Business

How Instagram spawned a successful Boise startup

This photo was taken in Guadalajara, Mexico.
This photo was taken in Guadalajara, Mexico. Provided by Art of Visuals

Prince McClinton, a 26-year-old wearing a backward baseball cap and long-sleeve T-shirt, could talk all day about the startup he co-founded three months ago, Art of Visuals.

At Trailhead, the Downtown working space, McClinton talked to a reporter about the company’s business plan. And its Instagram account. Co-founder Travis Leslie’s eye for photos. How he and Leslie created the startup’s magazine and mobile app, its development team, its online engagement, its plans for a new website.

Art of Visuals solicits and curates artistic photographs from around the world and posts them on Instagram. The account already has 286,000 followers. The Huffington Post reported that McClinton and Leslie drew 200 people to a sold-out launch party Jan. 7 in San Francisco, where they showed off their first print magazine.

It’s all exciting to McClinton, enough to make him move from San Francisco to Boise, where Leslie, also 26, handpicks the pictures.

“I’m back, and we’re building an awesome business,” he said.

BUSINESS REUNITED FRIENDS

McClinton, Leslie and a third friend started a video business in Boise in 2010. Leslie and McClinton later left to pursue other jobs. Leslie, a Boise native and Boise State University graduate, sold luxury cars at Exclusive Motor Co. in Boise, which he co-owned. McClinton, a San Diego native, worked at several San Francisco startups and a tech company in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Leslie started the Art of Visuals on Instagram a year ago as a hobby. He aims for beauty over truth, picking photos with a stylized, highly edited look McClinton calls “moody.”

Photographers and photo lovers flocked to the account. Thrilled, Travis and McClinton decided to turn it into a business. McClinton moved back to Boise from San Francisco in December to launch the company. The pair lead a team of four who work full time and a handful of part-timers.

Art of Visuals has published one edition of Art of Visuals magazine, with another on the way in April. It sells photo-editing filters starting at $3.99 and is selling the second edition of its magazine for $24.95. McClinton said the business is already profitable, though he declines to disclose sales.

He said a bigger development will be the April launch of a new website. It will catalog millions of images and, the founders hope, serve as a gathering place for photographers around the world seeking to connect with one another and for companies seeking new, close-to-home talent.

Surrounded by fellow entrepreneurs in Trailhead, McClinton was midsentence when his iPhone hummed an alert from Slack, a group messaging app. McClinton apologized for the interruption.

“That’s my team,” he said. “We’re grindin’.”

Q: Do you and Travis Leslie have backgrounds in photography?

A: We and a third friend had a video production company in Boise for a couple of years, SVS. I was there from 2010 to 2012. It’s still around. We did all types of video production work, where we had an audio engineer who would do all of the music and voice-overs. We’d shoot music videos, corporate videos, university videos, corporate marketing.

Q: Was it successful?

A: I’m not going to put a number on it, but we had a lot of fun and made some good money. At the end of the day, we got too deep into doing the corporate stuff that wasn’t as fulfilling as the creative stuff.

Q: How did the Instagram account Travis Leslie started a year ago coalesce into a startup?

A: Living in San Francisco, I knew amazing photos were being taken there, but I didn’t know where. I realized tons of people in the community had similar problems. They want to know what camera was that taken on, where it was taken, how to connect with the photographer. There were Instagramers and people in my own city, but there’s not an efficient way to connect and get out and explore together.

Travis and I decided to build a solution. I flew out to Boise for Travis’ wedding for two weeks. The first week was wedding stuff, and the second week Travis and I built a prototype of our product, which at the time was a mobile app.

Q: What was Leslie’s idea behind the Instagram account?

A: Travis is like a genius when it comes to curation. He knows how to pick photos that get people going. When people were looking to be inspired to do things, they’d go to the Art of Visuals page, and those are photos that were all hand-selected by Travis.

We have hundreds of thousands of photos being uploaded to our Instagram. Between the three hashtags — #aov, #artofvisuals, and #bevisuallyinspired — we’re talking 3.6 million photos. We also have a submission form, and you can only imagine how many emails we get a day asking us to look at their art. Trav has the eye. He throws up a photo, and it gets 25,000 likes and 200 comments.

Q: Art of Visuals photos seem thematically tied, using light in a certain way. How do you describe the look?

A: Not bright and bubbly. Definitely moody.

Q: Did Leslie seek this aesthetic?

A: Absolutely. He had a vision for it. He sees trends, where things are going. The moody, cinematic type of photos are really big. You didn’t really see that moody type of imagery two years ago. It was more about bright, high saturation, well-exposed perfect photos. It’s now the opposite. A lot are dark, moody, flat blacks, crushing colors. A lot of photo manipulation is involved. People are spending hours editing a single photo. Our community kind of created that style.

Q: Is this filter work?

A: It’s more sophisticated than that. We have [and sell] our own custom light-room filters, which stand out from the marketplace. We’ve created that moody look, and people love it. But a lot of the stuff on our account is more complicated than just using a filter. There’s a lot of adjustments, brush action, things like that.

Q: The Instagram account has measures of audience engagement — such as user likes and comments — that big companies pay millions to cultivate. Have you figured out why users engage with the photos rather than peruse them in a more passive fashion?

A: People want to be featured, and we offer a discovery platform. If you get a photo on AOV, overnight, boom, you get hundreds of followers on Instagram.

We’ve had photographers say, “Sony called me to do a shoot,” or, “Jaguar called me because they saw me on your feed.” A lot of big brands check out who we’re posting and reach out to those photographers.

At that point, we decided we’d build a prototype and see where it goes. Here we are, three or four months later. We’re going to build on that with our platform release in April.

Q: How have you funded the company?

A: We’ve taken an undisclosed amount for a preseed, friends-and-family round of investments, mostly from the Boise area, a little from the Bay Area, and a little from Phoenix. I wouldn’t even call it an angel round.

Q: When do you project profitability?

A: We actually are profitable right now. We run very lean. It’s important to us to drive revenue, where a lot of startups rather go the hardcore investment route.

Q: What will the new website do?

A: It’s a discovery platform. It allows people to find the most epic photos in one place, whether they are on mobile, tablet or desktop. It allows you to search through photographs by category, by location, by camera type, by collections.

The best part is it’s curated. You don’t have to sift through Betty Lou’s selfies or spaghetti dinner. These are the best of the best, and you only see the kinds of photos you like. If you search for portraits or aerial photos, we’ll show you portraits or aerial photos.

[The new site will be] similar to Spotify in that it will suggest imagery for you as well as give you the metadata from the photo, so you can find out what lens or camera your favorite photographer is using, or what camera. You can actually click on that and purchase that gear. Everything a photographer can ever need in one platform.

Edited for length and clarity. Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464 , @IDS_ZachKyle

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