In 2011, Nicolas China attended a friend's wedding in Chicago and came across a product that would change his life: a photo booth.

China (pronounced "Kina") had seen plenty of photo booths before, but the construction project manager had never seen an open-air booth quite like this one. 

"It wasn't a booth. It was more like a kiosk," says China, who watched as guests took hundreds of photos over the course of four hours. "People were just going nuts for it."

Having studied photography in college, China thought the quality of the pictures could be better, but he was still mesmerized by how this unconventional photo booth was stealing the show at the wedding. Upon returning home to Baltimore, he went online and searched for photo booth businesses in his home city. When he didn't find any results, he saw an opportunity.

Within two weeks, China had enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, who brought along another friend, to pool together $2,500 and build a photo booth prototype using some DSLR cameras and Mac mini computers. They tested their product at a birthday party, charging by the hour, and in January2012, the trio officially incorporated their photo booth company, Pixilated. They began renting out their machine at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other events.

Pixilated started as a side hustle, but as word-of-mouth spread, the founders built a second photo booth, then four more, and then another four. They began booking corporate events, and by August 2012, China had quit his day job to focus on Pixilated full-time. Co-founder Patrick Rife did the same about eight months later. (The duo bought out China's brother-in-law in 2015.)

Today, Pixilated rents its machines in three- to five-hour packages for events around Maryland, Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The company has six full-time employees and between 20 and 25 event staffers. 

Last year, Pixilated raised a $500,000 seed round from Mavin Ventures, a Baltimore-based growth equity firm. The company used the funds to build out PixiCloud, a proprietary cloud-based software that it licenses to other firms. With the software, Pixilated gives clients access to the photo booth images and other user data. The company recently raised an additional $60,000 via an equity crowdfunding campaign, and China says they may raise more money in 2019.

Beyond selfie machines

Invented in the early 1900s, photo booths have become a staple at gatherings from weddings and office parties to concerts and sporting events. There are more than 5.4 million Instagram posts tagged with the hashtag #photobooth today, up from four million in March 2017. The broader photography industry, which includes both companies and individuals offering photography or videography services, is expected to grow revenue to $11.3 billion by 2023 from $10.6 billion in 2018, according to market research firm IBISWorld.

As the photo booth industry has evolved, so too has Pixilated. The company recently introduced the "PixiTAB," a portable photo booth customers can rent starting at $199 per day. You choose a theme, which includes different photo overlays and filters, set it up at the event, and ship it back when you're done. All photos are accessible online.

Pixilated's photo booths aren't just selfie machines. They also provide a marketing service for clients, as many of the individuals who pose for photos enter their email address or social media handles to obtain digital copies of their images. Pixilated clients can also put their logos on the digital images, essentially turning them into free advertisements when they're posted on social media.

"People think that photo booths are what photo booths were five years ago," says China. "They don't realize [that] it's not just a photo booth. It's a full-on marketing tool."   

Pixilated's software allows businesses to keep track of which events their customers attend, and better personalize their marketing campaigns. For example, if someone uses a Pixilated photo booth at a music venue during a concert, the venue can tailor its email marketing strategy to that person's musical preferences.

During the past 12 months, Pixilated has signed up accounts for recurring business with Lyft, the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, Heineken, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Enterprise clients now account for around 80 percent of its customer base, according to China. This year, Pixilated has also worked on a one-off event basis with Google, Netflix, MLB's Washington Nationals, Tito's Vodka, and CNN.

China declined to share revenue figures, but said that Pixilated was profitable before the Mavin Ventures investment. Last year, the business reinvested all of its profits in software development. China expects the company to be profitable again in 2018.

Though Pixilated launched with a single, modest photo booth, China says his business is all grown up. 

"I like to think of us as a technology company now."

Published on: Dec 4, 2018