Foto finish

Reproduced from Fort Worth Star Telegram - August 2005
Andrew Pitts, CEO of FotoTime, and Jeff Kelling started in 1999 writing a program to manage digital photographs and took advantage of the Internet to share the images with friends and family. Amateur and professional photographers from around the world pay a yearly subscription to
Foto finish Internet boom led Colleyville entrepreneurs to start a picture-perfect high-tech business
Three friends work to develop software to replace the cardboard boxes that hold print photos.

By J.G. Domke

COLLEYVILLE - The Internet was booming in 1999, and lunchtime discussions turned to dreams of starting a high-tech business.

"We knew right off the Internet was the future," says Jeff Kelling.

The "we" Kelling is referring to are Andrew Pitts, Karl Swierenga, and himself. They have been friends for a half-dozen years, working to write software that helps banks and doctors handle huge amounts of information.

Calling themselves "technology geeks," they wanted something for the mass market - consumers like themselves - and not just for businesses.

The Internet "fit their personalities" Kelling says.

As digital cameras became more affordable, they bought one. Exploring the possibilities of photo storage, filing and manipulation, they decided they could use their experience and expertise to build databases to write a program that would help keep track of photo files starting to fill up hard drives.

When the men started the business in September 1999, they settled on the name FotoTime, because "photo time" had already been taken as a Web name.

Even in the face of gushing "dot-com-ers" who touted the Internet as the answer to everything, the trio kept their heads. They knew that the Internet was only a tool. There would have to be software written to manage photos in computers as well as possibilities of viewing photos online.

Keeping their day jobs, they worked in their spare time to write the programs. In June 2000, they made FotoTime a reality by introducing the FotoAlbum program.

"Our goal was to take thousands of pictures and make them manageable," says Kelling, now the company's chief technology officer.

They discovered that shutterbugs from around the world liked the idea, too. Soon 20,000 photos were being uploaded each day. FotoTime was so popular that they were having trouble handling all the traffic, and the system was getting stretched to its limits.

Not to mention the fact that they weren't making any money, having offered the service free to anyone who logged on to the site. They thought they'd make money by selling prints made from the digital files.

But they discovered that digital is different from traditional film. People are satisfied simply seeing the photo on the computer screen. If they wanted something for the refrigerator door they could quickly make a print using an inkjet printer. Or instead of mailing a print, they could simply e-mail it to a friend.

Only 2 percent of users were buying prints, but they didn't think that selling advertising on the site would fit with the idea of photo sharing.

When the Internet bubble burst, the trio watched as competitors who also offered free services succumbed to financial pressures. The end result was that the photos on these sites were destroyed or lost.

The men realized that they had to change to make the business profitable. Offering it for free didn't compute. In 2002 they added a subscription price to the service. People storing photos at FotoTime would have to rent the space.

The alternative might have been selling a banner advertisement that would pop up every time that Grandma opened the page to see the latest shots of her grandchildren.

"We consider ourselves guest-friendly," says Pitts, FotoTime's chief executive.

It worked, and the yearly subscription fee of $24 didn't turn off users.

Thousands have signed up on to the Colleyville-based site from around the world to share photos with friends and family. Kelling thinks that spelling it Foto as they do in Europe has also helped attract many overseas members.

The Photo Marketing Association reports that in 2004, three of every four cameras sold in the United States were digital - not film - and the association estimates that in 2005 20.5 million digital cameras will be purchased.

FotoTime has some online "albums" that contain 20,000 images, says Swierenga, FotoTime's chief financial officer.

He estimates that 50 percent of the subscribers are advanced amateurs, 20 percent are professionals and 30 percent are simply snap-shooters.

Technology changes constantly, and FotoTime works to keep up. The company has added video storage to its services.

Pitts predicts that the two media will merge. He gives the example of how, when he goes to his son's baseball games, he takes some still photos and then switches to a short 30-second video when his son is at bat.

Other Web sites store photos. But Pitts says that FotoTime is the only one that can accept images off camera phones. Introduced this year, the system enables the camera phone shooters to e-mail photos directly to the Web site. When the users get home, they can download the photos onto their computers.

FotoTime's service is more than simply photo sharing, the men say. It also protects photos from destruction if a virus attacks the computer or if an old computer gets replaced.

"We have saved countless people when their computer has crashed," Pitts says. FotoSync, another service, enables photographers to go online and download original files.

With the move to digital photography, FotoTime recently partnered with Real Networks to manage its photo-sharing service. It went online in June.

Swierenga says, that digital photography is in its infancy and that it is going to take people a couple of years to fill up their computers hard drives before they realize that they need a tool to help find, organize, manage and share their photos.