Case Study: No Marketing Budget? Win Over Bloggers Instead
BY April Joyner
Photographer Ron Henry knew his camera strap was a winner. Now he just needed to get the word out on the cheap.
The Company: BlackRapid
Start-up Funds: $5,000 for a website, banner advertising, and product samples
After 15 years as a professional photographer, Ron Henry wondered why he had never come across a comfortable camera strap that positioned his camera readily for quick shots. After pondering the idea for a few months, he went to a local hardware to buy materials to make his own strap. The resulting creation allowed his camera to hang upside-down at his side and glide into place easily when he was ready to shoot. It also minimized strain on his back and shoulder, which got him thinking: Could I make a business out of this?
Shortly after, Henry launched his Seattle start-up, BlackRapid, with just $5,000 borrowed from Kurt Peterson, a long-time friend and entrepreneur. He tapped a nearby manufacturer to source materials and produce a first run of 80 straps. With the rest of his start-up funds, he set up a website for taking orders that also included a demo video produced by a friend for free. He also bought a banner ad on Digital Wedding Forum, an online community for wedding and portrait photographers. On January 1, 2008, BlackRapid made its first sale.
Although Henry bought a banner ad to launch his business, he couldn't afford to rely on expensive advertising to attract customers. Instead, he scoured the Web for photography blogs that reviewed products and sent the bloggers free camera straps to try. "I knew the business was going to be built on word-of-mouth," he says.
Despite his frugality, Henry faced the prospect of losing money on every sale. He had paid $27 each to have the straps manufactured, but when he took them to a local camera shop, the owners said customers wouldn't pay more than $20 a pop. Henry refused to lowball his product. "I said, 'We have to go for $50,'" he recalls. "We did it, and people accepted it." BlackRapid sold out its initial run of 80 strips quickly, turning a profit almost immediately. Six months later, Henry found a manufacturer in Taiwan to produce the straps at lower cost, which further boosted his company's margins.
By the end of 2008, BlackRapid had sold more than $400,000 worth of camera straps. The company, which now has 15 employees and $6.2 million in annual sales, has since added other accessories to its lineup, including lens caps and camera bags. That success convinced Peterson to take on the role as president of BlackRapid. Henry, for his part, continues to develop new products as the company's chief creative officer.
The Experts Weigh In
Stick to Your Guns Henry did a good job bootstrapping his company. He started with something he knew very well. He also kept his initial investment very low and stuck to his guns on price, which first-time entrepreneurs are often afraid to do. He also used social media to promote his business, rather than using more expensive means of marketing.
Follow Your Passion The beauty of starting a business based on your passion is that there’s an infinite journey ahead. I like that Henry was responsive to customer feedback, but also stayed true to his own requirements. I also think it’s great that, in the end, he realized he was the product innovation guy and brought on someone else to do the other work. It would have been even better if he had had a co-founder upfront.