Lessons Learned Building Photo Booth Business: ‘PhotoBot.Co’, with Adam Kemeny

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Behind Scenes / Business / Creatives / Interviews

Editor’s note: this is a post written by contributor: Philip Dennis.

Rigorous planning and thoughtful preparation often seems like the safest course, but in designer and Photobot.Co creator Adam Kemény’s experience, it can also create barriers to moving ahead.

Photobot.Co creates custom photo booths for brands and businesses for events and venues as well as a range of varied coin operated booths. Now coming into its fifth successful year, Photobot.Co has brought Adam in contact with billionaires and sports stars, and seen him take the business on tour overseas.

We talked to Adam over Skype about the interesting sequence of events that helped shaped the early stages of the company as well as his thoughts on what’s important to remember when launching any new creative business.

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Above: Sir Richard Branson using a Photobot.co booth.

Can you describe the kind of photo booths that Photobot.Co creates? What kind of booths have you made in the past?

We’ve made a really wide variety of booths because we make stuff that’s bespoke for clients. We’ve just finished our 19th booth. Everything from really portable, lightweight booths that can be packed away in flight cases to be transported around Europe, as was done a couple of years ago, to photo booths that are covered in gold as we did for Johnnie Walker.

We made a photo booth for The Body Shop that had 15 cameras in it. Some of them are quite visual, quite bold graphic-wise and vary in functionality.

Everything from a simple push button or “insert a couple of coins” to get them started, to being triggered by using Twitter on your phone. There’s a really broad variety and I’m constantly looking for new and interesting ways to make the booth work.

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What first gave you your idea to start creating these booths?

I was a graphic designer for about 12 years and was always looking for something else to do. I tried a few startups on the side.

In each case with the startups, I was basically looking for someone to partner with because I could do the graphics but my projects tended to be web-based so I’d be looking for some kind of technical partner to work with. And that’s pretty challenging because of other people’s availability.

That just meant that for a few years I tried quite a few things but they never really came to anything despite putting quite a lot of work into them.

It was a friend of mine’s 40th five years ago and she had rented this big manor house on the outside of Brighton and a whole bunch of people were pitching ideas in for things they were going to make for the party.

The girl whose party it was and I, and a group of us used to go to Berlin fairly regularly. The photo booths in the streets of Berlin we’ve all enjoyed so I thought I’d make a photo booth, something that would be fun a party.

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Above: Adam with photographer Rankin with whom he collaborated on photo booths for Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve. 

At the time, I had a studio that was above a furniture workshop. With their help, I made a really simple photo booth that look like a photo booth from the outside, really crappy, plastic materials. You’d sit in it, close the curtain and there’d be a mirror in front of you and lighting inside of it.

There was a hole in the middle of the mirror and on the other side of that hole was an iPhone and on the other side of the iPhone there was me. 

I basically went in there in stints at this party, getting increasingly trashed as the evening went on. I was kind of fun, and after the party I shared the photos on Facebook and people started enquiring about hiring the photo booth. I had no anticipation or expectation or plan to make this a business.

I did a hire and the hire was mostly people that didn’t know me. And it when pretty well so I thought maybe there’s something to it. And then the business grew from there. I absolutely had no intention of starting a photo booth business but just making this photo booth kind of made it happen completely by accident

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So it was really organic, it wasn’t planned before.

Yeah, completely. And while I was trying my startup ideas with other people, I was reading a bit. Books on start up methodology and various different articles.

One of the simplest messages that I kept reading from various different people was, ‘launch early and be embarrassed of your first release’. If you’ve released a product which is already so polished that you’re not embarrassed of it then, essentially, it’s too late.

What I’d been doing previously is I’d been spending endless time planning and planning and planning to the extent that with one startup we basically built the prototype and we’d burnt ourselves out by the time we’d got to it. 

Whereas, if we’d built a far simpler prototype way, way earlier and got people using it then we would have potentially learnt things from our users. 

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Above: The inner workings of a Photobot.co booth built for The Body Shop that included 15 cameras.

With your first prototype, you mentioned starting with crappy materials, as you put it. What’s the practicality of taking that and turning it into something that the big name companies that you work for would be interested in? 

My point about the crappy materials at the beginning was—and I would say this to absolutely anybody—just to say use whatever is around you and is to hand to just test your idea out.

Tons of people have ideas and then they will sit around thinking about it for ages. They’ll build roadblocks to actually being able to do anything about it because they’ll think, “well, I can’t afford this and I can’t afford that”. Actually, they’re not addressing the thing that they want to test out, whereas it’s possible by really improvising and doing things the most basic possible way that you can test something out.

The second event that I did with that really basic photo booth—I realised that there might be something in it as a business. So I made a second photo booth, again with the help of the furniture makers (they were really instrumental in getting my business going). 

I was hidden behind a two-way mirror so you couldn’t actually see that there was anyone in the other side. Whereas before, there was this hole in the mirror which you could kind of see into. And I built a voice changer into the photo booth so that I could speak and give instructions to people in the other half and my voice would be changed to a robot.

