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In a Sea of Photo Apps, Hipstamatic Thrives in San Francisco

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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 said.

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.

PHOTOCRAFT FOR IPHONE

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, the hugely popular picture app recently acquired by Facebook, 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. Hipstamatic users can publish directly to Instagram, in fact.

St. Paul professional photographer Steve Wewerka swears by Hipstamatic. He once hosted an exhibition of his Hipstamatic pictures in his studio and continues to use the app daily, mostly for black-and-white photography (viewable at bitly.com/wewerka).

The highly flexible Hipstamatic provides an antidote to the "visual clutter and redundancy" of the billions of images being uploaded to Facebook and other social networks by users of Instagram and other dumbed-down photo apps, Wewerka believes.

Another pro photographer, St. Paul-based portrait specialist Mandy Dwyer, said Hipstamatic is the first phone-based photo app she began using regularly. She keeps it in regular rotation with other apps, like Camera+ and Camera Awesome. She abandoned Hipstamatic only during one period of hyperpopularity that turned her off. (See her shots at glimpsesofsoul.com/hipstamatic)

She calls it "one of the cornerstones of vintage-film photo apps" but isn't sure "it will hold its own against Instagram." The latter app's social aspect, combined with a small but satisfying selection of photo-altering options, may be enough for most iPhone-centric photographers, Dwyer argues.

CRAMPED BEGINNINGS

To keep their users happy and keep the bucks rolling in, Buick and Dorshorst have turned their app into a

veritable marketplace for photographers. Along with in-app film, flash, lens and body purchases, users can order prints and buy apparel or a physical HipstaCase 100 iPhone case.

Users can enter their photos in contests and win prizes, too.

Spinoff apps include SwankoLab, a virtual take on a classic darkroom with its liquid chemicals, IncrediBooth, an homage to the classic photo booth, and D-Series, a "disposable camera" app with communal-shooting features.

There's also Snap, a free iPad magazine developed in-house with Hipstamatic imagery and an assortment of articles and sections focused on art, culture, fashion, religion, politics and sex. The first issue recently hit Apple's App Store (bitly.com/snapmag).

Buick and Dorshorst have been in San Francisco since 2010, lured by the milder weather and the chance to work side-by-side after years apart.

Buick was in the Twin Cities and Dorshorst in Chicago when they tried running a digital studio together. The Wisconsinites convened periodically at Buick's cramped office in downtown St. Paul's Northwestern Building.

That is where, with their client list dwindling as the recession took its toll, the duo took a marker to their wall-size whiteboard and sketched out what would become Hipstamatic. Dorshorst was the coder. Buick knew publishing. Both adored photography after graduating from art school at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point together.

They had little money for Hipstamatic development, so they had to find volunteers.

"We had to call in every favor we had," Buick recalled. "We hit the friend-favor bank and cashed in all our tokens."

The two were incredulous when the app became a smash almost immediately (first hitting it big in Japan in the days after being uploaded). Their goal had been more modest.

"We did not sit at that whiteboard and plan how to get millions of people to use our app," Buick said. "We just wanted to make a product we would want to buy, and our friends would want to buy." But, he said, "it was the right market and the right product" at the right time.

MOVE TO SAN FRANCISCO

With the cash rolling in, the duo ditched whatever design-studio clientele they had left and went about building a company around their baby. That logically meant moving to the San Francisco Bay area and its thriving tech scene.

Soon after arriving, they stumbled on a decrepit building that began as a casket factory about a century ago and seemed to show little promise. Dorshorst saw drywall everywhere and a deep carpeting he recalls as "kind of gross."

But a six-month gutting of the three-story structure revealed lovely brick-and-timber construction with lots of natural lighting. Now completely redesigned with what staffers call "Midwestern chic," the "Haus of Hipstamatic" boasts a gallery space and an apartment on the first floor, work spaces on the second floor and a rooftop deck with bar to host music performances and special events.

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."

Julio Ojeda-Zapata writes about consumer technology. Read him: twincities.com/techtestdrive and yourtechweblog.com. Reach him: 651-228-5467. Follow him: ojezap.com/social.