How many film labs were there before digital came?
How many film labs were there before digital came?
It depends on the kind of lab. Pro labs were regionally based. There were maybe 50-100 of those. Then there were the one-hour labs. We had 9 of them in the Bay Area. We did a lot of pro work, sending drivers to pick up and drop off, but we also had people coming to our door.
Our team and our customers included a lot of very creative, talented people. The whole Bay Area, including the Monterey Bay, attracts a lot of creative people. We were working with artists, the police department, a diversified collection of customers.
I had the impression your labs were little booths in parking lots and malls, not stores this big.
Not those little fotomats…we had full-on stores with machinery in there. We had 9 of them. Wolfe Camera had hundreds. Their’s were even bigger; we did not sell cameras.
You’d come in, the counter people would take your negatives, help you crop, and we’d print on site unless you wanted a larger print. They’d send those to the central lab who’d print them and send them back. That model worked well for us, and we served the community.
We still have 2 of those locations in Santa Cruz County! One of them has a wonderful guy and excellent photographer, Mike DeBoer, who runs both of them. We provide a very personal service.
There were hundreds or thousands of those processing labs. They were like Starbucks, they were all over. One Hour Photo. It was a cottage industry in the 80s. We would go to trade shows and Kodak, Fuji, Agfa and others were selling one hour lab equipment.
And then the Longs, Walgreens and Costcos started installing them which caused one hour labs across the country to close. In the early 2000s, they started to decline rapidly. The industry just went off the cliff fast.
Who are your clients?
Our base is professional wedding and portrait photographers. We provide them with great service and help them expand their offerings — framed photos or whatever it is they need. We regularly come up with new things we think will work for them and their customers.
We’ve also always had an affinity for landscape and art. We do a lot of that kind of work as well. And that helps us open up large prints.
The third audience is fulfillment using our API for companies like SmugMug.
This is our current building:
You were the first to make metal prints?
We weren’t the first, but we put it on the map. The sublimation process is fairly old. You heat the ink printed on sublimation paper to 300 degrees and then it transfers to the substrate. Mugs, mousepads, metal prints — it’s the same technology. People have been printing like this for many many years and somehow, somewhere, I saw this and liked it.
We went full bore and advertised it extensively. The manufacturers were savvy enough to understand it was an opportunity for them, so that gave metal a lot of traction. We still love the product and because we were ahead of the game on it, we want to stay leaders in that space by providing the best quality, variety and speed.
You made a decision to print up to 48 x 96 inches on metal. How did you know people were going to buy prints that big (besides me 😁)?
We don’t always make decisions by running polls. We didn’t really think about it that much. Large prints are good. They were a little difficult to make, to handle, but there’s nothing like a big print.
When you were setting up one of the buildings, you fell in love with a certain kind of tile…
I looked everywhere for tile. Flooring is a big deal for a print lab. It has to be able to be keep clean and look good. I went to the Apple Store, and it was PERFECT. Then I found out that Steve Jobs bought the quarry for the stone in Italy. But I felt good about my sense of what we wanted.
We ended up finding a ceramic tile that was similar - 2 x 2 feet - even gray with a bit of texture, and that’s a good surface for a lab.
Did you ever dream that Bay Photo would turn into anything like this?
I think the answer is no, I had no idea. It took a lot of great people on our team and a lot of luck. We are fortunate enough to have associations with wonderful people, like you guys.
The other part of this story is that if you’re built a certain way, you always think there are no boundaries. We don’t think about it much, we just keep it rolling. We have a lot of young staffers who’ve been here for 10+ years. We have others that have been here much longer who deserve their own bios!
You’ve said in the past that you don’t know how you grow every year, but you do. You’ve said you’re not really a sales guy, you like to make prints. Is that what caused you to be one of a handful of people who succeeded in this industry?
Number one is making great prints. I won’t say I don’t like marketing — it is creative and fun. But we want to make great products on time. The next thing is great customer service.
We come up with new products to help us grow and we’re not afraid to pivot based on what the market demands. It’s not as planned as we would like it to be, but for the most part it’s basically just hard work. Work hard! It really helps if you love what you do.
How much stress has it been over the years?
It comes and goes. Some years it’s very intense, others it’s a bit easier. It also depends on how far you want to go. It comes in waves. I think that it’s that way for everybody. But I think if you love what you do, it makes it easier and well worth it.
Tell us about your employees.
It’s like a family. We have a lot of people who come here and they say they’ve never seen anything like it. We’re getting a bit more structured due to size — we’re about 550 during peaks, including another facility in the Midwest (we bought Black River Imaging in 2016) and it’s nice to see them come into their own.
Everybody does care for each other. They work together fairly well, and somehow there’s a sense of loyalty and camaraderie with a lot of people here.
Over the years we’ve tried to do everything we could with housing and starting in 2010, we got some people into local housing. We’ve tried to build more housing nearby for our team members; that’s at the planning department now. We have a few houses in the area that we’ve cleaned up and restored over the years. It has provided affordable housing for 20-25 people and we’re trying to grow it.
I heard you were a mean surfer in the day. Now you kayak?
Back in the day I surfed quite a bit. I slowed it down and stopped by the time I was 50. The digital revolution was in full force and I was fortunate enough to marry and we had a beautiful baby girl, Samantha, who is now just 18. Now with the internet you’re always on. I do kayak as much as I can!
Words of wisdom?