octavi royo

Lunch with: Octavio Royo

Within the saturated world of tech startups, to be successful, you need to offer something that will genuinely change lives for the better. Agora is a Barcelona- based photography app that also has the somewhat lofty aim to benefit humanity and be the catalyst for positive change around the world. The app has users in 190 countries and, at its heart, aims to bring together photographers to create an online community that gives power and control back to creators.

In two years, Agora has gone from an idea to a US$16.8m (€14.5m) company, with over two million users and an upload every four seconds. Hoping to do for photography what Airbnb and Uber have done for hospitality and transport, founder and CEO, Octavio Royo, is aiming for nothing short of a revolution.

The CEO arrives at Barcelona’s Flax and Kale Passage restaurant bubbling with easy confidence. With his casual manner, tattoos and a hole in his nose from a former ring, Royo doesn’t look – or behave – like a typical businessman. His attitude has hallmarks of the more prophetic, or as he calls it, “dreamer”-esque leadership of Steve Jobs, who infamously dropped out of college and was drawn to San Francisco’s 70s counter culture in creating Apple.

Royo’s enthusiasm for Agora is palpable – he has barely taken his seat before he begins to sketch out a diagram of the app’s structure. The site operates via three main pillars: firstly as a photography-based social network; secondly as a contest-based platform, where users can win thousands of euros or photography mentorships; and finally, as a space where photographers can sell their work.

As a former creative professional in the field of film and photography, Royo is determined that Agora be a way for photographers and, in the future, filmmakers, to take control of their images. With Agora he aims to create a democratic platform that levels the playing field between multi-billion dollar stock photography agencies and photographers.

The advent of digital photography ushered in a challenging time for professional photographers; with a huge increase in the volume of images produced, coupled with a huge drop in budgets. The sudden and definitive change had a detrimental effect upon professional photographers, which continues to ripple through the community today.

While agencies are of great benefit to their shareholders, many photographers are frustrated by their monopoly and poor payment system. Prestigious, long established agencies — such as Getty Images — take an 80 per cent commission on all images, while smaller, Internet-based stock photography agencies take anywhere between 80 per cent and 45 per cent of the profit. On average, the photographer is left with a paltry 25 cents per image.

Apps such as Markedshot and Foap also utilise the power of brand-led photography assignments, yet Agora is the only image marketplace that doesn’t take any commission. Royo insists that Agora can only succeed by offering a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Working on a film project in Columbia gave Royo the beginnings of the idea for Agora, when he searched for an easy way to ask local people for videos from their phones to help with the documentary. The idea quickly germinated and soon enough he was back in Barcelona, persuading a small group of skilled friends to work on the app. The team created Agora from scratch, working around the clock for three months without pay. Like the initial Apple team who started out in the garage of Jobs’ parents, Agora’s small but dedicated group worked out of Royo’s garage for a year and a half.

As a newcomer to the world of startups, Royo sought guidance from industry professionals. With the support of Agustin Gomez, CEO of virtual marketplace Wallapop, Agora began to become a global possibility.

The only thing standing in the way of progress was finance. With no business or tech experience, it was hard to find investors. Buoyed by the encouragement of his friends and family who loved the idea, Royo gathered everyone he knew in his garage studio and formally introduced them to Agora. He raised US$197,000 (€170,000) that day, enough to get the company off the ground.

Agora has come a long way since that afternoon almost two years ago. Now, with its own dedicated office space in Barcelona’s hip Poble Nou neighbourhood, it has an ever-growing team. Finances are no longer an issue, as a steady stream of international investors clamour to get involved. As a lifelong Barcelona FC fan, Royo can barely contain his glee as he shares that Gerard Piqué, the football club’s centre-back, is a major investor.

While the investors are undoubtedly thrilled by the progress Agora is making, Royo is more measured. For him, he states, “It’s not about the money, it’s about realising the dream of creating a space where people can come together and share the way they see the world.” He continues in his heavily accented English “My dreams are big, big, big. I believe utopia is possible and this is at the heart of Agora.”

Seemingly worried that Agora will be compared to Instagram, Royo defines the difference that with Instagram the focus is very much on the user: my meal, my holiday, my enviable life. With Agora the intention is, he explains, “to turn the camera around and show that the world is amazing”.

I have hardly touched my delicious Vietnamese soup as his enthusiasm demands my full attention. “What will make the app a unicorn,” Royo continues – using the startup term for a company that will reach the value of a billion dollars – “is the contests”. Contests offer companies an opportunity to sponsor photography competitions, enabling companies to market themselves and create brand affinity with millions of creative, tech-savvy young people around the globe.

Although winners have been awarded just a few hundred euros so far, some contests have received submissions of up to 150,000 images. Royo plans to increase the prize money to the tens of thousands before the year-end.

Royo is keen to promote the work of NGOs and to create opportunities for people to see the world, a passion he charts back to a contest he won when was 15. An inter-cultural project in Mexico showed him the capacity of travel to help us to celebrate rather than be suspicious of difference, he says, and opened his mind to the power of other perspectives.

Royo regales me with the list of his previous jobs, which include a hotchpotch of international film assignments, prison projects, market trading and youth work. The list brings Steve Jobs to mind once more, who, in an infamous viral video, explained that it is the seemingly disparate parts of one’s life that equip you for the present.

It’s easier to imagine Royo at a hippie music festival than in a boardroom making deals. I wonder out loud how he steered Agora to this point. As Royo answers, there is no trace of self-doubt. “It’s not necessary to be anything to make it,” he says, looking me square in the eye. Its necessary to only believe in yourself.”

To realise Royo’s vision, there is still some way to go. His dream is to have Agora in every country and in every language. “It’s an epic journey,” he admits. “We are not in Silicon Valley. We have little infrastructure here, and no one knows who we are yet.” He likens it to a World Cup final between Germany and Senegal. “Whose side would you be on?” he asks. Senegal, I reply. “Well,” he laughs, “we are Senegal.”

Polishing off the last of his flatbread and returning to his earlier sketch of Agora, Royo explains that behind the three tangible pillars of Agora – the social network, the marketplace and the contests – is the most important idea, one of a united community. “I know one person cannot change the world,” he says fervently. “But when we all share our ideas and points of view – we can.”

Flax and Kale Passage

BILL

2x Rejuvenator
smoothies €5.95

1x Superfood
pho soup €9.95

1x Zucchini & kale
pesto flatbread €11.50

TOTAL: €33.55

WORDS: Kaye Martindale

IMAGES: Geoff Brokate

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