Wed, 20 November 2019
Content in a Flash
How Grant Munro and Flashstock created an agile solution for on-brand, custom photo and video—and reaped a big windfall.
For Grant Munro, nothing felt right.
He had always aspired to start his own business, but never knew what to pursue. He went on to work for larger companies as a software developer and product manager, but those paths didn’t feel quite right either.
Despite not having an explicitly creative background (what with coming from tech and software development), Munro finally found a pursuit that excited him—helping brands express themselves creatively.
He first came upon the opportunity after major clients he was working with at a creative boutique kept asking for help with creating custom visual content. As photo and video on social media were taking off, and major brands were seeking solutions for creating unique content, Munro realized it was time to start his own thing.
“It got to the point, I was like well, if I’m gonna to start a company, this seems like a pretty good one,” Munro says.
Good turned out to be great. In 2014, Flashstock was born, and it was perfectly timed to the rise of Instagram as an advertising platform.
As a leading custom content creation company with a global network of freelancers and contributors, Flashstock’s proprietary platform allowed hundreds of brands across the Fortune 500 to streamline on-demand visual content (think photos, videos, GIFs, and so on). With its steady growth, unique software, and a list of high-profile clients, Shutterstock acquired the Toronto-based company in 2017, after it had been in business just four years, for $50 million in cash. Flashstock was subsequently rebranded as Shutterstock Custom.
However, had it not been for a former employer making a change to its business model, Flashstock may never have come into existence.
This Seems Like a Good Company to Start
After those early stints at major companies and acquiring his MBA, Munro took his first steps into the startup world, joining a boutique social media agency in Toronto. That’s when he really started to find some joy in his work.
With his experience in product development and software engineering, he joined the company’s product team with the hopes of coming up with new ideas to increase their SaaS revenue. Along the way, he learned that he enjoyed the customer development process, and understanding clients’ pain points and problems.
As the company’s product business grew and it became established as an early player in social media management, the team realized that they no longer wanted to focus on traditional creative agency services, such as content creation.
“They viewed that as something that wasn’t a good type of revenue that they wanted to continue, so they discontinued offering it,” Munro says. “And because we were providing content mostly for social at the time, and some digital stuff, the clients were very unhappy about this.”
Munro was surprised by his clients’ reactions. Although this shutdown may have provided a temporary inconvenience, he assumed that someone else would simply take over their content production, maybe another agency.
That wasn’t the case.
The agency had created a formula for creating low-cost, quick-turnaround content for social media, and clients loved it. They didn’t want to see it go away, and they kept asking Munro for different solutions around content, despite the agency no longer providing the service.
Realizing that these questions would never go away, and that companies were not finding a solution for their content production, Munro got creative and took a risk.
“I ended my role there and then sort of rolled over and started Flashstock pretty much the next week,” Munro says. “And went to some of the early clients from the previous company that had requested help on the content side and offered up a solution that would basically connect them, through some software that I wrote, directly to freelancers all around the world.”
By acquiring early customers and refining the product, it provided Flashstock with some growth and sustainability early on, but not without some changes.
Visual Identity Calibration
When Munro initially started Flashstock, the positioning for the company was that it was an alternative to stock photos and videos. The messaging was working with marketing agencies, but brands were not as interested. Munro knew he had to change it up.
As Instagram was making some changes and starting to take off, Flashstock’s positioning went in a new direction. It was no longer just an alternative resource for stock imagery—it was now a place where brands could go for help in telling their stories in unique ways, using differentiated content, but at a much lower cost.
More brands started to buy into this concept, recognizing that creating custom content on a large scale posed a great challenge. Major corporations didn’t have the time to find freelancers and manage the creative process, so they need needed a service to do that for them. They needed Flashstock to do this.
Munro first and foremost needed to come up with a way for a brand to communicate in a non-ambiguous way what it stood for and their target audience. And most importantly, all of this needed to be presented in a way that a freelancer could understand, despite never meeting the client.
“If you’re a big organization, it’s usually okay , because when you’re creating content, you’re usually with the people that are creating it,” Munro says. “But when you’re in this networked world where you’re communicating through software and you’re never talking to people, that level of ambiguity breaks the system. So we needed to come up with a way to solve that, frankly, for our own survival.”
Something Munro calls visual identity calibration.
This phrase describes a system in which a brand enters its information and describes its identity to Flashstock, and then the Flashstock team puts the brand through an exercise to pin them down on the right details. The end product is a well defined set of creative variables, which Flashstock then provides to their freelancers to create new, on-brand content.
