This YC startup turns Chicago Marathon spectators into freelance photographers

September 30, 2016

Participants in this year’s Chicago Marathon are slowly starting to taper their workouts, but for Chicago entrepreneur and runner Griffin Kelly, the marathon's lead up is no time to rest. His startup FlashFrame wants to turn race spectators into freelance photographers, and next weekend's event is its big stage debut.

As any marathon runner will be quick to tell you, race photography is kind of a racket. Official race photography firms tend to charge a fortune for their photos, knowing full well that most racers don’t have an army of friends with nice cameras stationed throughout the course.

“One of our investors ran his first marathon and paid $200 for 10 pictures of himself,” said Kelly. “He said it was like highway robbery.”

By contrast, FlashFrame wants its users to sell photos to runners for as little as $7 a shot.

To Kelly, the high quality of smartphone photos and the ubiquity of DSLR cameras has created an opportunity to cut overpriced players out of the equation, so long as there’s a simple way to connect the owners of photographs with the people in them. FlashFrame takes care of that by scanning through every photo uploaded to its servers and tagging each one by bib number. After the race is over, runners can look up their bib numbers and buy their favorites from the bunch.

Kelly said the marketplace business model is a win-win for both runners and photographers. Runners get cheaper photos, and potentially a bigger selection of pictures to choose from. Photographers, on their end, get paid for each photo they sell and retain the rights to their work.

“We’ve met a handful of photographers [from our competitors]. They don’t retain the rights to the photos, and they don’t get paid for their work,” Kelly said. “This guy told us he has worked for Gameface for six years, and he has nothing to show for all that.”

Kelly said the same photographer had also worked for another competitor where he got paid a flat rate of $40 an hour regardless of how much his employer made from the thousands of pictures he submitted at the end of the day.

FlashFrame sets a minimum price of $6.99 per photo to incentivize professional freelancers to use the platform. Photographers who have used the platform to sell pictures before are free to charge as much as they think customers are willing to pay. FlashFrame charges 20 percent on each transaction plus a credit card fee.

Although you may have seen the company’s billboards all along the official marathon course, FlashFrame is in no way affiliated with the Chicago Marathon.

FlashFrame was born out of another Chicago racing startup, TRAC, which makes cloud-enabled timing devices for runners. After TRAC graduated from Y Combinator this spring, selling the solution to a number of athletics programs throughout the country and running a series of race timing events in partnership with the Chicago Park District, Kelly was looking for the next step in scaling his business.

“Our investors were really excited by timing events, but our long term vision is really expanding into the ancillary services of a race event,” said Kelly.

FlashFrame is the first step along the way, but the company’s future roadmap includes other services like race registration — which is where the big money in racing is really at, Kelly said.

If all goes according to plan at the Chicago Marathon, Kelly and his team will turn their eyes toward the New York City Marathon in the fall and the Boston Marathon in the spring. But since adding new races to the platform is fairly straightforward, FlashFrame is not limited to big races: if a freelance photographer wants to sell their photos from a local 5k, triathlon or high school cross country meet, they’re more than welcome to do so.

Images via FlashFrame

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