Nearly three years after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down live events and put Sam Eitzen’s physical photo booth business in serious jeopardy, the co-founder and CEO of Snapbar now has a developing picture of what survival and success looks like.
Even though many people and companies have returned to in-person gatherings, Snapbar isn’t going back. The startup is a tech company now, embracing software and two core products that bring its photo capabilities to people anywhere in the world.
The transition started with Snapbar’s first pivot, in March 2020, when Eitzen and company launched Keep your City Smiling, a gift box venture aimed at keeping his employees working while helping small businesses survive. It worked for a while, as Snapbar stayed afloat and avoided laying people off.
But the company’s single software engineer, originally hired to rebuild Snapbar’s website, was already working on the future — a virtual photo booth. By June of that year, the web application called Snapshot launched and in the first month it was clear there was interest from organizations and companies conducting gatherings of all kinds online.
Revenue kept doubling, Eitzen said, and soon the virtual photo booth accounted for nearly all of the business generated by the traditional photo booth.
“We doubled our revenue, and doubled it again, and doubled again,” Eitzen said.
Snapbar immediately went from a West Coast photo booth company, operating in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and other cities, to a web app used around the world.
“For me as a non-tech entrepreneur, I’ve always heard about the scale of software, but this was our first visceral experience,” Eitzen said. “Google was using us in Pakistan. The tourism board of France was a customer.”
Snapshot works via a web link or QR code, and users can snap photos with their own webcam or mobile device. Snapbar customizes backgrounds, frames, stickers, etc. and generates galleries and sharing capability on social. It’s essentially the same concept as an event photo booth, except everyone’s at home and not three drinks in at a work party, wearing feather boas and huge sunglasses.
And no one else was doing it. Eitzen scoured the web looking for online photo booths that year. He was first.
“The closest thing I found and what we actually replicated was on the Barbie website,” Eitzen said. “Except that it didn’t take a photo of anyone. It just allowed you to choose a background, drag a little Barbie doll into it and customize her or him with props. We literally used the Barbie website as an inspiration.”
Creating a web page and calling it “virtual photo booth” didn’t hurt. Within two weeks, the product was the No. 1 such search result on Google.
“When virtual everything caught on, we just saw this wave of demand,” Eitzen said. “We couldn’t have engineered that. I’m a marketer, but I’m not that good.”
The software engineer, Patrick Ellis, is now Snapbar’s CTO. And the next product to take off is Studio, a separate platform designed to help people and companies capture and coordinate headshots for virtual teams.
When tech layoffs picked up six months ago, the company noticed more requests from individuals wanting to use the product, so they’re currently offering free professional headshots online to help out and create awareness.
Shooting a headshot with your phone and having it tweaked by Snapbar’s tech can be cheaper and more efficient than hiring a traditional photographer, and it can all be done remotely.
Use cases include photos for LinkedIn profiles or email signatures.
“It is our fastest growing product with our biggest contracts with the biggest companies,” Eitzen said.
Snapbar secured a number of partners in the “event engagement” space early on, integrating with the likes of Hopin, Bizzabo, Notified, XYVID and 6Connex. Eitzen credits a six-month head start on the virtual photo booth competition, which now includes such companies as Simple Booth and Snappic.
The company has more than 1,000 customers, including Nordstrom, Netflix, Microsoft, Amazon and many more.
Eitzen said it has not all been “rainbows and unicorns” for the bootstrapped startup, whose revenue grew like crazy when the virtual events landscape was booming.
“The whiplash though, that was real,” Eitzen said. A return to in-person events saw partner revenue from virtual event platforms plummet during the summer of 2022. “We anticipated a drop, but not by a magnitude of 60-70% in terms of demand.”
Snapbar had to cut staff a few months back from 18 people down to 12, and today employs 11 in a hybrid work model that allows employs to visit a Gig Harbor, Wash., office once a week.
Asked if he wished he’d kept the the physical photo booth operation as part of the business, Eitzen said from a personal standpoint he doesn’t miss the logistics of it all.
“It is scary being a tech founder, not understanding code and how to write software,” Eitzen said. “I went from being in the pilot seat knowing exactly how to solve every problem that came up to completely having to trust people.”
But with three years of pandemic and pivot experience under his belt, Eitzen has gotten good at trusting his instincts.
“My outlook for 2023 is … just be ready to move quickly based on what we’re seeing,” he said.