Embracing the Experience Economy with a $300K/mo Photo Booth Startup
Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?
Hello! I’m Brandon Wong, the CEO and part of the husband and wife team that started Photobooth Supply Co.
Trying to start a business? It can be complicated, expensive, and time consuming. We provide a meaningful business opportunity through a photobooth that allows you to capture memories while making some serious profit!
In this experience economy, the event industry is exploding and nothing is coming up faster than photo booths. In fact, from 2005 to 2012 more people searched online for photo booth rentals than for wedding DJs. It’s not uncommon to see seven figure photo booth rental companies, and six figure ones are a dime a dozen. We specialize in making that happen for you.
If you’re only familiar with the old boxes with black and white prints, you’d probably be surprised to see our flagship photobooth, Queso. It looks more like an Apple product than something you’d see in a train station or mall.
And we take not only beautiful photos, but videos, boomerangs, GIFs, and more… all shareable instantly on social media via it’s secondary share screen.
Queso, our flagship photobooth
I think the most important thing about what we do is the fact that we’ve transformed over 1,000 people’s lives. It’s not about the money for me, it’s about the fact that the company I started with my wife has given so many fantastic opportunities for people to achieve their full potential, while having a lot of fun while at it.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My wife and I were wedding photographers. If you’ve been to a wedding lately, you’ve probably seen a photobooth.
The same was true 8 years ago. We saw booths everywhere, and started thinking… why not add one of those? We purchased the “old” style photobooth, the enclosed box. It became clear very quickly that at least two things could be done better. It wasn’t really portable and it didn’t take the prettiest pictures.
I contacted a few metal suppliers down here in Orange County and asked if they could put something together for me. I wanted something sleek and portable, but it also had to be able to take gorgeous pictures.
My wife and I spent weeks trying to get the photos just perfect and we built a few very interesting looking prototypes. Right away, our friends came asking if we could put something together for them as well.
So, we took everything out of our savings account and got a tiny space at the largest wedding photography expo… which was happening in three weeks at the time.
In that time, we created a website, branding, literature, promotional videos, a trade show booth, a prototype unit, sales pitch, pricing, everything. At the show, we sold over 10 booths and doubled that number the week afterwards. A month later, we hand delivered one of the booths to a customer in Vegas and I used that money to buy an engagement ring. We were married six months afterwards.
This is us!
From that trade show, we just kept spending time to create more resources and more value to help our customers make more money. We started including marketing materials, sample contracts, attendant training videos, educational webinars, and more. Things like that really set the entire product apart, but everybody came to it for the picture quality and portability.
Within a short matter of time, we evolved from selling photo booths to selling a turnkey business opportunity, all without any franchise fees or the need for a large initial capital investment.
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
I’d argue that no one would buy anything unless it solves a problem. So our job as entrepreneurs is to identify which one we wish to tackle, survey, and then execute.
I’d recommend downloading Sketchup for a hardware product or Sketch for a software product. Use those tools that to make your first round of iterations. It doesn't have to be pretty, but it can communicate more effectively than a napkin sketch or even verbally.
As you can imagine, the process gets much easier when you are encountering the problem yourself. Our photography business was not scalable and unfortunately hit a revenue cap that was hard to break through. Creating additional services was the only way to move past this. Of course, this is where the photobooth came in.
LPT (Life Pro Tip): Read UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products that People Want by Jaime Levy.
I’m hugely inspired by legendary product designer Dieter Rams. One of his principles that I live by is “Good design is as little design as possible.”
Using that strategy, we started with the electronics of the booth that were mandatory (Computer, touch screen, camera, flash, printer, etc.) and devised a product that was the expression of those core components in the most elegant manner possible. Nothing more, nothing less.
Moreover, I would draw inspiration from products that have similar functions to yours. I browsed kiosk designs, floor lamps, cameras, robots in sci-fi movies, and more!
We did a quick Google search for a local fabricator to create our first alpha unit. Because our initial unit did not need any tooling, we had very low initial costs.
Katrina is very glad that we didn’t release this.
Within the three weeks leading up to our first trade show, we were able to execute a few rapid prototypes. We started as simple as possible and made things better from there. These quick iterations got us to market quicker and allowed us to do multiple rounds of UX testing which ultimately resulted in a better product.
LPT: I’d recommend downloading Sketchup for a hardware product or Sketch for a software product. Use those tools that to make your first round of iterations. It doesn't have to be pretty, but it can communicate more effectively than a napkin sketch or even verbally.
Moreover, it may help you discover new opportunities in your design. Doing this before making a prototype and hiring an engineer can save you thousands during the initial phases when you are strapped for cash.
We really lucked out because that same fabricator was looking to grow from making one-off parts to a being a large manufacturer. It was a third generation family of welders who gave us the undivided attention we needed despite being a start up and having a low order quantity.
In hindsight, we were lucky to start with a US based manufacturer. This removed the issues of language, distance, shipping, tariffs, and customs that come with using an overseas vendor.
LPT: Use Maker’s Row, an Alibaba for US based suppliers to aid your search.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We first started off using Squarespace, which is by far the easiest, cheapest, and most elegant beginner web design solution I’ve ever encountered.
