My Journey To Starting A $4.2M/Year Photobooth Company
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi guys! I’m Scott McInnes, founder of TapSnap, a photo booth company with franchised locations in most major cities in the United States and Canada as well as Sydney, Australia. Our flagship product is our TS-42, an open-air photo booth that features a giant 42-inch touch screen and a high quality DSLR camera for fantastic image quality.
The oversized touch screen makes using our photo booth a very unique and interactive experience. We were one of the first companies to offer photo booths that didn’t actually have a booth at all, so we can take photos of large groups of people at one time, and afterwards everyone can gather around the photo booth to view, edit and share photos together.
We launched TapSnap in 2012, and within a few years grew to over 100 franchised locations in North America. Our photo booths are used at over 10,000 events every year, for everything from a wedding for a few hours to a multi-day conference, or a 40 city movie premiere.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My first business was a disaster!
It was a small restaurant that I opened in 1995 at 25 years old that shut down 2 years later. I was broke, jobless and in debt. I didn’t have a specific idea of what I wanted to do, but knew that I still wanted to be an entrepreneur. I spent a couple of years working, reading business books and magazines, and looking for another opportunity.
I didn’t have much money so I could really only consider opportunities that I could start for a small amount of money and build on. And, it was also important to me that I found something that I could do as a side business. Now I guess that would be called a side hustle.
Make sure that there’s a real opportunity for you to build a profitable business. Questions that I would ask are - What is going to make you different? Is it a growing industry? To what extent is it futureproof?
I came across an idea in a business magazine called Business 2.0 for Internet kiosks. The article was about how Internet cafes would soon be a thing of the past and would be replaced by Internet kiosks in hotel lobbies, laundromats, and airports. I was living in Whistler, a ski resort with a lot of international tourists, and thought that it would be a great business for me.
Remember that this was 2000 and the iPhone and iPad were years away and laptops were heavy and expensive, and most people didn’t have any way to get online once they left their house. I put together enough money to buy a couple, put them in local hotels, and started making a nice little side income. I put the money I made back into equipment and pretty soon was making more money from my side hustle than I was at my job.
At that point, I thought to myself that there must be other people like me that were also looking for a side business, so I partnered with some custom manufacturers and started a company that sold Internet kiosks to other entrepreneurs. The business was very successful, but as mobile technology became smaller, more powerful and less expensive I knew that to survive the business had to move to a new product.
In 2006, I came across another idea in a business magazine that I thought would be a fit for me and my team. The article I believe was in Fast Company, and was on innovative vending ideas. What caught my idea was a DVD rental vending machine. Again, the timing was right - streaming services didn’t exist and Blockbuster was still the king of home entertainment. We were able to capitalize on the tremendous success of Redbox’s DVD rental vending empire by offering entrepreneurs a way to participate in this new and exploding industry. We quickly became the largest supplier of DVD rental machines to entrepreneurs. However, by 2011 I knew that like Internet kiosks, DVD rentals were eventually going to be replaced by newer, better technologies, and that it was time to start on something new.
Our experience to that point had always been in developing, selling and supporting technology related business opportunities, and I wanted to stick as close to that as possible. After considering a few different ideas we got excited about doing our own version of a reboot of the traditional photo booth.
There were a few other companies that were selling open air photo booths, but we felt that with our experience we had a unique opportunity to do something unique and on a much larger scale than what had been done previously. After close to a year of hardware and software development TapSnap was launched.
This time instead of simply selling the equipment to entrepreneurs we decided to truly partner with them and brought TapSnap to market as a franchise. The concept was a hit and we were recognized several years in a row as both one of North America’s fastest growing and best new technology franchises.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The hardware for our first photo booth was designed in partnership with a custom kiosk manufacturer in Southern California.
The primary challenge we faced was how to incorporate a 42-inch screen into design that had to be portable. Our franchisees are moving the equipment in and out of vehicles, event venues, backyards and other challenging situations so portability was a must. We had our prototype finished in the spring of 2012 and took it to do a wedding in someone’s backyard in June 2012.
One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that what worked for one business won’t necessarily work for the next.
The prototype was an all-in-one collapsible design with built-in wheels, but probably weighed 200+ lbs. The sidewalk into the backyard was uneven, the wheels were too small and we had to carry the photo booth. It was never intended to be carried and it was like trying to carry a 200 lb bar of soap!
