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How a Toronto company is helping the world's creatives showcase their work
The story of Format.

Whether it’s a portrait shot of Jennifer Lawrence, a series of snaps showing life in Haiti or his work with Diesel, Matt Holyoak is one of the United Kingdom’s leading photographers. Across the ocean in Chicago, one of Holyoak’s peers, Kyle Thompson, is finding fame with his inventive art spreads.

Unless you’re a photographer yourself or someone that has an appreciation for the art form, you’re unlikely to know the name of either of these photographers, but you’ve certainly seen their work in ads and on the glossy pages of magazines like GQ, Esquire and Vogue.

However, it’s more than editorial fame that connects the two; they’re just two of the tens of thousands of creatives that showcase their work on a platform called Format.

Format is a portfolio creation and hosting platform that helps showcase a creative professional’s work at its best. A simple but powerful toolset allows almost anyone to create a stunning website. Users can use that same toolset to easily tailor their website for mobile and tablet experiences. Moreover, unlike the portfolio websites of yesteryear, Format does not use Flash to showcase visual content, making any website made with its toolset faster to load.

It was also created by a passionate group of people in Toronto.

Format was started by Lukas Dryja and Tyler Rooney in 2010. The idea came to Dryja while he was studying design at OCAD University. At the time, almost every online portfolio used a custom PHP script to showcase their owner’s work. Given that PHP is a server-side scripting language, it was a less than ideal solution for most creatives. Dryja decided there had to be a simpler way to showcase one’s work on the web.

Format iPad

That said, it took some time before he got around to making the idea a reality. Like most designers fresh out of school, Dryja decided to start his career with client work.

It was the right decision at the time: Apple had recently announced the launch of the iPhone App Store, and every company with even the hint of an online presence was racing to deploy a mobile app to the platform. One of Dryja’s notable early clients was The Globe and Mail. His agency helped the publication design and launch their first iPhone app. The sudden explosion of mobile meant that companies that didn’t have the necessary expertise to build and launch their own app were lining up for Dryja’s services, making it difficult for he and his team to turn work down.

However, he didn’t feel like client work was where he wanted to stay. “Over time, my entrepreneurial spirit kept coming back,” he says.”It was telling me to pursue this idea. So I said to myself, ‘Why not give it a try?’” After he had made the decision to leave client work behind, Dryja enlisted the help of Rooney. Rooney had recently returned to Toronto after spending several years in Seattle working for Amazon. He and Dryja had collaborated on several client projects together in the past, and it was easy for Dryja to convince him to join. “I was genuinely surprised when Lukas told me how few of his OCADU classmates had online portfolios. It didn’t take long for us to realize we could make a tool which got all those people online in days instead of months,” says Rooney.

Before starting the company, the two decided that their best chance at creating a sustainable business was to self-fund the company. In attempting that goal, they didn’t pay themselves a wage for the first year of Format’s life.

In a lot of ways, that decision helped define the company and went a long way towards ensuring its success.

“One of the main reasons we didn’t take outside investment is that we wanted to build a sustainable product. We believe that when a company takes outside investment different factors start to play out, one of which is that you need to satisfy a second client,” says Dryja. He adds, “When you build a product, you have your first client, which is your user, and then you have this other client, which is the investor, and you end up trying to satisfy two different clients. We wanted to focus solely on the user and on building the best possible product.”

He goes on,”We wanted to build an application that was powerful, flexible, and easy to use. We thought that if we could build something that had those three qualities that we would succeed.” Thankfully, their approach paid off. Users quickly embraced the platform, and within a year they turned a profit. It was a steadfast desire to succeed and constant positive feedback that pushed the company through its difficult first year.

Format Office

When we meet at the company’s Liberty Village office, Dryja describes a scene from a recent visit to New York City. He was there to attend a conference, and at the end of the day he split a cab with three other people. Each person in the cab took a turn to talk about their careers. When it was Dryja’s turn to explain his work with Format, he found out that one of the people he was sharing the cab with had not one but two Format portfolios. Dryja says that it’s surreal moments like that, along with the constant feedback he gets online, that keep him looking for new ways to improve the service.

It’s with that in mind that the platform launched one of its biggest updates to date. Last week, Format changed its name from “4ormat” in favour of the dictionary approved “Format”. The rebrand was made possible by a domain acquisition at the end of last year. To mark the occasion, the Format team spent months going through each and every single user interaction to find areas where they could further improve the user experience. In addition, they also used the opportunity to launch a new and improved blogging tool. With so many of its users being photographers, designers and illustrators, Dryja says it only made sense to create a robust, image-focused blogging tool.

According to Dryja, the rebrand and relaunch of Format is just the start of what he and the company plan to do in the coming year. He’s coy about specifics, but promises that what they’re working on is exciting. “Everyday we focus on building the perfect tools for creative professionals. It’s a fascinating problem to solve specifically for a design driven company like ours.”
Igor Bonifacic is the managing editor of Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.

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