Bringing self-serve professional photography to a global audience
Monday, September 25, 2017
When you ask Iris Booth founder Sue Siri to describe her product in one sentence, the answer is quick and focused.
"Our product is a fully functioning self-serve photography studio in the shape, size, and form of a photo booth."
It’s this focus that has taken Iris Booth from a cardboard prototype in Sue’s living room to six locations (four international!) in less than two and a half years. In talking to Sue, you learn her success comes down to a few key tactics: reaching out to others for help and advice (including two NSBI ConnectNS Global Advisors), business insights gained over more than 30 years’ experience in the photography business, and a crazy amount of hard work and time. There’s also a chance some of it may be pre-destined. The name of the company ‘Iris,’ is of course the owner’s name spelled backwards. And the iris, like the aperture, is the foundation of photography.
Sue, like so many entrepreneurs, is involved in every aspect of Iris Booth, from the original idea to the product design, from marketing and branding to fielding customer service calls at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night.
“It's been almost two and a half years since I first had the idea. It took us about eight months to build out a proof of concept in conjunction with the ID Lab at Dal,” says Sue. “We've been in market for almost a year and a half. It feels like much longer, but in the bigger scheme, it really has been a quick progression.”
And in that time, Sue admits many aspects of the business — including audience — have been a moving target. What began with a university-student focus, quickly grew to airports and executives, and continues to evolve, possibly even into healthcare. But even as the business evolves, Sue maintains the core focus.
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“Anything you do, there's trial and error. Markets that I think are a slam dunk can sometimes disappoint, and then other ones I consider to be a Hail Mary end up being really, really good,” explains Sue. “To some degree, you have to embrace trial-and-error. But with every error you learn what to avoid and what not to do, so you make better-educated assumptions and projections.”
That trial and error includes exporting to the US, including Sue’s absolutely single biggest exporting challenge: insurance. While the Iris Booth was carefully designed to be plug-and-play, shipped intact, and supported remotely, there was no precedent for insurance.
“Insurance has been the most challenging part. Trying to find reasonably priced insurance for an unknown Canadian company with an unknown product. That was the one thing I thought would be picking up the phone and in half an hour you would have a policy,” explains Sue. “It was literally months looking for the right insurance and we still don't have it sorted. This is part of how I got connected with Jason Oxner [Houston-based lawyer and a member of the ConnectNS Global Advisors program], who was amazing.”
Sue credits the advice she received through the ConnectNS Global Advisors program for helping her navigate a number of hurdles.
“Jason came to Halifax and we met for coffee. He's been really generous with his time, very helpful. I've ended up retaining him as a registered agent in the US. Talking my way through some of the challenges we were experiencing right before we launched our first booth in the US was so helpful. We had to register for a tax number in the US but also register with each state we're locating in. Jason was very helpful with the logistics, including finding the right contacts and websites.”
Sue was also able to meet up with another ConnectNS Global Advisor, George “Buzz” Kenney, while in Boston.
“Buzz and I spent a long time chatting. He is just a lovely human being, really well-connected, incredibly bright, has a ton of information, and is very generous with that information. When I meet someone at that level of success that is humble and generous with their time, it's inspiring.”
“We went right through the whole gamut of naming and branding of Iris. We talked about business models. We talked about sales channels. We talked about life and kids and work-life balance and HR issues. I don't think we left anything off the table.”
When we caught up with Sue, she was in the midst of experiencing a “good to have” problem for entrepreneurs – the proverbial phone was ringing off the hook. And for an entrepreneur that is still personally addressing the majority of inquiries, it was turning into a busier than ever week.
And her response proves her moving target approach is still very much alive.
“We had a post in a weblog called PetaPixel, which is like the Reddit of the photography world. It went viral so we have people from all over the world – Australia, Europe, all over the US, all over Canada – reaching out. It's been the craziest week. We're just trying to pick our way through all of these inquiries and figure out which ones are serious, which ones are valid, which ones make sense.”
“Honestly, we're evaluating our entire business model to see if there's a better way, if there's lower-hanging fruit in licensing the software and selling the booth. We've opened our minds because right now all of our booths are corporately owned and it's a rev share hosted model. But now we're looking at leasing them, we're looking at selling them, licensing, all kinds of things, because there's just a lot of opportunity right now that we can't even conceive.”
And that is – in the truest sense – is the mindset of the true entrepreneur. Clear focus, but always open to new opportunity and ideas.