We went back to the drawing board and came up with a new design that broke down into a couple of smaller pieces. A photo booth with a screen as large as ours is never going to be the easiest to handle, but by moving away from the all-in-one design we were able to make it manageable.
First TapSnap concept to make it to the prototype stage.
We also knew that to create an experience that advantage of our unique large screened photo booth that we would have to create our own software. We are still working as hard today on improving existing features and coming up with entirely new ones as we were in the beginning, and our photo booths are capable of things that we never imagined would be possible.
One of the areas where we were able to apply our prior experience was in developing photo booth software that had an online backend for managing event graphics and other customizations. Green screens, GIF animations, and photo borders can be uploaded to our cloud service and then downloaded to the specific photo booth that will be used for the event. This is a big time saver for our franchisees and allows us to easily manage customizations on large multi-photo booth or multi-city events.
For the past few years, we have taken our photo booth hardware design in-house, and have focused on designs that use smaller screens and aluminum wherever possible to save weight. We have developed our TapSnap Luna line of photo booths that we sell to photographers, DJs, or any other business that has a need for a photo booth.
Describe the process of launching the business.
TapSnap was launched without any outside financing. I borrowed money to start my Internet kiosk business, but since then have been able to fund new ventures with profits from previous ones.
When we launched TapSnap, to find our first franchisees we went to our existing database of leads and customers from our DVD rental kiosk business. Our database was huge, and these were all individuals who had shown previous interest in starting a small business so we knew that we were likely to have success. In addition to using our existing database, we placed ads on franchise websites such as www.franchisegator.com and www.franchisesolutions.com/ that we had used for our DVD business to generate new leads for TapSnap. We had 11 new franchisees at our first training class which was amazing, and were recognized as one of the fastest growing franchises by Inc magazine.
We used an outside agency to design our first website, but for the past few years have also taken that in-house. Our 6 person marketing team that works on our website as well as our social media presence, and creates graphics for our photo booth events. In the past few years we have invested in tools such as HubSpot and recently Drift to help with our marketing.
One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that what worked for one business won’t necessarily work for the next. With our DVD rental vending business we used TV and radio advertising as our primary method to generate leads and sales. Maybe it’s because the product is different, or it could be just the timing, but we tested and found that TV advertising did not work for TapSnap.
Another lesson is to not be afraid to try new ways to market your business. If it works, pour some gas on it and see how much you can get out of that particular channel before you start to see diminishing returns. If it doesn’t work, and you can’t see any way to make it work, kill it and move on to something else. Tools like HubSpot allow us to drill down and see what methods are driving the most revenue.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
For our business, we have 3 primary sales opportunities - we are looking to attract new franchisees, find new customers for photo booth events, and also businesses that would benefit from adding a photo booth. It can be complicated to build a website and support those three distinct lines of business.
In the beginning, to find new franchisees we primarily used our existing database of leads and customers from our DVD rental kiosk business, advertised on business or franchise websites, and worked with business brokers to generate new franchise prospects. We grew very quickly and our inventory of available markets started to dry up. We then switched over to using methods like Google Ads and Facebook that allowed us to target geographic areas where we needed franchisees rather than the whole of North America.
To find customers that are looking to hire a photo booth for their events we primarily use SEO as well as Google Ads and Facebook Ads. It can be complicated to build a website for a business that provides its services to so many different geographic areas, so we structured ours in a way that is designed with local city pages and franchisee microsites that will rank better for local searches. On a local level our franchisees join networking groups and reach out to local event planners, event venues and anyone else that they feel might be able to refer them some business, and do demos for local businesses.
To find businesses or individuals that are interested in purchasing a photo booth we again primarily use SEO, Google Ads and Facebook Ads. With Google and Facebook it’s important to stay on top of your costs or it’s easy to be upside down on a sale. Commit to learning and staying on top of these platforms or outsource it to someone that knows what they’re doing.
It may sound simple, but try a bunch of different ways to find customers and stick with what works and move on from what doesn’t. We have found that for our company trade shows have never been worth the effort, however, we see our competitors investing heavily in this area. For them I have to assume that it works, but for us we have found that trade shows do not measure up when compared to other ways to generate leads and sales.
PPC ads are a great way to get off to a quick start when you’ve got no traffic, but it’s expensive. Learn how to do it well to keep costs down, but more importantly always be working on SEO so that you can start to drive some organic traffic.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
TapSnap is in a great position because we are a technology company, but unlike our previous DVD business we aren’t reliant on a single technology. When the world started to move towards streaming there was no way for us to really adapt and compete. We had to launch a completely new business to survive.
