Like Snapwire, Scoopshot, and others, Twenty20 (available via the Web and as an iOS app) connects the massive community of mobile photographers – from amateurs to hobbyists – with major brands, like furniture retailer West Elm, that are seeking photos with creativity and authenticity, rather than the staged images from traditional agencies. According to Twenty20, this crowdsourced approach is highly desired for brands’ social media campaigns, which tend to prefer “real” photos shot by everyday photographers; crowdsourced photos are seen by brands as something that resonates better with customers, and could help brands engage with them. The service is free for photographers (they can upload almost anything they want, and participate in revenue sharing with Twenty20), while companies get access to this portfolio.
“Millennials as consumers want authenticity; you don’t get that from a staged photo.”
But, exactly just who is Twenty20? The company didn’t start out to become a photo agency. It launched three years ago as Instacanvas, an online service that lets Instagram users and mobile photographers sell physical prints of their work. But over time, as its user base grew tremendously, Instacanvas was evolving into something different.
“Quickly early on, what we started to realize was that, [mobile photographers were] very much looking for their own community,” Matt Munson, Twenty20’s CEO and cofounder, tells us. “Our product started to evolve from just a transactional platform of selling physical prints, to really a creative photographer community, so that’s very much what it is today.
“And that photographer base has built out the largest crowdsourced catalog in the world, and it’s scaling quickly,” Munson adds.
It’s this fast growth that had Munson and his team seeing an even larger opportunity beyond the physical print business, he says, not to mention the high-quality images produced by the latest smartphones.
“We had a lot of interest from external brands and agencies in getting access to the content,” Munson says. “Because we’re all consuming imagery in mobile devices and social media, we’re accustomed to seeing this real-world vibrant imagery, and so people that are buying images for commercial usage – who have traditionally bought something from stock companies like Getty and Shutterstock – are looking to purchase more authentic content.” So, as it grew its community base, Twenty20 had been secretly preparing its licensing service for launch, to meet this new demand.
“So rather than going through a small group of professional SLR photographers, which is what the traditional stock photo companies do, we’re actually sourcing from actual people all over the world,” Munson adds. “From an image catalog perspective, we’re already the third largest in the world. We’ve been very under the radar intentionally about this, but at launch we’re talking about a service that is bigger than a publicly traded service like Shutterstock.” Munson notes that the majority of its content are being used for digital platforms, such as Web advertising, social media campaigns, and header images for mobile apps, but many of the photos can be used in traditional media too.
Twenty20’s concept is very similar to other stock photo startups focusing on mobile photography. You can browse the selection of photos, see a curated list of photo highlights from the community, and participate in challenges. But Munson says Twenty20 has other advantages. Compared to other startups, the company points out that its big portfolio allows it to compete with the more established companies right out of the gate.
“You often hear about startups launching a service, going after a big incumbent, and they’re pitching a future vision for what’s going to be possible when they scale,” Munson says. “It’s pretty rare to announce a new service that has already achieved a level of scale that exceeds the massive incumbents.”
Another important component to its business is Twenty20’s in-house legal team that handles a quality review service. Munson says every image destined for commercial use is looked over. The company ensures all necessary releases have been signed or cleared, because it says the type of companies Twenty20 is catering to require legal protection.
The legal review “allows us to bring on clients, larger brands, and agencies that have in the past avoided crowdsourced options.”
“If you’re providing a service to a company like American Express, they want to know that every image is reviewed and that they’re not going to end up in legal hot water. And so because of that, historically large brands have avoided imagery from mobile,” Munson adds.
In competing with the big players, Munson says, being in a digital age where it’s all about mobile and social, Twenty20 is in a sweet spot.
“The iPhone and other devices have very much democratized photography, and [more people] are discovering photography and creating really incredible imagery at a rate never before seen,” Munson says, although he notes that the service isn’t exclusive to smartphones; users can upload photos taken with traditional cameras too. “This up-and-coming generation of people that are not professionals, but who are discovering they can create very compelling imagery. Our aim is to give them a path to professionalize that and give them a global audience for their work.
“If you look at the data on Millennials as consumers, they want authenticity and a sense of realness in the brands that they admire. You don’t get that from a staged photo shoot, but from someone just out capturing in their real life,” Munson adds.
Despite an ambition to be the Getty of mobile photography, Munson also says that its intention isn’t to overtake the major players (or at least, not right now). “I think Getty has a great business in print work, editorial, celebrity, and all that, and we [aren’t telling people to] stop buying photos from Getty or Shutterstock. We think that everything is moving toward a very mobile-centric, social-centric world – we’re already there – and we see this massive need for a type of imagery that people can’t find [at Getty or Shutterstock].”
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