DPReview 20th Anniversary: Founder Phil Askey on the first ten years
As DPReview enters its 20th year of publishing, we spoke to the site's founder, Phil Askey - DPReview employee #1. In this interview, Phil remembers the first ten years of DPReview's development from its original conception, through a period of massive growth, to the site's acquisition by Amazon.
Pre-DPReview, what were you doing?
Before starting DPReview I was the lead developer for a software company based in Singapore, working on a web based business-to-business hospitality marketplace. The “world wide web” was still very new in 1998 but I had already established a sort of tech blog (before they were called that), mostly at that time discussing the Palm Pilot and similar electronic PDAs. The rough design for the PDA site ended up being the foundation for DPReview (including the love / hate black background).
How was the idea for DPReview born?
My passion for photography began with my first proper camera, a gift from my parents, an Olympus OM-10 with a 50mm F1.8. At the end of 1998 digital cameras were just starting to appear. I took an interest immediately, being a bit of a geek, loving my tech toys and being into photography.
I created a new sub-domain on my “blog” called photo.askey.net (props to anyone who can remember that) and began writing news articles about digital cameras, at that time quite a lot of my news leads came from Japanese digital camera sites like dcwatch. My first camera review covered the Canon Pro70 (at that time a groundbreaking product), supplied to me by the marketing department at Canon Singapore and the first proper DPReview review was born.
When you first started DPReview, what did the setup look like?
In the very early days, in our Singapore flat it was a very makeshift setup: a few fixed tables, tape marks on the floor, items arranged in a certain way, home printed charts, etc. Nobody was really trying to test digital cameras in a repeatable way, and that was my aim, to have tests we could apply over and over and get the same results (within a margin of error). When we returned to live in London in early 2000 we had a more permanent setup with a cove for product photography, permanently mounted professionally printed charts, studio lights and so on.
|The DPReview homepage complete with its 'love it or hate it' black background, in November 1999 - just under a year after the site was launched.|
From 1998 to 2008 all of the backend software (i.e., the site code), the testing, news, reviews, forums management was my job. My wife, Joanna, handled the growing load of actually running a business (paperwork, bills, invoicing) as well as being a fantastic photographer and model for the reviews. Many of the better gallery photographs from those days were taken by her. Simon Joinson joined us in mid-2004 contributing news and reviews (click here to check out Simon's first review). At the beginning of 2008, after the Amazon acquisition, we established a larger office in London and grew the team out.
What was your 'mission' for DPReview?
Initially I had no particular expectations but as traffic grew I knew we must have been doing something right, and in hindsight I would pick out these four key values.
First, always be honest. Write a review truthfully as though you’re writing it for a family member. If a product has an issue, talk about it. Manufacturers may not like to hear it but it’s the right thing for the buyer and in the long term for the manufacturer. I also had a strict no-advertorial policy.
Second, try to be first, and most in-depth. Despite the massive amount of work involved in producing a review I always aimed to be the first to publish and to have the most detailed reviews. This became a little easier later as manufacturers provided us with pre-production units before launch.
Despite the massive amount of work involved in producing a review I always aimed to be the first to publish and to have the most detailed reviews
Third, always listen to your community - I spent hours and hours analyzing logs and trying to understand how people used the site. I scrapped many an idea when it didn’t work, and added lots of features based on user requests. We always had an open “feedback” system which I believe to be invaluable.
Finally, build a strong relationship with the manufacturers through mutual respect. This might seem slightly counterintuitive for an independent review site but as long as your testing is rigorous and your writing is honest you will earn respect on all sides.
What were the biggest challenges, running DPReview in the early days?
The single biggest issue back in those days was simply technical; scaling the servers to cope with the massive growth in visitors. A good 30% of my time was developing, optimizing and maintaining the site code and the servers. There weren’t many “small businesses” running servers out of hosting facilities dealing with the amount of traffic we had, and cloud services had yet to be invented.
Also as a small business there is also a lot of pressure to keep the site up. My phone would always be with me and there were many instances of early morning panic getting the servers back up and running.
|Phil (left) and his son Kai.|
Has anything surprised you about how the digital photography industry has evolved over DPR's lifespan?
I was pleasantly surprised by how receptive the camera manufacturers were / are to our often critical feedback, this I believe has had a direct influence on the development of certain models. I can think of a few cameras that I can say “it’s that way because we pointed out X, Y and Z on the previous version” or “that’s the camera we always talked about”.
I remember one factory tour trip in particular to Tokyo where we labelled “VIP” which took me by surprise
When did you realize that DPReview had the potential to be very influential?
When we moved back to London in early 2000 and begun working full time on the site, we had already surpassed any other digital camera site in terms of visitor numbers and were being taken seriously by the manufacturers, I remember one factory tour trip in particular to Tokyo where we labelled “VIP” which took me by surprise as we were sharing the trip with many industry veterans. It was I think at that time I realized we had earned enough respect to be taken seriously.
What were those first years of growth like?
Crazy is probably the correct adjective. We went from around 40,000 visitors per month in January 1999 to 600,000 by January 2000, to over 3 million per month by January 2002. By January 2006 we were seeing almost 20 million visitors per month. All this though simply drove us to keep doing more and building the site out.
How did Amazon approach you and how did the acquisition affect DPReview?
Amazon simply emailed me and a long, long conversation began, it wasn’t the first M&A approach we’d had but it was the most attractive, in terms of Amazon’s track record of helping sites at that tipping point (and we were definitely there) to grow without spoiling them. Amazon was by far the best fit for DPReview and we knew their assurances about editorial neutrality and supportive site development were invaluable to growing the site.
After the acquisition we opened an office in London and grew out the staff, creating a whole new studio space and introducing a host of new site and review features.
What are you most proud of from those early years?
This question took me the longest to answer, I guess I’m proud that we built up such a loyal and strong community, I put a lot of effort into the forums and I still believe it’s the backbone of the site (remember, back then discussion “boards” were far less feature-rich). I guess today I’m still very proud that we made the right choices at the right time and that Amazon are giving the site everything it needs to continue to be the leading voice for everything photography related.
What are you up to these days, post-DPReview?
These days I'm likely to be found at the side of a race track somewhere in Europe (mostly Italy) supporting my son's racing career.
Keep an eye on the site tomorrow, when Simon Joinson, DPReview's general manager during the period when the team moved from London, UK, to Seattle, USA, will share his memories.
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