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POSTED AT 2:23 PM EST ON 10/02/06

Dropshots creates photo-sharing community

Headshot of Mathew Ingram

Globe and Mail Update

Given the success of Flickr, the on-line photo-sharing service that was developed in Vancouver and bought last year by Yahoo for a reported $30-million (U.S.), it's not surprising that there are plenty of other photo-sharing sites chasing the same kind of market niche — including a Toronto company called Bubbleshare — and other sites that are trying to become "the Flickr of video," such as Vimeo and YouTube.

A company called Dropshots, however, is taking a slightly different approach, according to chief executive officer Darren Hardy. He says Dropshots isn't so much about posting pictures and video clips as it is about providing a place for friends and families to come and look at pictures and video and talk about them with other friends and family members. In that sense, he says, the images and videos are like "props" for an ongoing conversation with friends and loved ones.

"The photos and videos act as conversational anchors," says the Dropshots CEO, "and they make it easier for family members to engage in a more meaningful way, rather than just with the obligatory phone call once a month."

While some other services focus on the gee-whiz part of the technology behind the service, and are aimed at early adopters, Mr. Hardy says that his company is interested in how the photos and clips can help create a "social network connecting families."

Unlike Flickr and similar services, in which the photos and video are published and viewable by anyone who goes to the website (unless a user specifically restricts access), pictures and video clips on Dropshots are only viewable by people who are specifically invited — and they aren't indexed by search engines. YouTube, Vimeo and Google Video have become popular because people like to circulate the clips that are posted there of embarrassing "Funniest Home Video" situations. But Mr. Hardy says Dropshots isn't meant for that — it's designed primarily for friends and family to share videos or photos with each other.

On a demonstration page set up by a hypothetical member of the Moore family, for example, there are video clips of a young boy swimming and playing with toys. Beside the clips there are comments from different family members — Gran, Michael, Uncle Dave and so on — about the boy in the video.

The Dropshots CEO says the site was designed to be as easy as possible for the non-technical user. Video is compressed and encoded on the fly so that it can be viewed in any browser (using Shockwave Flash), and there are no advanced settings required when uploading photos or video clips. A free account entitles users to upload as many as 500 pictures and 10 video clips of no more than two minutes each, and a "star user" can upload an unlimited number of photos and an unlimited number of video clips (a maximum of five minutes in length) for $4.95 a month (U.S.).

The focus of the company isn't that surprising given its background. Dropshots began in 2002 as a service called JussPress.com, and was developed by a university student in San Diego named Ryan Sit. Mr. Sit came up with the idea while doing his thesis in computer science, and his intention, according to Mr. Hardy, was to investigate how technology could "be used to strengthen emotional bonds between people and help them to connect with each other." Much of modern technology tends to do the opposite, the Dropshots CEO says.

Mr. Sit set up the site in 2002 as a research project and told a few friends about it, and by the time he graduated in 2004 there were more than 1,000 members. According to Mr. Hardy, he decided the idea could become a viable business and approached a San Diego "angel investor" group, who got in touch with Mr. Hardy and recommended that he help Mr. Sit put together a business plan. After doing so, Mr. Hardy — who says he had "a few wins" himself as an entrepreneur before becoming an angel investor — says he decided to invest his own money in the company and become CEO.

While various companies are trying to copy Flickr and hoping to be acquired, Mr. Hardy says he wanted to try and create a "sustainable long-term business." That's why he invested his own money rather than go through the traditional venture capital process.

Dropshots was formally launched late last year, by which point it had about 40,000 registered users, and it now has about 76,000 users, Mr. Hardy said. Although the site is not profitable, he says the number of users has been growing by about 35 per cent each month.

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