If you use Instagram, chances are you’ve seen a photo edited with VSCO. To date, nearly 200 million photos on Instagram have been tagged with the photo editing app's two main hashtags, #vsco and #vscocam.
But unless you’re one of the 30 million monthly users of the free app, you may not know that the company behind VSCO, the Oakland, California-based Visual Supply Company, has been quietly building its own photo sharing network for the last couple of years. It’s called Grid, and activity on the platform has been surging. In 2015, images published to Grid grew by 952% over the previous year.
What sets the Grid and VSCO (pronounced vis-co) apart from Instagram, and what its two co-founders Joel Flory and Greg Lutze see as key to the app’s success, is that there are no comments or likes. You can follow other VSCO users and see their photos, but that’s it.
“We don’t define success based upon numbers,” Flory tells Tech Insider during a recent interview at VSCO’s newly opened, white-walled office in downtown Manhattan. Fory says that the initial premise behind Grid, which has become an integral part of the app alongside its iconic filter presets and editing tools, “was that the social currency wasn’t likes or comments or popularity, but curation, quality content, and people being inspired by others.”
That anti-social sharing approach has drawn some interesting demographics to the VSCO app. Flory says Grid's user base is “almost entirely 13 to 24-year-old females,” and 80% of the app’s community lives outside of the US.
China is the app’s second largest market, and the company says it saw “explosive growth” there in 2015. Russians are the 6th largest demographic sharing on the app, and the platform has a strong Eastern European presence.
"We have what we believe is the greatest network of mobile creatives in the world,” Flory, who acts as VSCO’s CEO, tells TI. "There’s active members in every country in the entire world.”
For Greg Lutze, the company’s soft-spoken creative chief, the reason people — especially millennial females — are drawn to sharing on VSCO is the “social fatigue” that exists on other social networks.
“We’re interested in redefining what it means to create, to discover content, and to connect with people,” he tells TI. "We see social fatigue where it’s a lot to take in, the likes and comments, and people play essentially a game. We still want to give people the ability to connect, the ability to interact. That’s part of being human. But we want to do it in a different way.”
On Instagram, teens create fake accounts (sometimes called “finestagrams") to share heavily edited — often using VSCO — artistic photos with the intention of garnering as many likes and followers as possible. Then they have private accounts (or “rinstagrams”) where they post more lighthearted, silly photos and videos for just their closest friends to see.
On the VSCO Grid, Lutze believes it’s important that there isn't a kind of self-imposed social pressure. He says it makes people more “unafraid to take risks” with the photos they share.
“We don’t want this to be a social game,” he says. "We want it to be a true interaction. There’s not this posturing or fake life that I have to present in order to get followers.”
"They’ve been very clear that they see themselves as a communications platform," Lutze says of Instagram. "For us, we see ourselves as a creative or a self-expression platform. It’s subtle, but I think it definitely changes how people interact."
As an editing app, VSCO initially appealed to the best mobile photographers out there, many of whom gained thousands of followers during the early days of Instagram by posting photos with the retro film camera aesthetic VSCO has become synonymous with. Flory and Lutze are quick to point out that even though the elite Instagramers still use the app (they do), it’s the younger, less experienced demographic of users that’s seen more growth recently.
Flory admits that the company didn’t do a good job at first of facilitating a community for people who weren’t as professionally minded and just wanted to make their photos look better and share them.
“We weren’t creating as warm an inviting place for everyone because it was like, ‘I only see this on VSCO, therefore that’s the only thing I should post.’ But then this young demographic came in and really didn’t care.”
A couple of big updates to the Grid happened last year, like curated collections of photos around a certain theme and a journaling feature which combines a series of photos with text. These changes have turned the platform into a place for seeing everything from world news unfold (like the terrorist attack in Paris) to animated GIFs of hamsters running on wheels.
Flory sees VSCO as “a tastemaker for the tastemakers” and "the home for this next generation of mobile creatives.” On Thursday the company announced a few additions to its advisory board, including former Snapchat executive Emily White and Tom Conrad, Pandora's former CTO.
Bryan Mason, who previously led the release of Creative Cloud at Adobe, is also coming on as VSCO’s chief operating officer.
Mason will be responsible for helping VSCO make money beyond its in-app purchase filter packs, which range from $0.99 to a few dollars.
Flory says the company is making money in other ways. Brands are partnering with photographers on VSCO to run advertising campaigns, which the company helps facilitate. Mariott, for example, recently ran a series of travel guides with photographs by VSCO users that showcased cities around the world.
It’s more partnerships like that with the company’s Rolodex of photographers that Flory sees as "a huge business opportunity."
“You need to find a fashion photographer in Kazakhstan, we’re it,” he says.
For 2016, Flory says there are big plans for the app’s photo editor (“we’re gonna blow it out of the water”) and search capabilities, which should aid in finding all of the photos and text being shared on Grid.
He shows TI a journal entry on Grid in which a VSCO user named Phil Martin had documented his mother’s battle with cancer. It’s equally heartbreaking and touching to read.
"He hadn’t published it anywhere else because he felt at any other place he would be trolled,” Flory says. "He didn’t want it to turn into a place for comments or likes. He wanted to post this because it mattered and he wanted it to stand on its own and be a record of his mom’s life.”
Martin posted the essay on his Grid profile the day VSCO released the journaling feature last summer. Flory calls the post a "clarifying moment" for the entire company.
"This is why VSCO exists,” he says. "To help people create and tell stories through images and words. This is what we do.”