How I Built A Niche Image Sharing Website With A Triple-Digit Growth

Michael Connors
Founder, Folio.ink
1
Founders
1
Employees
Folio.ink
from Princeton, NJ, USA
started August 2021
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Founders
1
Employees
1.17M
alexa rank
3
followers
33
followers
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How I Built A Niche Image Sharing Website With A Triple-Digit Growth

Hello, I am Michael Connors, I started Folio.ink, free image albums for creatives and small businesses. It is a modern-day version of drop-off portfolios and sample sheets.

With folio.ink you can send samples to a prospective client, or family and friends, without having to use a client, or your cloud storage solutions. And it takes seconds to use, no login or registration is required.

Since our initial soft launch in Aug of 2021, we have seen traffic increase 150% to 14,000 page views per month. Since August, 10,000 folios have been created and 40,000 media files have been uploaded.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I started my journey to folio.ink as a production artist for ad agencies on Madison Avenue. I spent years working with designers, developers, and creatives on some of the biggest brands including, M&Ms, P&G, Microsoft, Mastercard, Nikon, Lockheed Martin, Verizon, Novartis, Pfizer, and Merck to just name a few. In 1999, as a side project, I built Morguefile.com. A free stock photo site, for creatives by creatives.

After 23 years of maintaining Morguefile in my free time, I sold the website in 2021. It was a fun journey that taught me a great deal about creating and maintaining large-scale websites. At its peak, Morguefile had 600,000 visits per month. But it was time to move on and I began a new journey, Folio.ink.

The idea is simple, a simple, fast, and efficient way to share creative content was ideal for ad shops, small businesses, freelancers, or family albums. Having used similar tools in creative development, and a solid foundation in traditional advertising work, folio.ink is built to be a paste-bin for images.

There are a lot of existing cloud storage solutions that offer the ability to share files, and there are many solutions for instant free image hosting, as well as solutions for creatives to create an online portfolio, and I needed a solution that combined all three. A micro-portfolio platform.

I built Folio.ink with a target in mind of creative professionals. Photographers, illustrators, and designers should use this to quickly send a client a few ideas. It should be dead simple to use and have a sharp, clean minimalistic look to not compete with the work it's presenting.

But having built the platform and watched it in the wild, I discovered that it is far better suited for small businesses. Someone who is selling carpets and trying to reach clients with rug samples needs the same level of quality portfolio as a professional photographer. That for me was an AHA moment.

Currently building and maintaining the platform is very cost-effective. Image storage is much cheaper than five years ago. And as a developer and designer by trade, building the code base was relatively painless. The SaaS landscape today lets you easily plugin in major functionality components with a few lines of code. All of this is easily funded at a minimal cost. My biggest hurdle is marketing the idea and building traction.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

In one day, I started very simply with an Amazon web instance, an S3 bucket for storage, connected to gumlet.io to process the images, and connected it all through cloudflare.com for security and CDN. The database in Mongo, a NoSQL server that I learned from previous experience, is way more cost-effective than relational databases.

Then over three weeks I designed and developed a very basic prototype, the minimal viable product using vanilla Javascript, HTML, and SCSS. In layman's terms, really basic programming. It uploads images and makes an animated slideshow. Originally I had it expire in 30 days to reinforce this as temporary albums, and it turns out, that was a terrible idea. Now albums have an option to expire if set.

A few years ago I had the terms and conditions, as well as a privacy policy was written up by a lawyer, mostly boilerplate stuff which I could probably find easily online. The total cost for setup and hosting was about $500 upfront for gumlet for the year, and $400 for AWS reserved instance also for a year. The monthly cost to run the site is now under $100.

Link building has a cumulative effect. For every link the higher up the mountain you go and at some point, it starts compounding, and the higher up the SEO you can maintain.

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Describe the process of launching the business.

The soft launch was with little fanfare. The plan was to get the site out in the wild and get feedback on how it was working, and what wasn’t working. I put together a press release and every morning sent it out via cold emails to blogs and online news sources. Luckily I was able to get picked up by one fairly prominent blog, petapixel.com, and slowly started to build a following.

I utilized quite a few resources available online to track and evaluate what was going on on the site. At the end of every slide presentation is a Typeform questionnaire form with one simple question “We would love to know your opinion on how to make folio better.” I’ve gotten a handful of very insightful responses. I also implemented hotjar.com free tools that collect heatmaps and screen recordings to track the major pain points of using the site. Watching someone click around, reach a dead end or get frustrated and where they exit is incredibly important to refine the experience.

I also use Semrush’s free tools, google search console, and google analytics to track the performance and SEO. In the beginning, I had a very bad - awful bounce rate. No one was sticking around, and the returning visitors rate was very low. That was an area that was going to need attention.

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One other tool that I used was to cobble together a budget of $300 and take it to fiverr.com and retain users at $10-$25 a time to use the site and tell me what they did and didn’t like. Some Fiverr users specialize in usability. For $25-$50, I would get recordings and PDF presentations on recommendations of what needed to be fixed.

Taking all the responses together a clear pattern emerges. I was using a very minimalistic homepage, based on Google's clean simple input search landing page. But that wasn’t working. I had to explain what folio was. And the design overall had to be better.

I think it's best to not overthink it, start with the problem, and then make the minimally viable solution. Create something great, market it, focus on a good user experience, have a solid infrastructure, listen to customer feedback, remain relevant, innovate and adapt.

