Simon Joinson was DPReview’s second general manager, after founder Phil Askey. During Simon’s years with the site, DPReview underwent enormous changes, not least the relocation of almost the entire team in 2010 from London to Seattle, thousands of miles away on the west coast of America.
How did you first become aware of DPReview?
I don’t remember specifically. It kind of crept onto my radar gradually, because to be honest, back in the late 90’s / early 2000s, few of us in the publishing world were that focused on the internet as a potential competitor. I do remember that the first time I saw it it was still on the askey.net domain, so it must’ve been early. In the very early days there were other sites that popped up more regularly – Steve’s Digicams, DCResource – but by the 2002, 2003 timeframe, DPReview was an unavoidable force, shaking things up in the photo industry.
What set DPReview apart, in the industry?
You have to remember that 20-ish years ago the difference between the traditional print media and what was starting to be called the ‘new media’ was stark. On the internet content was always free, but it was generally seen as something of a digital ‘wild west’, where anyone with a computer and a modem could publish their opinions and you couldn’t move for unqualified ‘experts’. Websites simply lacked the credibility and trust of camera magazines, which in some cases were household names that had been published for decades.
Most print magazines reviewed cameras using a template that was, give-or-take, about 80% subjective
DPR was different. There were consistent, repeatable tests and metrics and, critically, there was no ‘take my word for it’ with Phil – he presented all his results on the page for you to download and look at yourself. In the early days he was pretty cautious about offering much ‘opinion’ at all (beyond the final rating), preferring to let the data speak for itself. By comparison, most print magazines (including mine) reviewed cameras using a template that was, give-or-take, about 80% subjective. It’s impossible to overstate the impact Phil’s approach to reviewing and objective testing had on the photographic publishing world.
|Simon using an early sample of Canon’s PowerShot Pro1, back in 2004. Simon had yet to officially join DPReview, and was credited by Phil in his Pro1 hands-on as ‘editor of the excellent UK magazine Total Digital Photography’.|
How did you join the team?
Phil and I had been pretty close friends since we sat together on a 12 hour flight to Tokyo for the 2002 World Cup final – part of a Fujifilm press trip that included meeting senior executives and touring a digital camera factory. We’d often talked about working together, and in 2004, with Phil was struggling to keep up with the increasing rate of new camera launches on his own, we signed a contract with DPReview to produce compact camera reviews and news stories. I already had a team of writers, photographers testers and designers working for my company, and so, initially, at least, DPReview was just another client. It didn’t take long, however, for it to totally consume my life.
Can you tell us a bit about those early days?
Phil and I didn’t work in the same place – he worked from home on one side of London and I worked out of my offices in Covent Garden. And we worked incredibly long hours and almost every weekend, but it was incredibly rewarding. I still miss those days when it was just the two of us doing almost everything. We even used to take our wives (the DPReview widows) on weekend city breaks together. Thinking about it now, the fact we took about a dozen cameras and spend most of the time talking work probably made it less enjoyable for the ladies, but they were kind enough not to complain.
I slowly got used to having hundreds of anonymous people publicly accusing me of dishonesty / incompetence / corruption whenever I posted anything – it was a big change from the occasional angry handwritten letter we’d receive about magazine content we’d already forgotten about. But hey, at least it meant people were reading.
Phil had poured his heart and soul into DPReview for over five years, and he wasn’t about to start messing about with a winning formula
Did you make any changes when you arrived?
I pushed for a ton of changes, but there was never any doubt in the early days who was boss, so I wasn’t very successful (it was three years before I was even trusted to review a DSLR!). Phil had poured his heart and soul into DPReview for over five years, and he wasn’t about to start messing about with what was obviously a winning formula.
I think my biggest contribution back then was to implement, to some degree, a few standard practices from the world of publishing – for example using an Editor and Sub Editor to tidy things up before posting. Looking back I’m glad Phil wouldn’t let me change much – I knew a lot less about the internet than I thought I did, and I had plenty of time to develop my understanding – and my ideas for the site – over the years we worked together.
Tell us a little about the Amazon acquisition
I wasn’t involved in the deal at all – DPReview was still Phil’s site, and he wasn’t allowed to tell anyone he was even talking to Amazon. I guess by the time I heard about the negotiations they were almost over, and the deal was only a few months from closing. Long story short, I got an offer compelling enough to resign as Managing Director of my own company and take a job with Amazon.
How did the acquisition change the way that DPReview operated?
