(Bloomberg) -- VSCO got its start in 2011 as a software program to help professional and hobby photographers edit and enhance their work, using both traditional touch-up tools and more creative ones like gauzy, colorful filters. In the past six months, it has become famous for something else. Credit the #VSCOgirls.Through little effort of its own, VSCO was catapulted into the global limelight this summer. Teenagers and young women discovered that VSCO’s filters perfectly captured a certain carefree, beachy aesthetic, inspiring thousands of snapshots of long-haired girls clutching Hydro Flask water bottles and sporting Birkenstock sandals to pose in sun-kissed, wind-swept photos. As the trend gained momentum, it also turned into a meme, often coming off as a parody of itself. Posts tagged #VSCOgirl flooded Instagram and TikTok, and the theme even showed up at the Global Climate Strike.
The free publicity has drawn in a new cohort of users who saw the hashtag on their social media feeds and tracked down the VSCO app. They liked what they found— not only original photo-editing tools but also an online, low-pressure community of creatives. Think of it as Instagram, but with no likes or follower counts.
Joel Flory, co-founder of Visual Supply Co., as it’s officially known, isn't complaining. The surge in interest has boosted the app to No. 7 in its category on Google Play and Apple Inc.’s App Store, from a rank in the double digits in May. Twenty-one million, or more than 10%, of the app’s total 200 million downloads since 2011, have come from May 1 through the end of September, according to researcher App Annie.
As more young people flock to VSCO, the challenge for the company will be to leverage the audience it’s gained from Instagram and TikTok to keep and extend this new user base. And convince more people to sign up for a $20 annual subscription— without sacrificing its status as a creative sanctuary.Flory started VSCO – based in Oakland, California, and pronounced to rhyme with “Frisco” – with Greg Lutze as a place for creative professionals like themselves. In the beginning, VSCO sold filters for photographers using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to help enhance images and streamline the editing process. In 2012, they launched a mobile app and made money by charging for individual filters or packages of them. Next came the VSCO Grid, an in-house social network that allowed users to follow each other and share their work. Eventually the company added more social-media type features, such as the ability to message people and to republish other’s posts. Even as it became more like Instagram, VSCO made a conscious decision to draw some distinct lines.
In fact, Flory attributes VSCO’s recent surge to all of the ways it’s different from Facebook Inc.’s Instagram, which thrives on likes, a tally of followers, sponsored influencers and ads. VSCO has none of those metrics. What attracts people to VSCO is its focus on expression and creativity without any pressure for social validation, according to Flory. “We don’t sell ads, we don’t sell data,” says Flory, 39. “We sell something that people find value in directly paying for. We’ve been very intentional about that from day one.”Some of VSCO’s 20 million weekly users have indeed found value in sharing their personal posts outside the social media circus. Jesse Calderon, 19, who has been using VSCO since 2014, said that when she was in high school people used it as a “secret Instagram,” because it was a more carefree space. Eleanor Larson, 18, said she’s had VSCO since junior high and after starting out using it just to edit photos, she now also uses it to post digital art and journal entries. VSCO is for her “work in progress,” whereas Instagram is for “finished products,” she said.
While viral, monetizable social interaction and influence is what led Facebook to acquire Instagram in 2012 for almost $1 billion, there’s been a growing backlash against the need for posts to be “Instagram perfect,” and an increasing sense that social networks can encourage comparisons to an unreachable ideal. Instagram itself announced earlier this year that it was considering hiding like counts on posts, hoping to center users’ focus on the actual content shared, rather than the number of likes they get. VSCO, which Flory likes to describe as a creative community where people go to express their real selves rather than worrying how other people see them, has benefitted from the growing disillusionment with the potential negative emotional and mental-health effects of social media.Markus Cooper, 19, who runs an Instagram account with more than 2 million followers, says VSCO has been popular for years as a way to edit photos. Recently he feels like it’s become more of a social network, but “a healthier space than Instagram. Just because there’s no likes there’s no comments there’s no nothing.” Cooper recently shared his first photo on VSCO’s feed.The company has evidence it’s onto something. In a recent study, VSCO found that its users, 75% of whom are under 25, appreciate the platform as a place where they can post whatever they want without concern of judgment from their peers. It also showed 82% of Gen Z-ers – roughly those age 10 to 25 – surveyed refrained from posting things online out of fear of what others might think.Last year, VSCO’s paid subscribers reached 2 million, and Flory said the company is on pace to nearly double that this year. Paid subscribers get access to more than 130 preset filters, as well as advanced editing tools including for video. The free version offers about 10 basic filters.Revenue in 2018 doubled from the previous year to $50 million, according to Forbes – the company doesn’t disclose financial information and declined to comment on revenue. VSCO recently announced it’s opening a new office in Chicago and plans to add 20 employees to its current workforce of more than 150. Backed by $90 million in venture capital from Glynn Capital Management and Accel, VSCO was valued at $550 million in 2015, according to Pitchbook. It’s probably worth more than that today, VSCO said, without providing a more specific updated valuation.
Photographer Nesrin Danan, 24, said VSCO is her go-to app for editing personal iPhone photos, although she doesn’t use it for her professional work capturing music artists including Shawn Mendes to A$AP Rocky. For Danan, VSCO has always been a place she edits images before posting elsewhere. So she was surprised at some of the comments she received when she spoke at a convention for young influencer-hopefuls, called Brand Camp, earlier this year. “They were like, ‘We don’t even post on Instagram anymore, we just post on VSCO,’” Danan recalls. The high school attendees told her that feedback such as likes and follows wasn’t important. VSCO just looked cool.John Barnett, co-founder of Chroma Labs, and a former Instagram product manager whose resume includes inventing Boomerang, says for Gen Z, “visual creation is their thing. Successful apps over the last decade that you see are apps that give teens tools to express themselves.”
Of course all memes have a life cycle and sooner or later #VSCOgirls will be overtaken by something else. But Flory isn’t worried. He’s seen plenty of trends come and go on VSCO and says the site is ``anything but one side, one perspective or one stereotype.” Flory says he sees it as “a win-win, because really all it is, is an opportunity that creates a sense of awareness. And once VSCO is in someone’s mind they’ll go seek out what it is.”
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