After a homepage redesign and continued functionality improvements, the bounce rate dropped and the returning visitors rate increased.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

The key to success for any online presence is getting linkbacks and social media posts. There are lots of strategies for doing that. Guest post, HARO, create infographics, etc. But the reality is it's not easy at all and there doesn’t seem to be one magic solution. For Morguefile.com I was in the top five results SEO rank on google for “free photos”, and it took me years to reach that. It was hard. And getting a good spot also meant keeping it there.

It was a never-ending sluggish process that I did daily. Emailing news outlets, blog writers, and other content creators with personalized emails asking them kindly to have a look at my idea and if possible, an article or mention. And I had all the materials ready in the form of a press kit for them to publish.

I use tools like buffer.com to schedule social media posts with researched hashtags to keep the online presence alive. I am sure there are other approaches to this or having a large enough budget to hire an SEO agency to manage that. But that can be a challenge being on a tight budget.

But link building has a cumulative effect. For every link the higher up the mountain you go and at some point, it starts compounding, and the higher up the SEO you can maintain.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We are getting 25,000 page views per month. After launching in late 2021, Folio.ink users have already created over 10,000 folios on its platform, and more than 40,000 media files have been uploaded. The rate of increase and traction is increasing each month. So the initial plan of building traction and gathering data is progressing well.

Now I am moving over to phase two, and focusing on the revenue streams. I just implemented affiliate sales on the final screen of each folio and went through the process of seeing which ads are working, what is getting more clicks, and with the increase of traffic, getting data on our audience and cost per lead through analytics. Now that I have built the audience and seen real data on the demographics, I can provide better targeting for advertisers and move to a CPC model.

An alternative plan for revenue is to provide a freemium, micro-payment lifetime payment per folio. For example, allowing users to have 1000s images per folio if they pay a one-time fee of USD 1.25. But it's an alternative plan that will require quite a bit of additional resources, specifically the security of a payment gateway and more importantly customer and technical support.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I think I have taken quite a few lessons from morguefile experience and carried them over to what I am doing on Folio.ink. The initial cost and monthly recurring cost can be kept quite low to build something that can grow and be successful. I think it's best to not overthink it, start with the problem, and then make the minimally viable solution. Create something great, market it, focus on a good user experience, have a solid infrastructure, listen to customer feedback, remain relevant, innovate and adapt.

I think a mistake for me is not focusing enough on making this look like what a successful business should look like, and more importantly finding investors. But I can manage at a very low cost and the idea of having partners is not really what I am looking for. I know of other startup stories that begin just like I have. I also feel like I need to see, based on the data from the minimal viable product, what gear I need to be in before I punch the gas. I am hyper-focused on making a great product first. Maybe down the road that could be a big mistake.

One time years ago I put out a different idea onto hacker news, an incredibly popular news feed for developers in the startup community. It was well received and traffic exploded, then they hacked the site, not the result we were hoping for.

I am also re-learning marketing strategies. I was hugely successful for morguefile when the focus was entirely on linkbacks. While that is still relevant- the landscape is far different today and I spend a lot of time trying to understand social media marketing and finding influencers. A lot has evolved in those 23 years.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Most of what I have built has been on Amazon's AWS and Cloudflare.com, as well as a collection of open-source code and design elements. The database is free MongoDB and the front-end code is basic HTML javascript. Cloudflare.com is an amazing company that has a lot of great products that I use for everything. When I had morguefile and ran payroll I used gusto.com. I have to mention them because that is pretty much the most amazing tool I’ve used. Those guys are awesome. When I run payroll again that's who I’ll use.

I use a lot of icons from iconmonstr.com. Photos from Morguefile.com or Pexels.com. I also use Copy.ai frequently. It has a free version that will allow you to write a handful of ad headlines and teaser copy. It's not always perfect, but it's good at getting solid ideas down.

I think we will see more and more AI and machine learning tools to come. The next step for me is to implement machine learning algorithms to process images to recognize NSFW images and read the contents of folios to serve more relevant ads. I manage my code and find other code libraries on github.com.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I spend a lot of time looking at what other startups are building and how they are doing it. Places like Betalist.com, Producthunt.com, Creativebrew.io, and of course Starterstory, to see the latest developments.

I also probably spend way too much time on Reddit. There are specific subreddits reddit.com/r/startups and reddit.com/r/sideprojects that are good for finding answers. And follow what's going on on Twitter for the latest in coding developments and design trends. A while ago I read the E Myth which was very informative.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I try every day to create, use and post folios to Reddit or places like that to see how well they were working. I am a big believer that you should use your product all the time, over and over again to find the pain points and get creative with the experience. It seems obvious, but I need to go over the process again and again.

A painter may walk miles in front of a painting as they take a step back to look at their progress and step forward to paint. It's easy for me to get lost in the weeds of the experience, I need to step back from building it, use it, and get back into making it work. It's a creative process, and I think to build anything of significance, you need to get your hands into the clay and mold your vision.

Unfortunately, my focus is on development and design, less on business which allows me to quickly build and deploy ideas, but requires extra work on making them into businesses. But irrespective of that, I enjoy building things and seeing how people interact with them. It’s just incredibly fun and fulfilling. I think it's a great foundation for success. Even if the business side doesn’t gel, I learn a lot and I am meeting interesting people along the way.

I think it's important to define what success needs to be and what it looks like. Then from your current starting point, define the steps needed to get there.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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Michael Connors, Founder of Folio.ink
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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