Dreamt up by Romanians: Dreamstime, the international photo agency made in Romania, reveals pandemic measures, AI work and plans for growth
As the pandemic forced countries across the world into lockdown, Dreamstime, the international royalty-free and stock photography agency established by two Romanian entrepreneurs in 2000, rolled out a series of measures meant to help its community. From donations to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 fund and allowing NGOs to apply for free visual content to a pause plan option for businesses that had to shut down temporarily and an increase of 10% of the royalties value for contributors, the company has looked across the spectrum of its stakeholders.
Șerban Enache, the co-founder and CEO of Dreamstime, told Romania-insider.com more about the agency’s recently announced initiatives and how they fit its long-term strategy.
“Flexibility and customer care should be the words of the day now,” Enache explains as he highlights the pandemic-ridden months, which brought about a significant number of uploads, and an all-time record this May of 3 million submissions. New topics of interest have surfaced up, and the agency saw significant increases for food and cooking related photography and slight decreases for travel visuals. The pandemic has also challenged photographers to come up with images on the new topics of the day, including work-from-home, telecommuting, healthcare, or social distancing.
Calling itself the "world's largest community for royalty-free photos and stock photography", Dreamstime offers 137 million photos and has over 30 million users. The company, which has offices in Romanian capital Bucharest and Nashville in the US and a staff of 50, works with over 600,000 photographers who submit photos on its platform.
Dreamstime is also working to develop further PhotoEye, its proprietary Artificial Intelligence technology (AI), which is currently learning to define the sales potential for images based on their content. The feature is meant to help photographers in selecting their photos.
He expects more businesses to make use of visual content as they migrate online. “The opportunities are there, it is up to everyone to seize them.”
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You announced several measures to support collaborators during the COVID-19 pandemic. What has been the feedback to them so far? Did it translate into an increase in the number of collaborators/uploads?
Back in March, when most of the European countries and the US were under lockdown, many of our customers saw their projects postponed or canceled. Since marketing efforts for many industries were halted, the need for visual content and stock photos decreased (in some areas people required more stock photos or illustrations; infographics about hygiene best practices became very popular). As the pandemic spread, we’ve seen more businesses struggling. We initiated a discount campaign for those that had to reduce costs, and we added a pause plan option for businesses that had to shut down temporarily. At the same time, an NGO dedicated page was launched to allow non-profit organizations to apply for free visual content. We also donated 5% of all our sales to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 fund. We wanted to make sure our donation goes to the organization that has the staff, the resources, and the knowledge to address this international crisis.
After a while, it became clear that there was yet another category affected by the pandemic, the photo community. We have long thought about aid for photographers as well, without making the aid awarding process too complicated. We started with tutorials and blog articles in which we encouraged them to review and re-edit their portfolios, see the glass half full and take advantage of the lockdown to improve their submissions or try new indoor angles. We had many contributors joining this project and posting their own lockdown tips and tricks.
As time went by and the lockdown was prolonged in many areas of the world, it became obvious that we had to do more. We have the largest community in stock photography, yet we are bootstrapped, the only financially independent top stock photo agency. Considering that these are harsh times, boosting sales is a long term strategy but without immediate outcome for those in need right now. So the obvious way by which Dreamstime can make a difference for all contributors is to increase their royalties. All plans purchased after May 29th award an increase of 10% of the royalties value. This was a welcome measure we hope will generate positive effects for everyone.
Our goal for this announcement was not to add new contributors; this is designed and meant as an additional benefit for existing contributors. No matter how small, all help matters. And leaving the philanthropic side apart, it is crucial that businesses find strategies that improve their long term chances. In the last couple of months, we have tried to come up with such long term strategies that will help and benefit us as an agency and community. No stock photo agency can survive without its contributors and customers. There are many new contributors who sign up, but we cannot say this is a significantly growing trend or a consequence of the announcement. Nonetheless, these months produced record uploads; we approve more than 3 million new images each month.
