Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Under Its Original Owners, Webshots Reincarnates as Smile (Video)

There are two very different ways to look at this story. First, it’s an incredible tale of entrepreneurs founding, selling, buying, selling, and now buying again the very same company: Webshots. And second, it’s an interesting take on intimate family photo-sharing that automatically sucks up and streams new photos in a nice mobile, desktop and Web interface.

Both of those descriptions apply to Smile, a new photo-sharing service debuting today that will attempt to bridge that gap for Webshots’ millions of existing users and potential new ones. There’s not a ton of continuity between the two services, except that they’re both photo products aimed at the mainstream.

Webshots founders Narendra Rocherolle and Nick Wilder have bought back the company with a pretty impressive group of investors: True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, Lowercase Capital,, Biz Stone, Max Levchin, Shervin Pishevar, Greg Yaitanes and Matt Mullenweg.

Rocherolle and Wilder are busy running their email infrastructure service Message Bus, so they’ve hired a team to relaunch Webshots as Smile, led by Grouper co-founder Mike Sitrin, who was also previously at Spinner and FYI Living.

Smile — which is not yet fully ready to launch — is built around the idea that people are continuously taking photos throughout their lives, but the photos are siloed in different folders and among different people. The desktop app sucks up users’ existing photos into a searchable interface, and the mobile app adds new photos to a shared folder that can be seen in real time by the closest family and friends.

Narendra Rocherolle

The most obvious use of the new Smile might be in a young family, where both parents each take their own photos of the kids, and grandparents are interested in seeing everything that gets taken. If everyone in the family has Smile, this all happens automatically and unfiltered.

Of course, that requires buying into the Smile system, which is iPhone-only for now. Smile will cost $10 per year and up for photo backup.

And there are an increasing number of alternatives, including other start-up apps and Apple’s new shared photo streams built into iOS 6. Rocherolle called that product “conservative,” in keeping with Apple’s hesitant social strategy. “My big takeaway is that it is buried in the UI, not cross-platform, and it requires active sharing for new ones, so it really isn’t continuous,” he said.

Here’s the wacky story of the ownership of Webshots, by the way, according to the company:

In October 1999, Webshots was sold to Excite@Home for $82.5 million in stock. The service continued to grow and when Excite@Home declared bankruptcy at the end of 2001, the Webshots assets were purchased back by the founders for $2.5 million. By 2001 Webshots was profitable, with a combination of revenue streams that included advertising, merchandising and a premium service. By 2004, when the company was sold to CNET Networks for $71 million, Webshots was the #1 photo sharing site and top 50 media property per comScore. On October 25, 2007, CNET announced that it had sold Webshots to American Greetings for $45 million. On October 2, 2012, led by two of its original founders, Narendra Rocherolle and Nick Wilder, Webshots was purchased by Threefold Photos. Smile will launch in Fall 2012.

Here are Rocherolle and Sitrin in an interview with our own Kara Swisher:

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald