Tag Archives: female founders

Gray is the New Blonde

Search Trends

One of the advantages of working at iSPY is that we get to see and explore some of the best visual content in the world.  We can compare results side by side. We can explore media types and subject matter. We can also see popular search terms that often are driven from new trends. One that caught my attention recently was “gray hair.”

It seems that the fashion industry, and actually women of all ages are starting to embrace gray hair; from titanium to silver to platinum. I decided to do a little research and was surprised to see the first article that popped up on Google was from the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Hottest Hair Color of the Moment.”


My curiosity got the better of me as I tried to figure out what was causing this shift from coloring gray hair to embracing it.  It seems that the movement is related to an increasing interest in authenticity.

People care about authenticity… to a point. We want to relate to visual content. But social media makes us long for an idealized reality. We want authentic but really good authentic. As people, we strive for the perfect selfie or travel pic. We long for the best locations, best outfits and best experiences. We aspire for more.


In advertising and communications, however, authenticity is also about honesty. While consumers aspire for a more perfect world, they also want to be able to trust a brand. Ads can be beautiful but need also to be believable and relevant “to me.” Ads can be emotional but need to be engaging “to me.” Authenticity in communications is lost without trust.


Whether in an ad or editorial, trust is where the images and message come together in a true and powerful way that the reader believes; in how the message is presented, for sure, but mostly in how it is received. Whether in advertising or editorial communications, the reader must connect and believe in the story that is being told.


Companies are trying to find a balance. They want to deliver those “in the moment” amazing images but they also need to tell a compelling and believable story. For promotion, some images should not look real. They should look funny, clever or conceptual. But no matter the use, the message the image helps to deliver must be true to the story being told. It must be authentic in how the reader receives the message and how the image connects to the message being crafted.

So gray is the new blonde. Perhaps it is just hair color but probably not. There is a movement now to be more authentic and honest in this world where we can craft any kind of picture, real or not; where we want to embrace the best of ourselves in a truer and more authentic way. Readers need to connect with and trust communications and the communicator needs to find balance between honesty and using images that tell their compelling story.

Leslie Hughes is the CEO and Founder of iSPY Visuals, Inc., a search one and done aggregation tool for visual content. Hughes has over 20 years experience in digital media licensing, content production, and distribution, including having been President of Bill Gates’ Corbis Images, and President of the Markets and Products Group for Corbis Corp. She became an entrepreneur 10 years ago. Hughes has consulted or been part of 6 start-ups and 12 acquisitions.  She has an MBA from the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, is the proud mother of two and lives and works in New York.

Connect with Leslie: Twitter | LinkedIn | Angel List

Meet Natalie Burns

Sat in Cipriani Dolci in 2015, on the West Balcony inside Grand Central Station, in my favourite city in the world, I spotted Leslie on her phone.

Five years on since we’d first met, I’d dropped Leslie a message to see if she fancied catching up over coffee. We’d a lot to talk about.

In 2010, I’d graduated from the then Arts Institute at Bournemouth (now Arts University Bournemouth) having studied commercial photography and had made my way across the pond to work for the marvelous Karen d’Silva (now our head of Content & Creative) as her assistant a few days a week. The rest of my time was split between working at a boutique stock agency, WIN-Initiative and then spending the weekends assisting photographers like Bob Carey and Brett Beyer. Under the wing of Chrissy Reilly, who was pretty much the glue at WIN.  I went to every photo event the city had to offer. We stacked up business cards and cocktails – and yet somehow I always managed to stay awake on the L train back to my weird Craigslist flat in Brooklyn. Over the 90 days I spent in the city, I had not only learnt a huge amount, but had developed a reputation for being the Brit who knows about the internet and this thing called social media.

Having begun the laborious and expensive process of talking to lawyers about a longer term working visa, the notion was canned when a better job opportunity came about at Orange Logic – the then leading provider of digital asset management and digital rights management software.

My relationship with photography was very quickly transforming into phototechnology.

The job was a steep learning curve; not just about agile technology, software as a service, and rights management, but about my own ability to learn, adapt and overcome. I quit, repatriated to the U.K and began going it alone. As Leslie said in her own post, life goes on.

