Photo-blending app Dubble is back from the dead

“I have no idea why I stuck at it,” says Adam Scott, co-founder of photo blending app Dubble, which is officially (re)launching today, in an overhauled v2, following a year-long hiatus off the app store while the team re-engineered the backend and applied some gloss and community-requested features to the front.

The original MVP of Dubble launched on iOS all the way back in fall 2013 — at a time when Frontback was still splicing up people’s selfies. When I tested it out then Dubble-blended photos felt organic and interesting (I still use one of its serendipitously dreamy hybrid cityscapes for the header on my Twitter profile), but the app was also rough round the edges, slow to process images and saddled with a clunky UI.

Since that debut, faddish photo-sharing community Frontback has failed to go the distance, though selfie-taking and photo sharing of course persist. Photo filtering trends also continue to evolve — they now include, for example, AI-powered style transfer apps, like Prisma, which can turn a boring snap into a mock work of art at the push of a button.

So will there still be much of an appetite for manually blending photos with other people’s selfies and snaps to co-create and share digital double exposures? Frankly, Scott doesn’t seem entirely sure. But he says he’s hopeful there’s a niche yet engaged community to be created here — and a sustainable one, given the reach of smartphone apps. “Within a year I would like to hit maybe 20,000 to 30,000 daily active users,” he says of Dubble v2. “I think this is a good goal.”

Here’s a few I dubbled earlier… 

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The original Dubble app amassed a registered user base of around 270,000 users over its run, before cloud-hosting costs forced the by-then bootstrapping team to take it offline, having burnt through their friends and family seed round, and while they re-engineered a leaner and faster v2 — helped with advice and contacts made after being selected for Newcastle-based accelerator Ignite, completing that bootcamp program in early 2015.

The new version of the app lets users choose who to Dubble their single photos with — via a new feature called ‘Dubble with me’ — rather than this only being randomly selected, as it was in v1. Scott’s hope is that this selective ability for co-creation will be the key to scaling an engaged community. And while he concedes there are plenty of other double exposure apps out there, he argues social focus sets Dubble apart. So the aim is to build a sharing community, not just offer another photo-processing tool. Which means, as before, users of the app can choose to publish their co-creations to a public feed where others can find them.

Another feature that’s new in v2 is the ability to lightly edit a dubble to make it a bit lighter or darker — which again gives users a little more control over the resulting creation. While an overhauled remix section, now called the Lab, is where the random dubbling takes place, with users choosing singles from their own photo roll, editing them lightly if they wish before tapping through to the blending screen to see the first random remix. If you don’t like the result, there’s a redubble button that can be used 30 times in 24 hours to freely remix with other random singles (an in-app paid upgrade delivers unlimited redubbling).

Amusingly for a photo app there’s no camera view — Scott says they removed this as most people were selecting pre-shot photos to dubble anyway but also they wanted to create a quality bar, and stop users snapping boring test photos of their computer keyboard and polluting the singles pool. After all, every single uploaded to the app has the chance to be reused again and again — to create other Dubbles.

Elsewhere in the app, a Discover tab shows a manually curated feed of content, and gives users a visual way to track down other (unknown) users to Dubble with. Each user profile in the app has a ‘Dubble with me’ button to enable that. Users can also obviously choose to blend their photos with their friends/followers’ content, too, via the same route.

And while such overtly arty photo-blending might be too hipster to excite much mainstream interest, the huge scale of the global smartphone market does at least offer the chance for Dubble to locate and connect enough fellow feelers to turn a niche interest into a financially self-sustaining business down the line. Plus the app undeniably offers a super easy way to repurpose the raw material every single smartphone user has languishing on their camera rolls: photos, lots and lots of photos — turning what can be mundane shots into imagery that’s at turns surreal and ethereal. And that’s potentially pretty powerful.

Scott says the plan is to try to generate uplift now, for v2, by getting the app on the radar of influential photographers with large followings on social-sharing platforms like Instagram — tapping them to ask their fans to remix their photos via Dubble, as well as targeting relevant online photo-focused communities. He says he’s willing to give his belief that there’s a sustainable business to be built from Dubble another year at this point, some 2.5+ years of development work in.

“I understand that [Dubble] is not a mass market product — I get that. But not mass market is huge still, because of the mobile phone usage. And I think that if we can just build a really good, hardcore user base it won’t matter that we’re not Snapchat, or Instagram. I don’t want to be! If I go on Instagram I get depressed now,” he tells TechCrunch, flipping over to his Instagram feed and providing a disparaging commentary on the thumbnails sliding past.

“I like VSCO’s model,” he adds. “I don’t know how many users they have because they don’t seem to publish it but they’re a multi-multi million dollar company.”

He finally describes sticking with Dubble as “a labour of love”. Although in the space of the same interview he brands it as “one of the worst things I’ve ever done” — so, fittingly, there’s a dual reality to his startup experience, as harsher realities have been superimposed across founding passions.

Scott has blogged at length about the highs and lows of sticking with and bootstrapping Dubble here — and it’s clear there have been some tough times for him personally, not least as he says he’s an ideas man, and being “stuck” trying to fix Dubble meant putting other ideas on ice. Surely a feeling a lot of entrepreneurs will identify with, although so too is the urge to finish something that’s been started. And so Dubble lives again — for now. Even if Scott has a more conflicted relationship with the smartphone camera that he used to, back when it was just enthusiasm for taking creative photos that was driving development of the app.

