In 2009, Lucas Buick and Ryan Dorshorst were the frustrated owners of a failing design studio called Synthetic. The recession had put a massive dent in their client list, and the two were looking for a new way to pay the bills.
"We thought, 'What can we make with two guys and no money?' The answer was an iPhone app," Buick says. The guys' first idea: A fancy weather app. “We scrapped that quickly because I was like, would I even buy this? The answer was no,” he adds.
Then the duo, both lovers of retro cameras, came up with a photo app called Hipstamatic. It’s a paid app that lets users choose from a myriad of old-timey filters for smartphone photos.
Today, Hipstamatic boasts over 4 million users and brought in $10 million in revenue last year. It has also become Synthetic’s flagship product, and inspired the company to create a portfolio of other photo apps, including Disposable, IncrediBooth, and SwankoLab. The founders project revenue of $22 million this year.
Hipstamatic, of course, continues to be the company’s backbone. The app hit the Apple store in December 2009, and within the first 36 hours, it was the most downloaded app in Japan.
"As a designer, to have anything of mine be a hit in Japan was like a childhood dream," says Buick. Two weeks after launch, it was profitable.
"We saw $50, then $100, then $300, and soon we were making thousands a day,” says Buick. The app costs $1.99 to download, and gives users options to buy premium lenses and filters within the app.
Earlier this year, Buick inked a deal with photo-sharing app Instagram (a 30 Under 30 alum, just bought by Facebook for $1 billion). The content-sharing agreement, which allows Hipstamatic users to share photos seamlessly through Instagram’s social network, is just one step the company is taking to ensure growth.
“We also want to continue cultivating this high-brow user base,” says Buick. “It’s a real photographer’s app.”
In 2010, New York Times-photographer Damon Winter won a photography award using Hipstamatic for a series of photos from Afghanistan.
"We want to redefine photography," says Buick. "Someone asked me once, 'If Kodak offered to buy Hipstamatic, would we sell?' I say, 'No.' I want to buy Kodak.’”