Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Firestorm: Preserving and Sharing Old Photographs

This is the first post in a series where I revisit an old idea that is "sitting on the shelf." This idea is from October 2003.

It was October 2003, and Southern California was burning. I was sitting at home with my soon-to-be mother-in-law and we were watching the news. All of the news stations were covering the situation with panic: "Firestorm 2003"!

(Note: Thankfully this isn't me. Just a representative video I found on YouTube)

The news teams interviewed a number of folks whose home had been lost. They were devastated:

"What am I going to do!? I lost everything. My photos. My memories. "

Photos. Photos. Over and over again, in every interview. While I completely and totally understood their situation, I thought to myself: this is ridiculous. People need to stop worrying about losing their photos.

Here are my first thoughts about a solution (from October 2003):
If you only have a few moments before your home is engulfed in flames, what possessions will you spare from destruction?

Family Photos? Videos? Other physical keepsakes? This is what everybody says! In this day and age, I find this response almost ridiculous!

These possessions are often considered "priceless." How much would the average upper-middle-class family pay as an insurance policy against the destruction of these possessions? $5,000? $10,000?

It could have some very interesting business potential.

These items could be processed in a lab that would:
  • archive the images as digital images (say, with scanners)
  • archive drawings / paintings / physical objects as digital images (say, with cameras)
  • archive the video as digital videos (with analog to digital duplication equipment)
  • store the data in natural-disaster and fault-tolerant data centers.
  • make this data available on the internet to other, extended-family members (viral marketing!)
  • give the customer two copies of everything on DVD: one copy for home, another copy for the safe-deposit box.

People could:
  • drop off these memories at a local store (kinko's model)
  • ship these memories to a processing center ("warranty" service model)
  • have a processing-van (think huge logo, local branding) come to their home to do the work on-site (van model)

The approach largely depends on how much "distance" from "memories" becomes uncomfortable (for the average customer). Fears could be augmented with strict handling procedures, strict storage procedures, and nationwide branding. Lot's of possibilities here.

  • Charge customers variable cost (in cents) per item. Outdated video formats would command higher prices. (All costs relative to costs of processing equipment and labor).
  • It will be impossible for customers to sort their items: they cannot possibly filter their memories by level of importance! They will have to give us everything...
  • Customers can come-in with boxes and boxes of items, unsorted, unorganized. We do the work, give them 2 copies of DVD's, other deliverables.
  • How much could the one-time infrastructure costs (per processing center) possibly be? $250k? How many families in suburban communities (like Agoura, Westlake, Thousand Oaks, which has over 15k married dual-parent families with kids). Recurring revenue might be a serious problem. Do digital/analog photo development and other ancillary services? Ahh! Instantly add these newly developed photos to the "archive"...
Like online tutoring services, we would be pleading to emotions: is it really worth risking the loss of your memories? Don't you want to guarantee these possessions for your children, and future generations? ....your parents? ...your children? Threat of fires, floods, tornado's, earthquakes, hurricanes, theft, loss?

What feeling is more innate than the desire to preserve thoughts, memories, emotions? Everybody feels that their life is important. Everybody wants to leave their mark on the world. It is a human motivation as innate as survival and procreation, and ties hand-in-hand with both.

So I got busy (co-founded Academy123) and "parked" the idea. A few years later, I started thinking about it again: putting together an overview, thinking about the workflow, and mocking-up would-be marketing materials.

I proceeded with the assumption that people wouldn't want to part with their photos (I needed to create as little distance as possible between a person and their photos). So, the solution would be to go to their home, with a van, just like a carpet cleaning service.

I ran into a technical challenge: how do I quickly scan all those photos? Varying shapes and sizes. Some in albums. Some stacked in shoeboxes. Basically, I had to assume a huge mess.

My first breakthrough was to think of a "good enough" solution: why not just take a photo of a photo? I could automate the process of capturing the image, cropping it, de-skewing it, etc. In a Ford Econoline van (or similar):
  • Setup a conveyor belt.
  • Have an operator just slap down photos on the conveyor belt, not paying much attention to placement. Can even place entire album pages.
  • At the end of the conveyor belt is a "black box" where the photo enters. Facing down from the top of the black box is a high-resolution camera.  Basically, something in the spirit of this Bookscanner developed by Xerox PARC.
  • The camera just snaps a photo (of the photo!) at regular intervals
  • Later, software (like imagemagick) cleans up the photos: crop, de-skew, separate multiple photos that appear on one album page, etc.