So when I met Leslie in 2015, I was on a recce trip back to New York, but this time to learn about the challenges and opportunities for an international development company looking to open it’s doors to the US market. My then business partner and I were exploring the city’s digital scene, meeting others who had successfully bridged the Atlantic divide and soaking up as much as we could to take home and consider. Our business, a development agency with offices in the UK and Thailand, had started to flip the script. We were no longer just developing discreet projects for clients, but we’d started to take equity in startups – becoming their remote CTO and working in partnership with them to grow and fund their businesses.

Hearing about our setup, Leslie began to tell me about her idea for an app that would help creatives find great content faster by simply providing the facility to search multiple providers all in one place. Having seen my own team of creatives struggle to find the right shot so many times before, I knew firsthand how long it could take to source a single, licensable image for a creative campaign. If you haven’t ever been tasked with searching for a good stock image, I can tell you with great certainty that it is a pain in the arse. It’s a laborious process of flitting between one stock library and another – do they have the right content? How much are their images? Can I make a lightbox for my client with images from more than one provider? No. What a drag.

When I first heard the idea for iSPY, I was already sold.

My team got to work building the prototype and soon enough, we launched the Beta to a small group of friends, investors, peers and early adopters.

Since the launch, my day job has changed again. After a little over two years in the exclusive world of technology, I craved a broader creative scope, made my peace with my business partner and left the company building iSPY to join the senior team of a branding agency. It’s been a great transition personally, but it’s also been fuelling iSPY. In the world of branding, stock images are traded almost continuously – so it’s been an amazing opportunity for me to sit client side and experience the real need our iSPY customers have for this product we’re building.

I know we need iSPY, because I need it – and I’m motivated to keep improving it.

Natalie Burns VP Strategy iSPY Visuals LLC

Natalie Burns is the VP Strategy at iSPY Visuals, Inc., a search one and done aggregation tool for visual content. In the daytime, you’ll find Natalie working as a Strategist at the branding agency, Pixeldot, hosting and moderating events that celebrate women in technology and advocating women’s rights and voter engagement through projects like What Women Want 2.0. Prior to Pixeldot, Natalie was co-Director of an international technology company and began her career at the intersection between technology and photography.

Connect with Natalie: Twitter | LinkedIn | Angel List

Meet Karen D’Silva

Where to begin…

Leslie Hughes and I go back to my very first job out of school. I’m one of those people who continually hold a mental rolodex in my brain of people I like and want to keep in my inner circle. When I met Leslie, I knew I’d be putting a big gold star beside her name. We worked together at the Image Bank, and even though we weren’t in the same department, we seemed to connect. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I’m lucky enough to meet someone who just bring out the best in me. Those kind of people bring the gift of possibility to your life. And when they open doors, you just have to jump through with both feet. Of course now I can insightfully say that Leslie and I work well together because we both have an appetite for something bigger. Back at Image Bank, we were responsible for different aspects of the licensing process, but even back then, we knew our pieces connected in a bigger way.

Flash forward to NYC, 2000 and something. Both of us were working in the city (NYC). Not knowing how or when, I think we both knew we were close to a time when we’d be working together again. There wasn’t a coffee or happy hour or lunch date that passed where we weren’t scheming how to disrupt our industry. One day Leslie reached out and told me of an idea born from the perspective of a client.

Her concept was different from what we knew of the stock world.

Her mission wasn’t to build a content collection based on the image needs of the client, but rather to give the client the workspace they desperately needed to be more effective and efficient in their jobs. She wanted to create a place where you could pull in all possible licensing options in one search. When you were knee deep in your project, you could invite coworkers to collaborate with you. That paper trail of documents needed from the day you started this project… well you’d find it all in one place. iSPY had everything I always wanted, an innovative spin in a predictable industry, a CEO who dreamed big, a great name and a chance to make a difference for clients. I was committed from day one to iSPY.

