Giant monitors, exposed brick, well-dressed employees, terrariums, and minimalist decor may be the startup essentials in places like New York and San Francisco; however, in Colorado Springs, these elements are something of an oddity. Is it a store? A college project? Many of the locals in Colorado Springs aren’t quite sure what to make of the concept.
Visual Supply Co., also known as VSCO, fits right into this description. What looks like a small office space right on Tejon is the home to a growing, globally successful start up. In 2011, Joel Flory and Greg Lutze set out to create a photo-editing platform that spoke to artists and the creative community. What they built was revolutionary in both the mobile and professional app world. They aimed for authenticity instead of the flashy colors and effects that dominated the market, in turn creating two extremely successful products: vscocam for smartphones and vscofilm for Adobe Lightroom.
The company recently welcomed its hundredth employee, continuing to grow with three offices located in Oakland, New York City, and Colorado Springs. So how did this thriving startup catering to the creative crowd end up in Colorado Springs?
“We are here, in part because myself, and Christina, who is my sister—she runs the journal. We’re from here,” said co-founder Greg Lutze, who I sat down and talked to at their Colorado Springs office just a few blocks from campus.
Aside from being home for Lutze, the Springs also speaks to VSCO as a whole, which is not your typical Silicon Valley tech baby boomer.
“We are gritty; we fought for everything from the start. I think we are pretty different than a lot of startups,” explains Lutze, who sees Colorado Springs as a chance to create an artistic pocket in an unexpected place. “We feel that for one, things are changing. We always are eternal optimists, and we want to be part of that. We want to be part of this idea that, ‘You know that it doesn’t have to be a certain way.’ There can be a great vibrant community of artists [here].”
What separates VSCO from its counterparts is more than just location. The idea behind VSCO is, in Lutze’s words, to build something that is a “champion of art and artist. We don’t see ourselves as just one app; we see ourselves as an ecosystem of great products to equip creatives.”
This isn’t easy today, as our social media and consumer centric culture pushes “likes” and ostentatious advertisements: “A lot of [the challenge] is in part because we aren’t just fighting to be a successful startup, we are fighting to be something that helps people, that helps artists and creatives. That’s a much bigger challenge because that means changing people’s perceptions.”
Their “ecosystem” is continuing to evolve with the advent of vsco grid, which is a platform in which vsco users can upload their photos. Unlike platforms such as Instagram, there are no likes or comments on the grid. “The goal with [the grid] is to place the emphasis on making something that you inherently find beautiful, instead of on Instagram where you get so concerned about numbers and followers.”
The Colorado Springs office is focused on the grid and the artistic side of the business. “Every photo that’s uploaded [to the grid] we go through and pick and curate. That’s what they’re doing now,” Lutze says, pointing to the office full of employees carefully exploring the collections of photos on computer monitors. “It becomes really beautiful and really different than anything you would see anywhere else.”
With backgrounds in photography and design, the two founders lay a high emphasis on creativity and curating. “He had been a photographer for 10 plus years, and I was working in Seattle when I first met him as a art and creative director. We just worked on a project for a construction company and we really stayed in touch,” explains Lutze on meeting Joel Flory.
The tech startup stereotypes have eluded the two, who see their project as something separate from that world.
“I did a lot of web design, so I had some background in tech… But for the most part, Joel and I are not tech founders, which is a rarity.”
Thus, they distance themselves from the term tech company “more in terms of an art company that utilizes technology.”
VSCO represents a new type of start up that embodies the ideals of the art and creative world, while still embracing the power of technology. With this in mind, Colorado Springs seems much less offbeat. With a city whose population is a strange mix of students, military, religious groups, and Olympic committee members, a creative community seems to be a missing piece in this eclectic puzzle.
Lutze is confident that a small community is growing, from Ivywild to Wild Goose Meeting House: “It’s a sign that there is that there. One of the biggest problems is that, if I graduate here, I don’t have a lot of options as a creative person. I have to most to a coast, or at the very least Denver or Boulder. And so for us we feel like there is a great opportunity for that.”
Yet whether Colorado Springs becomes the next Boulder or Portland is not the point for Lutze: “We want to be known as this creative hub, and whether that can be Colorado Springs or not, who knows, but at least we are proud to be here.”