500px photo-sharing service scoops up $8.8M to expand into commercial licensing

Fast-growing photo-sharing platform 500px plans to announce on Wednesday that it’s accepted its first large infusion of venture capital. The Toronto-based company has closed an $8.8 million Series A round co-led by Andreessen-Horowitz and Harrison Metal. Other participants in the round include Creative Artists Agency, Rugged Ventures, ff Venture Capital and Dustin Plett, 500px’s VP of business development.

The company had taken very little money over the years (it took $525,000 in 2011) even as it found growing popularity with photography pros and skilled amateurs as a place to store and share their images. 500px has 2.5 million registered users of its website and mobile apps, but sees more than 10 million active users each month. Now the company says it needs the investment to hire more people and build an entirely new 500px product: a commercial licensing platform.

“We’re seriously understaffed,” co-founder and CEO Oleg Gutsol told me. “We have 25 [employees], we need to probably triple that in the next year or so.”

The company will be opening an office in the San Francisco Bay Area for these new hires. The beefed-up team will begin working on what Gutsol thinks will be at least a five-year project: building a commercial marketplace for 500px’s creative users to license their snaps.

“We can make our users a lot of money doing that, especially because of the great content on the site we have,” he said.

But, he said, “we don’t want to become Getty [Images].” Gutsol wants 500px to help out individual photographers. “Platforms doing commercial licensing aren’t focusing on photographers. We care about creative people and want to help them make money with their work.”

500px was involved in a brief App Store controversy earlier this year when the site’s reputation for artistic photography veered into questionable content. Apple removed the company’s iOS app from the App Store after it said it received complaints that pornography was appearing in the app. 500px made some changes and slapped a 17+ age rating on the app and was back in the App Store after a week. That age-rating has not slowed the platform’s growth at all, Gutsol said. In fact, he said usage spiked on the website and the Android app in the brief time the iOS app was unavailable for download.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tracy Olson