Linda Johannessen (Copyright Mikkel Aaland)

17 Jul 2015 Interview With YAYmicro CEO Linda Laegreid Johannessen

After seven years in business, YAYmicro hasn’t exactly set the industry on fire, yet, they haven’t disappeared either, as so many startup microstock agencies do.  They’ve grown slowly, modestly and – honoring their Norwegian culture – quietly.

I recently had a very interesting conversation with CEO, Linda Laegreid Johannessen, where she shared some new details about YAY that piqued my interest.  She graciously accepted my request for an interview.

Her detailed answers provide a lot of interesting insights into the life of an established microstock agency that suddenly has some very interesting milestones on their roadmap.  If successful, those milestones will position the company to break into that next level status in the industry.

Sounds like business is booming.  Which areas of business are driving this growth? 

Business is going well, but we do see a need to drive our growth higher than it currently is.

We see the highest growth on our new streaming site – Yay Images – and on some partner sites. We do see a lower growth with general image partners, and I think this might be confirming a trend identified by others: large global companies, like Shutterstock, are taking over the image market, squeezing the smaller, local players out of it. We don’t try to compete with Shutterstock and iStock as much as we try to convert non-paying customers from piracy to paying with our Streaming model. 

So much of the image use is still illegal, and the image industry is pretty much in the same place as the music industry used to be. People get their content from piracy sites, for the music industry it was The Pirate Bay, for the image industry it’s Google images. The music industry tried to solve this by suing people (sounds familiar to what parts of the image industry is doing..) without much luck. The game changer came with Spotify. By giving people a much better tool to explore and listen to music, Spotify manage to move people from piracy to paying – even if people didn’t see any problem with piracy music. 

And this is one of the core problems for the image industry: People don’t feel that they’re doing anything wrong when using digital content without a license. We at YAY think we can solve this by educating people, making them aware that photographers are dependent on their licensing income, and by giving them a tool that’s good enough for them to use it instead of Google Images. 

Our streaming plan is our solution to the problem. The users get to stream as many images as they need online, and they can also edit them on-site. And for the photographers, our goal is to get people to pay $9,90 – it’s not a high amount, but it’s so much better than zero. (Our commission is the same, 50%.)

What’s the driver for the new offices in San Francisco and NYC?

The two new offices are both mainly one-person offices, but hopefully we’ll be adding people in the near future!

The San Francisco office got started last year, when I went on a three month explorative trip. Our main focus now is to drive our growth up, and since most of our users are from the U.S. it made sense to be here. We ended on San Francisco after looking at the total package it has to offer: technology, innovation, lots of potential partners, and access to growth capital if/when we want it. The business environment in Silicon Valley is unique, with its mix of people from all over the world, large corporations, and small startups. The area is also known for it’s “pay it forward” attitude, making it an amazing place to run your company! And soon we’ll have our executive person in NYC office, to be announced soon. 

How are you finding life in San Francisco?

I moved over here alone in September, first for three months exploring, then six months for setting up – and now I’ll be staying in order to run the subsidiary. As I mentioned, it’s a great place to do business. There’s so many talented and helpful people, and the energy here is so great! People are positive, helpful – but also direct and to the point. There’s lots of events, where you’ll learn new stuff, and meet other entrepreneurs.

YAY has been quiet relative to other agencies in the business. Is this an intentional strategy, or a result of the naturally modest Scandinavian culture?

This is a mix of intentional strategy and our culture. As Scandinavians, we’re more prone to under-communicate and under-promise, than the opposite. We’ve tried different ways of communicating, from the early days when we had our own forum, to participating in forums, to sending frequent newsletter to less frequent.

We’ve now settled on newsletters to communicate large changes. What we do welcome, and encourage, is for people to contact us directly. We have our direct emails on the website, and we still answer a lot of support emails ourselves. We do have people that do this for us as well, but we think it’s important that the management/founders don’t lose touch with the people we are serving.

Can you explain the difference between YAY Micro and YAY Images?  Is this a re-brand, or are they operating separately?

YAY Micro is the old site, where we still sell single images and our initial API is here as well. The main functionality for this site now is for photographers to upload pictures, and manage their account. We plan to upgrade this part soon, adding more functionality for photographers. 

YAY Images is our new site. It is targeted to online use, and this is the site we focus our growth efforts on. It’s still pretty small, but we do see growth – and the feedback from clients are extremely positive. People save so much time and frustration by using it compared to using Creative Commons, Google Images, and battling Photoshop. We’ve also built an API on the streaming feature. This API is perfect for SaaS’s, and we’re already live with a couple of partners back in Norway. 

How many staff do you have now around the world?

We’re still a small company, trying to run everything as efficiently as possible.

The current team is the three founders: Oddbjorn, Jan and me. In Oslo, we have added an account manager. Our tech two-member team is in Poland. Our photographer contact is based in Romania. Then we have our designer in Florida and our copy expert in Minnesota. I am in SF and I have an intern here with me, and soon the new exec in NYC. As you can see, a distributed team! I think we have 4-5 different time zones, with 9 hour time difference between Oslo and San Francisco! 

You have around 7 million images now.  Are you finding it easy to grow the collection, or does competing against the giants of the industry make it difficult?

When we started our goal was to make a solution that made it easy for photographers to join us, and add their content. We got feedback from lots of photographers, and tweaked and added features so it would be a good fit.

I think the ground work we did then explains some of our continued growth of the image collection. We also try to be open, honest and transparent with all our communication, so I know a lot of photographers upload to us because they share our business philosophy.

We’re still one of the smaller players when it comes to pay-out, but we’re growing – and hope to become a real money maker for our photographers! We don’t do any marketing or similar in order to grow our image base. We do talk to photographers, and help them with submissions if they have large portfolios. As a photographer, it makes sense to get your work out there, especially when the agencies are targeting different segments and markets. With our focus on converting the non-paying customers, we hope to grow the total image market.

After a couple of million images, I think the search becomes more and more important. Our clients feedback is that we have different images than the other sites, while in reality it’s the algorithm that’s different. By applying a mix of manual and automatic scores, and then some common sense, we’ve ended up with a pretty great algorithm. This also benefits the photographers, as we have a broader exposure of our image base than what you’ll see at other sites. 

YAY has always appeared to put more effort into partnerships than marketing directly to photo buyers.  Is that perception accurate, and if so, how are the partnerships working for you? 

Being small, we’ve tried to find ways to get to the market without spending too much on direct marketing. Partnerships is a great way to get clients at a direct low cost, and it’s been an important part of our business model.

We’ve mainly got partners in markets we would have a hard time to access ourselves, like Korea. For ‘easier’ markets, like the US, we focused mostly on growing our own user base. We’ve focused a lot on organic growth, and have spent a very low amount on marketing. When you’re small you have to try to be smarter, and patient, because growth will take longer. A startup reaches different levels, and we’ve finally reached the level where you earn enough to spend more money on earning more. It’s no longer all about survival. 

What are your primary challenges at the moment?

Our main challenge now is how to get people to know about us. Even with marketing, the amount of noise is so high, it’s difficult to get a message across.

A part of this is how to get people to realize that photographers make their living of their photos, and it’s not OK to get them from Google Images. It would be great if Google could tweak their image search to reflect this even better. 

I really like the twitter campaign #ReplaceWriterWithPlumber Maybe we could join forces and do something similar for photographers? 

  • Eric B
    Posted at 00:43h, 18 July Reply

    As a contributor to their site, I hope for the best. They have an easy submission process for illustrators. The release function needs streamlining however. I also like that they give us choices for opting-in to specific partner programs.

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