traditionally,” comments Laura Roumanos, executive director at United Photo Industries, the company that founded and runs the festival.
Photoville began as a few small shipping containers, where United Photo Industries would host annual exhibits during the Dumbo Arts Festival. That is, until about four years ago, when the city approached them about expanding across Brooklyn Bridge Park. “It’s very rare for a major New York park to say ‘Here’s the space, go for it. We believe in you,’” Roumanos says. “I imagine, for most people, it’s difficult to take that opportunity and run with it without any money, but we knew we’d never have that chance again.”
To her, another critical aspect of running an organization like this is a sense of “outside the box”—or in this case “outside the shipping container”—way of thinking. “Even when we first opened our gallery in Brooklyn, our first exhibition included seven different shows over seven days. It’s all about finding your mission and using it to stand out,” she says.
But unlike other startups, Roumanos adds that United Photo Industries and Photoville are funded by support from their community, rather than venture capitalists or investors. “A lot of our funding comes from grants and partners. We have over 80 partners, media outlets, curators and buyers that we market to who also help get the word out.” Aside from Photoville and their Dumbo, Brooklyn gallery, United Photo Industries also organizes festivals and contests across the world.
This past year, Photoville featured over 50 exhibitions spread among 65 shipping containers, along with panel discussions, hands-on workshops and more. They exceed an attendance of 70,000 people.
Laura Roumanos is originally from Sydney, Australia, where she graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. She is also a producer and art administrator, and has worked on Creative Time and the World Science Festival. Aside from being the executive director for United Photo Industries, Roumanos has recently produced the Opening Ceremony Spring Fashion Show play written by Spike Jonze and Jonah Hill.
The Devil is in the Detail, Jon Miller, co-founder and chief product officer at Hive Lighting
Hive Lighting has redefined production lighting with its original, energy-efficient plasma technology, used throughout the theatre, photo, film television, sports and theme park lighting industries. With a high output, small point source light and extremely low power draw, pressure-free quartz capsules filled with argon ignite in the bulb converting the gas into plasma.
“We’re literally creating micro stars,” says co-founder and chief product officer at Hive Lighting, Jon Miller. “They’re luminous spheres of plasma, small balls of gas that produce a huge amount of light and have an incredible color quality, very long bulb life and are completely flicker-free.” But despite this groundbreaking technology, Miller has found that minute details in the physical design have been one of the most crucial factors in launching a successful product. “It’s not like people aren’t excited about the technology and the bigger picture behind [our lights],” Miller explains. “But in the end, when we first gave our prototypes to people, the feedback wasn’t focused on how great the quality of light was, it was about small details that the photographer would be working with that make it more functional.”
Last April, for example, Hive introduced a new color control system on the back of their lights using graphics—instead of text—to identify each option. “We wanted it to translate to any language,” says Miller. Though when a friend unofficially reviewed the lights before the prototypes were released, the immediate feedback was centered around the color of the stickers surrounding the dial, rather than the functionality of the product. “The first stickers we used were black and white images similar to the ones found on camera menus, such as a light bulb or cartoon sun to identify the color temperature,” says Miller. “She suggested that we color the stickers so the blue graphic would make the lights a cooler color temperature and so on.”
And this is why Miller believes that whether you’re at a photo shoot, or running a small business, the seemingly unimportant details can be the most conclusive aspects of the project. “It’s the little things that define the difference between a project’s success and failure,” he says.
Miller grew up in Long Island and earned a bachelor’s degree from Brown University in film theory and fine art. After he graduated, he worked as a freelance photographer and videographer, going on to receive a master’s degree in cinematography from the University of Southern California. He then founded Hive Lighting with his college friend, Robert Rutherford. February 2015 will mark four years of business for the company.