Is the market for physical photos beyond saving?

By James Robinson , written on January 30, 2014

From The News Desk

For the amateur photographer the physical roll of film has gone the way of the VHS. It’s a relic. The process of leaving film at CVS and waiting around to pick photos up an hour later is nostalgia. But as we journey through life, we amass more photos than ever, and it seems to be increasing at an almost exponential rate, diminishing the value of the physical image. For instance, over the weekend I upgraded my phone. I’d had the old one for two-and-a-half-years and it might’ve had 300 photos on it. The Verizon guy looked at me sideways when I told him he could wipe them all. But if I hadn't used them already, they didn't hold value.

To that end, Flag, a bootstrapped Los Angeles-based startup currently trying to get its first round of investment funding through Kickstarter, has what is -- on paper, at least -- an intriguing idea.

It wants to build an app that would integrate with the camera on your iPhone or iPad and allow you to print up to 20 high-quality physical photos each month and have them sent to you free of charge. You can customize and format the image, get them sent out in dribs and drabs or in one clump of 20. Real photos, the kind your mother collected in albums.

The only catch: advertising on the back of the image.

“All this is made possible by using something that has been wasted space for over 100 years,” says founder Samuel Agboola, a British expat and trained physicist, who made a u-turn into advertising when he realized he wasn’t good enough at math. “It’s the best idea I’ve ever had.”

Trying to turn the endless ocean of ignored digital photos into something that people can pin on their wall and a company can profit from has consistently proven to be a tempting but vexing enterprise. Shutterfly has been in the game since 1999 and went public in 2006, but operated at a net loss of $30 million in 2012 and could sink below that figure in 2013, according to its SEC filings. Snapfish was founded that same year and was purchased by Hewlett-Packard in 2005 for an undisclosed amount (guessed to be around $300 million). In August last year, it announced it was shutting down service in India, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain.

Approaching the three-day mark of a two week Kickstarter campaign, Flag is already 40 percent of the way toward its $100,000 goal. But even if it doesn't make it, Agboola tells me he is “extremely confident” he could raise it. If all goes well, the app could launch by the end of summer, and the fledgling company has sourced paper supply from Germany, lamination machines from Korea, and cutting machines domestically.

But as I put to Agboola, maybe the boat has gone so far out on the era of the physical photo that not even the best idea could turn back the clock?

“When we’d go on holidays as kids if I took 10 rolls of film people would look at me like I was Annie Lebovitz,” Agboola says.

Those days are over, he concedes. There’s a whole generation now that has never printed photos. But they don’t have the same frustrations with it that older types might. Digital printing is immeasurably better than old chemical methods.

Younger types might not remember coming home and looking through your set of 24 to realize they looked half as good as you had hoped, often fuzzy and poorly centered.

What's really changed, though, is our relationship with our memories and photography in general. A 20-year old in 2013 might associate a photograph as being a digital concept. It's been delaminated from its paper origins. “But," Agboola says, "I think an app like this has the ability to change that relationship to photos.”

The key, if Flag comes to market and if its product is as good as Agboola says it will be, is integrating it seamlessly into the photo-taking routine. Small degrees of unwanted effort could dissuade people from using even a good tool that provides for free what Shutterfly would charge $65 for.

Agboola says they’re still working this all out as the company works toward launch, but Flag is looking towards a solution where if someone takes a photo he likes on his iPhone, he can order a print then and there. It’ll tell him when he's hit 20 and anything above that will cost him.

The final question involves advertising. Putting ads on the back of free photos sounds like direct mail at a time when advertisers have the tools to micro-target audiences through social media. But Agboola says that Flag also has the potential to be direct mail that people welcome into their homes, rather than throw into the trash upon sight.

And Flag will have the chance to target consumers, based upon geography. “We know a lot more about our users than any website," he says. "We have everyone's real name and address. We'll protect that information, we don't sell or share it to advertisers, but it's much better than a tracking cookie and a Gawker handle.” That sounds like the promises every data-collecting business gives, though.

Whether a Flag can resurrect the market for physical photos is as out of focus as an old Polaroid. First it needs to raise money, so success could be a long, long way off.