An avid traveler and mom turns her desire for decent vacation photos into a viable business that lets travelers put the tired travel selfie to rest.
When Nicole Smith and her friend went to Paris in 2011, they realized the photos they were taking of themselves in these culturally rich settings were, in fact, total misses.
“We would take selfies that were these big floating heads,” she said. “It proved really hard to get a decent photo.”
But that changed when she handed her iPhone to a local friend in Paris.
“I gave her my iPhone and asked if she would mind taking some candid shots as we strolled,” Smith said. “When I looked at my phone I had goosebumps because she had captured the spirit of our trip.”
It wouldn’t have been possible without that third party, Smith said.
“It was the best souvenir.”
When Smith returned from Paris, she looked into what it would take to hire a photographer to capture similar photos on future trips, but she found that an easy, affordable option didn’t exist.
Inspired, Smith started Flytographer, a vacation photography company. She arranges professional photographers to take candid, photojournalistic style images of travelers at some 200 locations across the globe — a list that’s expanding all the time.
Building a Business
“I have never had so much fun in all my life,” said Smith. “And I’ve never worked so hard.”
When she started Flytographer, Smith, who had studied international business and marketing, had two small kids and a stable job consulting at Microsoft.
“I didn’t want to rock the boat,” Smith said. “The thought of a startup scared me.”
Despite the fears and unknowns, Smith launched Flytographer on the brink of her 40th birthday. Her first client was a friend who was taking a birthday trip to Paris. Smith found a photographer on Craigslist, skyped with him and the shoot was a success (he’s now a full-time Flytographer and one of their busiest in the world).
Smith went on to book a series of shoots with local photographers in other cities, learning along the way.
“By the end of that year I realized this is something people really love, and photographers think is cool,” she said.
She incorporated the company, joined a local tech accelerator and launched her website in March 2013.
“The launch was unglamorous,” she said. “I was still working full time and I didn’t have a booking for two weeks.”
Then one night at 3 a.m. a couple from London booked a shoot for their upcoming trip to France. “I saw the booking and I cried,” Smith said.
Just two months later, NBC News did a story on the new trend of vacation photography and featured Flytographer.
“That was a pivotal moment,” she said.
Slow and Steady
Smith hired someone part time to manage bookings, and after a year left her full-time job. She started scaling up, adding cities and photographers. Local angel investors helped her grow the team, open an office in her hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, and start building out the tech.
Her first website was a Squarespace site, cobbled together with a $20-a-month software system and a reliance on email. Today, Flytographer has its own custom dashboard system similar to Airbnb.
Like the vacation home booking service, Flytographer showcases photos by local photographers. Customers can choose a photographer they like and submit a date request for a shoot in their desired travel destination.
Previously, everything was handled through email. With the dashboard model, travelers submit an inquiry and then they receive information about their photographer and their shoot in the dashboard. Photos are delivered there as well.
The dashboard allows Flytographer’s shoot “concierges” to handle four times the bookings, Smith said. It allows potential customers to see photographer ratings too. A third of Flytographer’s bookings are from repeat customers and referrals.
A Treasured Memento
“People are sharing photos on Facebook and Instagram at an unprecedented rate,” said Smith, adding that bad selfies don’t do a trip justice. “But I don’t believe that most of our customers are booking to show off on social media.”
Many customers simply want high quality photos to hang on their walls.
Flytographer continues to grow with the roll out of Passport Magazine: The Magic of Travel, a quarterly online and print magazine featuring vacation photos, insider city guides and inspiring customer stories.
Smith counts herself fortunate too that this could all happen right where she grew up in Victoria.
“Thanks to technology today you don’t need to be in New York or Silicon Valley,” she said. “I pinch myself. I’m honestly enjoying the ride.”
Feature image photo credit: Roberta in Rome for Flytographer.