Is Mobile Photo Sharing Still Broken? Kicksend Thinks So

7/19/12Follow @wroush

It’s really, really hard for people immersed in the technology world to remember a day when they weren’t so savvy about gadgets and software and the Interwebs. To you and me, the idea that someone might have trouble e-mailing the vacation photos on their smartphone to a friend or family member seems snicker-worthy. But to Pradeep Elankumaran, that attitude is a sign of Silicon Valley arrogance—or worse, ignorance.

For non-technical people, “the problem of sending and receiving things online has not been solved,” he asserts. And that’s why he co-founded Kicksend, a Mountain View, CA-based startup that does one thing, and does it with as much simplicity and focus as its developers can muster: It gives people a private way to send big files, especially photos and videos, to friends or family members.

The photos can originate on an Internet-connected computer, an iOS device, or an Android device, and can be received on those same machines. Oh, and you can send them to your local Walgreen’s for printing.

And that’s it. There’s no sharing with your social network followers, no curation, no vintage photo filters. (There is, however, a little rocket on the Kicksend website that blasts off once your photos are done transferring.) “The kind of users who use Kicksend probably have never heard of Path or Instagram,” says Elankumaran. “They just want a way to get photos off their phone and into the hands of family members.”

Sending photos to Walgreen's from the Kicksend iPhone app

If you thought the user-interface steps for doing this were already crystal clear, answer this quiz question: How do you select multiple photos from the iPhone’s camera roll and attach them to a single e-mail? If you didn’t know that this was even possible, or if you can’t write down the exact steps right this instant, then imagine your confusion multiplied by about 20. That’s where the average grandma is coming from.

“The majority of people we talk to don’t know that they can send multiple photos from their phone,” says Elankumaran. “We are targeting a demographic that most people don’t target, because it is incredibly hard to do UI and UX for that demographic.”

Elankumaran and his co-founder Brendan Lim woke up to this problem in early 2011 after both sets of parents had gotten smartphones and digital cameras. “My parents lived in Virginia and his were in Alabama and they take lots of photos and videos, but they don’t know how to ship them around,” says Elankumaran. “There’s a 25-megabyte limit on a Gmail message, and instant messaging never really works, and Facebook is too public. They can probably upload a photo to Flickr, but beyond that, forget it. And with Dropbox, it’s even worse. So we were like, ‘We need to build something incredibly simple that our moms can use.’”

They started tinkering, and even signed up a few friends to use the first version of their service, a desktop app for Macs that allowed users to send photos and other files by dragging and dropping them onto the Kicksend icon. “That was our minimum viable product,” says Elankumaran. “But all of a sudden Lifehacker picked us up, and we got 3,000 users in one day, and pretty soon all of our friends in the Bay Area were saying ‘You need to apply to Y Combinator.’”

Lim and Elankumaran were a little hesitant to apply for a spot in the famed startup incubator, because they weren’t even thinking of Kicksend as a business yet. But they went ahead anyway. “We went to the interview and it was really nerve-wracking and at the end of the day they said ‘We would like to fund you,’” says Elankumaran. “That’s when we seriously decided to sit down and focus on the product and get it onto multiple platforms.” [Update 7/19/12: in a followup e-mail, Elankumaran says "we were focusing on product even before YC."]

By the time the pair had finished Y Combinator last summer, they had added a Web version of the service to their desktop offering. In December 2011, they released a Kicksend iPhone app, followed by an Android version this June. That may sound like slow progress, but Elankumaran says the startup takes extra time to make its user interface understandable. For the iPhone app, building the send-photos screen alone took a month, he says. “And we are still iterating on it.”

The startup now has six employees, and has raised $1.8 million in seed funding from Y Combinator, SV Angel, Start Fund, Digital Garage, Milo.com founder Jack Abraham, and True Ventures. Its user base is “under 100,000 but growing rapidly,” Elankumaran says.

Jon Callaghan, partner and co-founder at True Ventures, says the firm likes Kicksend because the team is “super creative and incredibly talented technically.” At True, Callaghan says, “we’re big believers in the importance of merging digital and the real world,” and he says Kicksend is “targeted at everyday users, so is really non-technical. The message is simple: keep in touch through photos.”

Sending files from the Kicksend Web app really couldn’t be simpler (well, maybe it could, but I don’t see how): you just select a photo or video, supply an e-mail address, and click “send.” The recipient gets an e-mail, which contains a link leading back to the Kicksend website, where they can download the files to their desktop. The mobile apps work pretty much the same way. If the recipient has the Kicksend app on their smartphone, the images will also show up there, where they can be saved to the device’s photo album.

As of last week, the iPhone version of the Kicksend app also includes a little red Walgreen’s button. One click sends your selected photos straight to the pharmacy chain’s online photo printing site, where you can select the print size and quantity, then pick up the finished images at the branch nearest you in about an hour. It’s the simplest way I know of to make prints from an iOS device, unless you happen to have an AirPrint-compatible photo printer at home. The Walgreen’s partnership is the first of several “integrations that will lead to monetization” for Kicksend, according to Elankumaran. (The Kicksend service itself is free on all devices.)

Here’s a tip for you: Kicksend isn’t limited to sending photos and videos—it actually works with almost any digital file, which makes it into a sort of free, private version of Dropbox or Box. “There was this guy who wrote to us to and said, ‘My bandmates live in Washington and Florida and California. Can I ship Garageband files around using Kicksend?’ and we said sure, no problem,” recounts Elankumaran. “That was really cool, and it’s something we could not have anticipated.”

But that’s just a distraction—Kicksend’s core “use case,” to use a bit of product developer-speak, is still sending photos and videos within a family or a small group of friends. And Elankumaran thinks that market will provide Kicksend with lots of room for growth.

“The demographics of people who have iPhones and other smartphones is changing very, very quickly,” he says. “These are not the same people who were buying them earlier. There need to be tools so that less technically savvy people can do what they want to do, and Kicksend is the app that lets you get stuff done with photos.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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