When people ask me about my career, I see every twist and turn as a series of fortunate events. From the positions I’ve held, people I’ve met, successes and even more importantly the difficulties that teach you the biggest life lessons… all stepping stones contributing to where I am today. With the addition of Natalie Burns to the team (ah Natalie. I’ll have to save that story for another time), we 3 are unstoppable.

Karen d'Silva Founder and Marketing Director

Karen D’Silva is a founder of iSPY and employee number 2. D’Silva has more than 20 years experience in photography, creative and marketing. She has worked for and with photography agencies like Image Bank, Getty Images, Photonica, and Superstock. She has also worked with many top professional photographers and videographers.

How iSPY Came To Be

I love to write, (like I love to talk) and will do so on just about any topic… except when I have to write about myself. Our team agrees, however, that we want to have a blog series about who we are, where we came from, and why we are believers in iSPY Visuals. Our hope is that our stories will give you a better understanding of why we are working hard to build a great app that really works for you. So, here goes. I was born in Oklahoma… Just kidding (well, not about being born in Oklahoma!)

The idea behind iSPY Visuals struck me back in 2005. I had been hired as CEO in a turnaround situation by a UK/US stock photo and film business. They were a public company (penny stock) and had been on a bit of a buying spree. The business I inherited was a bit of a mess. The company had acquired 7 stock photo/film agencies. Nothing had been integrated.  Each was in a different stage of moving from analog to digital. They were being sued, they had less than adequate tech, they had no idea how to even begin to address the millions of images that needed to be edited, digitized and made available online. They weren’t even quite sure who their clients were. So, I hired a small but incredibly talented group who came in, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Among the first things we accomplished were consolidating systems, building a new platform and creating a single brand strategy. Our creative team was responsible for editing hundreds of thousands of images immediately. They were looking at concept, context, and technical quality among other things. Some of the collections were online and some were in analog form. It was an enormous challenge to find the best of the best and to ready the images to go into our newly built platform.

Our Creative Director came to me asking for help. We conjured up an idea to create an internal system where our editors could review images from the various collections we had acquired and compare them to our competitors. We quickly pulled together a rough search engine that allowed the editors to do just that. It was rough but our team could search and compare image-selects side by side, and against the competition. It was a very useful tool saving us time and money, and allowing us to curate content in a much more effective way. It was at that time that a light bulb went off.  How cool would it be to make this kind of tool available to clients. They could search multiple image providers simultaneously saving a ton of time, and compare results.  But then, life went on.

Fast forward to 2015, I had started a small market strategy and consulting business. That company, VisualSteam, conducts an annual survey of creative pros on stock image licensing. In 5 years of surveys, one of the most common complaints was about how difficult and time consuming it is to find images across platforms. The clients told us the average search for an image takes 4.25 hours, and they generally search at least 3 agencies. A little over a decade after my original idea, I decided it was time, actually long overdue, for a tool like iSPY.

I incorporated iSPY Visuals, Inc. in 2016. I approached a longtime “partner in crime” Karen d’Silva, who, aside from being incredibly talented, brings experience in photography, content strategy, and design to the team. She signed on right away. Karen reconnected us with a woman with whom we had worked some years before, Natalie Burns. Natalie has a unique mix of skills including strategy, tech and creative. I decided to partner with the firm Natalie was with, who specialize in building tech for venture startups. It took us about 4 months to plan and build the prototype. We used the prototype to encourage image suppliers to sign up, and to start raising money from industry insiders, family and friends. In 2017, we launched our beta site, and we recently come out of beta and launched our first full-feature platform and SaaS (software-as-a-service) solution.

Today, users find images much more quickly and easily on iSPY. They share projects and lightboxes, and collaborate with colleagues. Users can manage rights and usage and even store images and image licenses all within iSPY.

I love this idea and am proud of what we have built so far. Our clients have a thousand ideas for how we can make our tool more useful, and we are eager to move forward. We are looking for money and bootstrapping it for now but I am a believer. iSPY has so much potential! We are currently mapping out our next phase of development which is focused on advanced technologies – artificial intelligence and blockchain  – which is very exciting for our team.

