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6 inspiring insights to learn from photo-editing startup Over’s story

Photo-editing startup Over is all about inspiration. Just follow its Instagram account and you’ll find a range of motivational — often quirky — images overlaid with memorable quotes. But it’s not just the product that makes a lasting impact. Behind the pretty photos, the filters and the fonts, the company and the people running it are a shining example of what can be achieved locally.

Founded by American entrepreneur Aaron Marshall but born out of South Africa, the company has been making great strides in the last two years. These not only include being promoted by Apple in a special birthday iTunes offering or winning the international pitch competition Ustart in May this year, but also the ability to stay positive and use circumstances to its advantage.

We’ve recently had a chat with Marshall and rounded up some interesting motivational lessons you can take away from Over’s story, and hopefully make your own.

Find your story

“Living a great story is better than setting big goals,” Marshall argues. He explains that there is so much disappointment when it comes to missing one’s goals, if you instead choose to make the ups-and-downs part of your story, the process seems a lot easier and beneficial in the end. So what’s Marshall’s story?

In 2008, Marshall and his wife paid off their debt in the US and — in the air of the-world-is-now-our-oyster — thought it’s time to do something fun and unique. It’s apt then when they decided to travel to Cape Town, South Africa, and ended up staying for more than seven months.

Both Marshall and his wife fell in love with the place and wanted to live in SA but because of visa reasons, couldn’t do so as long as they intended. The process took a bit longer as planned and the couple stayed for about four years.

After adopting a baby from Ethiopia, his wife had another child and Marshall decided to set up shop in Cape Town. Having a company at his side, four years later, Home Affairs made the migration process a whole lot easier. It was while in South Africa that Marshall found the drive to build a products company and so Over was born in 2012.

Image by @nevoj08

“Cape Town is one of the world’s few places where you’re inspired to build something bigger and better,” Marshall tells Ventureburn. He notes that the city is the only place where you can look out your window, see Robben Island, and be reminded of the importance of freedom. Similarly, see Table Mountain everyday, and be motivated to build something that lasts.

It’s the only place in the world where you can be like “If this ocean is too cold, let’s just go to the other one.” More importantly, he says that in South Africa you’re reminded of real problems everyday which allows us to be more creative. Deal with things that really matter.

Road to success

The company prides itself on being very responsive. Over was its third real product, where the previous two failed.

The first one was like Twitter for businesses, Aaron explains, where users could update their statuses based on what the company is working on, keeping employees in the loop. That product then pivoted to an app which lets you share a list of your goals. In order for the goals to become shareable, the concept of overlaying the lists onto photos ended up working extremely well. Finally then, the company became the photo-editing centred app we today know as Over.

In the first few days of being live, the Over app sold US$5000 worth of copies. Since then it’s seen 8-million downloads. Of those, it averages a mega million monthly active users.

Image by @_aida

When the product was first released, there were around 12 other apps that let you put text on photos. Today, there are thousands. Asked about how Over manages to stand out from the rest, Marshall says that it has put a lot of effort to establish a good brand as well as a strong relationship with its customers.

Over further managed to garner a massive amount of traction when Starbucks temporarily stocked the app in the franchise’s 10 000 plus coffee shops around the US and Canada. This was part of the coffee shop’s iTunes App of the Week promotion, and it was soon after that when Apple chose Over to be included in a free app bundle for a limited time as part of the half-eaten fruit’s birthday promotion.

Strategically, Marshall says that being based in Cape Town, Over has an advantage in that it’s forced to position itself in a more international market instead of being US-centric.

A few months ago, the company won the international UStart Startup Awards where it went to pitch in Milan, Italy. Marshall says that the Ustart competition gave Over a lot of exposure. It helped share the story of Over to Cape Town as well as the rest of the world he says.

“It was a fantastic opportunity to meet interesting startups and investors from around the world,” Marshall tells Ventureburn.

Be a good consumer

“It’s incredibly easy to get lost in the competition game. I keep listening to our customers, and deliver accordingly.” The key is to find a way to drive value to your users and know what makes them tick.

As Marshall explained in his Net Prophet 2014 keynote, in order to be a successful creator, your need to become an avid consumer. Put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and know what their options are like: what’s being done, what works, and what doesn’t. Know the ecosystem, go native!

“I actually get myself addicted to games like Clash of Clans just for fun to understand the psychology behind the experience. What drives people? Why is this company making millions a day?” he says.

Image by @talkingfood

Value your product team

At the end of the day, the people who build your company’s product — in this case, the developers — should be valued for what they’re really worth. When asked about the local challenges, Marshall says that while the most common issue for tech startups in South Africa is always lack of skills or talent, this has’t been the case for Over at all.

A month after posting a job ad online, he found two talented South African engineers added to his team. “There are tons of talent in Cape Town, some companies are just not willing to pay what good talent’s worth,” he says.

Aaron says that engineers need to shown in the same light as rugby stars are. Some cultural recognition can go a very long way. Kids need to look up at them as role models the same way some entrepreneurs and devs are valued in Silicon Valley.

Focus, focus, focus

When you got something that works, just do it, and do it well. At Net Prophet earlier this year, referring to a journal from Stanford University titled Creating Persuasive Technologies: An Eight-Step Design Process, Marshall spoke about the importance of having a Minimal Viable Product.

“Facebook didn’t start by doing all the things it does. It started with one tiny little thing. We focus on the little thing, have some success there and move on from it,” he stresses.

Image by @townerphoto

There comes a time when all the support, encouragement and talk can only take you so far. “When you find that thing, you need to just go do it.” Stop the chatter and disappear until it’s done and ready. Marshall notes that while startup events, networking and meetups are all good and well, when it’s time to get down to business, keep your head down and focus on your product.

“Well done is greater than well said,” he says.

Going forward

Over wants to uncover designers, marketers, and the lot from all corners of the Earth by empowering the world’s mobile creatives. “Whatever their phone’s limitation, that’s their limitation. I personally see people use their phones more and more these days to accomplish everything,” he says.

Marshall says that eventually he sees Over becoming an Adobe Suite for mobile which will serve this massive Generation-Y, smartphone savvy market. “I would like to, in the next two to five years, build enough powerful software that a creative professional could exist and do their career using only their phone. I’d someday like to see Over’s tools start to appear on resumes,” he says. “We would like to develop a whole suite of app tools to encourage mobile creativity.”

Since the company launched, Marshall has picked up on some interesting examples of people using the app. He shares this story of a designer who relies on Over to build up inspiration, which eventually helped him jumpstart his creative career.

When queried about when the Over for Android app will be launched, Marshall says it’s coming “very soon.” He says the demand has been overwhelming and is very excited about extending Over’s market.

Image by @alexgalvez

Author Bio

Jacques Coetzee
Jacques grew up in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Keen to take over the world, one word at a time, he has always been interested in both politics and development and studied International Relations (BA) at Stellenbosch University. With an interest in innovation and social change, he seeks to tell the... More