How Inventors Turn Their Ideas Into Photo Products

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Gary Fong
A preliminary design for the latest lock in inventor/photographer Gary Fong's GearGuard line of security devices.

So you’ve come up with an idea that could make taking pictures or running a photography business a little easier. You think other photographers might like it, too. How do you turn your good idea into a product that hundreds, maybe thousands of your fellow photographers might buy?

Several photographers-turned-inventors have launched businesses making and distributing the fruits of their ingenuity. But bringing a new product to market involves lots of money, time and research into manufacturing and distribution, intellectual property protection, marketing and more. We talked to the inventors of three successful product lines to learn how their businesses have changed since they came up with their first inventions.

Andrew Niesen and Rachel LaCour Niesen: ShootQ

Wedding photographers Andrew Niesen and Rachel LaCour Niesen created the studio management program ShootQ because they thought there had to be a more efficient way to manage appointments and referrals than Word documents and Post-It notes. Business programs designed to manage leads for large sales forces were expensive, and didn’t fit the needs of a creative business. “We were a small start up and didn’t have a lot of money,” Andrew notes. So he bought a copy of PHP & MySQL For Dummies and taught himself how to program Web applications. He wrote the program that became ShootQ from scratch.

By then, he and Rachel were running two businesses: LaCour, their original, boutique wedding business, and The Decisive Moments, the lower-priced, higher-volume studio they started in 2005, which contracted freelance photojournalists. As their work gained recognition, they were often asked to address groups of photographers, many of whom wanted business advice. When Andrew described the program he had created, photographers asked for copies. After he spent four months adapting the software to be shared with others, in 2007 the Niesens offered the program for sale.

Problems began almost immediately. “The code that I wrote was great for us and a couple of other people, but when we started to get more users in there, it collapsed under its own weight,” Andrew recalls. “I realized we were onto something interesting here, but I didn’t have the technical ability to fix it. “

The couple approached Rachel’s brother, Jonathan LaCour, a professional Web developer, for help. In order to quit his job and work full-time rewriting ShootQ, he would need a salary. To help fund the venture, Rachel and Andrew decided to sell founding memberships. For $595, the first 100 members who signed up would receive a copy of the new program and a lifetime of free upgrades and customer service. “The way we messaged it was: You’re buying into a start up. If you believe in this, come along with us,” Rachel explains. “Luckily we had enough trust in the photography community that the first 100 memberships sold out in 24 hours,” Rachel says.
As the ShootQ development progressed, the Niesens sent out frequent updates to their founding members, who also acted as beta testers for each iteration of the program. Meanwhile, the couple relied heavily on studio manager Melissa Roth to edit their photos and handle album design, slideshow production and administrative duties. They also sought advice from mentors.

Photographer/entrepreneur Gary Fong, for example, suggested they market ShootQ at events modeled on Tupperware parties. “We went around the country and had parties in studios, in hotel ballrooms,” Rachel recounts. “You got some drinks and food and when you left the party you had your ShootQ account set up.”

Software coding is easy to copy, but the couple chose not to pursue a patent. “It can cost $100,000 to try to patent something that might not be patentable,” Andrew says. Rachel adds, “We thought that rather than being paranoid about emulators we would try to make our offerings more valuable.” Upgrades to ShootQ included features like the Q-Club, which allowed photographers to pass sales leads to colleagues in their network.

In hindsight, Andrew says, the biggest risk they took was financing the venture through lines of credit against their personal assets. For any future product they create, Andrew says, he would seek outside investors.

Last year, they sold the company to Pictage, the online lab and network for wedding photographers. “We wanted to build a bigger platform, and we needed to combine forces with people who could manage that,” says Rachel.

After years of working on ShootQ for no salary, Andrew and Rachel are now employees of Pictage, working on product development and marketing, respectively. “I’m much better now about getting eight hours of sleep a night,” Andrew notes, but he sometimes misses the challenge of ShootQ’s early days. “Now that I’ve got a constant paycheck and I’ve got an official corporate title, it’s weird. I miss the struggle.”

