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Focus on Founders: Tommy Stadlen re-imagines the photograph
December 01, 2017
Former Associate Tommy, founder of photo technology company Swing, which exited to Microsoft in November, has a vision that goes beyond sharing pictures on mobile devices: he wants to bring the digital image into the physical realm. 

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If you are above the age of 40, the word “Polaroid” will likely conjure up very specific memories: the smell of the film, the sound of the camera printing out the photo, the feel of the thick paper. But the way Polaroid re-invented photography was that – unlike other photographs taken in the pre-digital era – you didn’t have to send the film off and wait for it to be developed.

In this era of digital photography, when getting photographs developed seems laughably quaint, alum Tommy Stadlen is looking to re-invent photography in another way: by enabling users to create a fluid, interactive image using “SWNG” – the app his company launched in partnership with Polaroid in 2016 as part of a digital transformation of the iconic brand. 

The app is pre-loaded on all iPhones for display in every Apple store around the world. This boost came soon after launch. Tommy says that Apple, seeing that SWNG was getting a lot of traction, asked them to create a bespoke app specifically designed to work on its demo phones, in order to show off the capabilities of the new iPhone 7 camera – an early coup that got it tremendous exposure.

Apple emphasized SWNG’s impact on the Polaroid brand in their App Store feature, saying, “Like a photogenic phoenix, Polaroid has risen again. This time around, they’ve ditched physical photos in favor of something a bit like GIFs: playable, rewindable, moving pics. It’s hard to explain and irresistibly captivating.”

“A new medium of expression”: mixing heritage and future technology 

Tommy says that as he and his team built the app, they drew inspiration from Polaroid's original founder, Edwin Land. When asked why he invented instant photography, Land responded that he wanted to create “a new medium of expression for people with an artistic curiosity in the world around them.”

“That quote,” says Tommy, “became our North Star.” He points out that since the advent of smartphones, there have been few big shakeups to photography beyond filters. Like Land, he wanted to create a completely new visual medium, one to stand alongside conventional photos and videos.  

“Polaroid is such an iconic brand,” Tommy says. “Our mission was to combine that iconic heritage with cutting-edge photo technology. We looked at the photograph – the billions of jpegs that are shared every day around the world as well as physical photographs. And our very simple idea was: how exciting would it be if we could make all of these photographs move? That became the vision for the company.”

The app lets users create a silent, one-second video, which it captures at a rate of 60 frames per second. The result is a fluid, ‘living’ image that you can move by sliding a finger back and forth across the picture, or by tilting your phone from side to side. Users can then share the image on social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter.

Tommy contends that this more accurately reflects the way people remember moments in time. “Human beings don't tend to perceive the world in still photos or in videos,” he says. “If you think about your memories, you don't have ‘snapshot’ memories or long video footage in your mind. You tend to have short vignettes. We wanted to create something that would capture moments in that way – with the composition of a still photograph, but also the vitality of movement that pervades the world.”

That immersive element, he says, is what sets SWNG apart from a crowded marketplace of photo apps. “Swings are, on average, five times more engaging than still photos,” he says.

Promoting artists, promoting art

Besides re-imagining the photograph, Tommy also aims to inspire artistic expression – and he takes this mission seriously. Swing’s creative director is photographer Cole Rise, who boasts a million followers on Instagram (he was the creator of the original Instagram filters). Cole convened 100 influential photographers who helped to hone the vision and seed the app with its launch content. 

Swing brings artists into the heart of the company through an artist support program. The company benefits from the artists’ experimentation with the app and the subsequent exposure on social media. In return, select artists receive equipment, as well as commercial commissions: “A brand partner will come to us with a request to use the Swing medium in an advertising campaign, and we can match them up with an artist.”

The credentials of Swing’s judges are impressive. Former Tate Gallery Chairman Lord Browne sits on the panel, alongside Arianna Huffington and the supermodel and Swing investor Natalia Vodianova. There are plans for a digital exhibit of Swings at galleries in London and New York. “Imagine iPads hanging from the ceiling of a minimalist gallery space,” Tommy explains. “We’ll have interactive images on each of the screens, which visitors can touch, so it will be a really immersive art installation.”

Tommy has been working on an initiative to display some of the app’s best artist work in some other physical locations as well. 

All of this underlines Tommy’s overarching goal – combining the digital with the physical.

He is excited and optimistic about the company’s future with Microsoft. "This is a unique opportunity for the team to bring our ideas to a global audience," he says. "It's an exciting time to join Microsoft . . . we believe in the power of brands and technology."

Building the business

With no advertising on the platform, and no charge to download the app, where does Swing get its revenue stream? Tommy explains: “We generate revenue by helping brands integrate our interactive photo tech in ecommerce and campaigns. But the big thing opportunity in the future is going to be hardware,” he says. “We have a hardware lab in San Francisco whose goal is to bring movement to physical photographs with augmented reality and flexible displays. We want to translate that same sense of movement that you see in the app to the physical world.” 

When asked about the hardest lesson he has learned in his startup journey, Tommy is ready with a quick answer: “Recruitment,” he says. Part of this, he explains, was his non-technical background, as well as being a new transplant to the U.S. “Being a non-technical founder trying to attract a world-class technical and design team was really challenging,” he says. “Despite the fact that we had this amazing brand and we had money to spend from our funding, it was a challenge.” Things turned around when Swing was able to attract Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, as Chairman: “That was a game-changing moment, because he then attracted a whole bunch of top Silicon Valley engineering talent around him. And then Cole Rise was able to build a top design team.”

Tommy adds that when it comes to choosing between people, “the most important thing is commitment and enthusiasm. We have an unwritten rule of ‘no brilliant jerks,’ because it's a small team. It doesn't matter how good someone is; if you have someone who is difficult, doesn't want to get on with people, doesn't have motivation, or is there for the wrong reasons, it can have a really negative effect. 

“The biggest experience I took away from my time at McKinsey was how the Firm instills people development as a core purpose,” Tommy continues. “I haven't really seen any other organization that does that to the same degree. I try to recreate that in a small way at Swing.”

McKinsey alums as driven entrepreneurs

Tommy had no previous tech experience before co-founding Swing (his previous work experience before McKinsey was in politics, and he’s also a best-selling author), and he has some advice for alumni who are thinking of starting their own venture: you’ll probably be good at it. “Don’t be put off by the idea that the truly great entrepreneurs are all 19-year-old kids in their dorm rooms,” he says. “I've got a sense that McKinsey alums are a slightly undervalued asset class in the venture capital world. They tend to look for the undiscovered genius straight out of college, and maybe think consultants are more risk-averse or don't have the crazy ambition or out-of-the-box thinking to create a truly global company.”

He continues: “I think that's wrong: McKinsey trains you to be a rigorous thinker, and perhaps more importantly in this context, McKinsey people tend to be relentlessly ambitious and driven. That drive is priceless when you set out to create something from nothing against the odds.”

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