One can’t discuss the last couple of years in the WordPress photography world without talking about Pressgram, which was Kickstarted, built, used, and eventually shut down in 2013 and 2014.
I recently interviewed Pressgram founder John Saddington to get additional insight to share the story of Pressgram. What follows is not just the story of an app, but a look at how that app affected a developer and his family. All quotes below are from John.
John is an autistic adult, diagnosed a couple years ago with Asperger’s Syndrome. One aspect is that he’s very visual, and photography provides an outlet and coping mechanism as he moves through life.
I take pictures of everything. Anything from my to do lists, to pictures and faces (faces are a big challenge for me).
He became a big user of Instagram, a social network for photography. He notes that “in a way, Instagram was a therapeutic tool.” Like many in the WordPress community, John has issues with Facebook, and when Facebook purchased Instagram, those concerns extended to that social network. He had a desire to build something where he could capture and use his photos without being under the control of an objectionable company.
He began building Pressgram on his own as a tool for himself. Pressgram only became public after John’s wife suggested Kickstarter as an option for moving it forward.
Pressgram’s Kickstarter campaign was held in March and April 2013, raising $56,500. John notes that what was once a very personal project became a very public project:
In the Kickstarter, you’ll hear nothing about my autism, nothing about being an autistic adult. Those things are too much to try to explain on a Kickstarter project page.
He notes that he had been very vocal and very public about his distrust of Facebook, and I’ll note that he wasn’t alone. There was a lot of public backlash to the Facebook Instagram acquisition, as we’ve seen many similar acquisitions where the acquiring company significantly changed (or shuttered) the acquired service.
He notes “I don’t feel like I was disingenuous” in leaving out the very personal aspects of Pressgram’s origin; there were certainly many public reasons to support the project, and 498 folks pushed it past the fundraising goal.
Here’s the video in which John explains the problem and solution that Pressgram addressed:
Although the Kickstarter campaign surpassed the funding goal, it wasn’t without some bumpiness. WordPress cofounder Matt Mullenweg originally pledged $10,000, but retracted that pledge because the Pressgram app wasn’t open source software:
I canceled my pledge for @Pressgram (10k) because project will be proprietary, not OS like I expected. Sorry for misunderstanding.
— Matt Mullenweg (@photomatt) April 9, 2013
In reading some of the replies/discussion prompted by that tweet, I find it interesting that a few folks suggest that filters should be added to the official WordPress iOS app, implying that would be a better option. As of early 2015, no such filters exist in the open source WordPress iOS app.
The first version of Pressgram featured two major bits of functionality: a Pressgram social network, and the ability for one to publish photos to a WordPress blog. Here’s the video that showcases Pressgram 1:
Like any new service, some folks found issues with the first implementation. George Stephanis noted what seemed to be an inconsistency with the terms of service, which were then updated and clarified. He, and a few others, also didn’t realize that Pressgram was a social network. I never fully understood this argument (but admittedly didn’t spend a ton of time digging into it at the time). The Kickstarter page refers to “the Pressgram network” and that you can “share with your growing network of other Pressgram lovers” but there was still an assertion that Pressgram violated the Kickstarter terms of service.
Despite the post-launch uproar from some folks, Pressgram gained a fair amount of publicity and users began sharing on the Pressgram network.
Growth and User Adoption
All social networks have a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem as they grow: many folks won’t join the network until there is a critical mass of users, but in order to reach that critical mass, folks need to join the network. As a Pressgram user who tried to evangelize the app to others, I know I met this resistance.
I see many similarities to App.net, another independent social network that grew, failed to reach a profitable mass of users, then failed. There is a vocal minority of users who value independence, but we continue to see a majority of the world’s population be fine with allowing their data to be used for advertising sales in exchange for a free social network.
I asked John how many users ended up on Pressgram, and he indicated it was between 50,000 and 60,000.
The second incarnation of Pressgram featured a major UI update to the iOS app, adding 80 filter effects, and the end of the Pressgram social network. Although it wasn’t huge, Pressgram did have enough of a presence at this point that version 2 gathered some press from online news sites.
Advanced editing features were available via in-app purchases, bringing a revenue model to the app, which was in a poor financial situation (more on that below).
At this point, Pressgram became purely an editing and publishing tool for iOS WordPress users.
Finances and Developer Lifestyle
The removal of the social network was primarily a financial decision. In the (approximately) two years of Pressgram, the application only brought in revenue of just over $1,300. He was able to raise around $300,000 in funding to contribute towards expenses, but in those two years, John didn’t pay himself a salary. He ended up selling his car and then his house in order to continue working on Pressgram.
The social network brought a significant amount of server, storage, and network costs for the application, reaching $20,000 per month at the service’s peak. Removal of the social network eliminated nearly all of those costs, bringing the operational costs for Pressgram closer to $200 per month.
I made a lot of mistakes. I failed a lot of people… something [I] would have done differently? I don’t know. I wasn’t prepared for the scaling costs.
In a comment at WP Chat (made about the same time I interviewed John), he elaborated:
the cost charts and burn-rates are literally mind-blowing. I wasn’t prepared for the cloud-costs and I’m not sure if I could have prepared better. I’m a decent engineer and software developer (not the best in the world, that’s for sure) but I know my way around an API and I am ruthlessly-creative when it comes to getting shit done. I applied Path App’s open source caching system (thank God) and that saved money and I did 100 other things to lower data costs. I just couldn’t do it.
During my interview, at one point I said “Okay, so you got to this point where financially it wasn’t working and you had to pull the plug and it didn’t make sense” and John jumped on it:
But right there Aaron, what you just said. That eventually, financially it didn’t make sense and you pulled the plug. That right there is it in a nutshell. And yet that, for some reason, is unsatisfying for most people. And there’s no magic around what you said. That’s the plain truth.
Even with the lower costs of the John needed to recover financially from the endeavor. He eventually shut down Pressgram in September 2014, although he notes he that could have (and probably should have) pulled the plug six months earlier. In that time he’d been searching for a solution for a graceful exit, looking for a potential buyer or someone to acquire the IP, but nothing panned out.
At that point, it was a very personal, emotional battle, because I had royally fucked up a major product.
Selling his house, moving his family into a small apartment, and sacrificing some of his family’s lifestyle after nearly 10 years of marriage was a large emotional burden for John. He’s had longtime struggles with clinical depression, and sought therapy and counseling at the time of Pressgram’s demise. In our call he noted that failures are failures, and that it’s okay to talk about it, and that there’s no shame in having something totally fail.
I want to be able to communicate to anyone who reads this, that at the end of the day my story is not unique, it’s okay to mess up, even big time, and that life goes on.
One of his therapists suggested he get back to building things for himself, which led to Desk, a project he’d had in mind for twelve years. Desk, a publishing tool for OS X, was released in late 2014 and has done quite well, having been named one of Apple’s best apps of 2014, garnering featured status in the App Store. What started as a recovery mechanism seems to have become far more successful than Pressgram.
I think there are several lessons to be learned from Pressgram’s story. App developers can probably learn something from the technical challenges faced with the cloud storage issues. End users can be reminded that behind every app are developers, who are people, and that those people can be profoundly impacted when a service doesn’t pan out.