So that’s my story. I appreciate the tremendous support from our investors, team, and most importantly those creative pros that are giving us a try. It has been a fun ride so far but we are really just getting started.

Leslie Hughes is the CEO and Founder of iSPY Visuals, Inc., a search one and done aggregation tool for visual content. Hughes has over 20 years experience in digital media licensing, content production, and distribution, including having been President of Bill Gates’ Corbis Images, and President of the Markets and Products Group for Corbis Corp. She became an entrepreneur 10 years ago. Hughes has consulted or been part of 6 start-ups and 12 acquisitions.  She has an MBA from the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, and is the proud mother of two.

Connect with Leslie: Twitter | LinkedIn | Angel List

Women raising start-up capital circa 2017

Raising money as a woman founder is tough.

According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), women are getting about 2% of the VC funding, despite owning 38% of businesses. According to Fortune (Fortune), in 2016, 5,839 companies with all male founders received venture capital funding compared to only 359 with female founders. The men received 16X more funding than companies founded by women. In 2016, women led companies represented nearly 5% of VC deals, up from 10 years ago when women led companies represented less than 3% of deals. While this was a bit of an improvement, sadly however, the average value for women led companies was down 25%; $4.5 million compared with slightly over $6 million in 2015.

The numbers vary depending on the source, but in no case are they any good for women entrepreneurs.

I am glad I didn’t know these numbers when I became an entrepreneur. They certainly would have given me pause. However, progress is made by the fearless. Being a woman in business means there is often a reason to pause, and we mustn’t. My company is hoping to raise $1 million in the next year, so while the numbers above are daunting, we move forward… fearlessly.

iSPY is a technology driven business that helps Creative Pros search for images (stills and video) across platforms.

The core of what we do is simultaneous search. We save our users a lot of time. In addition, we are connecting our users to legally, licensable content, unlike Google and other more general search aggregation tools. Creative Pros can search their favorite image sources, or find new creative resources. In addition, we offer our users a creative workspace full of collaboration tools to make the journey from concept to campaign far easier. Not only can they collaborate with team members, but through iSPY they can gain direct access to the image providers; making requests for similars or variations simpler. Users are able to manage projects, all from their iSPY dashboard, including uploading documents, project briefs, storyboards, and image licenses. Also, companies are able to manage teams with administration and enterprise rights. In addition, we offer access to resources with one click that the user might not know existed. We offer advanced search to aid in finding the best content that meets the users needs. In the end, we are a tool but also a creative resource.

To date, iSPY has raised $150,000.00 and we are in beta. We expect to begin generating revenue in the coming months, and are positioned where we can start raising growth capital in a Series A round. I know that we need to grow quickly to be able to cement our position in the industry. To do this, I will be seeking $1 million.

So, in light of the statistics above, how do we move forward? By using our network, connecting with clients, and proving that we are meeting the needs of a dynamic marketplace. Proving we have a good product, however, may not be enough. It is difficult to understand why women founders are so underfunded. But, I am not sure it really matters. As women, we must deal with it. The question I am more interested in is how we change it. One way is to get more women involved in investing. I am pleased to say that of 7 early investors in iSPY, 4 are women. I am looking for funding from investors that see the value in what we are doing and aim to support a more diverse entrepreneurial environment. So, while raising money as a woman founder is tough, it is a challenge I am tackling with enthusiasm and confidence.

Stay tuned as I will be documenting this journey; sharing the trials and tribulations of raising money as a woman founder. We may or may not succeed but I will be sharing it all – what we do right, the misses, and in the end, if we accomplish our goal.

Leslie Hughes is the CEO and Founder of iSPY Visuals, Inc., a search one and done aggregation tool for visual content. Hughes has over 20 years experience in digital media licensing, content production, and distribution, including having been President of Bill Gates’ Corbis Images, and President of the Markets and Products Group for Corbis Corp. She became an entrepreneur 10 years ago. Hughes has consulted or been part of 6 start-ups and 12 acquisitions.  She has an MBA from the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, is the proud mother of two and lives and works in New York.

Connect with Leslie: Twitter | LinkedIn | Angel List