Some of Picnik’s original employees shared a similar sentiment. So, they packed up, bid adieu to the corporate world and quickly got to work recreating what was lost with a new service called PicMonkey.
“Sixty million voices cried out when Picnik died,” said Lisa Conquergood, PicMonkey co-founder and chief marketing officer. “We really wanted to fill that void.”
In April 2012, Conquergood, along with former Picnik employees Justin Huff, Brian Terry and Charlie Whiton, started PicMonkey. With financial backing from former Picnik CEO and Seattle entrepreneur Jonathan Sposato, the team set out to build another photo editor like Picnik, but instead one that offered more features and better efficiency.
[Editor's note: Sposato is GeekWire's investor and chairman.]
It’s not everyday that someone builds a big online service, sells it to a tech giant for a hefty profit, watches it get shut down, and then recreates a new-and-improved version of the business. But the tech world sometimes works in unexpected ways — and the Picnik-to-PicMonkey story is a prime example.
A STARTUP’S UNUSUAL JOURNEY
Picnik, started nine years ago in Seattle by Sposato, Darrin Massena and Mike Harrington, was a popular photo-editing service that topped 60 million unique views a month. Google took notice and acquired the company in 2010 for an undisclosed sum.
But over the next two years, it became clear that the Picnik business was becoming an area of low priority for Google. While Picnik continued to operate as an independent service, the Picnik-turned-Google employees allocated more time to projects like photo-editing on Google+.
Eventually, Google closed the lid on Picnik — part of a broader move by Google CEO Larry Page to focus the company on bigger priorities. Google announced the closure in January 2012 as part of a laundry list of “resolutions for the new year,” saying it was making the move “so the Picnik team can continue creating photo-editing magic across Google products.”
“While we understood why they asked us to do that, it was nevertheless a very painful thing for a lot of us,” Sposato said. “It was a combination of the fact that, here’s a thing you created and now you’re being asked to put a bullet in its head; and also the fact that every day we could see the delight in users’ voices when they told us how much they loved Picnik.”
Terry, one of Picnik’s original engineers, said the shutdown was a “collaborative and amicable process done in partnership with other parts of Google.” In the weeks and months after that, the Picnik employees began to leave Google for various reasons.
“We all left very amicably,” Terry added.
But Terry and Huff, another original Picnik engineer, still had tons of expertise in the photo-editing space. There were also all those Picnik users left without their favorite online photo editor. And after a stint at a big company, they had the startup itch.
So the pair, along with Whiton and Conquergood, launched PicMonkey as a brand new photo-editing service in April 2012.
Here’s the twist: After shutting down the service, Google open-sourced Picnik’s source code, which was common practice for the company as it shut down services. But in reality, Terry said, the open-sourcing of that code actually mattered “very little” to the development of the PicMonkey product.
BACK IN THE SWING
Now approaching its two-year anniversary, PicMonkey has reclaimed a significant swath of former Picnik users, in addition to new fans. The online photo editor, collage maker and design tool is now attracting more than 13 million unique visitors per month with an average session time of 20 minutes. PicMonkey has nearly two million Facebook likes, representing a fan base that includes everyone from mommy bloggers to people simply looking for a quick way to edit photos without breaking the bank on Photoshop.
PicMonkey, which employs 15 people, has quickly risen up the GeekWire 200 index of privately-held startup companies in the Northwest, now ranking No. 3.
PicMonkey isn’t an identical remake of Picnik. The brand is different, there are a bevy of new features — like the collage tool — and the founders say the platform is faster.
But there are more similarities than differences, especially when it comes to the secret sauce that helped Picnik become successful. At its core, PicMonkey helps people edit and customize their photos — while delivering a bit of personality along the way. When users save a file, for example, they’re prompted to pick from settings of Roger “not great quality, tiny file size”; Pierce “Great quality, good file size”; and Sean, “Gorgeous, but large file size.” (James Bond fans, take note.)
Sposato, the company’s CEO (or “chief monkey officer,” as he has called himself) points to another important success factor: timing. The explosion in digital photography makes photo editing today similar to the early days of word-processing and spreadsheets.
“There was a time when Word and Excel were new things, and everyone had to make that transition. We see photo editing as the same thing,” he said. “Before, only people who could use Photoshop benefitted from photo editing, but now, it’s an important life skill. We are democratizing that skill.”
PicMonkey offers its basic service for free, and makes most of its money through a subscription program, charging $4.99/month or $33/year for premium features. Paid advertising contributes additional revenue.
The company founders say there are plans in the works to move into different form factors and platforms. As more and more people take photos with their smartphones, PicMonkey has seen demand for a mobile product. Conquergood wouldn’t get into specifics, but noted that the company is looking to expand past just photo editing.
“We see a future where PicMonkey can help with not just photo editing, but with how you communicate,” she said.
For now, though, PicMonkey has established itself in the crowded photo-editing market. The business is profitable and growing, and actually reached 1 billion edited photos faster than Instagram did, Conquergood noted. The company declined to disclose specific revenue or profit numbers.
If Google has any regrets about shutting down Picnik, the company isn’t letting on. Terry said he hasn’t heard from the search giant since starting PicMonkey. “Google sunseted Picnik,” he said. “They are not interested in this business.”
But would the company even entertain acquisition offers from another big company given what happened to Picnik?
“We’re having a great time, we have big plans and we are growing. Our current plan is to stay that course,” Conquergood said. “However, we are still a young company and it would be foolhardy for us to rule anything out.”
[Editor's note: PicMonkey CEO Jonathan Sposato is GeekWire's investor and chairman].