When Skye Chalmers founded his company, Image Relay, in 2002, there was no Dropbox, no Google Drive, no “cloud.” And no one was throwing around the term “digital asset management.” But as a professional photographer, Chalmers needed a safe place to store and catalog digital files of his work. So, he built it, scanning prints and uploading them, one by one, to a server. Soon, he began letting clients including the State of Vermont, Cabot Cheese, Stowe Resort and other ski areas bank and retrieve their image files on his server, too. (At the time, the files had to be delivered on disks – broadband infrastructure, especially in Vermont, wasn’t nearly ready for Internet uploads of such large files.)
In 2005, Chalmers “jumped on” a beta version of Amazon Web Services, and shifted his fledgling business to the cloud. Bigger local customers with a global presence, such as Burton Snowboards, soon came onboard, helping raise the company’s profile. “Vermont was a great incubator,” says Chalmers.
Fast forward to 2017. Image Relay’s customers now include the likes of Citrix, Survey Monkey, Ben & Jerry’s, MacArthur Foundation, RYOBI Tools, and SEIKO. As digital storage options have proliferated and became commoditized, Chalmers and his team have concentrated on providing the more valuable service of organizing customer assets in a way that make them easy to find and share efficiently across an organization, through a user-friendly interface. “We’re 110 percent focused on product and usability,” Chalmers says. “Usability led to adoption. We’ve invested zero dollars in sales and marketing – everything has come through word of mouth.”
Image Relay’s approach is more top-down than services like Dropbox or Box.com, says Chalmers, providing standards for file naming, metadata, and permissions, and also enabling customers to analyze image use across their organizations. “There’s a lot of complexity around large files and high volume,” says Chalmers. And the files have only gotten bigger – Image Relay now supports not only photos, but also video, design files, PDFs, and other brand materials. In the last five years, customers – who pay a monthly or annual subscription fee, based on the set of features they need rather than the amount of storage – have made 105 million downloads from the site. As more businesses focus on content marketing – effectively becoming their own little media companies – demand for digital asset management is increasing, as is competition. But Chalmers believes there is room for lots of companies to be successful, by focusing on specific niches.
Image Relay now has seven employees scattered around Vermont, including an office in downtown Burlington (right behind American Flatbread). Chalmers lives in and often works remotely from in Weston. The company has no sales department – although they recently hired a marketing director – and no support team. “We all do support,” says Chalmers. “We balance product with human services.”
In 2014, the company officially registered as a Benefit Corporation, reflecting an ethos of corporate responsibility that’s well established in Vermont. “A number of our clients were B Corporations,” says Chalmers. “It’s important to look critically at capitalism generally, to question the idea that every tech business has to be a unicorn or bust. That’s a bad paradigm. To provide value for clients and a livelihood for employees and their families is a big deal. That’s our main obligation.”