January 17, 2018

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Making Snaps crackle and pop

Geofilter Studio is one of the city's fastest-growing tech companies nobody's ever heard of

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Chris Schmidt (left) and Martin Bshouty, founders of Geofilter Studio, have grown their business 25,000 per cent in just over a year of operation. The company has had Amazon, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s reach out to them for work.</p></p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Chris Schmidt (left) and Martin Bshouty, founders of Geofilter Studio, have grown their business 25,000 per cent in just over a year of operation. The company has had Amazon, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s reach out to them for work.

When Chris Schmidt pitched his concept for a customizable geofilter design agency to his friend and business collaborator Martin Bshouty on his Winnipeg driveway in March 2016, Bshouty was less than ecstatic about the idea.

“He thought it was just stupid,” Schmidt, 24, recalled from a St. James-area boardroom on a late August afternoon, clad in a striped V-neck T-shirt, basketball shorts and runners — not exactly typical attire for a CEO.

As it turns out, the idea of designing bespoke, geographically oriented digital photo overlays for everyday consumers and corporate clients alike turned out to be anything but stupid; it’s been lucrative, and Schmidt’s seemingly wild pitch is only getting wilder.

Since launching in April 2016, Geofilter Studio has developed into a multimillion-dollar tech company that’s completed more than 20,000 unique designs for clients all over the world that have made about one billion impressions. Between last April and June of this year, the company has grown 25,000 per cent, and it has all happened without any venture capital funding and been done by an 85-person staff with the shockingly low average employee age of 23.

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When Chris Schmidt pitched his concept for a customizable geofilter design agency to his friend and business collaborator Martin Bshouty on his Winnipeg driveway in March 2016, Bshouty was less than ecstatic about the idea.

"He thought it was just stupid," Schmidt, 24, recalled from a St. James-area boardroom on a late August afternoon, clad in a striped V-neck T-shirt, basketball shorts and runners — not exactly typical attire for a CEO.

As it turns out, the idea of designing bespoke, geographically oriented digital photo overlays for everyday consumers and corporate clients alike turned out to be anything but stupid; it’s been lucrative, and Schmidt’s seemingly wild pitch is only getting wilder.

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Since launching in April 2016, Geofilter Studio has developed into a multimillion-dollar tech company that’s completed more than 20,000 unique designs for clients all over the world that have made about one billion impressions. Between last April and June of this year, the company has grown 25,000 per cent, and it has all happened without any venture capital funding and been done by an 85-person staff with the shockingly low average employee age of 23.

"We are the largest producer of Snapchat geofilters in the world," Schmidt said, trying to maintain his modesty amid undeniable success. "It’s been absolutely wild what’s happened."

Once Bshouty, 24, who now serves as the company’s chief creative officer, came around, he and Schmidt got going fast: they were the first company in the world specializing in custom geofilter design, so waiting around wasn’t an option.

Schmidt likened the company’s nascent days of existence to the internet in 1998: "It was like a desert. There was no one around."

Bshouty, a graduate of Red River College’s graphic design program, tried his hand at designing a community filter for Assiniboine Park. He made one in five minutes, but spelled it "Assinaboine." He quickly made a corrected version, but the flawed one is still out there.

"Good luck finding another I messed up," Bshouty laughed from the boardroom, peeking out from under his multicoloured bucket hat, nothing out of the ordinary for a studio employee.

Shortly after that first design, Schmidt sought out the company’s first paying customers: a St. Vital couple holding a wedding social.

"I said, ‘We don’t have a gift, but would you be interested in buying a geofilter?’" said Schmidt, who graduated from the University of Manitoba with a science degree in 2015. "And they bought it."

The next day, the studio’s second order came from a frat party in Alabama. The business was cash-positive from its first day, and soon, from their basements, bedrooms and dining room tables, Schmidt, Bshouty and director of operations Brayden Bernstein, also 24, were running a tech company with global reach capitalizing on the popularity of Snapchat, one of the world’s most ubiquitous social media apps.

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Those early days were slow, Schmidt, Bshouty and Bernstein remember, but the pace soon picked up, and in January, the company moved into a tiny 340-square-foot office in the Clarion Hotel. Soon, 15 people were crammed in, and the company acquired a hotel boardroom two floors down, affectionately referred to as "the Dungeon," where up to 25 people squeezed in.

"There were no windows," remembered creative development manager Marie Tully, 26, one of the company’s first hires. "It seemed like you were descending into the depths of a castle."

But then, the company exploded. They outgrew their old digs, hired 50 people and moved into their current space on Sargent Avenue in May.

"It’s all a blur from there," Bshouty said. They now produce an average of 100 designs per day, which Bernstein credits to a hardworking staff.

Of the company’s 20,000 designs, 99 per cent have been for foreign clients. They’ve designed geofilters for the weddings of Saudi Arabian royalty and for the sweet 16s of Californian teenagers. The majority of their clients have been average consumers, but their list of corporate clients is extensive: Amazon, Coca-Cola, Subway, McDonald’s and Delta Hotels are among several massive corporations who’ve enlisted the Winnipeg studio.

"The funny thing about corporate clients is, they’ve pretty much all come to us," Schmidt said, blushing, and they’ve shelled out between $150 to $500 for the designs; a drop in the bucket for Coke, but a veritable flood for a bunch of 20-somethings in Winnipeg.

And the craziest part is, Geofilter Studio has become one of the city’s fastest-growing tech companies, and for a long time, not even the most connected of the city’s tech community knew it existed.

"(I was in) Disbelief," said Jon Lê, 42, the training manager for New Media Manitoba, a provincially funded non-profit council for interactive digital media. "I didn’t think something like this could happen in Winnipeg without the organization being aware of it."

Lê said once he met up with Bshouty and Schmidt, he was taken aback by their enthusiasm, professionalism and vision for the company.

"It’s really a business only someone in their 20s could properly execute," he said, because it’s based on such a youth-oriented app. "It’s not something someone my age could exactly wrap their head around."

That’s proven a problem for studio employees, who struggle daily to explain what the company does to almost anyone older than the most elderly employee, a relatively ancient 32-year-old.

"I hate having to explain what I do," said 18-year-old Alexandra Friesen, chipping away in the order processing department.

"My parents have very little understanding of what I do," said order processing manager Kevin Ramberran, 27. "My mom thinks I work for Snapchat and my dad thinks I work for Facebook."

But that ambiguity is helpful, Bshouty said. As the company tackles augmented reality, virtual reality and other rising technology, he said they can dictate what to do next.

"It’s kind of like we’re the ones to place the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re just gonna keep making it longer, forever, because I think it’s going down the tunnel that’s the end goal," Bshouty said.

"My dream of what this company could be, but am not naive enough to say will be, is the first worldwide digital media design agency. Accessible by Coca-Cola and Little Bobby who mows people’s lawns."

Most of the studio’s employees say they get overlooked because of their youth, often misinterpreted as inability.

"What do you get when you have a company run by 24-year-olds who are good at what they do?" Bshouty asked before returning to his office.

Apparently, you get what they’ve already got.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Saturday, September 2, 2017 at 9:25 AM CDT: corrects typo

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