Seeing rich opportunities in 'rich media'

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Jeff Hunt has sold rich-media tech for more than a decade, first at Scene7, then at Adobe (which acquired Scene7 in 2007) and now at Snap36, the Chicago-based 360-degree product-photography company he founded and runs with his wife, Christine. 360-degree photography is no longer the cutting-edge technological marvel that it once was, but it's still a premium feature for retailers. Snap36 licenses photo technology from a Czechoslovakian company called FotoRobot and sells to U.S. customers including Kohl's and Bass Pro Shops.

Mr. Hunt founded Snap36 in 2008 but didn't join the company full time until he left Adobe in December 2011. Revenue was up slightly in his first year at the company, but he expects a bigger jump in 2013 — he says Snap36 is on track to quadruple revenue this year.

He tells Crain's contributor Steve Hendershot more about the business.

Crain's: It's interesting that you founded this company several years before joining it full time. How did you determine the time was right to leave Adobe?

 - Jeff Hunt
Jeff Hunt

Jeff Hunt: Over the course of those three years they were running it, you could see a confluence in the marketplace where, first (browsers) got more sophisticated so they could handle 360 and 3D spins. Then that combined with two factors — a whole new generation of shoppers that are not going to be satisfied with basic, static imagery, alongside the advent of tablets, with 40 percent of people shopping on iPads. When you think of how that experience is changing how people want to see products — to turn them around, to visualize them — to me it was the perfect storm, the perfect time to exit out of Adobe and come over full time. I did that about this time last year.

You sell equipment to some retailers and act as an agency-style product photography vendor for others. Describe how those different client arrangements work.

From about 2008 to 2010, rich media was the next big thing people were talking about, including video, zoom and spin. Then, toward the end of 2010, the next big thing became analytics, then mobile, then social. And then all the big money and the next big players started chasing those other things. They never quite finished what was set out to be done in the rich media market. From my perspective, that's 360, 3D spin.

Well, now that's starting to come back. And what we're doing is twofold — first, we're building infrastructure, so in that case I'll actually sell equipment to other studios and to retailers. Some of our customers have in-house studios, such as Kohl's. They have 22 in-house photo bays and they cycle through thousands of products per year. Their strategy is that they looked at our robots and saw they could get three times more throughput by automating the process with our robots and our software. So now two of their bays are fully automated with our robots.

On the flip side, you have customers such as Bass Pro, who is saying, "We really don't want to bring this into our studio right now. We're not ready for it. But we love what you do, so how about we'll ship you products, have you shoot them in your studio and then you can send back the images?" That's a traditional studio model.

We can also do a hybrid of the two. Grainger, for example, has our hardware in their studio, but we're also shooting for them in our studio. We shoot any products under 40 pounds. We can also take our equipment into someone's studio and augment their in-house photography that way.

Would you like to see the business tip toward more studio work eventually? How soon might that happen?

Essentially, I have to build a market, then build an infrastructure and also build my business at the same time. And without selling hardware, the market is going to stay small because people don't have a way to do spin photography simply and affordably. So by selling equipment I'm enabling the market to start creating more 360/3D, which will beget more companies wanting to do it, so ultimately it will be a self-perpetuating model.

Right now the business is 50-50 between selling equipment and services. That will continue for the foreseeable future.

With the equipment sales, it seems like there's a danger that you'll hit a saturation point as more large retailers have spin photography in-house. How do you address that?

Hopefully we keep innovating on the robot side. FotoRobot is coming up with new products, one of which is set up specifically for apparel companies doing video. It's a virtual rotating runway, essentially a rotating Lazy Susan with a treadmill built in, so a model can actually start walking, and then as she walks the platform starts turning. It appears you're doing a fly-around on the person, but really neither the camera nor the lighting has to move. You get very interesting angles and a very interesting effect. So they're innovating.

People have been spinning products for years, of course, but it used to be that a company would choose 50 products and have an agency spin them for $1,000 each. Now, we're turning it so that you can shoot 1,000 products for $50 each. If we do that, we can make spin ubiquitous. We can make it the norm.


"Silicon City" is a weekly report on Chicago tech startup news and newsmakers written by Crain's contributor Steve Hendershot.

Share your ideas and news tips on the local tech startup scene with Steve via email: Check out Steve's blog here. And follow him on Twitter: @stevehendershot.

Join Crain's LinkedIn group for Chicago entrepreneurs. And stay on top of Chicago business with Crain's free daily e-newsletters.

Follow John on Twitter at @JohnPletz.

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