Cluster receives a $1.6M endorsement from Instagram’s first investor to prove the photo sharing nut hasn’t been cracked
Photo sharing is an incredibly over-saturated category. There’s no two ways about it. But this has nothing to do with whether the all of the consumer pain points in the space have been addressed. Rather it simply means that a few too many entrepreneurs apparently looked at the exits of Instagram (and before that, Flickr) and thought to themselves, I could do that.
Brenden Mulligan and Taylor Hughes weren’t thinking anything along these lines when they co-founded Cluster earlier this year. In fact, they didn’t even approach it as a company-building opportunity at first. Rather the two self-proclaimed nerds simply built an app to solve their own problems.
Following a lengthy, multi-city trip with friends, Mulligan and Hughes were trying to share the photos taken among the group. This was not a few, choice shots, artistically filtered for public consumption. They wanted to aggregate, organize, and share thousands of photos between multiple users.
“We’re huge nerds, and we couldn’t find a way to easily put all of our photos into same place,” Mulligan says. “We tried Dropbox, but we exceed on of our friend’s free storage limits. Photostream was a disaster because we couldn’t build and sync individual albums for each of the three locations that we visited.”
With his mind now tuned to the issue, Mulligan began recognizing that he was running into similar roadblocks every time he went out for a night with friends or attended a family function. Hence Cluster was born. The iOS App and Web product isn’t meant for sharing photos publicly or even in real-time. It doesn’t even offer the option to take photos within the app. Rather, it’s first and foremost a mass photo collection and private sharing platform – with some public sharing options for those so inclined.
“I don’t really care about sharing my photos with other people. I just want other people’s photos and am willing to share mine to get them,” Mulligan says.
Cluster offers its users unlimited storage and the ability to create private (or public) photo albums. When the creator of a Cluster invites another user, they can view all of the photos in the album or add their own. When new photos are added, every member of the cluster receives a push notification – which Mulligan claims leads to massive, near-instant engagement.
Photo uploading is restricted to the mobile app currently, with the Web version offering only the option to view and like photos. But a full featured Web version is at the top of the product roadmap. The app aims to simplify the upload process by using simple time and geolocation analysis to recommend photos to be added to each album, based on the premise that they were taken during the same event. With an update being released today, members of a cluster can now download the HD version of any photo.
Cluster’s founders initially expected the app to be used primarily around individual events, like weddings, vacations, or the school play. But while this is a common use case among the app’s early user base, it has proven more popular for creating living albums around topics.
For example, one set of users created a cluster for their baby, uploading the first photos from the delivery room and continuing to do so daily through its first several months of life. The private album is shared with close family living across the country and provides a window into the child’s life. Families tried to shoehorn Path into this use case early on, but it’s really ill-suited to the purpose. Path and other private social networks aren’t optimized for sharing large photo collections and don’t offer the ease of photo upload and download that Cluster has built.
Also, there are very few people who want to see EVERY photo of your child, your dog, or your European vacation. This means that any social network, no matter how exclusive, is an ill-suited place for mass-photo aggregation and sharing.
With the release of its updated mobile app today, Cluster announced $1.6 million in Seed financing. The round was led by Baseline Ventures’ Steve Anderson, who incidentally was the first investor in Instagram. Others investors include Freestyle Capital, First Round Capital, Google Ventures, and Sherpa Ventures. (Disclosure: First Round Capital is an investor in PandoDaily.)
Cluster’s user base is small and the company has not attempted to monetize yet. Rather, it’s still in the very early stages of understanding how its app is being used in practice, and how to improve the experience to make it a must have in people’s lives. Future monetization will likely involve offering paid premium features to power users. But, according to Mulligan, storage limits won’t be among them.
“Positioning yourself as the place to for users to upload and store all their photos, and then preventing them from doing so with storage limits would completely break down the experience,” Mulligan says.
Cluster has turned out to be a far more interesting problem than either Mulligan or Hughes ever thought it would be, the pair says. “I can honestly say that every single day that we’ve worked on it has been challenging and interesting,” Mulligan says. “There’s a lot that’s still broken about photo sharing.”
The company’s primary focus today is around educating users about Cluster. At first this was as simple as outlining “how to use the app,” according to the its CEO. More recently, they’ve switched to a more emotional sell, telling stories about the moments and memories that other users have shared within the app.
With a smartphone in nearly every pocket at all times, it looks unlikely that we will slow down our picture taking at any point in the near future. And with this comes the need to share photos. It may be an unsexy and even utilitarian category, but it’s one that remains a pain point for many consumers.
By taking VC dollars, Mulligan and Hughes are betting that there’s room to build a big business solving this problem. It will take adept product design and even better product marketing to break through the noise and fatigue in this category. Even if they build the best photo sharing platform in history, there’s no guarantee that will be enough to break out.
But photos are inherently personal and emotional. Any company that succeeds in making their sharing and consumption more enjoyable stands to be rewarded handsomely.
- ClusterShare the photos you have. Collect the photos you missed.
Cluster is taking digital photo albums and reinventing them into networked, social artifacts of past experiences.
The goal of the initial release is to make it dead simple for people who had a shared experience to pool their photos together after the event. Future releases will explore the social dynamics of this close-knit group and reinvent how people think about and use digital photo albums.