“I try not to use my phone,” he says, wondering aloud whether people are still enthusiastically taking photos for the art of it. “I’m sick of my phone. It’s not in my bedroom and I know habits have changed. I look at the way people use photography now and I just get clinically depressed. I’m a professional photographer and I see what’s happening — and it’s not good.”

The distributed team of co-founders that remains tenaciously stuck to Dubble is now a trio: ideas man Scott, mobile dev Uldis and backend dev Phil — the latter a newer addition joining after an introduction, via Ignite, and after the other two original co-founders had moved on (or drifted off) to other less sticky things.

As well as sticking around and putting in so much sweat equity, Scott has also put in some of his own money to get v2 launched, and has been able to keep afloat personally with help from some other businesses he runs, including renting out a property in London — having moved his family to Barcelona. The new version is also far more efficient to run than v1, thanks to (he says) Phil’s backend wizardry. The team has also benefited financially from Ignite’s help in applying for R&D tax credits via UK government schemes — meaning they were able to get back some of the seed money they’d burnt through to help them continue developing.

Double, double, toil and trouble

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They also have two other (previously launched) related apps with some revenue generating potential: Dubble Studio: for people wanting to just remix their own shots to create double exposures, with a paid version for unlimited use; and Dubble Print, a revenue-share app partnership with a print company that lets users order physical photo prints and other items personalized with their photos. (Though Scott notes Dubble won’t start taking any revenue from the latter app until next month.)

At this point he says they can’t even afford to email the circa 50,000 most engaged users whose emails they’ve retained from v1 of the original Dubble app. (He says they’ll maybe do this in freebie batches, groaning that “email marketing is expensive!”).

They’re purposefully not migrating all users or content created in v1 either; the idea is to strip away disengaged downloaders to ensure a strong core of active enthusiasts remains, with Scott stressing “we love churn” — given the goal is to build sustained engagement, not size at any cost. So, for instance, he says they intentionally throw up a few sign-up barriers for newcomers to ensure they really do want to stick around and create.

Creative photographers of all kinds… These are our people. And there’s plenty of them out there.

Scott also personally (and manually) checks for any problem content — eliminating any inappropriate shares and also weeding out any really tedious shots that just won’t dubble well (he gives the example of an air conditioning unit or an Ikea logo as singles he would kill). “I know this does not scale,” he laughs of the manual checking. But hand-selected, carefully crafted compositions are evidently the team’s answer to smartphone camera noise pollution invading their beloved photography space.

To turn Dubble into something sustainable he admits they will really need to find a subscription model that the hoped for base of engaged users is willing to keep paying for. Another alternative ending could be an exit — though a bespoke photo-blending technology/community (assuming they can indeed kindle one) would require a special kind of buyer, perhaps with related camera pedigree. Certainly they don’t have the sort of hardcore tech IP that can catch the eye of a social giant like Snapchat or Facebook.

And while bespoke photo-blending algorithms might deliver beautiful visuals — reminiscent of experimental film photograph from years gone by — it’s not the kind of tech that typically excites investors, even if Dubble might be able to inspire a portion of today’s hyper engaged social sharers. The fact it has now risen from the app graveyard is a plucky bet by the founders there’s a (second) chance to be had here — but it is just that: a chance.

“There’s still nothing like what we’re doing,” argues Scott. “The idea really is connecting people — trying to basically tell people that it can be fun to take photos. It’s 100 per cent unique, when you’re in the Lab and you’re redubbling away and you’re not sure what’s happening, there’s kind of nothing like that — and then you create stuff that you’re proud of and hopefully going to want to share. And people are doing that.”

“Mixing your own photos is boring,” he continues. “I love receiving dubbles from people, I love seeing what people are doing on there. Some people have standard shots but they just work really well because of the way they have filtered them in other apps or something like that. And I think that edge is interesting. And we do connect people. Because we see them talk to each other once they’ve shared to Instagram or something like that… And we know that they’re following each other on Dubble as well. At this scale we can see it.”

“Our number one goal now is to get it up and running with our three apps that we have enough revenue to really keep operations going, without it costing us any money,” he adds. “And I think we’re going to get there pretty soon.

“And then it’s to grow a good user base of people. What I mean is creative smartphone photographers. Or creative photographers of all kinds. So what we know is that people who are into analogue — and it’s a huge movement — they love what they can create with Dubble, and then you’ve got people who used to be ex-analogue who’ve moved on to things like editing on Snapseed, or VSCO, and they like to spend their time editing photos… These are our people. And there’s plenty of them out there.”

What has Scott learnt over the course of all these years of hard grafting to try and build a photo app business that’s capable of sticking around and sustaining itself? “Be honest about the product,” he says immediately — meaning don’t get too stuck on a particular feature just because you want to build it. Build what your users are telling you they want you to build.

“I can foresee problems now so much better,” he adds. “Listen to the users. We just didn’t do that in v1 at all. Everyone wanted ‘Dubble with me’ — everyone wanted this little boost, they wanted this fast redubble, they didn’t want to get spammed with all the shit dubbles, they wanted good singles. So we listened to our users a lot more for this version.”

Now, with the long hard slog of rebuilding and relaunching Dubble behind them, it just remains for Scott and co to find out whether enough creative photographers will come. Whatever happens, you can’t say they didn’t keep the faith.