What a Picture is Worth

by Adam Regn Arvidson, ASLA

Starting up a new website is hard, especially when you’re trying to create a niche that wasn’t there before — and are hoping to make a little money, too. Chris Whitis, along with partner Brian Phelps, has spent most of his free time over the past few years doing just that. is a searchable image database of the built environment. It has tens of thousands of high-resolution photos ready for download. It is, in a word, voluminous. Because sitephocus was specifically created for design professionals, the images are of things we actually want to see: streetscapes, rain gardens, bollards, paving patterns, etc. But the hordes haven’t exactly come running, and ASLA has seen the site as a potential advertiser, rather than a good resource created by its members for its members.

Recently, I chatted with Chris about how sitephocus works, what he hopes it will become, and some of the challenges of the start-up.

Tell me how began.

It happened not long after I had started work at Hawkins Partners [a landscape architecture firm in Nashville]. Somebody in the office was looking for photos of ornamental gates for a presentation with a client. My sitephocus partner, Brian Phelps, and I, we were just sitting there and I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a Web site you could go to and just type in ‘gate’ and hundreds of pictures of gates would come up?” I thought that could be better than having to go to Google or Flickr and sift through all the low-resolution images, or the photos of people at a bar named The Gate.

A few days after I made that statement, Brian walked into the office one day and said, “Well, we’re going to do it. We need to do it.”

What are the features of the site? How might it benefit landscape architects and other design professionals?

Basically, all of our photography is key-worded and catalogued specifically for landscape architects, architects, designers, and planners. We’re currently at about 20,000 images, all of them key-worded by what’s in the photo as well as their location. If you’re a subscriber you have what we call an image board, where you can tag individual photos related to a specific project that you’re working on.

We’re also planning, in the next few months, to add some more features, like slideshow capabilities and the ability to share photos with clients via the web.

Search features allow you to find images by location, keyword, or category.

How do you add content?

Currently everything is done by Brian and me. At this point in time, since we’re not profitable from an economic standpoint, we’re traveling on personal time. A lot of my trips are usually to places my wife and I would like to visit, and then I just run around the city and get photos. We provide 300 to 500 new photos per month.

You mentioned that the site is not profitable right now. How many subscribers do you have? How close are you to financial solvency?

I think we’re a long ways from that. We have about a dozen subscribers, which covers our hosting costs. But in terms of us turning this into a full-time project it would take quite a bit more. So in that regard, we’ve been a bit disappointed, and in some cases we feel like we’ve taken the wrong approach in not doing enough marketing.

Aside from not marketing enough, what else do you wish you could correct? On what do you wish you could get a do-over?

The thing that we haven’t done well enough is selling this as a resource and as a cost-saving benefit. A lot of people come to the site, see $25.00 a month or $300.00 a year and just view that as a cost only, rather than seeing the efficiency of getting the images quickly and getting exposure to more and more projects. That’s actually a cost savings if you factor it into billable rates.

In this sample search results page (I was looking for fences), you can see the number of images (47 pages of fences) and geographic breadth of the content (pictured here: Murfreesboro, Wilmington, Barcelona, Louisville, Durham, Indianapolis).

Do you fear, though, that you will always compete with Flickr, Google, and other sites like those?

Oh, definitely. I think there’s always that mindset that you can get anything on the Internet for free. But there’s still a cost to using those sites. If somebody could come to our site and get 100 photos of townhomes in five minutes, well, if they’re doing that on Flickr or Google, it’s going to take them a little longer. The efficiency comes in with billable rates: you’re spending more time doing stuff for presentations when you could be designing.

Not to be pessimistic, but how long will you maintain the site? Do you and your partner have a moment in mind at which point you’d say, “You know what, we gave it a great shot, but it’s just not working?”

We haven’t had that discussion yet. I’m sure it’s probably coming in the near future, but we’re both enjoying traveling and looking for new stuff, so we still feel that this is a good tie-in with our professional lives as well.

It may be that the site will morph into something else. If we get to the point where we’re saying the 300 to 500 images a month is too much of a commitment, or the subscriber-based system isn’t working, we may move to another model, such as pay-per-image or to add advertising.

Would you ever consider not practicing landscape architecture, and instead focusing on media full time?

Specifically with sitephocus? Yeah, we probably would. It would be great to always be somewhat in touch with design, because it’s obviously what our passion is, but we would definitely love for this to get to the point where we could focus on this full time and provide even more content. That’s definitely the end goal.

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