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Last modified Wednesday, February 8, 2006 7:58 PM PST
Ryan Sit, left, and Brian Pond of the online photo-sharing company DropShots work out of a home office in San Diego.
DON BOOMER / Staff Photographer
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From technical problem to a new company

RANCHO BERNARDO ---- It's a story that happens everywhere: A tech-savvy college student struggles to help a tech-naive parent. But UC San Diego computer science student Ryan Sit took it further. Sit turned his mother's struggles with her digital camera into his master's thesis. And he turned that thesis into a new online photo-sharing company, DropShots.

Founded in 2005 as JussPress, DropShots makes software that automatically organizes, formats and uploads photos and videos to the company's Web site. Users and those they allow can view the photos. Most importantly, Sit said, the photos aren't just to look at: They serve as springboards for online comments and conversations. Photos that get a lot of comments move up the page, helping to keep the discussion going.

DropShots so impressed local "angel" investors that the company has raised nearly $1 million, spokesman Blake Prescott said. The lead investor, Darren Hardy, became chief executive. And the company is still refining its software, with its executives working from home offices in a "virtual team" so as much money as possible can be pumped into the software.

Beyond technology

While helping his mom, Sit said he realized that the software currently available required far too much technical knowledge for most people to easily master.

"I had to teach her how to put it on the computer, how to make attachments, how to resize photos that were too large ... there were all these things you had to know how to do," Sit said in the Rancho Bernardo home office of Brian Pond, the chief operating officer.

This struggling made no sense, Sit said, because all these functions could be automated. And that realization, back in 2002, sparked his research project. The goal was to make posting photos online a one-step process. Sit got advice from UCSD professors Stefan Savage and William G. Griswold.

Together with the professors, Sit recruited volunteer users to test his prototype, which used wireless cameras to transmit the photos. That was before the widespread availability of camera phones.

The photos were organized by date, which Sit said proved to be the easiest method. "If they're not organized, you take thousands of photos, and it's like they're thrown in a shoe box," he said. "Even with digital photos, they're just thrown in a folder."

To make uploading easy, the software converted photos (and now videos) into Macromedia Flash files. Flash files are much smaller than standard photo or video files, Sit said, and most people have Flash already installed on their computers. With better compression technology and the increasing use of broadband Internet connections, Sit said, the use of Internet video by consumers is set to take off.

From idea to company

But with feedback from users, Sit realized that he needed more than technology: The users wanted to discuss the photos. A static collection wasn't as appealing as being able to chat about them. So Sit reached out of the world of computer science and recruited James D. Hollan, a UCSD professor of cognitive science and an expert in human-computer interaction.

Eventually, Sit and his instructors hit on the idea of emphasizing conversations, with the comments anchored around individual photos, themselves organized by date.

Sit finished his master's thesis in summer 2004. By that time, he was caught up in the entrepreneur's dream of turning his idea into a company. But initial talks with potential investors didn't go anywhere. Sit got a respectful hearing, but nothing more.

"In the business world, everything is about networking, and I didn't know anybody," Sit said.

Sit went ahead anyway, sending out executive summaries of his business plan and revising it as he learned more about what investors wanted. He eventually found a mentor from the San Diego Tech Coast Angels, a local investing group.

That mentor, Hardy, was one of the first people Sit had talked with. Looking at Sit's determination, and the revised business plan, Hardy changed his mind. He decided to invest in the company and become chief executive. He also brought along Pond. Sit assumed a technical role, while Hardy and Pond focused on the business model.

Making the jump

The first rule for the nascent company was to keep costs as low as possible, and pour every cent into the product. Today, DropShots' goal is to accelerate use of its service, which comes in two versions. One is free, and may eventually be supported by advertising on DropShot's Web site. The other has a monthly fee, currently $5 a month.

"We wouldn't do anything that we couldn't pay for," Sit said. "That gave us a lot of motivation to improve our service."

Contact staff writer Bradley J. Fikes at (760) 739-6641 or bfikes@nctimes.com. To comment, go to www.nctimes.com.



Tech Coast Angels