CASE Forum

Olapic: Hold Steady or Change Tack?

Within three years of launching as an online photo-sharing platform, Olapic changed its business model not once but twice. Is this the best way to pursue growth, financing and future profitability?

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Three Spanish MBA students at Columbia Business School in New York City had the idea to monetize the sharing of wedding photos online. They launched their digital platform in 2010 and called it Olapic -- the name suggesting a wave of pictures (ola means wave in Spanish). Olapic won an entrepreneurship contest at Columbia and attracted early investors.

When the startup approached its next stage of growth, the entrepreneurs looked beyond weddings. In fact, they relaunched the platform, this time targeting media companies as clients. Later, as the digital landscape continued to shift, they set their sights on customers with deeper pockets in the e-commerce industry.

In its first three years of existence, Olapic tried three very different business models. Is this the way to follow the money, both that of customers and potential investors? What's at stake?

From Wedding Bells to Reinvention
Pau Sabrià of Barcelona, Luis Sanz of Zaragoza and José de Cabo of Madrid launched their photo-sharing service for brides, grooms and wedding guests when they were still pursuing their MBAs. Many of their peer group, who were beginning to get married, became early clients.

The platform allowed friends to upload wedding photos to a common site. There was a free version (for fewer than 100 photos) and a premium service that cost $80. They tapped into a clearly interested market: newlyweds who wanted to share their special day.

When their project took first prize -- a $25,000 investment -- de Cabo pointed out that they won not for having the best idea but because it had already been deployed and shown to work.

But there were weaknesses. Ideally, clients only get married once. This meant there would be no repeat business and that money would have to be constantly reinvested in marketing to reach new customers. The entrepreneurs had to decide whether to stick with their original idea or to bet on another idea with bigger potential.

What they did next was to connect the dots between the changes in technology, demographics and markets. In late 2010, the photo-sharing platform Instagram was launched. In the growing wave of consumer-generated visual content, Olapic's founders identified the basis for a new corporate direction.

The platform was adjusted to allow media companies to share newsworthy photos. The trio joined a program run by a venture capital firm in association with the New York Daily News. Thanks to this program, the Olapic platform was relaunched with the Daily News' 14 million web visitors, allowing them to upload and share photos of real-time events like a snowstorm.

New Twists and Turns in Pursuit of Growth
Not long after this auspicious restart, there were new twists. Media companies were relatively slow to adapt to the rapidly changing digital landscape. Media rights contracts tended to take a long time to finalize, and were difficult to valuate. Direct competitors were also beginning to appear. Again, Olapic was faced with the existential question: should it hold steady or change tack?

In April 2012, Facebook purchased Instagram, and big brands started seeing more commercial value in image-based communication with customers. As e-commerce was considered the only industry boasting double-digit growth, Olapic relaunched as an e-commerce platform, targeting a new market segment.

The new platform was predicated on the idea that customers trust photos taken by other customers more than they trust a brand's own publicity shots. As such, potential customers are more likely to click "buy" when a product is accompanied by actual customer photos.

Olapic offered user-generated images of products to use at the point of sale. For example, one online furniture seller used Olapic to populate its image gallery with real photos of customers' pets lounging on its products. "Powered by Olapic" appeared as the signature, marketing the service to other e-commerce clients.

As Olapic's founders ponder their future funding options to fuel growth, should they approach potential investors with this idea firmly set for the future? Should they highlight their entrepreneurial agility thus far, staying open to new ideas in an endlessly changing digital landscape as they talk to venture capitalists? How should Olapic best position itself to catch the next wave?