Jessica Claire and Keats Elliott: Shootsac

Wedding photographers Jessica Claire and Keats Elliott became entrepreneurs in order to get the kind of practical and stylish lens bag they needed. In shooting all the moments of a wedding, from formal portraits to candid images, Claire found she needed to switch lenses quickly. “All my lenses were not only trapped in my rolling bag, but sometimes trapped all the way across the room,” she says. She found that carrying multiple camera bodies was sloppy and cumbersome in crowded receptions. “I scoured camera shops and Web sites looking for a simple, lightweight, easily accessible bag that could carry only a few key items—a couple lenses, compact flash cards, batteries, and my car keys,” but at the time, back in 2003, the bags she found for photographers were usually “too big, too heavy, or too complicated.”
Claire widened her search beyond camera stores and, at a Saks outlet, bought a vinyl satchel from Prada. It was stylish, but fit only two lenses, and Claire wanted room for three. It also had complicated buckles that got in the way, and had no lens dividers to protect the lenses.

Claire used it anyway for three years, then in 2006 met Elliott, a fellow wedding photographer who shared her interest in a new kind of bag, and also had experience in business. Elliott offered ideas for the kind of bag they wanted to make, and how they might go about bringing their invention to market.

Their first challenge was finding someone to make a prototype. They wanted to make it out of neoprene which, they soon learned, is difficult to sew. After trying a wetsuit manufacturer and some luggage makers, they finally found one luggage maker who was willing to hear their ideas and produce their first model for a fee. “Getting a perfect prototype is a lengthy, difficult, frustrating and expensive project. It takes sometimes hundreds of miniscule revisions to get things exactly right,” Claire says. She notes that since Shootsac recently moved their manufacturing to China, the time and expense of producing new models and products has increased, because of the language barrier and distance. “Without sitting face to face, we had to make more revisions,” she explains.

As soon as their first prototype was complete, Elliott and Claire went to an intellectual property attorney to get help applying for a patent. They also registered their name and trademark. “We have had our patent pending for over four years now and just finally received word that our full patent is complete,” Claire says. They’ve also taken legal action against makers of knock-off bags and totes. Says Claire, “This is an ongoing expense that unfortunately you have to factor into your business plan.”

Elliott and Claire officially launched Shootsac Lens Bag & True Color Covers at the WPPI trade show in 2007, where they set up a booth to show their prototype and some of the interchangeable fabric covers. They received orders for 250 bags. By the end of the year, “We realized there was a lot of interest, even more than we thought there would be,” Claire recalls. They formed an S corporation, launched an e-commerce Web site and, through a referral from a friend, contracted with a shipping company to monitor their inventory and fill orders.

Elliott and Claire funded all their initial start-up costs with their own cash. To fulfill their first orders, they paid for materials using their personal credit cards. “But we didn’t go into debt. The business has funded itself,” says Claire. They’ve reinvested profits into improving their bags and launching new products, such as a laptop sleeve, the HipSlip lens bag, and a travel bag. Claire says, “We grew at the rate we could afford to grow,” and they have chosen not to seek outside investors.

Today Shootsac has four full-time employees, and also employs a bookkeeper and accountant. “Keats and I are lucky. We each have clearly defined roles in the company. I think when people don’t know who should do what, partnerships can become difficult,” Claire observes.

Elliott manages the day-to-day operations of Shootsac, and spends less time on her photography as a result; Claire estimates she spends about 10 to 15 hours a week working on Shootsac business, while also running her wedding photography business. The success of their company took them in unexpected directions. “One thing that we didn’t really understand was that developing a successful product is a business,” Claire says. “There is major difference between an idea for a product and the energy required to create a successful business.”

She then adds, “It’s worth it when you’re holding that final sample in your hands and you can look at it and say, ‘We created this.’ That is the reward for everything.”

