I’ve been shooting professional travel and landscape photography on and off for two decades now, spanning six continents, thirty countries, three books, and at least four times when I almost died. (The closest was getting trapped on a mountainside at 16,500’ during a volcanic eruption in Mexico. I still have chunks of the magma that rained down around me in my office).
This was long before the Instagram age when digital pixels and smart phones morphed photography into an instant gratification art—both in the capturing of images and sharing them. During all of those years trudging around the world, however, I learned two essential things about photography that have never changed and that every photographer and Instagammer needs to know today:
1) Where and when you put your tripod or hold your smartphone are the most important elements of great photography (other than light,) and,
2) Location scouting for the best places to shoot in the first place is the most timing consuming part of photography—amateur or professional
Photographer Michael Lax, who shoots campaigns for carmakers like Jeep and Fiat Chrysler and lifestyle brands like Marmot, Shinola, and Bud Light, finally hit maximum frustration with the same challenges back in the 2017 and decided to do something about it.
“The time involved in researching the right locations for my shoots and the best time of year and day to set up there was killing me,” Lax tells me. “It was the biggest pain point to creating the high quality, amazingly-lit images my clients wanted.”
Fast forward a few months and Lax found himself at a wedding with one of his oldest friends Justin Myers, a confessed serial entrepreneur who was working in Vietnam at the time angling into product management, capital raising, and start-up strategy while the launching the country’s first digital bank called Timo.
“The idea for Explorest hatched when Michael and I were at our friend’s wedding in Mexico,” recalls Myers. “I wanted to create a new business so I started brainstorming with all of our friends. Michael raised the challenge that it’s difficult and time consuming to find the best places to take pictures when he’s traveling to new destinations, which emphatically resonated with me and our friends who were Instagram photographers.”
Lax and Myers quickly realized that they were into virgin app territory that could scale, which is harder and harder to find these days. They also realized they had a natural chemistry and complementary skill sets to actually get Explorest out of the idea phase and off the ground.
“We’d love to stake claim that we were the first to conceive of the idea of Explorest,” Lax says. “But the truth is it’s been a desired concept in the travel and photography communities for many years. In fact, we regularly receive feedback from users claiming that they had thought of the idea of Explorest before us, but just never executed on it—and that’s really what it comes down to. Justin and I were able to execute.”
Like most successful apps, Explorest’s essential premise is simple pain point elimination, which in turn saves time, money, and frustration.
Every day, millions of people who are inspired by beautiful photos they see on Instagram and online are looking to find the best locations to take pictures of their own. However, these places are often hard to find, difficult to get to, and in most cases it’s impossible to determine when and if many of them are open to the public, the best time of day to go, and location specifics like weather, topography, and the clothing you should wear. As a result, countless hours are wasted wading through crowdsourced advice on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and blogs that are littered with inaccuracies.
Lax and Myers called their solution “Location Insights” and built the Explorest app around it.
“Location Insights are written by our contributing photographers and travel experts,” Lax explains. “They include precise GPS coordinates, recommended visit times for golden light hours, photo meta data like camera settings and focal length, field tips, weather details, nearby activities, and location information like parking and places to stay. Think of Explorest as a digital location scout to enjoy and photograph the world’s most beautiful places. We’re a compass and guidebook packed all into one.”
Since the wedding where the idea for the company was hatched, the San Francisco-based start-up has bootstrapped together $1M of pre-seed capital from family and friends to get Explorest off the ground—which has included hiring a core team of programmers, building the app, paying photographers, and launching their first locations. They also just completed a 6-month Growth Program with TheVentureCity, which also invested in the company and will assist them in raising their seed round.
After raising money, Lax and Myers began piloting their first 100+ Location Insights in Singapore in July 2017, a small island with a huge photography community that presented a perfect test market. It took over a year to build out the iOS app and populate all of the locations with their team of local photographers. The app was an immediate hit. So in April 2018 Explorest launched in California, followed by Hong Kong in October, and the UK and Germany in November.
Less than two years later, Explorest has expanded to Shanghai, Hawaii, Washington State, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, and New York, and currently has over 1000+ locations, 200,000 registered users, and a community of 150+ professional photographers around the world who are constantly populating the app’s existing locations with new Insights and scouting out new ones.
Despite the app’s rapid growth geographically and financially, Lax and Myers’ journey hasn’t always been an easy downhill run.
“It was easy to dream up an app of the world’s best places to explore and photograph,” says Lax. “But to actually build it has taken an immense amount of blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice from everyone on our team—including having my own personal photography career take a backseat in order to see Explorest to fruition.”
Now that they’ve checked the fruition box, scaling is next on Lax and Myers’ roadmap, which requires a concerted effort to build out the app’s subscriber base.
“Explorest wasn’t built for professional photographers,” explains Lax of expanding the app’s community. “Capturing and sharing travel and experiences with others has become an integral part of our society, and the scalable opportunity Justin and I saw was for casual photographers and Instagrammers, which is already 80% of our subscriber base. It’s also not just for tourists or travelers. We developed Explorest just as much for ‘Local Explorers’ who travel close to home, are just getting out for a day or weekend trip, or just want to get to know where they live better.”
When it comes to photographing the world’s most amazing locations, however, scale and community also have the potential to go hand in hand with crowds, traffic, and human impact, which is why Lax and Myers have made conservation and education an essential part of the Explorest’s mission.
“As with anything worth creating, we’ve definitely endured some pushback on this,” says Lax. “Explorest’s mission is to ignite inspiration to explore and help people discover and photograph the world’s greatest places for themselves instead of just seeing them online. But sharing the world’s beauty comes with the honor of helping to protect it and enjoy it responsibly. We don’t list any locations on the app sensitive to human impact or deemed too secretive or unique. And through our partnerships with Leave No Trace and The Nature Conservancy, we donate a part of our proceeds to both organizations’ educational efforts as well as participate in clean-ups around the globe where we bring the members of our community together to help actively keep these locations pristine.”
As with every app and start-up, timing and what’s next are typically the biggest guarantors of continued growth and success. So Lax and Myers were both surprised that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased their business not contracted it, like it has for many other young travel and hospitality companies.
Since the outbreak began last winter, Explorest’s subscriber base has been growing at its fastest clip ever, as easing travel restrictions, but continued fears of air travel, cruise ships, and staying in crowded resorts has forced most travelers in America, Europe, and Asia into their cars this summer for day and weekend trips within driving distance from home.
“Now more than ever, people want to discover more of the world around them without needing to get on a plane,” says Myers. “In response to COVID-19, we’re quickly building out regionally from our existing locations to include sister cities and states that are easily accessible via short drives or as part of a longer road trip. For instance, we recently launched in Oregon and Washington to complement our existing presence in California, as well as Chicago which is a short drive from Michigan where we launched last fall. Since May, we have had triple-digit organic growth in new member registrations and double-digit growth in app engagement. With local tourism and ‘nearcations’ soaring in popularity, Explorest is becoming a go-to digital travel companion.”
Next up for Explorest this fall is launching on Android and focusing on community building to retain existing subscribers and encourage new ones—both in-app and out in the world.
“In-app, we want to extend the ability to share photography and location-expertise into the hands of our users, not just our professional contributors,” says Lax. “We’ve started this initiative by recently rolling out a new ‘Community Photos’ feature that allows users to upload their own pictures from existing locations in the app—helping to lend new visual perspectives of each location for our community to enjoy. This is just the beginning.”
The VCs who were first in on Instagram might want to take notice.