5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “Don’t overlook simple ideas” with Matthew Carse and Mitch Russo

So to stay sane you have to stick to what your clients like you for and avoid chasing fashions. Don’t be afraid to ditch something that’s not working, and don’t overlook simple ideas. A lot of the things we do that our clients really like, were actually very simple to create — and a lot of the really clever stuff isn’t that useful for them.

As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Carse. Matthew founded Image Data Systems ( https://image-data.com ) in 1992 to provide scanning, storage and data transmission systems to photo agencies. In the early years IDS worked closely with Kodak. Today IDS PictureDesk IDS is used by all UK national newspapers and magazine publishers to both source 3rd party content, and syndicate their own material. The platform holds 100 million searchable hi-res images, receives 100,000 new images daily — from Reuters, Corbis, Getty and 100 other suppliers. Having built a number of searchable websites for photo agencies, in 2002 IDS launched IDS PictureDesk — a portal for newspaper and magazine publishers aggregating all agency archives and live feeds in one place. IDS recently completed a customised cloud based version for American Media Inc to manage all their magazine content. AMI’s system integrates with Dalim Twist directly and removes hi-res image traffic from their network until files are needed. Having been interested in image recognition technology for a long time, Matthew last year launched IDS’s ImageTracking service using IDS proprietary image matching software, allowing clients to see where their images have been used.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Having read Philosophy and Linguistics at university, like most of those who study humanities, Matthew hadn’t the first idea of what he wanted to do. He often says he’s not had a career just a series of unrelated jobs — advertising sales, office cleaner, auctioneer, commodities trader, musician, and entrepreneur aiming to build a healthcare business and failing.

The real start with Image Data Systems was when my healthcare business was going bust. A friend handed me a leaflet from a California based company advertising their Image Database software. I knew nothing about it but it struck me as interesting and I needed urgently to find a way of making money so I flew to San Francisco and persuaded them to let me have the UK marketing rights.

The software was buggy as hell, and crashed frequently taking the Mac down with it, but we made a few sales and started to realise that by being hands on we could get to know as much as anyone else in the brand new world of digital image management. We wrote scripts to connect scanners to modems, ISDN cards and printers, and were surprised that no-one else had done that. We partnered with some guys who had built a fast free text search engine and started to gain photo agencies as clients running their websites for them.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

We were getting quite a lot of hack attempts — people trying to steal paparazzi images — and I was looking through the web logs to see what the hackers were trying — and as I read through I saw all the search requests, and suddnely realised that the newspapers and magazines were searching each of the photo agency sites we were hosting, one by one, looking for pictures of the same event or person.

So I thought why don’t we put them all into a single database and have the images come up beside each other. The publisher can then see what’s available and download the one they prefer.

There was resistance from the agencies initially as they were pretty fierce rivals, but in the end we got a few of them to try, and a couple of newspapers to use the system. Pretty quickly the network effect kicked in — more agencies joined, and more publishers, then even more agencies until we became the de facto one stop shop for visual content.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

We couldn’t afford to buy computers — I remember going to see an ISP so we could put the database on the web — this was in 1994 — we made an agreement that they would host and they said OK bring your server in on Monday — and we didn’t have one. And there was this heavy old machine just being used to hold the door open which I persuaded them to lend us, and we carried it back to the tube spent the weekend adding an operating system and our database, then taking it back for them to plugin. And we were live.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Being broke is pretty good motivation. I had a bunch of creditors from the failed business on my case so we did whatever we needed to make money to pay them. Scanning transparencies could be lucrative so we would borrow scanners from Kodak, set them up at home and spend all night working through a bunch of images. It would take a couple of minutes to make the scan, so as we’re eating supper we’d get up to put in another transparency, then carry on eating.

So, how are things going today?

IDS now manages 350 million images for agencies and publishers here and in the US. Multiply that by different resolutions and we have 1,5 billion files online. We’re really good at building large text databases, and handling large volumes of data.

I’d always been interested in visual search, and a few years back we started investing heavily in developing our own visual search capability. I’m proud to say we now have a really smart AI driven system.

This new technology allows users to intuitively search and find results matching what’s in their original image, as well as the exact look and feel. The future of image search is to do it without words.

How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

It’s quite easy to be determined, but it’s harder to listen to what your users are telling you and see how their complaints can improve your product.

Most of the people using IDS are photo editors and researchers, who don’t carry a huge amount of weight in their company. Typically when their internal IT have delivered them systems it’s with very little consultation as to what they actually need.

We listen hard and try to make their lives easier, and customise the interface so it fits their actual working practice rather than how we think they should work.

When someone is using your software all day, getting rid of a few clicks for them and reducing manual labour is actually really valuable and can lead to big cost savings.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?

We built a system for an ad company in London so they could work overnight and print artwork in Hamburg, rather than have someone courier it. The problem was that the printer often jammed, and they wouldn’t know until someone came in to the office in the morning, which was then too late.

So we rigged up a video camera looking at the printer output tray, which they could check from London. All worked well, until the cleaner having finished for the evening, turned the lights out — so all of the tech was defeated by her not wishing to see electricity wasted!

Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Never underestimate how something might fail. It’s very often not within the elegant code you’ve written, or the highly sophisticated network you’ve integrated, but a basic low level error caused by an oversight.

If something breaks always ask what has changed. Each of the programmers will swear blind that nothing is different, so learn to ask them the same question different ways — if something that previously worked now doesn’t then something has changed. And the odds are that the problem has been caused by something you’ve done.

It could be a driver update, a minor tweak that has had a knock on elsewhere in the system. Trust your customers. If they are telling you something isn’t right, then it’s unlikely they are at fault.

What do you think makes your company stand out?