Gary Fong: The Lightsphere

Gary Fong, the former wedding photographer-turned-entrepreneur whose name has become synonymous with lighting accessories, says he got the idea to make his first photographic product, the Lightsphere, while flipping through an in-flight magazine. “There was an ad that said something like, ‘We make plastic parts for your ideas.’” It started him thinking about what he would like to make. What he wanted, he thought, was a large light diffuser, modeled on a lampshade. “Until then, diffusers were tiny. They sat on top of your flash and they didn’t do anything to the shape of the light. All they did was block the light coming through your flash.” He noticed that when he photographed indoors, light filtered through lampshades—which create a hot spot on the ceiling while diffusing the light on faces—produced pretty skin tones. “I thought, okay, I’ll make a big lampshade for electronic flash.”

In 2003, he ordered a prototype and 300 models from the plastics company, and bought the mold as well. Fong, who was in his early 40s at the time, had moved to France and was largely retired from shooting, but when he was assigned to shoot an ad for Fuji, he brought along the Lightsphere. “That was my test shoot,” he says.

Soon after, at a speaking engagement in New York, he showed the images he had shot with his new product, and then posted information about the Lightsphere on his Web site.

“I didn’t intend for it to be a product for sale,” he says, but he hoped to recoup the $15,000 he had spent on the mold and the first 300 models. He did no market research, but he figured he needed to sell the 300 models for $50 apiece to cover his costs. The first 300 sold in about a day. He asked his father and his assistant to help him box and ship them. Then he received orders from another 400 customers, who would have to wait three weeks for new Lightspheres to be manufactured. At that point, Fong says, “We knew we were going to be busy.”

Fong established an e-commerce Web site to handle new orders. As the Lightsphere’s popularity grew, retailers and distributors offered to sell it. He sought the advice of a friend at Omega Satter, one of the biggest distributors of photographic equipment. As Fong recalls, the friend recommended that he keep his company small for at least two years, “and make ridiculous margins on it.” A distributor would expect half the profits, his friend warned, and then a retailer would want more. Fong explains, “He told me, ‘You might as well saturate your own channels first, and then come to us when we can help expand into larger channels.’”

After selling the first 100,000 units, Fong agreed to have B&H Photo & Video sell the Lightsphere through its store and catalogue. Orders increased. Being in the B&H catalogue also spurred the introduction of new Gary Fong Inc. products. “Every season, they expect you to come out with a new line,” he notes. “If you do, they buy all your samples. That finances the cost of your development.”

When he launched new products like the Puffer, a collapsible diffuser, and the Flip Cage, a camera protector that also serves as a tabletop stand, Fong decided he needed to get the new items into smaller camera stores, where sales people could give customers hands-on advice about how to use new products. To reach these new, independent sellers, he followed through on his friend’s advice, and signed a distribution deal with Omega Satter. “They buy from us in boatloads, and keep it in their warehouse,” Fong says. “It’s their job to do their presentations to smaller stores which I can’t reach, outside of YouTube.”

Fong, who now lives in British Columbia, keeps a patent attorney on retainer. When he has a new idea, he sends a sketch to the attorney, who writes an abstract detailing what makes the product unique and has the in-house draftsman make a complete sketch. These are immediately filed with an application for a provisional patent. When the application is date stamped, Fong says, “I have proof that I was the first to come up with the idea.” Another tip he’s learned from experience: “The first thing to do is get the European Union patent. That’s really fast.”

One of the biggest challenges for an entrepreneur, Fong says, is fulfilling orders. Product distributors have to be 100 percent reliable, because big retailers refuse shipments that are missing even a single piece of an order. Fong found a good distributor, which Gary Fong Inc. ended up buying after its former owner ran into financial troubles.

He also tried several plastics manufacturers (the one in the in-flight magazine didn’t work out) before settling on an Indiana-based company he was satisfied with. In time, Lightsphere bought that company too. Says Fong, “Now we own the whole thing: the prototyping, the manufacturing and the distribution.”

While these acquisitions have increased profit margins for Gary Fong Inc., they’ve also increased its pay roll. Fong insists he’s never gone into debt. Since he sold his first 300 units, sales have funded the company’s growth.

“All you need is the customers,” Fong tells fellow inventors. “It’s got to be a product that customers will buy. If they buy some, you know grandma will be packing boxes for you. If they buy waves of them, you’ll have grandma supervising some temps who pack the boxes until you find a distribution company.”

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