Jason Kiefer and his wife were delighted six years ago with the way their wedding pictures turned out. But they had a problem: Most of their guests lived out of state and wanted their own copies. The couple wound up posting 150 proofs on the Web so that orders could be placed with the photographer, who they figured would be more than happy about the additional business.
“She got an extra $1,000 in sales,” Kiefer said. “But she had to talk to each person, find the negative and send it to the lab. She was an artist, not a business person.”
But the experience got Kiefer thinking: What if he started a business that not only scanned pictures online, but also handled all the customer orders?
Six years later, Kiefer has established one of the top fulfillment and online distribution sites for wedding photographers. Pictage Inc., based in Torrance, uploads digital photos, takes customer orders and sends them out when they’re ready.
Now with 130 employees, Pictage has expanded its office space three times and provides a host of services, such as online editing for photographers, its own line of wedding albums and some non-wedding related photographic services.
Last year, the company generated $13 million in revenue, as photographers who embrace digital technology also are seeking convenience in managing the online part of their businesses. Pictage’s growth also reflects a further reliance on the Web but demand remains steady for hard copies friend and families and can share.
Kiefer projects $20 million in revenue this year after reaching a marketing and investment deal in 2004 with WeddingChannel.com Inc., which offers couples various wedding planning services. The top-ranked Web site, which took an undisclosed equity stake in the company, refers viewers in search of photographic services to Pictage and its stable of photographers.
“(Newlyweds) like the idea of being online because if a family member couldn’t make it, they could go online to see the wedding,” said Greg Blomberg, a professional wedding photographer in Dallas and steady client of Pictage. He estimates that 98 percent of his wedding couples request their photographs be available online.
Kiefer, an MBA graduate in entrepreneurship from UCLA, and his wife, Jennifer, a former New York book editor-turned-publicist, were both working at Internet startups at the height of the tech bubble when they came up with the idea for Pictage.
As a first step, he and his wife began to research whether anyone else had established an online site for photographers. Most of the wedding-related Web sites simply posted pictures for photographers but did not take orders or ship them. By late 1999, Kiefer decided to go ahead with the venture and quit his day job at Winfire Inc., an Internet browser. “If there was going to be a time, it was going to be then,” he said.
With their own savings and $500,000 from family and friends, Kiefer and his wife set up a Web site and, from their apartment, cold-called photographers to see if they would be interested in having an online firm scan and digitize photos, post them online and then print and ship them. At the time, most professional photographers still used film instead of digital.
They managed to get seven top wedding photographers to sign up. One was Gary Fong, an early adapter to digital photography.
“I’d been looking for something like that for awhile,” said Fong, who became a board member and equity partner, and now serves as a spokesman for Pictage. “There wasn’t anything where you could do online sharing with photos. There was no way you could do it efficiently.”
Attracting the photographers also helped catch the eye of Tech Coast Angels, a venture capital group that led a $2.6 million equity investment, allowing the company to set up its own photo production studio.
“They had already established a niche in the industry,” said Scot Robinson, a member of Tech Coast Angels. “They didn’t have great revenues, but they had customers.”
In its first year, Pictage served primarily as an online distribution channel and fulfillment firm, taking customer orders and shipping out the pictures.
At first, the company charged photographers for each image they uploaded or scanned. Now, photographers pay a monthly fee of $50 to $200, depending on the level of service desired, to maintain their account. Pictage also charges them for printing each order, generally about $3.50 for a $15 wedding photo of 4 by 11 inches.
Photographers using the service say they’re willing to pay because the site is both convenient and increases business. “Everything is a time issue,” said Blomberg, who estimates that the number of pictures ordered by guests has gone up by almost a third since he joined Pictage. “If I’m not out shooting and marketing, I’m doing production work. And if I’m doing production work I can’t go shoot or market.”
The company has signed up 5,000 photographers, including several in Mexico and the Caribbean. Their professional services, which may run several thousand dollars per wedding, are negotiated separately and Pictage has no involvement on that end.
Over time, Pictage has faced more competition. Eastman Kodak Co. offers a digital lab for photographers, while Collages.net, an online site based in Langhorne, Pa., has a partnership with an outside lab to provide similar services to photographers.
However, Collages.net lacks the association Pictage has with WeddingChannel.com. “Nobody covered the whole range of services as efficiently,” said Adam Berger, chief executive of WeddingChannel.com. “Some were letting you upload digital photographs only. That cut out a big part of the market that was not shooting digitally. Some only worked with third-party laboratories, which increased the cost.”
The Web site allows the photographer and the bride and groom to edit and organize their photos online, allowing them to decide which photos their guests will see. Separate passwords are later distributed to wedding guests to order photos.
Maria Miranda, who got married last August in Orange County, said she just finished her wedding album a few weeks ago after sorting through 1,000 photos available online at Pictage. She said she had not planned to have online photos but found out about Pictage through her photographer, Kathleen Clark at KCP Studios in Laguna Beach.
She described Pictage as an added perk to her $5,000 photography package. She edited photographs online, while several of her friends and family ordered the pictures they wanted.
“You have so many options at your fingertips,” she said. “You get to zoom in and zoom out. You can crop and change colors. They even come with shades of colors, so you have higher and lower grades.”