To Cal Poly students, Learn by Doing means getting experience in your field from day one. For alumnus Joel Flory, it means founding a multi-million dollar startup that reaches creatives in 160 countries.
This generation’s photography enthusiast, app user or Instagram lover likely knows of VSCO, the camera app equipped with tools to let users explore their creative sides through photography and editing at the convenience of their smartphone. But the app creates more than photo presets; it is a social community of artists and content creators.
Flory and his co-founder Greg Lutze initially set out to go into the website building business. Flory, a wedding photographer, paired with Lutze and his eye for web design, wanted to give a platform to other similar creatives. Their dedication to the creator became the formula for VSCO’s success.
VSCO presets are filters that mimic film effects for images edited with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
“The second I put it in Lightroom, I knew this was amazing,” Flory said.
In November 2011, they made a simple website to sell the desktop presets. Within 48 hours of being online for sale, they had made more than a quarter of a million dollars.
In April 2012, the paid photo app was launched. The first version of VSCO Cam was originally made to raise awareness for the website.
“Within a week we said, ‘Forget desktop and website building,’” Flory said. “Once VSCO Cam was out for one week as a paid app, we knew this was the future. So we put our heads down and became dedicated to innovating for mobile and the next generation of creators.”
Especially at its early stages, VSCO rose in popularity through the hashtag #VSCOcam that was posted on other forms of social media.
“It’s had a very natural, viral effect,” Flory said. “We are also very fortunate at the time we came up because as other platforms were on the rise, VSCO became synonymous with all these other platforms if you wanted to share quality content. People would just ask, “How’d you get that photo to look so good?” And that always stems the VSCO side.”
Even though the company gained traction during the social media age of platforms like Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram, VSCO is in a league of its own.
“With other platforms, what they presented needed to be really perfect and aspirational, and in a lot of ways how the world wanted them to see them,” Flory said. “With VSCO, we wanted to create a place to share how you saw the world. There was no ability for anyone to be trolled for what they were posting or how much they were posting. There didn’t need to be a ‘theme’ and your feed didn’t need to be ‘on point.’ Some photos were great, but also some were just of everyday life. Our mission is to help everybody fall in love with their own creativity.”
Flory and Lutze sought to build a place to channel creativity with accessible tools and to find inspiration and education. Early on, the company began to curate content to share with their users when looking through user’s images, they realized 95 percent of the users had less than 500 followers.
“We needed to create a platform where that content would not be discovered based on how popular that person was, but if people found that content inspiring,” Flory said. “We wanted to build a place for people to share where the number of likes, comments or followers of a person didn’t dictate whether or not content was good.”
Editorial Brand Marketing Manager at VSCO and fellow Cal Poly alumna Jen Giese found in VSCO a company that shared a similar ethos of supporting creators. Working with Flory and the company allowed her to combine her passions and past experience in the photography and tech worlds.
“[Flory] is a photographer himself which I think really helps with doing what he does now, in that he has a first-hand account in relationship and experience with the creative world and with photographers,” Giese said.
Giese, a KCPR alumna, attributes her self-starting and self-motivating foundation to her experiences at Cal Poly and working at the station. The community Giese surrounded herself with during her time on the airwaves solidified her appreciation for a company that values the creator and the community, such as VSCO, she said.
Flory came to Cal Poly in 1998 with high expectations from family members who were alumni and older friends who attended. Coming in as an electrical engineering freshman and eventually switching to information technology, Flory said school was a humbling experience.
Flory took an unconventional path his sophomore year, taking time off winter quarter to live in Whistler, British Columbia. He resumed his studies in San Luis Obispo for summer quarter. The next year, he took fall quarter off and traveled through Africa.
As an industrial technology student, Flory enjoyed the mix of business and engineering.
“A lot of the labs and a lot of the classes instilled the mindset that you needed to have in order to succeed in the classes where you couldn’t get frustrated or stuck,” Flory said. “You had to like, figure it out and find a way by working in a team. A lot of those team dynamics carried over in starting a business and the importance of collaboration and communication were all really ingrained into me at Cal Poly.”
Flory advised current students who feel unsure of their path not to worry.
“Cal Poly was definitely a period of time for me of figuring it out, and for many people, college is exactly that,” Flory said. “The rules aren’t exactly clear, and each year you start to learn a little more about how to be successful. Don’t take failure as the closing of a door — rather, a new skill you need to learn.”
As for the future, Flory will continue to apply the lessons he has learned from Cal Poly into his company.
“I went from a husband-wife photography team to now a CEO of a company in which we have members in over 160 countries with over 100 employees, and I’ve been learning by doing it,” Flory said. “Like the Learn by Doing value of Cal Poly, one of the core values of VSCO is ‘Always Moving Forward.’ When faced with a challenge, it’s not an option to give up, be done or defeated. It’s all with the mindset that progress is the direction we are going to move and we are going to keep going.”