04 Sep 2015 9 Technologies that Make Building a Microstock Agency Easier Now than When the Big Guys did it

It’s easy to take for granted what the microstock agencies who are big now did back in the early 2000’s to get to where they are today.

Building a microstock agency today is quick, easy and cheap compared to when iStockphoto, Shutterstock and Fotolia did it.

1. Cloud Computing

In the early days of microstock, running a high-traffic website meant finding or building a datacenter, which is particularly expensive and time-consuming. They had to order servers from a manufacturer and then unpack, mount, install and configure each one of them manually. And if a key server, the datacenter or the ISP went down, the website was offline.

This used to happen to iStockphoto a lot, as the first mover.  Going from memory – so the details may not be exact – at one stage they had their own datacentre in Calgary and it would regularly (by today’s standards) go offline. When they had to move datacentres, there would be scheduled downtime that lasted days.  Eventually they got a second datacentre and replicated the data to it, which meant the site was offline much less. But contributors could feel their pain; having to focus so much time and effort on the backend technology when all they wanted to do was sell licenses and grow the business.

Today everything is cloud based. You can log into your cloud provider and spin up 15 new servers with a few clicks. Not that you even need to: now algorithms spin up and down server instances automatically in response to changes in traffic or load.  The days of doing it all manually, as iStockphoto did, are gone.  Work that used to require teams of engineers due to the range of knowledge required, is now done by scripts with only a few engineers hidden behind the cloud service working on the network and hardware.

Amazon dominates the cloud computing industry with AWS, specifically EC2 for servers. Rackspace also does a good job, and is used by at least one microstock agency that I know of.

2. Cloud Storage

Cloud storage was in its infancy when the first agencies pioneered in microstock. Back then this storage system wasn’t as flexible, reliable or cheap as it today, and so few microstock agencies used it.

Instead, they had to buy NAS –network attached storage– systems and house them in their datacenter. These are computers that have lots of hard drives, anywhere from 10 to 100, with redundancy so any one drive failure –which weren’t uncommon at the time– wouldn’t cause loss of data. As the companies grew and their need for data storage with it, they had to keep buying more and more NAS racks. And they weren’t cheap.

Today, a few clicks in your browser and you have a storage ‘bucket’ with its own Internet address ready to store as much data as you need. There’s literally no limit, as the service manages the storage hardware transparently behind the scenes. That includes device redundancy so a single hard drive or server failure won’t interrupt your service.  And there’s optional site redundancy, so if the entire datacenter goes offline for some reason –much less frequent these days– your service is, again, uninterrupted. You just pay by Gigabyte. Simple, easy and cheap.

Amazon is again the biggest service provider for cloud storage with their S3 service, though Rackspace also has similar services

3. Cloud Search

The world’s most common search technology is Solr, an open source and free search product which is amazingly flexible and fast. It was adopted by the first microstock agencies in their early days and is still used by many of them today.

However, it can’t do everything. Early adopters like iStockphoto ended up literally building their own. This was a multi-month project for multiple full-time developers, and once built, required constant maintenance and tweaking.

In the present day there’s a nice choice of hosted search services which remove all the heavy lifting. You simply sign up for the service, connect it to your other systems, plug in your algorithm of choice, and you’re set.

All data input –new files, changes to metadata, etc.– is automated. Configuration is centralised and simple – primarily the search algorithm is what gets tweaked most. The systems also scale automatically in line with usage patterns.  It couldn’t be easier.

Amazon’s AWS has Cloud Search, and another popular choice is the independent Elastic Search.  The sophistication of these services far surpasses the custom-built solutions of 10 years ago, providing great flexibility with how data gets indexed and factored into algorithms.  Both work well with AWS and other environments.

4. Social Media

‘Back in the day’, reaching out to potential customers was actually expensive. Before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were household brands and traveled in everyone’s pockets, blogging was the cutting edge of social media –not that too many people used the term ‘social media’ back then.

Microstock agencies had to use old fashioned technologies, like email (gasp!) and the web to brand and spread awareness. Web presence was bought via Pay Per Click ads on Google, paid banner ads or sponsored reviews, or it was bartered and begged from popular bloggers. Email campaigns beyond internal users had to be done through partnerships with other companies who’s service complimented but didn’t compete. It was slow, hard and expensive compared to resources available now.