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Is that where the name came from?

That’s where the name came from, yeah. And that basically meant that suddenly there was this talking photo booth that was fun and quite a useful thing for brands because they could use it to talk to consumers and their customers and people that they are necessarily already talking to.

After having this new business suddenly land in your lap by surprise, how did you then grow that over the following five years? How do you go about looking for clients and how do you promote Photobot.Co?

To be absolutely honest, I didn’t do any marketing or advertising or PR.

I think one of the things that most creatives can associate with, particularly in the early stages of their career, is being asked to do stuff for free in exchange for exposure. And that’s something that sinks everyone’s heart when they hear it. Obviously, I got the same thing with the photo booth.

But I then realised that I really enjoyed the photo booth and I really enjoyed seeing how people responded to it. So whether it was me or somebody else operating it from within, I knew that it brought something to an event.

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Above: Comedian Adam Buxton using a Photobot.co booth.

So I started to seek out events that I wanted to be part of and then I would offer the photo booth to them as a freebie. And that’s something that’s been quite valuable to me really. 

So it’s like a really, really passive marketing tool and technique that I’ve used in the past. As I say, looking for an event or festival and just getting in touch and offering it to them.

And the other ways I’ve found work is simply by friends and people I’ve worked for, talking about what I do on Facebook. And I guess, the prints from the photo booth just having my brand on them, which helps spread the word as well.

People might have a print on their desk for quite a long time which has got my brand on it so when they think about a photo booth, they might think about what I do.

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Above: Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, drivers for the Williams F1 team using a Photobot.co booth built for Williams Martini.

Going from a guy sitting in the back of the photo booth to where it is now is already quite a lot of evolution. Do you have any ideas about where you would like to take it in the future?

2014 was quite an amazing year for the business. I had two really big clients that dovetailed together somehow completely by accident.

I was doing some work for Johnnie Walker who commission me to make three photo booths for them which were located around Europe. And for Martini who got me to make a photo booth that followed the Martini Williams F1 team around some of the European formula 1 races.

So I did loads of travel in 2014 and it was a really successful year. Last year, I was hoping to build on the back of the success of 2014. I was really hoping to build a bunch of coin operated booths to get the product further out there.

These things, they’re cheap, accessible entertainment of people. You put two pounds in it, you go in with your friends, people enjoy the experience.

I wanted to do more of that but last year I was really stuck by the fact that I didn’t have a workshop. The guys who were making the photo booths for me previously were really busy. So I had to improvise a little bit and steal bits and bobs of work space from here and there and I didn’t get as many built as I wanted to.

So this year is all about—I just got a lovely, big workshop in Brighton and I’m in the process of sorting that out and I want to build more and I want to continue to innovate.

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Above: Adam on the Grand Canal in Venice delivering a photobooth to the Venice Biennale.

I’m looking at different technologies I can use to trigger the booths. 

It’s such a simple thing—go the a photo booth and somehow that experience makes you laugh. So I’m just all about trying to find more ways to entertain people by this kind of very specific medium that I’ve found myself working in.

If someone has an idea that they want to get off the ground, what advice would you give to them?

Just getting a product out as early as possible. That’s completely invaluable as far as I’m concerned. Whatever it is, whether it’s a physical product or something online or something written or whatever it is. Just getting it out there as quickly as possible and not trying to overcomplicate things or creating barriers that prevent that from happening.

The other thing would be, I believe that judicious use of freebies is a good thing. If you have a product that you think would fit into a certain kind of environment and it’s not really going to cost you very much to put it into that environment, then do that.

By helping people, it just gets you free exposure potentially. You could be adding to an event or adding to a venue or whatever it might be. The thing that you do could add something in some way and that place may be really appreciative of you bringing it to them.

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Last year, when I didn’t have a workshop, I rented a storage unit, a 300 square-foot storage unit in one of those big box storage places. I had to finish off these photo booths and they were installed in there.

I was going in after the people who worked in the storage unit had left. I was running an extension cable along the corridor so that I had power into my unit. I was sawing, drilling, using a router in there in the quite dim light that seeped into the space because it didn’t have any light in there.

So you might think, “I can’t do this because I haven’t got a workshop” but you can just find ways around any obstacle really, if you just think about it in more of a circumspect way.

Ha ha! I’m just imaging you creeping around in the storage unit.

The light were on a timer so after every, say, ten minutes, the lights would go off so I would have to go into the corridor, walk down the corridor and start waving my arms around to make them come back on again so I could keep on working.

So yeah, it was not ideal.

Was there there anything you would like to add?

Yeah, one thing I would like to add is that I’m always on the lookout for collaborations with other people. That’s something that I’d really like to push. Whether it’s collaborating with an illustrator to dress the outside of the photo booth so that it looks really fucking cool in venue that I put it in. 

I’m totally open to people contacting me and saying, “let’s work together” because they do something that is maybe completely different but somehow could fit together.

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© Photobot.co, 2016

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