Stock photography has been accessible to everyone with a camera for some years now, and it is a steady source of income if you are into photography as a full time professional or a hobbyist. People outside our industry have discovered us. By submitting their photos, they can compensate for a temporary lay off or can create additional income for them. Non-stock photographers also began submitting; this crisis taught us that diversifying your business portfolio is important.
How long do you plan on offering the relief stimulus for contributors?
As much as we can. We would like to have certainty, but these are volatile circumstances. We have had our share of economic contraction, but we plan to award the increased royalties for as long as possible. Hopefully, until the end of the pandemic, without any guarantee of the time frame. This pandemic showed us that everything can change overnight economy-wise. I think everyone should be wary of making financial or economy-related predictions at this point.
How did Dreamstime react/adapt to the pandemic when it comes to its staff? How big is the Dreamstime team today, and where is it located? Did you have to adopt different strategies from office to office?
Dreamstime is a cluster of teams; many of our collaborators are already working remotely from home. We have a central permanent team located in two offices, Bucharest and Nashville, US, but each team is able to carry and manage its projects and tasks. We are fortunate enough to have the vast majority of our operations already online, so the transition was not too difficult. It was business as usual. We are about 50 staff members, but since most of us were already working from home, only the in-house staff had to adjust to this remote working routine. We closed both the Bucharest and Nashville offices and will re-open as soon as it is safe for employees to go back, with the required distancing rules. These rules depend from country to country.
Did other aspects of the business require rethinking/adjusting?
As mentioned, all businesses should address these times and context with improved long term strategies. There is no business if there are no clients to use your services or products. The pause plan feature did help many of our customers and happy customers ensure returning business. And profit. We had to re-think marketing campaigns, plans, even refund policies or exceptions Dreamtime would be able to make and still stay in business. Flexibility and customer care should be the words of the day now.
Are there opportunities to pursue during the crisis generated by the pandemic? What would those be?
We have said that there was no significant increase in the number of new users signing up, but there was a huge influx of images submitted for review. We had 3 million submissions in May alone; this is an all-time record for us. This means that in addition to new contributors, existing contributors had the time to go through their portfolio, re-edit older photos.
Then, there are new topics rising in terms of buyers’ interest. We have had a 39% increase in searches for food photography, a 186% increase in searches for cooking-related visuals, and a decrease of 11% for travel photography. Work-from-home, telecommuting, healthcare, social distancing are young stock photography concepts that spark a lot of interest. The competition is still low because photographers have just started tapping these little covered subjects.
More and more businesses are migrating online, and if they have not done this yet, they will surely do it in the future. They will need more visual content, photos, and videos. The variety and quality of the database will make a difference for customers, so will a good search engine and flexible payment plans. The opportunities are there; it is up to everyone to seize them.
You started back in 2000. What were the landmarks in the company’s development since then?
Registered in 2000, Dreamstime became a community in 2004 and a top agency in 2007. We started as designers who also happened to be photographers, so we were familiar with the needs and requirements of both sides of the business. Long before Facebook and other social media platforms, there were crowdsourcing communities, and Dreamstime was one of them. We knew that a user-friendly platform and a good search engine were the keys to success, so technology was our best ally. It still is. The growth was fantastic, we started with a handful of contributors and a couple of our clients, and in 2007, we were already counting 1 million registered users and ranked among the top 5 stock photo agencies in the world.
There have been some moments that truly influenced the evolution of stock photography and Dreamstime: the Royalty Free editorial license, launching the free photo section or the blog, the rise of mobile photography, adding videos and audios, release of the PhotoEye. Each of these turned out to be technological challenges and opportunities at the same time. Mobile photography, for instance, had us launch our buyer and contributor apps, which are now some of the most appreciated apps in the industry.
How did you manage to build a community of +620,000 members?
A good service is the best publicity you will ever get, and Dreamstime is the best example that recommending business or a product you like really works. We have a very strong referral program with incentives for those who spread the word about us. Although we have used it as a marketing strategy for almost 15 years now, it still returns transactions and new valuable members. Some of our best contributors registered based on referral recommendations. This is also a great quality verification too because few will recommend you if you fail their expectations in terms of quality, low prices, user experience, royalties.
