Exteriors can be misleading.
On the second floor of the seemingly unremarkable Building 5, in an all-too-regular Vancouver office park, something genuinely exciting is happening. I walk through an empty waiting room containing a gray couch and two throw pillows with pictures of old cameras on them. The adjacent wall is covered in a mural that proclaims, It’s a startup! Down a dimly-lit corridor, I can just make out a sign hanging from the ceiling that reads, Start here. This is the home of PICR, a small, eager company that believes it can disrupt an industry and completely reshape how photographers and clients interact.

PICR was born of a need to replace the inadequate directories and lackluster freelancing platforms that are often more of a chore than a service to photographers. It’s built from the ground up with both the client’s and photographer’s perspectives in mind, with the goal of making it as easy as possible for someone to find, compare, and book a photographer.

It’s a vague concept on the surface, which is why I made the trip to PICR HQ to sit down with two of its cofounders and get a better understanding of the product and how it works.

CEO Vitaliy Rizhkov is quick to correct me when I make the all-too-popular startup comparison and refer to PICR as the “Uber of photography.”

PICR's CEO, Vitaliy Rizhkov
“It is so much more than that,” he says, but agrees that it follows a similar pattern. Vitaliy is built like someone who burns calories through sheer force of will. He is thin, with an intense yet calm look in his eyes. PICR is not his first startup, and I get the feeling it won’t be his last. He is a man living on the horizon of what’s next, always looking forward.
PICR's CTO, Arkadiy Dorokhov
We are joined by CTO Arkadiy Dorokhov, who earlier had offered his own description of Vitaliy: “He is a perfectionist.” Arkadiy smiles frequently, and is eager to talk about anything at PICR. It is clear he and Vitaliy are strong complements for each other. Both have answers ready to every question I pose, but not in a way that feels rehearsed. Rather, they respond as if I’m asking about their favorite movies or where they grew up; PICR is a part of them.
PICR's CPO, Paul MIkaylenko
The third cofounder, Paul Mikhaylenko, isn’t here today, but I had met him previously at Pro Photo Supply. He stopped by to talk about purchasing a $5000 gift card to use as a giveaway to entice local photographers to sign up for PICR. Admittedly, that’s a big part of what started the ball rolling down the path that led to this interview.
Before PICR, the three cofounders had started a different company, a high-end, online printing service called Finic. When they began building out the software platform photographers would use to interact with Finic, they realized there was a much bigger issue. The question changed from how do photographers provide prints to clients, to how do photographers find clients in the first place? This turned out to be a much more important question, motivating the team to pivot away from printing and focus solely on creating an online platform.
As it currently stands, there is no one simple answer to how photographers get business. “We looked at Thumbtack, Wedding Wire, and other directories—but at the end of the day, they’re all just that: directories,” Arkadiy tells me.

“Why would you put a photographer in the same boat as a handyman?”

Worse still, existing platforms aren’t built for photographers—they’re built to include all manner of freelancers and contractors. “Why would you put a photographer in the same boat as a handyman? They require different tools,” says Arkadiy. It is his belief—and hope—that Photography is an industry large enough to have its own, dedicated platform.

PICR wants to simplify the discovery and hiring process as much as possible. Arkadiy explains, “Our focus is clients; our product is photographers.” Clients can use PICR not just to find a photographer, but to view pricing and availability, send messages, and even book and pay without having to leave the platform. No phone calls, no outside website.

This has led the team to implement a set of standards to make it easier for clients to compare photographers. For example, all photographers are required to display package and pricing information up front and keep an up-to-date calendar of availability. The profiles and galleries are also standardized, making it easier for clients to navigate. And everything seamlessly integrates between the web and the mobile app.

But before PICR could start advertising itself to potential clients, it had to build up a base of qualified photographers.

“To make it valuable for customers, you have to have a good supply,” says Vitaliy. “It’s very tough to build a two-sided platform like this.” There’s an obvious catch-22: if you can’t attract customers without photographers, how can you attract photographers without customers?

“Photographers will manage the client relationship; the rest will be taken care of by us.”

PICR’s approach to accomplishing this is to focus on the local level. That’s why they reached out to us at Pro Photo Supply, rather than a national chain. It helps that we’re in their own backyard, but it’s easy to see that they take community involvement seriously. They actually want to get to know the photographers here, and work with them to build a platform that adds value for them.

And PICR has a pretty solid offer for photographers: time. “Photographers will manage the client relationship; the rest will be taken care of by us,” says Vitaliy. That includes payment processing and, more importantly, marketing. PICR sees it as their job to generate leads and bring clients to photographers. They also have a plan in place to attract repeat business.

“It’s marketing with an education bent,” Vitaliy explains. They are building campaigns to teach clients about the value of professional photography, whether it be for an important life event, like a wedding or a new child, or by presenting return-on-investment statistics that prove the advantages of good photographs for selling a car or a home.

This is in stark contrast to some directory services that actually require photographers, and other contractors, to prepay for a lead list, with zero guarantee they’ll get a job out of it. It puts all the risk on the photographer, not to mention all the work of marketing. PICR, instead, takes on the burden of finding business and in return takes 12% of revenue booked through the service (plus a 3% card processing fee). Photographers set their pricing, so they can do this with the fee in mind.