Today companies can build their brand in seconds, getting notoriety with a smart marketing campaign and doing some smart content marketing on social networks.  Or, if they can pay a little, jump onto Facebook or LinkedIn and reach perfectly targeted demographics instantly, with whatever amount of resources suit their budget.

The current solutions are all the apps we know and love today: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, etc, etc.  All free, all with huge user bases, and now all with their own paid marketing options. But there’s also a plethora of companies who can help you do it, automate it, optimise it, track and scale it.  New agencies have it easy.

5. Split-Testing

Figuring out which price, which image, which copy text, or which search algorithm provides the best results used to require a lot of work.  Agencies had to build their own tools to serve the different pages and then measure the results. This was another layer of complexity on top of systems that were already complex, and both building and implementing them ate up a lot of engineering time.

Today, split testing tools exist to make it simple and take it well beyond what individual engineering teams had time to do back in the day.  Plug in the tool, enter the tests, and watch the data flow out the other end.  It’s simple, easy, cheap and fast. And the data you get out is incredibly useful.

Optimizely is the current leader provider in this space, working with more than a couple of microstock agencies.

6. Off-the-shelf Packages

Funded startups are generally still doing what the top microstock agencies did when they started: building their platform from scratch.  It takes a lot of resources and time, but ultimately gives you a lot more flexibility and control.

But startups which aren’t funded usually opt to boost their startup phase with an off-the-shelf software package that has the majority of functionality required to run a microstock agency. It gets them up and running in less than a day, and most of them are easy to customise, even for non-programmers. And boy are they cheap!

Ktools and StockBoxPhoto are currently the most common choices. WordPress, with a cocktail of plugins, is starting to rise in popularity too. They’re all cheap, run on standard stacks (server configurations) and are easy to manage.

7. Information

When iStockphoto started, there was no information: the microstock business model didn’t exist.  What Bruce & co. went on was their own frustration with how the traditional market worked, coupled with what they saw happening with technology in other industries.  A few years later, when Shutterstock and Fotolia started, all they had to go on was iStock’s experience.

But today there’s a wealth of information about strategy and tactics to be found, helping entrepreneurs build on –or intentionally avoid– the path of those who came before them. Knowing what has worked and what has been attempted in the past is a huge advantage, avoiding the need to use trial and error to find success.

Industry information is available in the news archives of the industry, if you know how to read between the lines and have the time. There’s also no shortage of industry consultants, and even my own research report which pulls together a large chunk of what startup entrepreneurs in the microstock industry need to know.

8. Mobile

Back in the early 2000’s, a “smartphone” was one that came with a technology called WAP. If you don’t know what that is, lucky for you. Suffice to say that smartphones weren’t smart and mobile apps didn’t exist.

Today the mobile environment provides a lot of advantages to new microstock agencies, and not just because they can reply to email before getting out of bed in the morning.  Apps form a big part of agency strategies, on both sides of the market.  Buyers can use them to search, manage lightboxes, and in most cases, purchase licenses right on the device.  Contributors also shoot with them, increasing the quantity and intimacy of images available to the agencies.

9. CDNs

Content Delivery Networks – the systems that replicate website files to various servers around the world to make them download faster – were just starting to emerge in the early 2000’s.  In their infancy they were difficult to install, expensive to manage, and were fraught with problems.  iStockphoto, again as an early adopter, was constantly having issues with Akamai‘s young CDN service at the time.

Today, there’s a variety of reliable CDNs and the technology has come a long way. They’re now much cheaper, easier to setup, and way more reliable. For businesses using Amazon’s AWS for other parts of their technology, Cloudfront is just another checkbox to instantly activate a CDN.

Cloudflare is another popular choice of CDN used by some microstock agencies.

How Much Faster Do They Make It?

Even when it’s undeniably beneficial to be able to simplify so much of website building with all these tools and services, truth is that no technology can add up to the advantage of being a first-mover, or at least one of them.

Besides most of these later developments are, as much as efficient and thoughtfully developed, canned. Established agencies surely have higher maintenance costs for their sites, but having built everything custom they have way more control over them.

1Comment
  • Eric B
    Posted at 00:40h, 05 September Reply

    Thanks. Very interesting history.

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