On the one hand it changed everything – we started looking for a dedicated office / studio space, started hiring, had real jobs with a real boss. But in many other ways nothing changed – Amazon made it clear from day one that this was our site, and we should just carry on doing exactly what we were before it changed hands.
Describe how the team grew
As soon as the acquisition was public and we’d found our new offices we started hiring developers and editors, including some (looking at you Richard Butler!) who are still part of the DPReview team. Phil was focused mostly on running the business and being the interface with Amazon, and on managing the engineering / dev side of our work. I managed the editorial side. By the end of 2008 we had a team of 10 people, meaning Phil and I finally got to spend our weekends away from work…
We gathered the staff and told them Phil was leaving and we were relocating the entire business to Seattle. Then we went to the pub.
Describe the buildup to the Seattle move
The catalyst for the move was Phil’s decision to leave the business in late 2009, but in the end the decision was mine. It was clear that moving to the mothership in Seattle would be the best thing for DPR at a time when the global financial downturn and growing weakness in the compact camera market (thanks iPhone!) we’d get more support, more staff and more visibility if we relocated. And to be honest, working as a remote team with its own premises had lots of perks, but it wasn’t all fun and games; it also brought with it a ton of admin overhead, lots of travel and endless late night conference calls between London and Seattle.
We gathered the staff one morning in April 2010 and told them Phil was leaving and we were proposing relocating the entire business to Seattle. Then we went to the pub for the rest of the day.
|A new office in a new country called for a new studio scene. One of Simon’s lasting contributions to DPReview was our patented studio scene comparison ‘widget’.|
How did the move affect the team?
As you can imagine the news about Phil and the move created a certain amount of worry. We offered the entire team a full relocation package and initiated a month-long consultation period, at the end of which we asked everyone if they wanted to come with us on our new adventure. All but two of the team accepted, and – after a surreal six months or so of preparing to emigrate – most of them moved to Seattle in the late fall of 2010. I was the last to relocate because we had our second child on the way. For about four months I managed the business from 5000 miles away, with an 8 hour time difference.
Inevitably all this had some short-term negative consequences for the site – we couldn’t produce any reviews whilst our equipment made its way across the ocean and our new studio was being fitted out – not to mention the fact that several of the team had to take time off to organize moving their entire lives to another continent. And yeah, we kinda lost lens reviews for a while after the move (our lens reviewer didn’t relocate with us).
Describe that transitional period, with half the team in one hemisphere and half in another?
Honestly it worked really well for me – I prefer to work late and I had a newborn baby in the house, so I tended to start work mid afternoon to maximize my overlap with the rest of the team (there were a couple of people still in the UK, but most were already in the US).
What was your ‘mission’ for DPReview?
When I took the reins at DPReview in 2010 camera sales had already been in decline for a couple of years, and I knew I couldn’t just sit there watching the site slowly pulled under by falling demand in the camera market. I wanted to bring more photography and more diverse voices to the site, to revamp our reviews and expand our coverage of accessories and techniques, and to raise the bar in general, editorially. I was also desperate to change the UX and visual design of the site (and offer users an alternative to the black background). DPR was already the place for camera reviews, and I dreamed of a time when it would also be the primary destination for all things photographic, adding photographic art, commentary, education and analysis to our world-class reviews and product launch content. I got some of the way there in the next 8 years…
What are your hopes for the future of DPReview?
I hope DPReview goes from strength to strength and I expect to be still visiting daily after another 20 years! I’m also super excited to see some of the things I was working on before I left finally making their way onto the site, and to see where the new leadership takes DPR in the future.
What are you proudest of from your time at DPReview?
I’m incredibly proud of the work I did during the almost 14 years at DPReview, and there’s very little on the site today that I wasn’t directly involved with. Highlights for me include the side-by-side studio comparison feature, the (white background) site redesign and the painful but necessary forums revamp, which introduced scores of new features and fixed the crumbling infrastructure, significantly improving performance and reliability, and which almost none of our users liked.
I’m also very proud of the PIX2015 photography expo, which with hindsight was a stupidly ambitious project for a handful of people with no experience in live events to take on… But honestly the thing that makes me proudest is the amazing talented people I got to work with. Many became friends, and many went on to even bigger and better things after DPReview. But many stayed around, and it’s been a delight watching them grow into the best damned camera review team in the world.
What are you up to these days, post-DPReview?
I’m working for Lab126 (the Amazon subsidiary that designs and builds devices) in California. I still work on cameras, and I’m able to feed my curiosity and love of invention, working on products I can’t talk about that may, or may, not see the light of day in years to come. It’s challenging and demanding and very fast-paced, and I love it.