Not all Stock photography production companies are struggling through the recession or suffer from ever more aggressive pricing demands from clients. Maskot, a Swedish niche photography producer that set up business in 2003 is having a good year. Co-founder Per Levander says this is because they stayed true to the niche they chose 5 years ago.
By not giving in to shortcuts, taking things slowly and choosing hard work over big investments Per and co-founder Mattias Drotte built a company from scratch that is now the leading producer of Scandinavian Royalty Free photography…. And it’s growing too. I talked to Per to find out how this company managed to overcome challenges that are putting big pressures all over the industry
When did you start the business?
In 2003, at that time there was no Swedish RF content at all. The RF licensing model in general was quite new in Swede. Our product was very well received, we got a great response immediately. We started with a very small collection. We didn’t really realise how small it really was and today we wouldn’t have started with a collection of that size. We didn’t even have 2000 images. Because the need for this type of imagery was huge we made it anyway and sold an image on the first day.
Who shot the images?
We had a couple of photographers doing shoots for us. We didn’t have a huge investment to make so we used people we knew as models and worked with friends that were photographers. Nobody got any money in advance. We knew what would sell because we had been in the industry for a long time. We then went to the shoots to guide the photographers about what to shoot and how to set things up.
What happened next?
We decided to focus on one category and this was business. Most content was very American and this didn’t work in Sweden so there was an opportunity. Even today we have customers that know us for these business images, even though we have more lifestyle now. We launched the business catalogue first to get depth in one category rather than 4 pictures here and 10 there.
How did you start selling, did you sell directly or indirect?
We only sold directly. This is a very small market with a big demand for local content. We had our own direct sales website and we’re still doing direct sales in Sweden. This is the only country where we do this. The other Nordic countries had the same issues as Sweden (ed. The need for local content). I don’t remember when we started selling through other Scandinavian distributors but it was pretty soon. Let’s say after half a year. We started doing direct marketing and outbound calls. There was just the two of us in the beginning. We did it all, we were on shoots, did the sales, we were very busy.
Did you have no money at all when you started?
We only had our savings. When I look back at it I think we would have never done it today but we believed in the product so much. We knew people were going to buy it because they were constantly asking for it. I am proud of building the business from scratch. The first year we worked day and night to build the collection.
Do you have a distribution network now beyond the Nordic region?
Yes, we only had Nordic distributors in the beginning. We have a much bigger network now. We were doing really good so after a while we started to reach out to other markets and saw directly we were doing really well. We had great sales in comparison to the amount of images in the collection. It’s really fun to see how a niche brand can work so well internationally. We did especially well in Germany but we sell images anywhere, even in South Korea and Brasil.
What is the split direct versus indirect sales?
It’s about 60/40 in favour of the resellers. The resellers are the biggest growing market for us. We have been focussing more on resellers now that the Swedish market is pretty set. We’ve been pretty careful and selective though. We sell better when we go through a reseller that does a lot of editing for example.
Did you stay true to your original ideas when you started to generate revenue?
Yes, we have been picky when choosing models for example. We do more shoots and sometimes we can have bigger locations and sets but we still keep the cost in mind
How big is the collection now?
It is a little over 12.000, it’s still pretty small. About 50% of it is wholly owned by us.
How many photographers do you have?
About 40, and they’re all in Sweden. The content they shoot is Swedish. That doesn’t necessarily mean a red wooden house, it’s more about the style. Locations, offices and houses need to be recognisable of course but it’s also about the style of the imagery. It’s more bright, more real life and not too staged.
How did the team develop?
We’re 4 people now. We started in a photostudio with a couple of photographers and we worked closely with them. We made our calls directly from the studio. This made us pretty fast; we tried to listen closely to our customers and could respond to their needs. If they needed something special we could produce it pretty fast. We could shoot on demand and still do that sometimes. Now we have an office in the city centre of Stockholm and we plan to stay here for a while. We almost always shoot on location so where we are now is better because we can use the offices in the building. Mattias and I are now focussing more on production and the expanding distribution network the other part of our team is doing sales and production.
How do you find your locations?
We use our own network a lot and use social media to find models and locations. We pay for locations sometimes but not that much. You’d be surprised at how many times we can get locations for free. It’s about just asking the question. When we started we had to ask for things for free, this stayed with us and is still working.
How is the business doing?
We’ve been doing very well. Obviously everybody is talking about the crisis but we’ve been doing well so far, we’re actually doing better than last year. I think the fact that we are a niche brand is working in our favor. We’re also not too dependent on the resellers still expanding our network and direct sales are still growing.
Any issues with pricing?
There’s not too much pressures on us. We don’t have many clients asking for discount. Of course we don’t know how many clients we’re losing that simply don’t call though. Resellers are always mentioning it but we don’t hear it too much in direct sales.
What makes you successful?
We don’t sign on everyone to sell our images. Some people think that’s crazy but we try to be selective. We also edit our collection pretty hard. When we shoot and when we put our images online we want it to be a tight edited collection. When we started the image of Royalty Free was that is was really cheap and solely sold on disc we wanted to change that, we wanted it to be like rights managed. The quality shouldn’t be different just because the licensing model was. That perception has now changed a lot in Sweden.
We’re a small company and stay true to our niche. We don’t sell any other brands here in Sweden because we don’t want to mix up the profile.
Any other things that separate you?
Quality RF, a tight production process and we can work pretty fast. We also work very cost effectively. We literally started with four hands because there was not much money. We know how to keep the quality high, having a high production rate while spending less money than other companies.
What are your plans for next year?
The plan is to focus more on production. We still believe in the product and the niche. It is important to stay true to this. It would be stupid to try and compete with generic brands. We also don’t have plans to launch microstock or anything like that. It would be hard to compete and personally I just don’t want it. We will stay true to our business model of Scandinavian RF images and not be tempted to shift focus. It could have been easy to take on other brands but that would have made us more generic and also less needed.
I’m also planning to go to New York shortly for 3 months. I just want to spend some time there. Mattias went to Australia last year for 3 months as well. It’s great that it is possible to be that flexible now, to do business from anywhere in the world.
What would you have done differently?
I would have probably started with a bigger collection and expand internationally earlier.
What are you most proud of?
That we started from scratch and got established pretty soon as the Scandinavian RF brand and are still leading in that area. Finally I’m proud that we stayed true to our product. People are glad to find something that is different.