Photo booths are about using technology to create and share memories in a fun and engaging way, but aren’t dependent on a single technology to survive. Really this is the evolution of the traditional photo booth that has been popular for decades - we are just using newer technologies like better cameras, green screens, more powerful computers and social media to get more out of it.
E-commerce has never been a huge part of our business, but I can see it becoming a big part moving forward. There are a lot of options when purchasing a photo booth or a photo booth event, so we take a more consultative approach to selling. We use our website primarily to generate leads rather than directly sales.
We recently started using dedicated landing page building software to A/B test pages to try to optimize conversions. Whether it’s a landing page or a piece of email marketing we are always testing and optimizing to try create content that drives business.
An area where we see significant opportunity for growth is in photo booth sales. Most companies that sell photo booths may have at one point been a company that services photo booth events, but most only focus on selling. For TapSnap, we’ve always been and will always be events first, which means that we can draw on that experience when designing photo booth hardware and software. We know tools are important to photo booth owners and also what will make the biggest impact at events.
Another growth opportunity for TapSnap is in doing bigger and more elaborate marketing events for our corporate clients. Our large North American footprint puts us in a unique position where corporate clients know that if they call us to do an event that we’ll likely be able to service it with a local team. In addition to our local teams, another advantage that we have over our competition is our talented designers and animators at our head office that can create amazing, unique photo marketing activations for our corporate clients.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Don’t be afraid to try new things. I’ve had some expensive failures, but also some big wins. With our DVD rental kiosk business we spent about $200,000 per month on advertising, primarily on TV and radio, and it returned 5 times that in sales. We tried TV advertising with TapSnap but never had any success. Producing a quality TV ad and purchasing the ad space is not cheap, so this was a costly mistake.
A big win early on for us was an article that was written about TapSnap in Entrepreneur Magazine. An article gives you much more credibility than an advertisement, and we generated somewhere close to $500,000 in franchise sales that can be at least partially attributed to that article.
I’ve always worked hard, but don’t, but don’t work so hard you get burnt out. I know my limits and have learned that going without enough rest and sleep, at least for me, will cut into my productivity.
It might work for some people, but working until midnight just means that my productivity the following day is going to suffer.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The tool that we all use everyday is HubSpot. The marketing team uses it to launch and monitor campaigns, nurture leads through email marketing, and monitor the results of Google Ads and other paid advertising. The sales team and our franchisees use the HubSpot CRM to track opportunities and log sales activities.
They have a ton of great educational resources available to salespeople and marketers. We have even built a custom integration that links our photo booth software directly to HubSpot, reducing data entry and creating a closed loop between a lead entering our system and eventually booking a TapSnap photo booth for their event.
Another tool that we rely on heavily is Proposify. Proposify allows us to quickly edit and send sales proposals to clients, making the sales team more efficient, and again it syncs to HubSpot.
The design team lives in Adobe Creative Cloud. they use it for editing video, creating animations, website graphics, and PDF’s, as well as green screens and other event graphics.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
One book that I read for the first time 20 years ago is the E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. Reading that book helped me understand why I had failed in the past and what I had to change in order to achieve success. I would recommend it to anyone starting out.
Other books I would recommend are Built to Last and Good to Great, both by Jim Collins and Start With Why by Simon Sinek.
I spend an average of an hour per day reading news feeds that I have setup on Flipboard that keep me up to date on trends in technology and marketing.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
You should find something that you’re passionate about, and make sure you’re cut out for entrepreneurship. It’s going to be a lot easier to put the hours in if you love what you do.
Over the past 20 years, my businesses have always involved putting other people into businesses of their own. We’ve had a hand in helping over 2,000 people launch their own businesses and to survive, and hopefully thrive, requires a ton of hard work, and those that don’t love what they do will almost always fail or at least struggle to find success.
Before jumping in, make sure that there’s a real opportunity for you to build a profitable business. Questions that I would ask are - What is going to make you different? Is it a growing industry? To what extent is it futureproof? I have made a career in niche industries where with some hard work and ingenuity we can have the opportunity to be the number one company.
It's probably because my first business was a disaster, but I’ve always been scared of failure. However, I use fear as a motivator to work hard and keep pushing forward. It keeps me from becoming complacent or comfortable.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are currently looking to hire for PPC marketing. Work from home is a possibility but strong preference for applicants that can work from our North Vancouver office.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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