Polaroid made headlines last week when it announced it would open 10 retail stores, or Polaroid Fotobars, across the U.S. this year. But the idea for the stores didn't originate within the 76-year-old camera company.
Fotobar, it turns out, is the brainchild of serial entrepreneur Warren Struhl. Struhl has founded 10 companies, among them the kettle corn brand Popcorn, Indiana and the energy strip company Sheets Brand.
Last April, he approached Polaroid with a new idea for a retail store where customers could turn photos from their phone, Facebook, Instagram, and other digital platforms into hangable wall art. Fotobar would be a standalone start-up, led by Struhl as CEO, but it would pay Polaroid to use the iconic name. The two struck a licensing deal (which Struhl says will cost him a percentage of sales over time), and now, the first of the Polaroid Fotobar stores is set to open in Delray Beach, Florida, in February. It's a win-win relationship for both companies, Struhl says, because it gives Polaroid, a company that's fallen on hard times in the digital age, a fresh entry point to consumers and infuses Struhl's start-up with all the legitimacy and brand awareness that accompanies Polaroid.
"I don't know of another company that has a name as associated with photos as Polaroid," Struhl says. "They stand for quick. They stand for quality. This concept is something they weren't necessarily thinking about, but they immediately saw it as an opportunity to extend their brand. We both thought it was a marriage made in heaven."
That Struhl would be the person to breathe new life into a company like Polaroid makes sense. He has built a career of injecting a little fun into relatively staid markets, starting with the paper industry. In the 1980s, Struhl started a business called PaperDirect.com, which is credited with being one of the first sellers of specialty decorative printing paper. Within four years, he built that company to $100 million in revenue and sold it to Deluxe Corporation in 1993 for $120 million.
Later, he shook up the microwave popcorn market with a line of prepopped kettle corn. Today, that brand, Popcorn, Indiana, is sold in 100,000 stores and raked in $63.7 million in 2011, landing the company on our Inc. 5000. In 2010, when Struhl and the basketball phenom LeBron James launched Sheets Brand, a line of energy strips that dissolve on your tongue, the company's cheeky advertisements urged customers to "take a sheet."
Struhl has helped launch 30 companies. Fotobar, he hopes, will be his last. He came up with the idea about two years ago when, like many smart entrepreneurs, he saw that most of the people around him were taking photos on their phones. When he asked whether any of those photos actually lived in the physical world, Struhl recalls, "Nine out of 10 times, they said two things: No, and it really upsets me that they don't."
He began thinking of ways to turn those "money shots," as Struhl calls them, into art. It wasn't until 2012, however, when Instagram really took off, that he approached Polaroid with the idea.
Polaroid, once synonymous with instant-gratification photography, has struggled in the past decade or so to keep up with the ever-evolving world of digital images. In recent years, the advent of digital cameras and, more recently, mobile photography has rendered the print photo industry, Polaroid included, passé. This drove Polaroid, which was founded in 1937 by inventor Edwin H. Land, into two bankruptcies, one in 2001 and another in 2008.
In 2008, its then-owners also decided to shut down all the factories producing Polaroid's trademark instant film cameras, triggering the widespread belief that Polaroid was finished for good. Not so. Today, Polaroid is owned by a joint venture of private equity firms and operates under the parent company PLR IP Holdings. It's effectively an intellectual property company that licenses the Polaroid name to other businesses, like Fotobar. This has led to a recent resurgence of the Polaroid brand. Now, the company is back to selling cameras, both digital and film, thanks to licensing deals with manufacturers around the world.
"We're looking at all the technologies and new ideas happening in the country, and we're trying to curate that innovation," says Scott Hardy, president and CEO of Polaroid. "The Fotobar stores are a manifestation of this resurgence of the Polaroid brand."
Following these struggles, it may seem counterintuitive to start a bricks-and-mortar printing location, but Struhl's betting that customers will enjoy the experiential side of Fotobar to print at least a segment of the 1.5 billion digital images he estimates are taken every day.
"There's something to walking into a trusted location, with a name like Polaroid," says Struhl. "You can feel the wood frames, the metals, the glass, the bamboo, the canvas, and see what you can do with that picture in person.
"There are places to do this online, but it's still a very daunting process," he says.
Struhl has also already given retail a go. He made his first foray into it in 2003, when he tried to build the Starbucks of popcorn with his chain of flavored-popcorn stores called Dale & Thomas. The company did spawn the Popcorn, Indiana brand, but Struhl soon found that the stores were too costly to keep afloat and shut them down within a few years. With Fotobar, he thinks he can avoid that pitfall.
"When you sell popcorn for $5, you need a lot more people coming in the door than you do at Fotobar," says Struhl, noting that the company's products will cost $15 to $2,000, depending on the size and materials used.
To encourage traffic, Fotobars will be hosting events and photography classes in each of the stores. Struhl says he plans on inviting photographers with the most followers on Instagram to speak, as well as hosting parties for kids.
Says Struhl: "We're going to make it a real destination for the growing number of people who really love taking pictures."