How bootstrapped PhotoExpress stays relevant in the changing photo studio business

10th Jan 2018
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According to Gartner Inc. there are 300 million smartphones in India and each one has at least 30 photos that people want printed per year. The photography market in India is estimated to be $1.7 billion in size, this includes photo printing and cameras.

Snapshot of PhotoExpress:

  • Founded: 2008
  • Money invested only $20,000 (Rs 15 lakhs).
  • Founders: Santosh Shitole, Sheetal S
  • Revenues: $1 million (Rs 6.7 crore)
  • Stores: 23.
  • Uniqueness: Its app makes merchandise/gifting retailers win customers.
  • E-commerce store launched in 2013.

Some may argue that with the onset of smartphones, conventional photography is dead. But its spirit definitely is not.

While smartphones allowed every consumer to become a photographer, there was still hope for studios who became centres for merchandise, photo art, and retail.

A 100-year-old studio like Bengaluru-based GK Vale reinvented itself, packaging memories with professional photographers and going after institutions to stay relevant.

This is where PhotoExpress wanted to be different. This 10-year-old photo-retail company packages photography as art, allows customers to use its app to upload photographs and get them printed on canvas and sent home on the same day with customised frames.

“There are millions of images on smartphones and most people do not know what to do with them. It has become a trend these days to print them, order frames, or even convert them in to arty canvas,” says Santosh Shitole, Co-founder of PhotoExpress.

Santosh Shitole, co-founder of PhotoExpress

PhotoExpress is a Rs 5 crore business, which started with a capital of Rs 15 lakh and is bootstrapped. From photo fridge magnets to frames to bed sheets this app has everything that you can emboss your memories on.

Today PhotoExpress has turned in to a retailer with a brick and mortar and e-commerce experience. It sustains itself with all the cash generated from 23 of its 150 square feet stores spread across nine cities. It is mostly located in malls as shop-in-shops where photo merchandise (frames, canvas, prints and mugs) are sold to customers. It has a small factory where it makes its own merchandise.

The company was started by Santosh and his wife Sheetal in 2008. It was not an easy beginning as he had to quit a high-paying job and also had to procure a bank loan to start the business.

Entering the picture

After working in India and Europe for six years, Santosh moved to Hyderabad. A chance visit to a photo studio to get some photographs printed left him disillusioned. He was not happy with the service or the final output.

This was in 2007 and Santosh struck upon an idea of changing the way express photo printing worked. He contacted Kodak and expressed interest in setting up an express studio for people who walk into malls and want to print their photos on the go.

Kodak shared the branding with Santosh and PhotoExpress came into being in 2008. The first two years were hard, Santosh’s wife Sheetal took care of the business while he worked as an IT professional. The business in the first store was good, the second one did not do well and he lost a lot of money. “I realised a few things. Smartphones were killing photography as a profession. Location mattered in the retail industry and cash management was essential,” says Santosh.

He adds that the second store almost broke his back. “By the time I thought of opening my third store in 2009, I was about to give up. But, then a friend told me not to quit until I opened five stores and realised my weaknesses,” says Santosh.

Santosh picked up the following points and turned the business around in 2010.

  • People will always want to frame and print memories.
  • Open a manufacturing centre to control design of frames and merchandise.
  • Finding the right location would sustain the business.
  • Manage cash by churning inventory.
  • Built an ERP to track stock and orders.

By 2011, Santosh had joined the business full-time jumped and had collected enough data that informed him what people purchased as gifts and their spending patterns.

“We were still small at the time. Some of the large companies like Kodak were pulling away from the photography printing business. Several startups failed too. In startup meetings investors were telling me that my business was going to fold too,” says Santosh.

However, Santosh decided to stick to his guns. The data point Santosh believed was that there would be more than 500 million Indians with access to smartphones, and they will have photographs that they want to print. That kept him going.

He set up an e-commerce store in 2013 and combined it with an omni-channel experience in five stores. Last year he launched an app where anyone could upload photos and choose the merchandise on which they want their photo be embossed.

The merchandise is delivered across 26 locations by Blue Dart in a day upon payment on the app. The company has stores in Hyper City and Star Bazaar to cater to walk-in customers. He also plans to tie up with several gifting companies with retail stores to use his services to win customers. “Consumers can go to retail stores with PhotoExpress tie-ups to order and collect photo prints and merchandise,” says Santosh.

“For every startup brand building is important and PhotoExpress has built the business slowly and steadily. Now, it has the blue print to expand to fifty stores,” says Sanjay Gaggar, Founder and Partner - IXCFO, that provides CFO services for startups.

PhotoExpress’ competition includes Presto, that has close to 200 stores in the gifting category, and Red Moments. Presto offers printing services of photos on any form of merchandise and is the largest business in India. Santosh and his 40-member team are now gearing up for imminent expansion and will possibly look to expand the business across the 100,000 photo studios across India.

The maxim, ‘slow and steady’ is truly taking PhotoExpress places.

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