In the crowded online photo market, Pinhole captured an unexpected niche.
Choice isn’t everything. Just ask anyone who has ever surfed through hundreds of cable channels, been confronted with a lengthy restaurant menu, or tried online dating. That’s the ethos of Ashley Rosebrook and Stefan Peters, the couple behind personalized photo printing site Pinhole Press. In an arena of hundreds of online printing competitors, simplicity is Pinhole’s biggest selling point.
The idea was born when Stefan, an ex-chief marketing and brand officer for global furniture manufacturer DUX of Sweden, wanted to create a photo book to commemorate his father’s 70th birthday. He was overwhelmed by choice, says Rosebrook, a former design director at Vera Wang. “For that project to be intimidating to someone well-versed in editing and putting to photo spreads made us think, ‘there’s an idea.'”
Too many companies in the photo realm obsess over typefaces, font colors, and shades, they thought. Rosebrook and Peters’ goal was simplicity of design for the Web-based interface and for physical products. Instead of tome-sized volumes, most Pinhole products are formatted to include fewer than 12 images for life milestones like a new baby, a wedding, or a birthday. “One of the big things you learn when you work for great luxury brands is how to edit yourself and pare things down to their essence,” Rosebrook says, citing Google and Apple designs. “More doesn’t necessarily make the consumer happy, and can actually be frustrating.”
That focus on simplicity has helped Pinhole Press establish a lucrative niche in a booming market. The company declines to release its exact revenue but says sales have doubled every year since inception, and are projected to increase over the next two years.
According to IBISWorld, revenue in the $3.5 billion online greeting card industry (which encompasses bulk stationery products, e-cards, and personalized paper cards) is primarily generated from customers 55 and older (think parents and grandparents) and 25 to 35-year-olds (new parents). Analyst Nikoleta Panteva says that as people of all ages incorporate technology into their day-to-day lives, the popularity of these sites will continue to rise to the tune of 6 percent revenue growth each year.
Peters and Rosebrook spent $500,000 of personal funds to get going, and estimate that an additional $2 million went into the business before they broke even. The founders worked hard to keep costs low, asking friends and family members to pose for the website. Their then-newborn daughter did double duty as both boy and girl baby model. The duo held down production costs by forging a partnership with Mohawk Fine Paper, an environmental paper mill they had worked with in the past. Mohawk worked to create the product as well and brand and market the business. The Pinhole Press following grew outward from friends, family, and past business associates, and Peters tracked the company’s progress on Google Analytics. “The website took about six months to get to one million page views,” he says. “But just one month later we were at 10 million. It was kind of a moment of triumph.”
In 2011, Martha Stewart used Pinhole to create party favors for her 70th birthday celebration, and soon after she featured Pinhole products in a magazine spread commemorating the birth of her granddaughter Jude. The high profile appearances caught the attention of Andy Patrick, the CEO of liveBooks, a California software company that provides site-hosting services to creative businesses.
“What really struck a chord with liveBooks was Pinhole’s commitment to making the process of creating these products easy,” he says. “Humans have been writing on cave walls for tens of thousands of years, so to speak. There has been enormous growth in the number of images we capture, and now people need an economical way to print those images on whatever product they choose.”
Last October, liveBooks purchased Pinhole Press for $33 million. Over the next few months, liveBooks engineers will develop the Pinhole platform and the companies’ marketing and support teams will integrate. Rosebrook and Peters remain Pinhole’s co-creative directors and are focusing less on the technological details of their business–the part they found most challenging. They intend to develop new, interactive educational toys to complement their bestselling names-and-faces book and flashcards, as well as design decorative décor for the home or office. The two consider notepads and photo books to be the foundation of their business, but not the limit.
“When you bring it down to its essence, this industry is growing because the products make people happy,” Rosebrook says. “There’s a sense of nostalgia for a simpler era, and these items allow people to slow down. You can’t get that from cycling through images on your computer.”