Jonathan Johnson, Owner of Hartford startup SnapSeat Photo Booths, talked to Innovation Destination Hartford about his entrepreneurial evolution and the importance of just getting started.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: When did the entrepreneurial bug hit?
JONATHAN JOHNSON: I was destined to be an entrepreneur. I always felt a disconnect working for someone else. Also, I’ve always had business ideas—little entrepreneurial endeavors. So, I guess having an entrepreneurial slant has always been part of my mindset.
IDH: Let’s talk about the evolution of SnapSeat Photo Booths?
JJ: I’ve always had a fascination with instant photography. This is actually the third manifestation of SnapSeat. It started back in 2004 when I figured out how to wire up an old Polaroid camera. My friend encouraged me to go to the New Britain High School graduation, set up something on the field, and try to charge $5 for a Polaroid.
Fast forward to 2010. I was in between jobs and came up with what I thought was a great idea to take photos and family portraits at festivals and fairs and charge $5 a photo.
It was a little endeavor I called Photos at Events. I did a few mobile events, a charity event, and then I decided to take show on the road and go to Christian Fest, which is a huge Christian music festival in Pennsylvania. There are about 100,000 people camping out for the weekend. I thought I could easily take 1,000 photos and make $5,000.
I paid the entrance fee and bought all the equipment I thought I needed—cameras and printers. I probably put in $3,000. I set up a little photo studio and made barely enough to cover the entrance fee.
IDH: Sounds like quite a learning experience.
JJ: It was! And the learning experience was trying to charge people $5 for a photo. It was really a hustle. Asking people all day every day if you can take their photo and then convincing them to pay you is a hard sell.
Three and a half years later, in 2013, I was working at the YMCA. There was a fundraiser with a photo booth. I remember thinking: This was just like the idea I had four years ago. And then a month later, my position was eliminated.
While I was looking for a job, I had time to start researching photo booths. One of my friends became my business partner. We went in 50/50. We put about $10,000 together, bought our first photo booth, and figured out how to get it running. He did some of the marketing—designing a website and logo.
IDH: Did you execute a formal business plan or were you just winging it?
JJ: We never really stopped to do a business plan until April 2016. We had an idea of what we wanted to do. We wanted to launch an innovative photo booth company in the Hartford area, because no one was doing that yet here.
We looked at what the best photo companies were doing—the ones in New York City and Boston. We researched innovative things hitting the market. Social media integration was the cutting-edge thing back in 2013. Only a slim percentage of companies were doing it at that time, so we knew from day one our photo booth must have social media integration.
With our system, as guests are getting their photos, they’re being uploaded to a standalone kiosk where clients can instantly text and email the photos and share them on their social media accounts.
We put our first photo booth on the ground in December of 2013. Then we had to figure out: How do we sell this thing and get clients?
The average rate of a photo booth is about $940. When we first started, we were taking clients for about $300 to $500. So, we didn’t make a lot of money in the beginning, but at least we got the booth out there. Now we’re able to charge more.
IDH: Tell us a little more about the startup evolution.
JJ: Our first year was a lot of trial and error—getting all the components to work and trying to network. Once we figured things out, I was ready to expand to a second photo booth. We started looking at new machines. Our third model wasn’t quite right, it was still too big. Then there was the fourth model, which was too small. Now we have the just-right size booth. It took us five tries to find the right mix to have a repeatable business system. We can hire one person to take that entire photo booth, go to a venue, load it in, set it up, run the booth, bring it home, and earn us revenue.
IDH: You mentioned innovation. Nowadays, everyone uses their smart phone to take selfies. How do you remain innovative and how do you convince people to spend money on your product?
JJ: The cool thing about the photo booth is the way it’s set up with an actual booth and props. It creates a whole other experience at events. And it’s not just about the photos, it’s about providing entertainment for your guests. People hire us because they want high-quality photos that are printed on site for their guests to get and for them to receive.
IDH: You also mentioned networking. How are you marketing and getting your name out?
JJ: One thing that helped us get our product and our name out was offering to do free photo booths at networking and marketing events. We did some at reSET and the MetroHartford Alliance. To this day, we’re still doing free events for Meeting Planners International in Hartford and Boston. Event planners are seeing our product and they’re hiring us for their clients.
Last year, we went to 239 events; 109 were corporate events, including conferences, trade shows, public events, PGA events, the wedding expo in Hartford, store openings, product launch parties and then internal parties for things like employee appreciation days.
At each event, we are capturing people’s phone numbers and email addresses. We are also putting preset branded social media posts onto their accounts.
In the beginning, we used Thumbtack.com, which was pivotal to our entire business. It still is. I highly recommend Thumbtack if you’re in any type of service industry. As a vendor, you register and get leads in your inbox. For us, that was huge. In our first couple of years, about 80% of our clients were coming from Thumbtack. It helped us get our first jobs.
Then, overtime, what also helped was really investing in our website development. We did a lot of onsite optimization and used website analysis programs to find out what was happening when our clients were landing on our website. Also, search engine optimization was critical.
Now, we’re spending less on Thumbtack and Google AdWords. Thumbtack generates 10% of our business; the rest comes from people seeing us at events, referrals, repeat clients, and online leads from our website.
IDH: Have you tapped into any of Connecticut’s startup resources?
JJ: I used the co-working space at reSET and I also worked with reSET Entrepreneur in Residence, Eric Knight. He provided guidance for SnapSeat and for another business idea I have.
Eric was pivotal in fleshing out that idea, helping me get the business plan together, and encouraging me to take advantage of the CTNext Entrepreneur Innovation Awards. I pitched and won $10,000 in funding.
The startup scene in Connecticut is encouraging. I have this idea of starting a small business consulting company so I can work with other startups and entrepreneurs.
I want to share my experience as an entrepreneur who took a $10,000 investment and turned it into a flourishing company that will earn more than $250,000 in revenue this year. I would love to help other people do what I’ve been able to do, consult them, and advise them. It would be awesome to give back and help other entrepreneurs. I think it’s a great thing to do.
IDH: That’s the true entrepreneurial spirit—wanting to give back and help others. Any advice?
JJ: I would point any entrepreneur to an awesome book called The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. It’s a great read for any type of entrepreneur, whether you’re thinking about launching a startup, you’re in a business and wondering how to grow, or you’re trying to get out from under your business.
The other two important things are to start and to persevere. To be an entrepreneur, the easiest way to start is by starting. I love that quote. Don’t just sit on the sidelines thinking about what you want to do. Be bold enough to take a step and do it. It doesn’t have to be the most polished thing.
When I started out eight years ago, I didn’t realize my idea would turn into SnapSeat, but I was willing to be bold and take a calculated risk to start something.
So, it’s important to just start and look for that minimum viable product to get going. Then persevere. You’ve got to ride the waves and continue to move forward. There will always be times when you think: This concept is not working; we should either pivot or close. Don’t let the day-to-day get you down. If you have absolute confidence, you’re going to succeed. You’ve got to persevere because it’s not going to be easy—but it can be totally worth it.