Bootstrapped Is Better? Smugmug’s Camera Awesome Crosses 4M Downloads, Adds Instagram Support

Here’s a tale of two photo apps. One has 27 million users after a year and a half, and comes from a company with 13 employees and $7.5 million in venture funding. But there’s nary a revenue model in sight.

The other app is smaller with just over 4 million users in less than a month. But it’s packed with in-app purchases of filters. Plus, the company behind it is totally bootstrapped and has enough revenue to profitably support a headcount of 100 employees.

Nothing illustrates how varied the path to success in the app store is more than these two. They’re Instagram and Camera Awesome.

So it’s fitting that Camera Awesome’s maker Smugmug is sending an update to the app store today that links the two and lets users publish to Instagram.

Smugmug’s chief executive Don MacAskill said Instagram support was the feature most requested from users. Camera Awesome is one of those higher-end photo apps that somehow gets more out of the camera with loads of presets and filters. It’s designed to appeal to real photography aficionados who obsesses over aperture, shutter speed, depth of field and so on, while still being simple enough for any iPhone owner to use.

“It had to be easy to use without requiring a manual. Yet it had to be super-powered,” MacAskill said.

MacAskill says his team, which is made up of a bunch of avid DSLR camera owners, worked on the app for about a year. They focused on basics like getting the speed right, because other camera apps can have frustrating lag times.

“We’d like it to be even faster than it is,” MacAskill adds. “By no means are we finished.” Then they packed in about 36 free effects.

The update coming out today introduces a fascinating pricing experiment. Basically, users can buy up to 30 packs of filters or presets for $0.99 each. But if they want them all in one swoop, they can just pay $9.99. It will be really interesting to see what share of Camera Awesome’s users go all in and whether this could serve as a new monetization strategy for other apps that aren’t games.

Smugmug’s story shows that it really isn’t necessary to take venture funding to build a company that’s a lot more than a lifestyle business. The company started taking customers in 2002 for a web-based photography editing and storing service that users pay between $40 and $150 for per year.

“I’ve been down the road of venture funding and I hated the pressure of finding an exit,” MacAskill said. “I’d like to build products with the customer in mind.” Michael Arrington even called Smugmug the “Anti Web 2.0” company back in 2007.

MacAskill’s not the only one taking this route in the app store. Another bootstrapped app maker, Tap Tap Tap, is behind another premium competitor called Camera+. They said last week that they crossed 10 million downloads of their paid app. That means they’ve made at least $7 million once you factor in Apple’s 30 percent cut. This number also excludes in-app purchases, so they likely have more than that from Camera+.

Meanwhile, Instagram is still awhile away from bringing in cash. The company’s chief executive Kevin Systrom has said in talks recently that he’s eyeing a brand advertising model, as Instagram is very visual. Plus, at 27 million users, Instagram is starting to stand on its own as a social network in its own right. At this point, the company has the user base and growth trajectory to potentially get there, but it will take a long time.