Two years of using this service gave us the experiences to know which platform served our needs best. After much evaluation, we switched to Shopify for the powerful integrations and backend experience.
I’d highly recommend a couple things:
Hire someone off Fiverr to audit your website. For a few bucks someone will record their experience on your online store and critique it. This is valuable information.
Moreover, you can test it with friend and family to see how they’re interacting with it. You want to see if they are clicking the right places and landing where you want them to go.
Third Party Logistics
Focus on what you are good at. I doubt your company was built to do logistics well, so find a third party logistics company to pack, store, and ship for you. Amazon does this beautifully as well, but our product was not made for that type of infrastructure.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We were lucky enough to have two major sales channels. We attend trade shows and gain customers that way, and we have a strong SEO presence. Let’s talk trade shows first, since they are a pretty big unknown for a lot of businesses.
A trade show is like having access to hundreds or thousands of hot leads, all at once, and while every competitor is right next to you.
A trade show is like having access to hundreds or thousands of hot leads, all at once, and while every competitor is right next to you. It’s brutal, and it’s exhausting, and it’s amazing.
You truly have to stand out as a product, and as an experience, and as a company. We might spend $10,000 on a space and another $10,000 on staff, setup materials, and experience. Then we still have to have a show special and use that to drive sales. The margins get a lot tighter, but if you’re picking good shows, the kind your current customers go to, you’re going to do well.
That’s the best advice I can give for picking shows—just ask your customers where they’re going to be, and go there. Partially to sell, and partially to meet your people in person. You can never spend enough time getting to know your customers. There is no more valuable time you can spend on your business than learning how to truly help people with what you do.
We love attending photography focused trade shows. I think photographers are probably some of the most creative entrepreneurs out there. There is the business side, which takes a remarkable amount of creative skill, and there’s the actual photography.
When you get a chance to talk to them, they realize very quickly that they’re entrepreneurs at heart and we’re a great solution!
The best advice I can give anyone looking to stand out at a trade show is to make a booth that you’d want to go into. I know it’s pretty common and boring advice, but let think about it--what kind of trade show booth would you want to go into? And if the answer is, “I wouldn’t go to a trade show” then you should hire a marketing director to handle this part.
Trade shows don’t have to be your thing to be profitable. Your company should mirror your spirit and interests, but sometimes we all have to do the things that are necessary for success.
Moreover, there is a wonderful opportunity to iterate on your sales pitch. You are sometimes talking to dozens of people in person every day. By seeing their body language and how they interact with your product, you can immediately tell what aspects of your pitch are effective. By the end of it, you should have some solid strategies for your sales reps, ads, and website.
SEO is a pretty difficult world to understand. I suggest finding the best talent you can and letting them do what they’re best at.
Sometimes that means bringing the service in house, sometimes it involves an outside agency. For us, the ROI on our spend here is huge. It goes back to what I said about picking the trade show your customers attend. Pick the channel your customers use.
Don’t worry about what you like, where you think you’ll find them, or anything like that. We started hearing from our customers that they found us by searching and so we had to honor that. It has worked very well. The kind of entrepreneur who does research and compares their options tends to land with us. That’s great. Our SEO has changed alongside Google, of course.
When we got started, a lot of people found us through our photography company. They eventually started landing on us for searches about which photobooths had the best picture quality. It’s a natural transition for sure. Trust is big with Google, and people immediately trusted a photographer to have made a great photobooth. It makes sense.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are doing fantastic! The launch of Queso, our flagship photo booth, really brought photobooths a huge step forward.
I love to share that over 80% of Queso’s early adopters already owned our previous photobooth. Those are loyalty numbers comparable with Apple! Apple was at 86% on phones last year, and for car companies, Subaru was best at 67%. I could go on about stats forever.
We have a 97% customer satisfaction rate on the post support surveys we send out. Globally that number is 86%. That all comes from us putting a focus on customer experience.
Speaking of that customer experience, I think that a lot of questions tend to come up around the profit margins on something like a photobooth. How much of that $1,100 booking fee ends up in the pocket of our owners? We’d look at a booking fee like that and break it down like this in a very general sense:
$1,100 - Fee
$100 - Attendant wages
$15 - Paper for the printer
$15 - Gas and transportation
$10 - Misc (Business cards, equipment wear and tear, lost props)
$25 - Software
$20 - Website Hosting
$10 - Yearly Business Registration Costs
$905 - Profit
Most people look at a breakdown like that and ask where to sign up. It’s not always that easy, or that clean cut. You do have to pay taxes. But there’s no reason to see this as a side hustle rather than a profession, if you put in the work. Four events a month is just somewhere to start. We have tons of owners with 6 or 8 booths. They’re working 300+ days a year.
My biggest fear was that photo booths were a trend, but that’s just simply not the case. Our company has been growing every year since our inception and 2018 is looking to be the best year yet. We see this growth not only in private events, but also in retail locations, restaurants, nightclubs, and any other location where there’s a gathering of people.
The future is exciting. We haven’t been resting at all, we have already gone into beta on an upcoming product for a completely different market segment. I can’t say too much about it, but it’s going to have a massive impact on the industry as a whole. I’m so excited that it’s going to be on the market soon, and it’s somewhere we’ll really be able to expand the horizons of Photobooth Supply Co.