One of PICR’s goals is to level the playing field based on photographic skill. “Photographers who are strong in marketing and business have a huge advantage right now,” says Vitaliy. For many artistic people, the thought of running a business is not exactly an enjoyable proposition. Even very talented photographers often don’t make it professionally.

“It’s the Wild West right now,” says Arkadiy, “and it shouldn’t be.”

But you can’t tame the West without kicking up some dust.

“It’s the Wild West right now, and it shouldn’t be.”

The system has been live for a just a few weeks, and only in the Portland area, and already PICR is encountering challenges in dealing with unhappy photographers. I created a profile, myself, to better understand the platform, and I admit I initially found difficulty trying to fit myself into one or more of PICR’s specialities (Wedding, Portrait, Lifestyle, etc.).

An important thing to note here is that each new PICR profile is reviewed by a human being, sometimes multiple human beings, before being approved. And they put a great deal of effort and care into that process. While I was there, I witnessed two employees stop what they were doing to have a discussion about a photographer who was upset his profile had been declined. The employees reviewed his profile together, figured out what he could do to get approved, and came up with a plan to help him get there.

Creating a profile is not a simple enter your email address and you’re done process. It’s more like a job application; you have to fill out specific information, create packages, list prices, and upload a minimum number of photos to a minimum number of galleries. I understand the purpose—PICR wants established, working photographers with a body of work that demonstrates their ability and style. At least in its current form, it isn’t geared toward the weekend warrior or photo student looking to pick up a second-shooting job here or there. Still, I can empathize with photographers who, as artists, may find it difficult to fit themselves into one of PICR’s boxes.

Part of this issue will resolve itself over time: PICR’s specialities are currently limited, with heavy emphasis on portrait and wedding photography, but that’s already beginning to change. A group of commercial specialities were added in a recent update, and keywords have been implemented to make specialities altogether invisible on the client side.

As with any new software platform, change is constant. PICR’s Portland launch included a marketing push that brought on many new photographers and plenty of feedback. While the core functionality is locked in, Arkadiy is visibly excited when he tells me more good things are on the way. “In three months, it’s going to be a very different product,” he says.

PICR has a roadmap going several years into the future, with a global vision for how the brand will grow. But right now, all the focus is on nailing the salient features at the local level. “It’s about building a lovable product,” Vitaliy says. “It’s not about revenue. Our goal is to build something that both clients and photographers enjoy, that brings value to both sides.”

Portland is PICR’s testbed, and thus photographers here will experience the worst of the growing pains, but the platform is adapting incredibly quickly. PICR’s staff of nineteen people includes ten full-time engineers. They are implementing features and fixes at a rapid pace.

“It’s about building a lovable product. It’s not about revenue. Our goal is to build something that both clients and photographers enjoy.”

“When you move fast, things break,” says Arkadiy, perhaps inadvertently referencing Facebook’s original motto. But in the fast-paced environment of a startup, things aren’t the only thing that can break. Keeping its people energized, productive, and happy is an important role for PICR’s management team. A beer fridge, cabinets stocked with snacks, and a gourmet espresso machine featuring locally roasted coffee help balance out the workload.

And when it’s time to burn off stress, there’s the Ping-Pong table. Arkadiy jokes that people must be working too hard, because “they’re getting really good at Ping-Pong.”

I fully expect some paddles to need to be replaced soon, because PICR’s cofounders have set lofty goals, and its small staff is going to need to be firing on all cylinders. I ask Arkadiy what percentage of a given photographer’s business he expects will come from PICR in the future. “One hundred percent,” he says with a smile. He knows it won’t be easy to get there, but he is absolutely comfortable setting that target.

In fact, PICR aims to be able to replace a photographer’s website entirely. This may sound fantastic to those who hate maintaining a site, but many people will likely hang on to theirs, myself included, even if PICR does prove to be more useful. We’re photographers, after all, and we tend to like having at least some control over how things look. That said, we’ve adapted just fine to platforms with much more limitation, like Instagram.

“It’s not just about capturing the existing market. It’s about building a new one.”

PICR is going to be controversial to some, especially established professionals who have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into building and marketing their business. But even for such individuals, PICR wants to be a complement to their existing business, helping them improve on their success. “It’s not just about capturing the existing market,” Vitaliy explains. “It’s about building a new one.”

It is a wildly ambitious idea. If the launch in Portland proves successful, then PICR will begin opening up to other locations, slowly adding supply (photographers) and demand (clients) city by city.

With the Portland rollout now well underway, it’s an exciting and challenging time at PICR. “My day to day is chaos,” says Vitaliy, although if he’s stressed, he hides it well (maybe it’s the Ping-Pong). PICR isn’t just some get-rich-quick scheme for him; it’s a passion project. “For the past 3 or 4 years, my thought has been, How can I build something that will change something for the better, change habits, have a bigger impact.”

Time will tell if PICR can achieve these goals. Its team is hardworking, dedicated, patient, and thoughtful. The real unknown remains the photographers and the clients—will they adopt the platform, use it frequently enough, and stay long enough? Early indications seem promising, but the platform has been fully active for less than a month.

One thing is certain: the world of online directories has never been fun and is in need of a reboot. It’s also about time somebody tried to do something specific for photography, and PICR’s value proposition sounds like the best yet, to both photographers and clients.

And, hey, as much as I like IHOP, it was nice to have another reason to visit Vancouver.

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