How We Run A $3M/Year Subscription-Based Services Company

Published: September 27th, 2023
Devon Higgins
Founder, PhotoUp
from Grand Rapids, MI, USA
started January 2012
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Devon Higgins and I helped start and grow PhotoUp, a real estate photo editing, digital marketing, and virtual assistant company. PhotoUp primarily works with real estate photographers and media professionals who need help growing their real estate media businesses.

The company was founded in 2012 and I came on board in 2013 after meeting the other two founders at a co-working space in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I started out as a freelance worker helping with sales and marketing, then moved into a full-time position and eventually grew that into becoming the CMO and one of the company's Managing Partners.

When I first came on board we were a company of 10 people, 4 people in North America and 6 people in the Philippines. Fast forward ten years, and we now have 6 employees in North America, 200+ employees in the Philippines, and over 60 contractors all over the world and we expect to close in on $3,000,000 in revenue this year.






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

I am a bit different than your typical founder in that I didn’t personally come up with the idea for PhotoUp. Instead, I was able to join the company in its infancy and help grow it into what it is today.

My career journey started after graduating with a degree in Marketing from Michigan State University in 2011 and moving to Chicago to start a career in logistics. I loved the city of Chicago, but the job I was working was, to put it lightly… awful. After a year in Chicago I decided to move back to Grand Rapids and put my degree to use by joining a small marketing consulting firm.

The only problem was… I was only going to get paid $1000/month + commission. So, naturally, I had to move back in with my parents. Not ideal for a 23-year-old who just spent the last year living it up in the Windy City.

However, that decision would eventually lead me to start my own marketing business, join a coworking space, and meet two young entrepreneurs who were starting a real estate photo editing business called PhotoUp. Kristian, PhotoUp CEO, Chris, PhotoUp Board Member, and I first bonded over soccer and beers.

Eventually I moved that friendship into their business where I helped part-time with sales and marketing for this young tech startup that aimed to have a social impact in the Philippines by matching young creative talent with photographers who needed help leveraging their time to be able to shoot more, edit less, and spend more time with family or growing their business.

I quickly fell in love with the founders, their amazing team, and their desire to build a business with social impact at the forefront. After seeing moderate success as a part time employee, Kristian and Chris asked me to come on as a full time employee. This meant having to shut down my other marketing business, which was not ideal, but I saw the success and promise of PhotoUp as something I could do for a long, long time.

After much thought and deliberation, I accepted the offer to come full time, but in exchange the PhotoUp founders allowed me to gain equity in the company over a set amount of years. From then on, I’ve been committed to the growth and success of PhotoUp, our clients, and most importantly our team in the Philippines.

Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.

The idea for PhotoUp grew out of our two founders working on separate projects, one in Alaska and one in Colorado. Kristian, our CEO, was working as a real estate agent in Anchorage, Alaska, and was also running a small website business on the side. He had a small team over in the Philippines and was one day approached by his real estate photographer asking if he knew of any photo editors in the Philippines.

Kristian decided to help his photographer find a few editors to help him out and after a few weeks of talking, they decided that if this was an issue for the photographer in Alaska, there must be a lot of other photographers who are running into the same issue…

Meanwhile, in Fort Collins, Colorado, Chris was working on his MBA in social entrepreneurship. His team's business idea was around working with scholarship students in the Philippines and connecting them with wedding photographers in the US to help them with their editing.

After a mutual friend heard about both Chris and Kristian’s business ventures, he decided to connect them, and, POOF, PhotoUp was born.

PhotoUp first started out as an On Demand photo editing service that worked with both real estate agents and photographers. If you had photos to edit, you could come to PhotoUp and receive editing for $1.00 per image. Simply upload your images, pay the fee, and receive your images back within 24 hours.

When developing the initial website and platform, we partnered with a rockstar group of developers from the Philippines who my business partner, Kristian, had worked with over the years. Initially, the website and platform were built as an on-demand editing service where users (photographers and/or real estate agents) could upload images, and pay one set price per image, and our editing team would deliver photos back within 24 hours. The process was simple and the platform was good, but we struggled to get consistent revenue on a monthly basis...

We quickly learned that On Demand revenue was very inconsistent and unreliable. After 2 years of operating as an On Demand business, we decided to change the entire business model into a subscription business.

This decision to switch from an on-demand service model to a subscription-based model is the reason we are still in business today.

We went from working with over 500 clients in total to working with just 8 subscription clients regularly. Although this was a drastic and scary change, this proved to be one of the best business decisions we could have made…

After dropping down to just 8 monthly subscribers, we soon found that the monthly subscription model was beginning to resonate with other photographers as well. 8 subscribers quickly turned into 20, and 20 turned into 50. By the end of our first year, we had over 100 paid subscribers. The feeling was incredible!

Subscriptions still make up the vast majority of PhotoUp’s revenue and we’ve also added higher-priced subscriptions (working directly with a dedicated photo editor starting at $1295/month), and we still also offer on-demand services as well.

Describe the process of launching the business.

In the first year of PhotoUp, the service was all on demand. When I arrived in 2014, we decided to pivot our model and become a subscription service, which was unheard of at the time for real estate photo editing companies.

