Digital-photo start-ups get ready for their close-up
By the time Mark Platshon landed a meeting with celebrated Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist John Doerr in mid-1999, Platshon and his online digital-photo business, Zing Network Inc., had already been snubbed by a dozen other VCs. So Platshon couldn't help bracing for rejection when -- midway through his pitch -- Doerr walked out and began rummaging around in an adjoining office.
But as suddenly as he had exited Doerr rushed back in, hastily pulling a brand-new digital camera out of its box. Finding nothing in the accompanying literature about uploading, accessing, and distributing digital images on the Internet -- a major component of Zing's business -- Doerr concluded that Platshon had hit on a missed market opportunity. Kleiner Perkins took the lead in a $14-million round of financing for Zing that closed in August 1999.
"Doerr just got it," remembers Platshon. "He understood the significance of the consumer shift to digital photography and that it would remake the entire industry in just a few years." Indeed, Boston-based InfoTrends Research Group Inc. projects that online photofinishing will be a $4.4-billion worldwide market by 2005.
The start-ups jostling for position in this emerging field have staked their claims in slightly different territories. Some have opted to become digital photo processors, creating hard-copy prints of film and digital media, and uploading digital images to the Web. (See "Someday Your Prints Will Come," below.) Others, including San Francisco-based Zing, outsource their customers' printing needs and focus on Web-based storage and sharing of digital images.
A collage of services
Among storage-and-sharing sites, Zing's stands out for garnering some 3.5 million users each month. That's quite a following, considering that three years ago the company was headed in a completely different direction. When Platshon stepped in as CEO, in December 1997 -- after a yearlong stint with Zing investor Alloy Ventures Inc., in Palo Alto -- the company was developing imaging technology for use in Web-based advertising. But by late 1998, Platshon saw a bigger market for online photography management as part of an Internet business for uploading, storing, and sharing digital images. "And so," he says, "we changed the business."
Since making that shift, Platshon has made acquisitions a major part of Zing's growth strategy. He began by purchasing image-uploading technology developed by FotoNation Inc. that provides a camera-to-Web connection, enabling digital photographers to plug their cameras into computers and connect through the Internet directly with Zing. Platshon has also sealed deals with manufacturers that have agreed to install FotoNation's uploading technology in their cameras, making Zing the default Internet destination for users of digital cameras sold by Sony, Casio, and Nikon.
Those deals are driving customers to Zing's site, where product E-tailing accounts for some two-thirds of revenues, Platshon says. In E-tailing, too, he has bought his way into the business. Last January, Zing acquired Pix.com, which scans digital images onto everything from calendars and cookies to mouse pads and T-shirts. Platshon added another source of E-commerce revenues in August, when he snapped up Eframes.com, a high-margin, high-end framing business that handles its own digital printing. That deal may enable Zing to collect revenues from competitors that outsource printing and framing services to Eframes, which has retained its name within the Zing network. "Eframes can provide its services to anyone, even businesses that might be Zing competitors," Platshon says.
Enjoying its Kodak moment
In contrast with Zing, which has focused exclusively on digital converts, San Francisco-based PhotoPoint Corp. has positioned itself as a go-between for film users who are just now beginning to go digital. Launched in August 1998, PhotoPoint seized an early-mover advantage in the online photo-sharing space through a partnership with PictureVision Inc., a subsidiary of Eastman Kodak Co. In that deal, PhotoPoint CEO Ed Bernstein agreed to pay Kodak a flat fee in exchange for access to the film- and digital-camera users who bring their pictures to 40,000 Kodak PhotoNet processing locations throughout the country.
Bernstein proposed the deal as a way for Kodak's digital-development division to provide its customers with long-term Internet-based storage, sharing, and image-enhancement tools. Because PhotoPoint provides free long-term storage for Kodak's brick-and-mortar retail customers, the Kodak retailers stand to get more reprint orders over a longer time period, Bernstein says. And PhotoPoint enjoys direct access to established Kodak customers.
As Bernstein sees it, PhotoPoint's tie-in with an old-economy film-industry giant is the surest way to build market share in the burgeoning digital field. Close to 90% of camera users have yet to take the digital leap, after all. And although digital-camera sales are predicted to soar, a survey by Jupiter Communications Inc. found that 37% of consumers would rather store digital images at home than post them on the Web. Bernstein is betting that PhotoPoint can leverage Kodak's trusted brand name to reduce such consumer wariness.
When Kodak customers pick up their prints, they receive directions on how to transfer digital versions of their pictures from a Kodak site -- where the images are stored at no charge for 30 days -- to the PhotoPoint site, where they can get free long-term storage, as well as find tools to create and share online albums, and buy PhotoPoint merchandise. "We're all about making it brain-dead simple to get your digital images to the Web," says Bernstein, noting that PhotoPoint now hosts more than 13 million photos.
For PhotoPoint, Zing, and their competitors, consumer education remains the biggest and most daunting hurdle. As Bernstein puts it: "Our mission is to transform customers into digital users without fundamentally changing the way they think about and use pictures."
D.M. Osborne is a senior writer at Inc.
Someday Your Prints Will Come
Serial entrepreneur Kamran Mohsenin eased into the summer of 1999 with time on his hands. Having recently sold his second start-up, Mohsenin was scanning the landscape for a new business venture and playing with one of the toys he bought with the spoils of his company's sale -- a new digital camera. "The camera was taking great pictures," Mohsenin recalls. "The problem was, I wasn't able to get quality prints." In a flash, Mohsenin hit on the idea for his third and most recent start-up, Ofoto Inc.