This, I thought, would enable me to scan thousands of photos rather quickly, with a quality level that would be acceptable to most folks.

Later, I realized that companies like Fujitsu make some really high-speed and high-quality scanners. I actually got a hold of a Fujitsu unit, ran some initial tests (scanned a bunch of photos, cleaned them up in an automated way, etc.). This unit has a large auto-feeder (photos) and also a flatbed (album pages?). The scanner is incredible. It basically scans photos just as quickly as a high-speed printer can print color pages. It can do about 60 photos per minute. And, you could just stack the photos any-which-way.

So, I ran with the concept and started fleshing it out a bit:
Firestorm Background

Firestorm - Workflow

Here, I mocked-up a flyer that would describe the service to a consumer. I toyed with the idea of snail-mailing it out to 1,000 households to see the response andgaugedemand (these days, web developers do the same thing by designing a landing page and buying some Google Adwords).
Firestorm - Draft Flyer

I continue to be very much in love with the idea in that I think the need still exists. I think affluent families would pay a one-time service fee of $500 (or similar) to preserve their old photos forever. I think the business could scale just like any typical "franchise" type business (not very interesting when you're accustomed to working on web companies that can scale worldwide with a tiny staff).

Clearly, photos have moved to digital. Successful photo-sharing sites have proven that photos are extremely viral in nature, and I think that these old photos are not an exception. As evidenced by many of the same photo sharing sites, there are a number of ways to monetize the photos long-term: subscription service for storing and backing up, ordering prints, ordering archive dvd's, printed photo products, etc.

I think there might be a short term (10 years?) window of opportunity to "grab" the worlds old photos and bring the old, printed, analog photos to digital. The company that can do this can monetize those photos (and the online viewers of those photos) for many years to come.

Ultimately, I abandoned the idea because it's just not scalable (in the typical sense as described by web developers).

I know that there are a handful of companies out there doing something similar. Digital Pickle has been around for a while, but you have to mail your photos to them (non-starter for mass-market, in my opinion). Kodak had a short-lived ScanVan initiative where they brought photo-scanning trucks to local shopping malls, and I'm not sure what happened there.


Beth Thomas said...

I think it's a great idea Yarone. I typed something up but it won't paste into this field from my iPhone. Strange. See my email.


Yarone said...

Here is the full comment from Beth Thomas (Thanks Beth!):

I think it's a great idea Yarone. I often look at the old fashioned photo albums I made from the 80's 90's and see them fade over time. It seems like such a daunting task to scan them. Even sending them out would take a lot of time archiving them in chronological order. That leads me to what I think could be a great extension to the business model and service...

For organized people like me, with a digital camera since 2003, I have filed my pics by year and by month and saved them on 2 external hard drives. Just last year I started to make photobooks (Shutterfly) for each year. Even with my files as organized as they are, it takes 8-10 hours to filter, upload and lay out the photos just right. In the end, it's all worth it to receive the book and know I have the year preserved to look at for years to come. I think that is something to consider as an extension of the service you described - how many people actually have the time or are willing to carve out the time to do thus and are willing to pay for this service? I would guess a lot.

Anonymous said...

Kinda funny that u refer to these ideas as "shelf ideas" while they are so well developed and on the verge of being ready-to-pitch to an optional investor.

It was very interesting to read about the process in which u'r ideas went from being thoughts to actual presentations :)

Alon said...

I remember at one point ~5-6 years ago we discussed renting a van and doing a practice run. I could still totally see this as a HUGE franchise-able business. Set up shop, develop the technology, get 5 vans to start working all over Southern California, and then just start franchising it out.

Compared to other more traditional franchises (think of restaurants, ice cream shops, etc...), the up-front costs could be minimal, and I could totally see individuals making a living off of it.

Beth Thomas said...

Great feedback for you Yarone! And I agree with Alon - great idea. Let me know if you need a marketer on the team with 12 years of franchisor experience ;->.

Beth Thomas said...

And let's use me and my dozen or so photo albums as the test!