Queso in action!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Action over Inaction
I’m a big fan of saying yes and figuring out how to do it later. I understand that this method is highly controversial, but it forces you to figure out a way to accomplish goals under unreasonable circumstances.
Stop being in your head and start taking action. The more you let things stop you, the more things can stop you. Sometimes it’s okay to be unreasonable!
Develop a Routine
More than likely you will be working from home. You can gain a lot of productivity from building out a routine for yourself.
I find that waking up the same time, showering, getting dressed, and drinking that coffee at the same times every morning will allow you to stay focused throughout the day.
It’s also a really good idea to segment your web browsers. You can use Chrome for business logins and Firefox for personal ones. It saves you a ton of time and helps keep you from browsing Reddit instead of working!
It’s difficult to grow your company without discovering what it’s lacking. To do that, you will need to understand your strengths and weaknesses.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably never taken the time to sit down and think about that. Luckily, there are wonderful tools out there like StrengthsFinder, Myers-Briggs, and the DISC assessment that access that for you.
Once you discover your double edged sword, you’ll know what to delegate and whom to hire. My double edged sword was impatience and optimism, so I surrounded myself with meticulous pessimists. They consistently bring value to our meetings and overall strategy.
In the beginning stages this might mean figuring out what tasks to farm out to services like Fiverr or a Virtual Assistant. A fantastic book to read is of course, The 4 Hour Workweek.
What tools do you use for your business?
I don’t think we use anything unique on the grand scale. We host our online store on Shopify, we do customer support through Zendesk, have HubSpot as a CRM…
I’d really like to make a suggestion here. Go with the best tools. It’s never worth holding your entire business back to save 10 or 20 bucks a month on an inferior platform. When the numbers get really big, like they do with HubSpot, you can definitely assess that platform constantly.
For us, every time we do a review, we fall back in love with most of our tools. Anything that we aren’t using, we cut. We broke up with Later as soon as Instagram included scheduling tools. We just recently stopped using our VOIP platform because HubSpot offered recorded calls, and they were clearer. It would have cost more, but we negotiated on price until it cost less. Win-win!
We now have over 15 team members who mostly work remote. Luckily, we use tools like Slack, Flow, Google Hangouts, and Google Drive to ensure that communication and tasks are transparent throughout the company despite not being physically next to each other.
To increase the amount of interactivity, we deemed it mandatory to have all meetings done over Hangouts. This aides the loneliness that can come from working remote and increases communication through the use of body language.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate the price of many of the services you use. It’s one of the best tips I can give you. Paying up front for a full year? Sometimes that’s worth 20% or more off the total price, as long as you talk to an agent about it.
Need only a single feature from a higher tier of a SaaS service? Ask for it to be included with your current tier. If you don’t have these conversations, you’re going to over pay.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I always recommend a trifecta of books to entrepreneurs:
How to Win Friends and Influence People - For sales, raising money, attracting influencers, and how to be an overall kick ass person.
Zero To One - To help you think bigger. This book can single handedly increase the size of your business tenfold just by making you think from a different perspective.
Building Your Storybrand - Hands down the best book on marketing I’ve ever read.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
There are two schools of thought here. I could tell you how to avoid all the mistakes that I made, or I could tell you to make mistakes. I personally believe in the latter. If you go out and try to truly achieve great things, you’ll survive a few hiccups along the way.
Our first trade show went smoothly, but there were so many things going on behind the scenes that went wrong. Any product launch is really just the sum of all the overcome failures.
At the same time, you’ve probably heard that advice before. Let me talk a little bit about building a team, since it’s a difficult and complex topic. Here are a few suggestions.
Hire people who can disagree with you. If everyone you hire thinks exactly the same way, you’re never going to get the feedback you need to confirm or reject an idea.
In hindsight, Katrina’s analytical and pessimistic outlook on life perfectly balanced my impatience and optimism. If it wasn’t for these clashing perspectives our business would have been bound for failure. Always hire someone who can challenge you and isn’t afraid to do it. We were very fortunate that we had this naturally from our relationship.
Hire people that you think are 11/10. Don’t tolerate anything less than being blown away every day. Let other companies hire people who phone it in. You deserve the best employees, and you should pay and compensate them fairly for turning in work of the highest caliber.
Hire slow, fire fast. Don’t be afraid to move on from someone who shouldn’t be there any more. We give everyone chances to improve and learn. If they aren’t invested in turning things around, they aren’t invested in the company. I can’t have that.
Build a culture deck and a set of core values. We use our culture deck as part of an interview, letting people suggest a new slide they’d like to add. It helps us to know whether someone would truly be a good culture fit.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always on the hunt for incredible talent. While half of our team is based in Southern California, we are always open to bringing in remote team members!
VP of Sales
Inside Sales Representative
Outside Sales Representative
Where can we go to learn more?
Photobooth Supply Co. has provided an update on their business!
About 1 year ago, we followed up with Photobooth Supply Co. to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Over 3 years ago, we followed up with Photobooth Supply Co. to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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