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Julio Ojeda-Zapata, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published July 14 2012

Hipstamatic photo app got start in St. Paul

ST. PAUL – Today, Lucas Buick and Ryan Dorshorst are celebrity iPhone-app publishers who own an entire San Francisco building where their dozen or so staffers work in hipster exposed-beam-and-brick splendor.

In 2009, however, the two were failing graphic designers with $1.83 to their professional names and a minuscule, freezing-cold St. Paul office where they had shifted to app development out of desperation.

Their future as a work team hinged on a photography app called Hipstamatic, which they were trying to finish coding the weekend after Thanksgiving that year so they could upload it to Apple’s App Store.

They were down to a single power outlet and no heat in their Lowertown digs after their space heaters “blew a circuit,” Buick recalled.

“It turned out the circuit breaker was in the studio next door, and no one was around to let us in, so we had to put on fingerless gloves to finish Hipstamatic,” he recalled.

It was 2:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009. It was their last chance. If Hipstamatic bombed, it would be time to consider different careers.

“We knew we had to generate revenue on the app from the very beginning,” unlike other app developers who have the luxury of letting their products develop a following gradually through word of mouth, Buick told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Legions of Hipstamatic aficionados know the rest of this story. The app popped up on Apple’s servers in early December and, by the following month, it was a hit. It was an Apple app-of-the-year honoree later that year and remains a best-selling iPhone app to this day even though the App Store is now chockablock with photography apps.

In the process, Buick and Dorshorst created a company that was immediately profitable, has never accepted a penny of outside investment, has rolled out more picture apps and recently unveiled an iPad magazine intended partly to showcase the handiwork of Hipstamatic users.

The company, Synthetic, is about to be rechristened Hipstamatic in an homage to the product that started it all.

Hipstamatic has become a darling of iPhone photographers because it allows them to mix and match virtual films, lenses, flashes and camera bodies to simulate the experience of using film cameras of yore. It gets its name from a little-known Hipstamatic 100 camera from the 1980s.

The $2 app at hipstamatic.com is often compared to Instagram, though the two differ in key respects.

Hipstamatic applies its vintage effects while photographs are being snapped, not afterward a la Instagram. Also, Hipstamatic at its core is less of a social-sharing app than Instagram, though it boasts a robust online community.

The company has 13 employees, including its 29-year-old founders, and roughly 4 million users. Last year it reported $10 million in revenue. It remains on solid footing and in complete control of its destiny, according to its founders.

“We’re doing all right,” Buick said, “and still having fun.”


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