Cluster, a mobile photo-sharing app which helps users collaborate on albums with their friends, is today announcing $1.6 million in seed funding in a round led by early Instagram investor Steve Anderson of Baseline Ventures. Also participating were Freestyle Capital, First Round Capital, Google Ventures, and Sherpa Ventures. The news comes alongside the app’s exit from beta and the debut of Cluster version 1.0, an updated iPhone release which adds several new features, the goal of which is to make it easier to invite friends, sign-up, and make the app more engaging.
Founded by Onesheet and Tiplist founder Brenden Mulligan, along with ex-Google/YouTube developer Taylor Hughes, Cluster is tackling a problem so many apps have tried, and yet so far, have really failed to solve: it wants to make it easier to mutually share your photos privately with a select group of family, friends and others.
Cluster 1.0 Features
Since the debut of the beta version of the application in February, the team has been busy rolling out updated releases to add new features like favoriting and commenting, a streamlined design, social sharing and more. But today’s launch of version 1.0 is the biggest app upgrade to date.
In the new version, which we were able to beta test briefly ahead of today’s launch, Cluster has added a number of smaller enhancements, including things like new activity indicators on albums, access to albums outside the iPhone’s Camera Roll, as well as the ability to tap to hide unflattering photos your friends share in a group album, the ability save the high-res version of shared photos, and more.
But the biggest changes speak to how the company is aiming to smooth out and shorten the sign-up process for new users, as well as make it easier to invite friends. Cluster introduces a smart invite feature – something that’s been somewhat necessitated after a surge of spammy social apps have taken advantage of users’ address book access in order to send out mass invites to their contacts. Now, Cluster allows you to choose whether it sends out the invites automatically with a default message, or whether you want to create custom invitation yourself.
If you choose the latter, you can send invites however you see fit – text messages, email, social media, etc. Friends are given an invite code which they can use to access the shared album. The benefit to this is two-fold. Not only does it allow users to personalize their messages, it also makes it easier to invite a large group of people to share and view photos. For example, at weddings, parties, or other large events, you could post signs or otherwise direct guests to use the invite code to join the shared album in Cluster.
While the app has been more focused on events previously, that also led to some challenges. There’s heavy engagement during and just after the event takes place, but usage dies out a couple of days later. However, Mulligan says they’ve spotted another group of Cluster users who are building shared albums around interests. “They’re ongoing Clusters around a subject matter, not necessarily an event. Our most popular and largest Clusters are in this category,” he says. “And once it gets to these more topic-based Clusters, we see a lot bigger age differentiation,” he adds. (Mulligan declined to provide downloads or active user numbers).
Though the app faces a lot of competition (see the list in this post, e.g.) overall, the experience of using Cluster is enjoyable. The design is simple, straightforward and iOS 7- ready, and it can even serve as an alternative to the default Photos app with its automatically organized albums, grouped by date and location. To share photos, you simply head into one of these albums, and tap the invite button, which then prompts you to title the albums and set the privacy.
Soon: Web & Android
Though today, that process directs recipients to sign-up and download the app to view the photos, that will soon change. Going forward, the product development continues with a fully featured web version due out next month, where users will be able to view and interact with photos, then optionally download the app. Beta testing on Android will also begin in September, to be followed by a public release on that platform by October. Longer-term, the company will begin to focus on its business model, which involves the introduction of photo book and photo gifts.
With the additional funding – also Cluster’s first outside investment – the plan is to hire three to five more people, mainly engineers and designers. One new hire, iOS engineer Rizwan Sattar, has already joined the startup from Avocado, where he had worked with Cluster co-founder Taylor Hughes.
Mulligan says he took a different approach to fundraising, by slowly talking to people over the course of a couple of months. “We didn’t do the demo day attitude of trying get oversubscribed, or trying to get everyone to feel like if they don’t invest right now they’re going to miss out,” he says. “We talked to people who we thought would really add value to our product.”
In addition to Anderson, who watched Instagram grow from the beginning, Mulligan says they loved Freestlye (Josh Felser and Dave Samuel) for the advice they can give on building companies; First Round (Kent Goldman), for its great network; Google Ventures’ Kevin Rose, who understands product; plus Sherpa Foundry’s Shervin Pishevar and Scott Stanford, who are treating their own newly launched Sherpa Foundry like a startup itself, and believe in iteration and experimentation.
The updated version of the Cluster iOS application is live now on iTunes.
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