It’s almost 6pm when I meet Justin Myers, co-founder and CEO Explorest, to test drive his new photography app. In Singapore, no matter the time of the year, this means the sun is close to setting. “The golden hour,” Myers says with a smile – that time just after sunrise or before sunset when photographers know they can capture the world in warmer, softer colors.
Launching a mobile app centered on photos these days doesn’t seem worth it given Instagram’s domination. Explorest’s difference is that it doesn’t allow just anyone with a camera to upload pictures on the app. Rather, it accepts submissions from expert photographers who know what they’re doing and selects the entries that users see.
Explorest accepts submissions from expert photographers.
Each photo uploaded includes specific details and tips by the photographer on how they framed the shot, what settings they applied, where they stood (or climbed on, or hung from), and what kind of equipment they used. The app geotags the location where the picture was taken and can guide you to these spots so you can take your own snaps.
“On Instagram and on Flickr, you see comments asking about the location of a picture and other information that people seek,” Myers says. He set up the company with San Francisco-based photographer Michael Lax and two other co-founders. Lax, who has over 76,000 followers on Instagram, had identified this need himself, Myers tells me.
Although the #startup is headquartered in San Francisco, its development team is based in Vietnam and it currently offers locations in Singapore.
The team chose the city-state because it’s a small country that could be covered quickly with location information. It’s also home to a very active photography scene and has a strong iOS user base, which serves the app well since it’s currently only available on the iPhone.
After Singapore, it plans to tackle Hong Kong and San Francisco.
We use the location feature of Explorest to wander around Suntec City. Judging by the number of spots available, the area’s iconic urban architecture has inspired many a Singapore-based photographer – and it’s a nice change from snapping pictures of mainstays like Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay.
We start, naturally, with stand-out landmark The Fountain of Wealth. Serious photographers would cringe to hear that I’m only armed with my phone camera. However, Explorest has even thought of philistines like me, letting users specify their level of expertise. I make sure to indicate my lack of experience.
From there, it’s on to Millennia Walk, where this waterfall drew our attention. This was interesting because I haven’t come across this landmark before, even though I commute to this area daily. It’s just not part of my regular routine so I would be unlikely to discover it otherwise.
Tips for this location included taking the photo from as low a point as possible, and also getting your feet wet. We managed to avoid that last one, maybe to the detriment of our snap.
Even Yayoi Kusama’s art, currently wowing audiences in Singapore’s National Gallery, makes an appearance. This is another one you would be unlikely to just casually come across, unless you specifically have business in Millennia Tower (and you care about Kusama).
Across the street, the Mandarin Oriental hotel shows up for a photo op. The app is good enough to guide us to an overhead bridge that connects two malls together. It’s a common enough walkway in the area, but the photo’s contributor makes us consider the surrounding view in a way that might not occur to most people hurrying to and fro.
Our short jaunt ends just a few meters away from the Esplanade with this spiral staircase at the Marina Square mall. It’s nothing spectacular – just a set of stairs leading to ground level. However, the photographer’s keen eye helped him create a compelling image that got us to see the landmark in a different light.
As someone who isn’t in a position to take full advantage of the app’s more esoteric photography insights, it was particularly interesting how it guided me from location to location, almost like a treasure hunt. You can easily make a day of it, following the dots on the map and looking for cool pics to snap.
Courting the pros
Explorest has signed up almost 20 contributors so far in Singapore, who have contributed more than 100 locations. The startup monetizes through a subscription, currently offered at an introductory US$1.99 per month or US$11.99 per year. There is a free component that includes some starting location insights, but paying users will be able to unlock the full content.
The subscription isn’t just part of the startup’s monetization strategy; it’s also the way it plans to incentivize photographers to contribute content. “We share 50 percent of our in-app revenue with the Explorests,” Myers says – the app’s name is also its title for contributors.
The idea is, the more content there is on the app, the more people will sign on, which will mean growing income for contributing photographers. “We built the technology to understand engagement on each location, so we can set how much money each photographer will get,” Myers explains.
Explorest shares 50% of its in-app revenue with photographers who contribute to it.
The incentive allows photographers to add value to the app and be rewarded for their trouble while doing something they would be doing anyway. For most shutterbugs who are not the few high-profile globetrotting types, it’s tough to make a full-time living on their art alone. This makes Explorest worth their time.
The focus on professionals and enthusiasts helps make the subscription easier to stomach for users, but it could also limit the app’s target audience. After all, if you just want to look at pretty pictures, why not just stay on your trusty and free Instagram feed?
Myers says Explorest doesn’t need Instagram-level usage for the economics to make sense. Its overhead and customer acquisition costs are relatively low and the startup is satisfied with the response it has seen so far.
Almost a month after launch, the app has over 8,000 users signed up, adding an average of 400 users per day. Many of those users signed up during an initial free period, so Myers expects a drop now that the subscription has kicked in, but he’s not too concerned. “We will still have some value for the free user, and we can increase or decrease that,” he says.
Other apps offering photography tips and resources include Scoutt and PhotoPills. Myers feels that Explorest stands out because it plans to reward contributors, work with influencer networks, and focus on curating submissions by photographers. “We had 160 applications over the last seven days,” he says. “Very few of those will meet our curation standards.”
One potential spanner in the works would be platforms with a larger reach adding similar tools. What would stop, say, Flickr, Instagram, or even Google from adding this type of information to their databases and offer it for free? Services like Panoramio on Google Maps arguably already do something similar.
Myers thinks there is still a place for Explorest regardless of such a development. He reiterates his previous argument: these services would be unlikely to have the level of curation and user personalization Explorest has.
“There are hundreds of guides but as long as we’re creating a user-friendly, intuitive experience and deliver important, high-value insider information, we can stand out,” he says.
Down the line, Myers sees more opportunities like allowing users to buy the equipment they see in a particular entry on the app, or even selling popular pictures as stock photography. The startup also plans to add social and community features to give users more reasons to stick around and engage with their favorite artists.
“Nobody’s working with influencers,” Myers says. “That’s what boggles my mind the most – most of the images you see online are created by contemporary millennial Instagram. There’s nothing wrong with that but we want more breadth.”
Those same influencers could help the app grow through their own audiences. Already some of them share photos on Instagram, tagging Explorest in their posts.
The founding team is currently funding the company, but it’s in the process of reaching out to VCs and angel investors for its first external funding.
The question is whether there is enough in the app to keep subscribers paying month after month. It still seems geared to people who are (or want to be) more serious with their camera work – the ones who would get the most out of the available resources.
It doesn’t preclude casual users from taking part in the experience, but it feels like there’s fewer reasons for them to stick around in the long term.
What the big picture looks like for Explorest will depend, then, on how it can keep these users close while still appealing to its more enthusiast base. Scaling to new cities quickly will be essential for the app to offer a wealth of content – this way, it would also appeal to frequent travelers, which is another promising demographic for the startup.
“We’ve had 100 submissions from over 30 countries on where to go next, so the demand is there,” Myers says. “We would be remiss to not pay attention to the rest of the world as long as it doesn’t distract us from the core of our product.”