EyeEm, the photo marketplace, changes hands as Freepik picks it up out of bankruptcy

EyeEm, the Berlin-based photo marketplace, was once loftily thought of as a possible challenger to Instagram in Europe. More recently has fallen on much harder times, and now it has a new owner. Freepik — a Spain-based platform partly owned by EQT that provides images, graphics, and other media for designers and other online creatives — is acquiring the firm from Talenthouse, which had bought EyeEm in 2021 and earlier this year it into bankruptcy as part of a wider restructuring of the Talenthouse business.

The plan will be to integrate EyeEm’s existing photo library — which totals some 160 million images, with a wider community of close to 150,000 photographers, the company tells me — into Malaga-based Freepik’s platform. It’s unclear yet if that will mean losing the EyeEm branding over time altogether.

Freepik is not disclosing how much it paid for EyeEm, but for some context, Talenthouse paid $40 million to buy it in 2021. There has been only a skeleton crew of three people working on EyeEm recently, led by longtime EyeEm employee and most recent CTO, Peter Willert.

Freepik’s CEO Joaquin Cuenca Abela said in an interview that adding EyeEm will improve Freepik’s photography offerings.

“We had photos already but ours were not good enough,” he said of Freepik’s library of some 72 million vectors, videos, illustrations and other images. “EyeEm has a big library and community, and it’s a way of getting more photos on our platform.”

He added that Freepik plans to monetise more of that content than EyeEm or Talenthouse had in the past, and to explore how to bring more AI into the equation for creators on the platform “where it makes sense,” meaning not to replace but complement photographs that do not use it.

“We see many people use AI, and we think of it like another tool, like a camera: some people will be better at using AI in pictures than others,” he said.

Another top priority will be finally to pay out money owed to photographers and other creatives who had been using EyeEm but had stopped getting paid due to the various financial problems, he said — an issue that, if not resolved, would have hampered future credibility with the photography community.

Talenthouse, a self-described creative “ideation” platform founded in the U.K., has over the years scooped up a raft of other struggling digital brands, including Ello. (Freepik confirmed it’s not buying or interested in any of these.)

Talenthouse acquired EyeEm ahead of going public in a splashy IPO in Zurich (with requisite FT story). But later, as Talenthouse struggled with profitability and financing, it tried to stave off its own collapse (an effort still in progress) and put EyeEm into its own bankruptcy protection in Germany.

Over in Spain, when EQT picked up its stake in Freepik in 2020, local reports estimated the startup to be valued around €250 million. Cuenca Abela said this week that the stake was a minority share and that this was an inaccurate figure but declined to give an accurate one.

Freepik’s last annual report, from 2022, noted that it made $87 million in revenues, up 25% year-on-year, indicating that it’s growing and apparently recovered from some of its own knocks, most notably a data breach that impacted more than 8 million users three years ago. It currently has around 100 million users and it’s been profitable for years.

Picking up EyeEm is a little like picking up a piece of European consumer internet history.

The startup — founded by Florian Meissner, Lorenz Aschoff, Gen Sadakane, and Ramzi Rizk (someone please write a profile of Ramzi and title it “Rizky Business”) — burst out of the gates in 2011, exactly at the time when all eyes were starting to train on Europe, and specifically Berlin, to possibly write the next big chapter in the world of startups.

E-commerce clones, based out of the city and financed by the Samwer brothers, were raising hundreds of millions of dollars and going global. Apple, Microsoft and Google were snapping up small teams across the continent building cutting-edge technology in AI and other fields (Google bought DeepMind in 2014, for one). And it felt like the tech hegemony was being disrupted (or perhaps just starting to take shape): a wave of new apps was hitting the market, making the best use of smartphone features to build audiences around the latest innovations.

EyeEm first launched in August 2011, just as apps like Instagram were getting going. The inevitable comparisons in those early days came in fast. The startup quickly scaled to 8 million users and was averaging 1 million downloads/month at one point. It had big ambitions not just to create a platform for people to upload and share photos, but to monetise them, early on building out a marketplace for creators, and giving everyone a shot — so to speak.

“We don’t talk amateurs or professionals in photography,” Meissner told us when it raised its Series A. “‘Notogs’ is the term we have coined. There is a photographer inside in all of us.”

It also put effort into R&D and applications fuelled by AI: these included concepts for “visual search” and machine learning algorithms that aimed to find answers to esoteric questions such as what is visually appealing about certain images.

Between being founded in 2011 and 2018, EyeEm raised substantial funding, especially for a European startup: its backers included Valar, Earlybird, Wellington and Passion Capital.

Whether it’s a story about the struggle to scale a consumer (or any) startup in Europe, or whether it was just overrun by the combination of much stronger players in stock photos and the world of photo sharing (Instagram powered by Facebook/Meta seemed invincible for a while there), EyeEm eventually did lose momentum, and then Talenthouse came knocking.

EyeEm’s new owner Freepik, founded in 2010, arguably also was birthed in that same era, although it is a different kind of startup story: profitable almost from day one, bootstrapped before the EQT stage and not in the market to raise more now, lean and modelling itself a bit on Adobe it seems. (Tellingly I talked to Cuenca Abela while he was in California for Adobe Max.)