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Sandeep Maheshwari, British Council YCE winner, who clicked his way to success after dropping out of college (Part 1)

Team YS
6th Nov 2010
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Sandeep wins the YCE award in the Communications category for 2010

Sandeep Maheshwari is driven by instinct. Commonsense and conventional wisdom demand that you complete your studies and then work. But if you take Sandeep’s life, he ventured into a business and dropped out of college. That too into a business that is too risky. Techies go business and drop out, but they make tons of money. Stock photography developed as a niche as he set out by first becoming a photographer helping models create that much-needed portfolio. Finding that Indian images are not “stocked” on the Internet although stock photography is a US$1.5 billion industry, Sandeep has developed his brainchild Imagesbazaar to become the largest Indian images stock site in the world.

As he explained his wisdom and journey to Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist, YourStory, there was a sense of disbelief at first that turned into admiration later. Read the Sandeep story...

Starting up as a photographer

British Counsel

I started my career as a model, right after my schooling, at the age of 19. But I was not competent enough to make my mark as there were countless number of people who aspired to create their own space in the field. I pondered ‘Why shouldn’t I help those aspiring models who seek a genuine photographer rather than being a model’. Only on a blue moon one can find a photographer who put the problems of a model above his monetary desires on the same timeline. This urged me to become a photographer and to be the solution for those aspiring models’ clicking needs.After undergoing a photography workshop training spanning two weeks, I set up my own studio, Mash Audio Visual, on a small scale owing to the economic condition of my family. It cost me my studies. I started creating portfolios, though not very appealing as I was not a professional photographer compared to the veterans in the field.

Limca world record

I was multitasking as a counselor, tele-caller and a photographer as well. I did portfolios on weekends and I planned to play the rest of the roles on weekdays. Being a fast footer, I managed 5 to 6 portfolios in a day. I wondered if I could manage in case the demand increased to higher levels. Suddenly the idea to set a world record sprang up and so I approached the Limca Book of Records. They set a target to capture 10,000 different shots employing 100 within a duration of 12 hours on an analog camera with film. I exceeded the expectation by capturing more than 10,000 images in 11 hours and utilizing over 120 models.

Setting up an office

After setting the world record in 2003, I became famous overnight and I was in the limelight. That was a turning point in my career. With the buzz helping me out to climb significantly on the ladder, I set up an office in Delhi with a team of around 15 and the business margin increased considerably. We grew to be the largest portfolio makers in Delhi of the time.

Out of every 100 models aspiring to walk into the industry, only 10 really walk in, and out of that 10. only 1 or 2 make it big in the industry. So we were frank to our customers as always. Though we were ethically right and tried a lot of thing to help the models, some didn’t make it and I felt sorry for them.

Later an advertising company approached me requesting for the rights to utilize the portfolios of models rather than hosting a complete photo shoot. That instilled the idea of posting the portfolios of the models. I did some research on the internet and to my shock, I was not the only one who found the idea compelling.

Venturing in completely and founding ImagesBazaar: The initial struggles

The concept ‘stock photography’ was already on the move and had a market of US$1.5 billion. At the time of our launch, there were many big players in the space. But I was fortunate to find the missing link. None of these websites provided creative images of the Indian faces. That was where we invested our time and we started creating images in January 2005 and we launched Imagesbazaar in February 2006 with around 8000 images. In order to make sure that we sow all our efforts in ImagesBazaar, I shut down our operations of our modeling business completely.

Ironically, I am pretty sure that out of the 8000 images very few were sold till date. It was a complete disaster because of the fact that the images were based on our perception and were not good enough for the customers. Most of the time the site crashed and since I was not from an IT background, I had to resort to the IT crew who always complained about the server every time. Because of this no one visited our site and obviously we did not have any customers.

Out of the need, I started learning programming languages from the Internet which were concerned with our business and I designed the complete back-end of the website. Because of my direct involvement the time taken to search images reduced to 1 second from a frightening 2 to 3 minute search and now I can say that our website is faster than any other site. We gathered feedback from many advertising agencies and made a lot of changes in our IT base and our photography style as well. We added more images and then it worked out to be pleasing enough for our customers. And now we have the largest collection of Indian Photography with close to around 900,000 images.

Financials—Bootstrapping model

Mash Audio Visual was launched with an investment of less than 1.5 lakhs as I operated out of my house. At present, we have 55 members who are working on a full-time basis.

Images can be saved directly from the Internet. But how do you earn if this can be done for free?

The images that are saved are low-resolution images. Even the watermarks can be removed by experts using photoshop and can be used illegally. We have got a monitoring system and sue those who are using our images illegally. If you want a higher resolution image for printing on brochures, catalogs, hoardings, newspaper ads, posters etc. then you have to pay us through the payment system. We have integrated our website with 15 banks and that’s how the payments are made by the customers. It can also be operated using mobiles. Thus the website can be used anywhere, so we have around 7000 clients globally.

We enable our customers to download the images also because they cannot make presentations without downloading. For example if your customer is Sony Inc., you will need to download the image, create your presentation to project to Sony. So that’s how it works and since the system is totally automated, if you want to use a photo, you can browse the site, choose the photo and make payment online 24/7 and download it immediately.

Making the buck through images

If a company wants to use foreign images, there are thousands of stock agencies where they can buy an images from US$10 to US$10,000. But if they want an Indian image, they have got two options. Either they would have to assemble a big team and spend a lot of money and valuable time working on it or just log on to our website, Imagesbazaar.com, and end the process by spending very low time and money.

Customer acquisition and challenges around it

We found our first customer after 5 to 7 days of our launch. We were hardly selling 5 to 10 images per month making Rs. 25,000 a month in contrast to our expenses of around Rs. 2 lakh per month. We saw the ‘valley of death’ last for around 6 months and after a year we started making breakthrough profits.

Initially, we had customers like Lintas, Percept, Capital Advertising to name a few.

Syncing photo shoot with customer requirements

This is the most important thing in the business. If our images don’t meet the customers’ needs, then the whole system fails. What we do is we have a team of researchers who work on it. We have a huge data repository, which is called as the search log and it records the searches of people. We have traffic of millions or billions of searches, which have taken place in our website. We consolidate the searches and convert into intelligent formats which the research team can work on to find the customers’ interest. We fill in the gaps where the customers don’t meet their requirements by consolidating the data. But now we have filled in the gaps almost and you can even get photos matching complex queries at present.

The second thing that is of concern is the market trends. We look at what kinds of products are advertised and how they are advertised to find out the right combination that will unlock the customers’ thoughts. We keep this in mind and work with our team of directors and art-directors to capture images in coherence with the customers’ needs and the industry.

We do researches on other stock photography agencies worldwide to find what-to-do and what-not-to-do.

Cost of a photo shoot to create a portfolio of images

We spend around Rs. 3 to 5 lakhs. Sometimes it exceeds this range too. Recently we did a shoot in Mauritius where we took a team of models and photographers and spent a lot because the beauty of the beaches of the Mauritius couldn’t be found anywhere near.

Selling the portfolio to make profits

We work based on the results of the research of customers’ needs but we don’t undertake a customized shoot. That’s why it is a risky business. But 80% to 90% of the images we shoot never get sold. And due to this not many get involved in this business.

On average 85% of the images are unused and that’s the case with other stock photo companies as well. Here, the customer can buy the images with exclusive rights or non-exclusive rights. If the campaign lasts for a year or more, they can buy the images at Rs. 45,000 to Rs. 50,000 per image for exclusive rights. But if the campaign does not last long enough, for example for brochures or banners, they can buy the image for non-exclusive right where they pay ten times lesser.

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