Twenty20 takes its user-generated stock photo community mobile, proves that art does pay

By Michael Carney , written on January 7, 2014

From The News Desk

As we’ve learned time and time again with the rising popularity of Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and before them, Flickr, a picture is worth a thousand words… or eyeballs, or users, or something. But occasionally, a picture is also worth a few dollars.

The latest service to capture the attention of professional and enthusiast photographers is Twenty20 (formerly, Instacanvas), which lets users, and their fans, turn Instagram images, and as of one month ago, standard photos, into physical products like wall canvases, prints, t-shirts, smartphone cases, magnets, and greeting cards. Recently, the company began allowing users to license their work commercially as stock images, making it a truly multi-faceted photography monetization platform.

Twenty20 is quickly gaining steam with advertisers and content marketers looking for more authentic stock imagery. To foster this engagement, the company has begun hosting branded photo challenges and using other gamification strategies to connect photographers with their potential corporate customers. The reward for the photographers who “win” these contests, is typically exposure, as well as some credit to purchase physical products from the Twenty20 store. But for aspiring commercial photographers, a nod from Coke is plenty reward enough.

The Santa Monica-based startup now has the third-largest stock image catalog in the world, according to co-founder and CEO Matt Munson – bigger than both Shutterstock and iStockphoto. At 30 million images and growing, the company currently represents 8.5 percent of the 350 million image stock photo universe. Of course, these are user-generated images, meaning mileage (and quality) may vary. But the company manually curates its members based on both photographic quality and the size of their existing audience – with the goal of driving viral distribution – meaning that there is some standard and a wait list is forming. The company’s creator community is now 130,000 members strong and growing.

“I tell people all the time, search Coca-Cola on both Twenty20 and Getty Images – you’re gonna choose an image from Twenty20, because it’s more authentic, and not some high-gloss, stock image BS,” says Bullpen Capital partner and Twenty20 investor Paul Martino.

Twenty20 quietly released a completely redesigned mobile app shortly before the holidays. The company is iOS-only currently, but has an Android version on the roadmap. The reimagined app focuses primarily on discovery allowing users to create collections of their own and also other users’ photos. There’s no “follow” mechanism currently, although one is likely coming. Users can browse popular and recommended artists and images, as well as search the collective catalog by keyword, category, decor style, location, theme, and staff favorites.

Also not to be overlooked is the fact that mobile users can now directly upload images from their phone's camera roll – there's no in-app camera option – emphasizing Twenty20's move beyond just Instagram. This is likely just as well for the prosumer photography crowd who likely use VSCOcam, Camera+, or some other after-market app for capturing and editing those stunning mobile images, before publishing them across multiple platforms.

For the first time, the company has relaxed its signup requirements, allowing non-photographers to join the service and browse and curate images on the platform. They can even connect their Instagram accounts or manually upload images that can be printed as physical products. But these users’ images will not be available publicly on the platform unless they are approved by the Twenty20 staff based on the above-described criteria.

“Our audience is an artistic subset of the Instagram audience who’s tired of the noise, the selfies, and the breakfast photos,” says Twenty20 co-founder and VP Product Todd Emaus.

Twenty20 has one of the more unique formation stories of any successful startup you’ll hear. The company was a member of the inaugural class of the MuckerLab accelerator. Its original idea, one that they began working on months before joining the accelerator, was called Acceptly, a crowdsourced college admissions consulting startup. Just weeks before demo day, the founders decided that the idea was doomed to fail – student-users were simply unwilling to share the personal details of their college-preparation process.

Undefeated, the team banded together, and in feel-good Hollywood-style had a whiteboard brainstorm session to end all sessions. The idea that came out of it was Instacanvas, a simple service for turning Instagram photos into wall canvases. There are dozens of competitors today, but it was a novel concept in early 2012. A few dozen hours of round the clock hacking and the company launched just days later.

“Even our initial brand, Instacanvas, was something that we chose on a whim as part of a paid search [marketing] test,” Munson says. “The name was supposed to last 48 hours and it lasted for 18 months.” Changes to the Instagram API Terms of Serive prohibiting the use of the words “insta” and “gram” by partners, were the final nudge they needed to change the name in October of this year. It was a more thoughtful process the second time around, as the company noted in a blog post:

We went through hundreds of names to find a name that would be worthy of our community, worthy of your personal gallery URL, and worthy of the ambitious future ahead of us. We are extremely excited to share with you our (and your!) new name.

We believe your photos and galleries deserve to be elevated above the noise of social media and put into focus in their own platform for the world to discover and experience. Therefore, a brand that conveyed focus, precision, and clarity of vision was for us the obvious choice.

Twenty20 Checkout

On the consumer-facing side, Twenty20 has seen high levels of conversion and repeat purchase activity according to its founders. More than 30 percent of all buyers purchase a second item from the site within two months, they say. The company offers a “Zappos-style” return guarantee, but sees less than 0.1 percent of all purchases returned.

Twenty20 has rapidly grown its team to 15 people and plans to expand significantly in the coming year. Part of its recent growth includes the addition of former Viddy and Napster mobile apps developer Michael Robinette, who, as Twenty20’s VP Engineering, has overseen the recruitment of its mobile teams and the design of its new mobile experience. The company has raised just $1.7 million to date from FF Angel, First Round Capital, Bullpen Capital, Version One Ventures, MuckerLab, Scott Banister, and other angels.

Munson, Emaus, and their third co-founder, Creative Director Kevin Fremon have crafted a classic entrepreneurial story. When their initial idea didn’t resonate with customers, they went back to the drawing board and discovered something that did. The earliest versions of Instacanvas was an MVP (minimum viable product) in every sense of the term, but it struck a chord among its target audience. What has grown out of it is a unique alternative to the vanity-driven social communities that dominate photography today.

Not only is Twenty20 giving artists a creative outlet and a community to belong to, it’s giving them the opportunity to build their own businesses. And as everyone who’s encountered a true starving artist can attest, business savvy is in high demand.