We went from having 500 total users (anyone who had used our service at least once) down to just 7 subscription clients, ranging anywhere from $99 to $500 per month. However, by making that switch, we were able to immediately increase our monthly revenue by 2X.

This decision to switch from an on-demand service model to a subscription-based model is the reason we are still in business today. This also paved the way for other competitors to come into the real estate photo editing space and copy our subscription model…

At the very beginning, it was tough to build relationships and trust with our customers who were using us at an On Demand level. They simply wanted photos edited and delivered back to them and didn't care much about how the photos were edited and who was doing the work.

However, that all changed once we moved to a subscription model. Our subscribers were the type of people who used our service on a weekly, if not daily basis. They enjoyed being reached out to and engaging with our team, both on a personal and professional level.

It was those early subscribers who helped us grow and shape PhotoUp into what it is today, providing us with invaluable feedback as to what products, services, tools, and systems they needed to make their businesses more efficient.

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

From early on, we did not have a big marketing/advertising budget. But what we did have was the ability to write valuable content via our blog and service pages on our website. To this day, organic content is the #1 driver of traffic to our website.

Our content team is comprised of a brilliant Content Manager who helps coordinate, plan, assign, edit, and even write some of our highly valuable content for our blog and website.

She also manages a team of content writers and marketing assistants both here in the US and The Philippines. One of the main things that sets our content apart from our competitors is that we have partnered with content writers who are actively involved in the real estate industry at a deep level.

By working with industry experts like photographers, agents, and other real estate professionals, we have been able to take our content to the next level where we can feel confident about being thought leaders in our industry.

Over the years, we’ve also partnered with industry-leading blogs and podcasts, attended real estate photography trade shows, created and maintained our social media presence, and now have a small monthly advertising budget.

That said, our biggest generator of leads to our website is the organic traffic we generate from writing high-value, original content for our client base.

Doing business and life together is a big decision and it can make all of the difference in the world if you surround yourself with people who love and respect you and also help you be the best possible version of yourself for your colleagues and family.

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

Like most businesses, if you’re not Amazon or Apple, we experienced some difficult years during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we’ve been able to keep the lights on and survive some extremely difficult times and we are now back to seeing growth numbers that we have not experienced since before the pandemic hit.

We currently employ 5 full-time employees in North America, 200+ employees in the Philippines, and 60+ freelancers from all over the world. We are already seeing big growth in the amount of new photographers joining the real estate industry and we’re also finding a big increase in the number of real estate agents who are actively looking for additional marketing software and services such as virtual staging, photo and video editing, virtual tours, and property websites.

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

Having and maintaining focus on your core goals as a company is key to success. We have a saying at PhotoUp that goes like this, “Consistency over time yields great results.” I believe that after being in a startup myself and being surrounded by the startup community for the past 8+ years, this statement could not be more true.

That said, there is also an element of luck that any startup will likely experience if they are going to survive and thrive. We’ve caught some lucky, and unlucky, breaks over the years but whenever we have experienced a big setback, we typically find ourselves facing an equal if not better opportunity that comes our way.

One quick example would be us losing a larger enterprise client at the end of 2022. We knew this was going to happen a few months in advance and also knew that losing this client and their revenue would have a big impact on our bottom line…

However, near the end of the client's relationship with us, we started working with another client of a similar size that was already starting to utilize more services and could send us even more work than our previous client had been able to. Lo and behold, within the next few months, they were already larger than our old enterprise client both in terms of volume and revenue.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We do try to build a lot of our software in-house (photo editing uploader, delivery system, website builder, virtual tours, etc.), but some of our favorite third-party tools include:

  • Intercom - Geat for chatting with leads and clients. We also use Intercom for delivering drip campaigns to our leads and interacting with our clients through a monthly email newsletter.
  • Stripe - By far our favorite payment processing partner out there. Easy to work with, and set up, and always adding new tools/systems to make our lives easier.
  • G-Suite - Not a shock, but with a highly remote/virtual team, we utilize the Google Suite of services to its full capabilities (specifically Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Meet, Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Drive).
  • Skype - This is a strange one, but yes, Skype is still a tool that is heavily used at PhotoUp. Their free chat service and free voice/video calling are critical to how PhotoUp employees communicate with each other.
  • Grasshopper - This is a VOIP system that we use for calling and sending text messages to our clients and leads.

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

  • Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action - Simon Sinek
  • Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman - Yvon Chouinard
  • Playing to Win: How Strategy Works - A. G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin
  • How I Built This Podcast - Guy Raz

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

My advice to young entrepreneurs just getting started would be to surround yourself with great people. One of my early business mentors told me that, no matter what, we will likely spend ⅓ of our life working (likely more for entrepreneurs and founders).

You also get to make a lot of choices when it comes to building your business and deciding who is going to help you build your dream. Be thoughtful, intentional, and realistic about who you choose to bring on that journey with you.

Doing business and life together is a big decision and it can make all of the difference in the world if you surround yourself with people who love and respect you and also help you be the best possible version of yourself for your colleagues and family.

Give that some thought as you get started hiring your first employees, choosing a co-founder, or even building a board. The choices you make now can and likely will impact your future. Choose wisely.

Where can we go to learn more?

Podcast interviews:

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