Soon, Mohsenin was caught up in a heated race among online digital photofinishers, including Shutterfly.com. "It's a huge market, and the competition is fierce," observes David Hornick, who is on Ofoto's advisory board. Founded in July 1999, Ofoto, based in Berkeley, Calif., has adopted a clicks-and-bricks business model. Like Shutterfly, Ofoto has invested millions in terra firma photo-development labs. At the same time, online photofinishers have seized upon technological advances to carve out an Internet-based niche in the photo-processing market, which has traditionally been dominated by industry giants like Eastman Kodak Co.
To the extent that these nimble start-ups can secure a foothold -- and create new, Web-based efficiencies -- before bigger competitors lumber into the market, their payout could be huge. Margins in the traditional photo-development business typically run as high as 50%.
Thus the game right now is all about grabbing market share. Toward that end, Ofoto and Shutterfly are competing to become the photo processor of choice for a bundle of other start-ups that outsource printing for their online photo storage and sharing. At the same time Ofoto and Shutterfly are reaching out to picture takers of all stripes by offering steep discounts on old-fashioned film processing (returning prints by snail mail), as well as digitizing the images for online viewing and distribution.
It's an updated twist on a low-cost, mail-order film-processing service popularized a few years ago by Seattle Film Works, recently renamed PhotoWorks Inc., in its own bid to straddle the digital divide.
For its part, Ofoto has concentrated on high-level business-to-business partnerships. It's teamed up with InfoSpace Inc., for example, to become the preferred print shop for that company's affiliate network of 2,500 Web-based businesses, which provide communications and commerce infrastructure services for wireless devices. Ofoto has also sealed a deal to print the digital images sold through the Internet division of Corbis Corp., which boasts an online archive of 2.1 million images -- from fine art to quirky photography.
Meanwhile, Shutterfly, based in Redwood City, Calif., has gone directly after consumers. Since cofounding Shutterfly, in December 1999, CEO Jayne Spiegelman has cut cross-promotional deals with such portals as Yahoo and Homestead.com. Spiegelman, who hails from senior-level retailing posts at the Good Guys and Macy's West, has also persuaded electronics retail outlets to display Shutterfly's sample prints at camera counters. "We wanted to connect with customers at the point of purchase," she says.
A sampling of other digital-photography players
Snapfish.com, San Francisco
Business concept: Offers basic printing and digitizing of film images free of charge. Depends primarily on advertising revenues but also sells photo equipment and merchandise and charges for reprints.
Competitive advantage: A superlow price point and a catchy marketing campaign engineered by a branding expert with experience at Kraft and Nabisco.
Major challenge: Proving its advertising-revenue model, which has fallen out of favor among investors. Also, to access image files stored on the site, customers must provide demographic information used for advertising purposes.
eMemories Inc., Los Angeles
Business concept: Enables amateur photographers to create online photo albums. Makes money selling hard-copy prints and albums.
Competitive advantage: Being the exclusive photo-sharing community for the Women.com network and the teen site Alloy.com, and securing a slot on the Earthlink personal start page.
Major challenge: Beefing up its E-commerce offerings. At press time, eMemories' merchandise was limited to mouse pads, mugs, hats, and T-shirts.
DotPhoto Inc., West Trenton, N.J.
Business concept: Allows digital-camera users to upload images, create their own voice-over "captions," and share pictures through E-mail links. An ad-free site, DotPhoto offers a sliding-scale subscription-fee plan that may appeal to people who don't want to be bombarded with marketing come-ons.
Competitive advantage: Its proprietary "talking pictures" technology. DotPhoto is the first site of its kind to accept both image and sound files from digital devices.
Major challenge: Gaining traction and getting noticed. A relative latecomer to the market, DotPhoto is funded by founder Glenn Paul and carries less clout with prospective partners than its venture-backed competitors do.
The Big Picture
Can these digital-photo start-ups successfully take on the Kodaks and Fujis of the world? The outlook might best be described as blurry. To help us bring this expanding and highly competitive space into focus, Inc. spoke to Lia Schubert, an analyst at Boston-based InfoTrends Research Group who follows developments in the online digital-image arena very closely.
Q: Some entrepreneurs describe what's happening in the online digital-image domain as a renaissance in the photography business. What's your reaction?
A: Yes, we're seeing all the signs of a renaissance. Digital photography combined with the Internet is creating a paradigm shift in the way personal pictures are captured, shared, stored, and printed. New players are coming out of the woodwork with innovative business models. We're seeing renewed interest in photography as a result.
Q: Traditional photo processors are expected to offer digital photofinishing services in their retail centers. How can these start-ups compete with them?
A: The key advantage that online photofinishers have is that they've already developed their services before retail solutions have been actively promoted. Online photofinishers are reaching out to digital-camera users through strategic partnerships and free-print promotions, teaching those users that it is possible to order photo-quality prints online. If the online start-ups can gain significant mind share before retail services become more competitive, then they may be able to lock in a certain portion of the market.
Q: How big a slice of that market do you expect the start-ups to capture?
A: It would be too speculative to predict a precise number right now. Start-ups will succeed according to their ability to secure the capital necessary to scale up their operations and to draw in and retain members. But it's safe to say that traditional photofinishers, like Fuji and Kodak, will garner a significant portion of market share.
Please e-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.