Users who recommend other users will receive 10% of their sales or 10% of their downloads. In other words, a photographer who refers 10 other photographers can double his own portfolios’ revenue. Stock photography is such a large market that these 11 photographers are very unlikely to be competing against each other. And being altruistic is a gift, hence we award it.
Another contributor incentive is the fact that we kept the same royalty structure for exclusive contributors and changed it only once in 15 years for non-exclusives. All exclusive contributors get 60% of their sales, while the non-exclusives earn between 25 and 50% of the sales. We have tried to be fair and open, the community is a very important part of our business. Keeping the communication door open for contributors has also proved mutually beneficial because they are actively involved in the site development as well, some of our features being added or improved upon their suggestion. As we have said, one can never get better publicity and more honest feedback than from its own members and customers.
After the launch of PhotoEye, do you plan on adding new technologies/ services?
PhotoEye is an ongoing project. We are already employing this for in-house tasks and will continue to add new features. AI tools are under permanent development, and we plan to add new ideas based on our own needs or those of future partners. One feature we’re currently working on is sales potential ID. PhotoEYE is currently learning to define the sales potential for images based on their content. It’s using online data generated by our customers and will help photographers define which images to submit first. One of the biggest challenges for photographers is to get over their subjectivism when it comes to selecting images. You know, all photographers have their favorite shots. This feature will help them achieve that, select their next most popular stock photo objectively.
What does Dreamstime’s client portfolio look like at the moment?
From its very beginning, Dreamstime has been accessible to everyone. A few years ago, our motto was an image for every pocket. From independent customers in the private sector to Fortune 500 companies (including the world`s largest advertising agencies, national and international magazines, film, and television production companies), our customer database is as varied as you can imagine. We have individuals buying images to decorate their houses and publishing houses buying visuals for best sellers covers. We do not normally disclose our clients’ names, but we work with big-name brands, Coca-Cola, Ikea, Financial Times, Samsung, Walmart, and very many others. While all top ad agencies have an account with Dreamstime, we believe all our customers are important. Smaller agencies have now much better support, Dreamstime offers perpetual, lifetime rights for their stock photo needs at very low cost. The time when designers downloaded images from search engines should be behind us, no one should risk their business for that.
There have been talks and reports about state support for companies across the spectrum to help them weather the crisis. Do you have any expectations/suggestions when it comes to this for your industry?
We’re big fans of a fair field of competition, and the states’ governments should provide the infrastructure. That’s healthier than plain state support, a battery that will eventually run out.
Stock photography is part of a big e-commerce sector. Our model is not impacted, but our clients are. At the same time, there is a free market, and businesses adapt. Restaurants started to deliver food at home and got more local with people in their areas. Hotels can promote local products to their past customers or start to grow their own local food in preparation for the summer vacation. Connecting with their visitors makes more sense than ever. It’s more likely for customers to revisit a place they trust or to continue to purchase local products from home (as Greek homeowners do).
Unlike e-commerce, there are industries deeply impacted by this crisis: culture has been hit hard, and theatres will stay closed for a while. I believe the state should help businesses in these areas improve their model and attract additional revenue. I’ve been consulted in one of the surveys made by the government in my home country. One of the suggestions I made was for theatres to be helped to release their recordings under a subscription plan, such as Netflix’s. The state can support them and basically teach them how to fish. But online businesses and big tech companies should also do their part. A digital tax imposed on Netflix or Amazon is requested by trade associations in Romania.
An IT Hub to work closely with each government is now vital. It should help the government with its own needs (easier tax collection, less administrative staff etc.) but can also implement platforms for state-owned institutions, help them monetize. Don’t expect a theatre to learn e-commerce; instead, create a platform where they can all adhere.
Furthermore, as you can see on our own site, photography is a liberal profession. Our photographers understand the need for limited government involvement and value their freedom (both business and creative wise). The time to go online is now.
(Photo courtesy of Dreamstime)