IDS PictureDesk is a marketplace for images. It’s important to the suppliers of the images that they have confidence that the market is fair. So we’ve always tried to treat small and large players alike. I hope we have a reputation for reliability and being interested in helping our clients do their job.

Can you share a story?

When we had got a bit of traction with IDS PictureDesk we approached the largest industry player, and asked them if they would like to sign up. The told us to “ f*** off ”

A year later when we’d become the go to place for content, they called us and said ‘ You remember we said f*** off, what we meant was we’d love to join’.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

These are tough times for small businesses.

In the old days, by which I mean pre Google, Facebook, Amazon, a small company would compete with a company employing maybe 50 or 100 people.

Today every company has to compete with multi billion dollar companies who can give away your business, poach your staff, and destroy your industry before deciding they don’t want to be in that business after all.

If you run a minicab firm you need to compete with Uber which loses billions every few months, if you have a coffee shop — Starbucks — who don’t pay the taxes you do.

So to stay sane you have to stick to what your clients like you for and avoid chasing fashions. Don’t be afraid to ditch something that’s not working, and don’t overlook simple ideas. A lot of the things we do that our clients really like, were actually very simple to create — and a lot of the really clever stuff isn’t that useful for them.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

It probably sounds corny, but my wife Johanna. When times were tough she gave me the support to keep going, and every time I got fed up with supper being interrupted to do another scan she’d remind me it was another £ 2.

Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have?

IDS PictureDesk is a specialist service so user number in the middle thousands. But they are all professionals, in an industry that sees a lot of movement between companies. That’s important because when someone leaves one publisher to work with another, they’re either already familiar with the service, or want to know why the other publisher doesn’t have it — as a result, they are our best brand ambassadors.

That said this relatively small community publishes millions of image downloads each year. If you’ve seen it on a website, newspaper or magazine, it’s probably come from IDS.

Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

1. Listen to what the clients are telling you. Don’t think you know better than them

2. Work hard to make the interface simple — get rid of everything that gets in the way of the user getting what they want.

3. If you make a mistake then own up and apologise straight off. People might be a bit frustrated or irritated but they will appreciate it and forget about it much faster than if you dodge.

What is your monetization model?

Subscription.

How do you monetize your community of users?

We charge people to put images on the system, and charge the users for the convenience of being able to find everything in one place.

Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

We looked at revenue share but it is problematic. You start to compete with your clients. You incentivise them to under report which drives a wedge between you and your client.

I liken IDS to the postal service — if the postman brings you a cheque or a bill the cost of the stamp is the same.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Understand what your service does for the user. For us it was very clear — it gave them huge time savings and a wide variety of choice.

A photo agency came to see one of the national daily newspapers to tell them about their exciting new website. “ Are you on IDS ? “ they asked — “err no — but we’ve built this brilliant new site ” — “ well in that case we won’t see your pictures”

2. If you can afford to — make your service as cheap as possible, and bill in monthly increments. Think of your gym membership if you have to pay it once a year chances are you will cancel. The monthly cost is probably too small to worry about, and it sort of works as a reminder to keep going.

3. Get your monetization model clear from the start. Hoping to get acquired is not a business plan. Giving away your service for free makes it really hard to start charging for it. Get your clients into the habit of writing you cheques. It’s much easier to get someone to pay you $100 once they’ve paid you $10, than it is to get them to give you $1 when they’ve previously paid nothing. Having a commercial relationship with you means the client takes you seriously.

4. Don’t try to do business with very large companies. They are time sinks. We spent 6 months in discussion with a Seattle based company, who would have conference calls where they would be 50 people on the call. It’s insane — most of the time the people were trying to impress or outsmart each other so it became a forum for their internal politics rather than an evaluation of our service.

5. Make sure you get paid. Don’t be scared to layout the terms of payment. It doesn’t matter who you are dealing with, and big companies are much worse payers than small ones.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

When I was working as an auctioneer, I needed to teach myself about painting, and art in general. So I would spend evenings and weekends at the Tate and National Gallery. What I discovered, which is obvious in retrospect, but not obvious to me then, was that only a small fraction of their works are on show. The rest are in racks in the basement. I managed to get permission to look at these paintings — row upon row of great pieces that never see the light of day.

The idea of making that accessible has stuck with me ever since.

IDS built a deep learning based visual search tool, called the SuggestionEngine to help users find images. It works really well, and we balanced the algorithm so that it returns images that dont just depict the same thing, but have a similar look and feel.

Just for fun I built an index of some paintings to see whether it would work on art rather than just photos. The results blew me away. Now I could search by colour, pattern, complexity, subject, style, any item in the picture without having to worry about cataloguing the pictures.

And this got me thinking — what if we built an index of every artwork in the world ? Why not — we know our system scales and can work on 100 million photos.

Think about the educational possibilities — you could instantly see how Picasso was influenced by Early African Art, or trace the history of the nude, or depiction of animals, disappear down rabbit holes looking at how pattern and colour from quattrocento is mirrored in Samurai art and Manga.

We even built a crop function so you could grab say a guitar from a photo and find every painting containing a musical instrument — regardless of style or period.

So why not let’s build it. We’d even do it for nothing — hold on at least for $1.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn is best https://www.linkedin.com/company/image-data-systems-uk-ltd/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

About the author:

Mitch Russo started a software company in his garage, sold it for 8 figures and then went on to work directly with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes to build a $25M business together. Mitch wrote a book called “The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies” and now his 2nd book called Power Tribes — “How Certification Can Explode Your Business.” Mitch helps SaaS company founders scale their own companies using his proprietary system. You can reach Mitch Directly via mitch@mitchrusso.com


5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “Don’t overlook simple ideas” with Matthew… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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