The system garnered great feedback and has been praised for its innovation in solving this communication pain point. So much so, that some companies have even used a lot of these tools internally to communicate with each other, according to Munro.
Power of the ‘Gram
Around 2014, Instagram really began to open up its platform for anyone to be able to post and create company pages, and major brands wanted to get in on the action. In order to fully take advantage of it, brands would have to post often, but on the cheap for it to make sense for them financially.
This was right up Flashstock’s alley.
“Every organization wanted to be on the platform, but because there was no paid promotion behind it, they wanted the cost of the content to be as close to zero as possible,” Munro says.
This demand allowed Flashstock to be able to acquire new clients regularly, as many brands wanted to create content for Instagram, but not many agencies were offering this custom service at an affordable price. With Flashstock, brands could log in to the platform, find contributors around the globe, and receive on-brand content in a timely fashion.
“I was really able to complement what a traditional creative agency was doing and not really be a competitive threat because they didn’t want to create that type of content,” Munro says, referring to custom content at low cost.
Soon thereafter, Instagram turned on its ad platform, allowing brands to really promote their content that they made native for the platform. Once Instagram flipped this switch, it really took off as an effective place for brands to advertise, and Flashstock’s growth took off with it. The rest, as they say, is history.
The company grew extremely quickly, and within just four years of operating, was acquired by leading stock photography company Shutterstock.
Today, Munro is the senior vice president of Shutterstock Custom, where he has been since Shutterstock acquired Flashstock back in 2017. The division operates as its own unit, where it continues to provide major brands with quick, authentic branded content.
As for Munro’s future, and whether he’ll ever return to entrepreneurship, he’ll never say never.
“Right now, I’m still with Shutterstock and I plan to be with Shutterstock for some time,” Munro says. “When you’re a startup, you’re out there doing it alone and sort of fighting for your life, and then when someone takes you into the fold like Shutterstock has, they provide you with a ton of resources. So, we’ve got a bunch of unfinished business that we have left to take care of.”
3 Tips For Scaling A Creative Company
When Grant Munro decided to start Flashstock, he was learning everything in real-time. Building a company culture and fostering creative talent were all new to him. Fortunately, Munro was a quick learner. He found the right formula for success and company growth, and in just four years, sold Flashstock to Shutterstock for $50 million.
Here are three of Munro’s tips for scaling a creative company.
Know Your Customer
During a stint at a startup, Munro learned how much he enjoyed the process of customer development and understanding what a company’s pain points were. By really diving in deep and talking with his clients about their problems, or even understanding your own company’s problem, it becomes easier to think of novel solutions, or to have “aha” moments.
When you’ve invested the time into knowing the problem and understanding the ecosystem of that problem, you open yourself up more to those flashpoints of creativity and resolution. If you don’t spend the effort doing customer development, you’re making it harder on yourself, maybe not now, but later.
“I feel like a lot of that gets overlooked at companies of all sizes,” Munro says. “Where they almost have to reinvent the wheel every time they want to launch a new campaign because they haven’t created that discipline around customer development.”
Go Chat With Someone Who’s Done It
When a person sets out to create a product or scale a business, they tend to focus first on what they’re good at and what interests them. And if there is a challenging task ahead that may be intimidating, it is quite natural for them to put it off and go back to working on something they’re good at. This can stunt the growth of your business and make it hard to scale.
Munro suggests that if you’re struggling with a component of your business, or need some guidance, go talk with someone who’s done that task before.
“When you talk through your current priorities with people who have sort of done it and been there, they can help you recalibrate those ,” Munro says. “And they can help you say, ‘No, no, you don’t need to write another line of code, or you know, you don’t need to tweak your designs anymore. What you need to do it is set up your accounting software.’”
Define Your Core Values and Mission
Flashpoint’s growth was very, very fast.
Within the company’s first few years, they had grown to around 80 people, so they had little time to set up any processes, let alone establish values or have a clear company mission.
It was when he was repeatedly asked questions about the company’s future, and he realized he didn’t have a hand in the interview process with some key employees, that he felt it was time to create a company mission and values.
With the help of a third party to facilitate a retreat, Munro and key members of the team came up with Flashstock’s mission and values. And immediately, he saw results across the company. It would help them formulate an employee handbook, and to use these values in the hiring process.
“It simplified everything,” Munro says. “We would reference them all the time. From a creativity perspective, people feel really comfortable, people feel really consistent, people feel really welcomed their ideas based on the culture and that sort of frees up their thinking.”
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Nick Allen