- Cecilia Vincent - 07 Nov 2014

Where it all began – PhotoBox

Graham Hobson is the man that started it all, in the past 14 years he’s seen a pipe dream turn into a truly international, multi-brand group. We wanted to know a little more about what made him take the plunge and what it takes to go from imagining, to creating, a successful business.

It’s been almost 15 years since PhotoBox came to life… Graham, you must have been asked this question a million times but we’ll ask again… How did the idea come up? What made you “do” it? Leave a stable life in the banking industry (eek…) to run your own business?

At the time I had two young children, and my wife and I took lots of photos! We had roll of film developed almost every week. I wanted to find a way to be more selective, to only print the best photos. So I bought a great little digital camera but then discovered there was no print service; not on the high street and nowhere online in Europe. It seemed like a good idea to create a small service for people like me. It was a perfect time for me: some useful technology and business experience under my belt, signs of a booming Internet industry and lots of positive encouragement from family and friends.

First PBX Office Entrance

Our very first office in Clerkenwell area

How were the early days? Tough? Exciting? Scary?

All of the above. Remember I said it was the perfect time to start? Wrong! I remember sitting in our ‘glamorous’ converted garage (below) in Clerkenwell in the early days, and wondering why things weren’t going faster. The fact was that digital photos were pretty poor quality at the time and almost nobody had broadband. It felt like we might have started a year too early.

Who said dot-coms are glamorous?

Who said dot-coms are glamorous?

But indeed exciting. I remember our first day of opening the website to the public (11th May 2000). The thrill of knowing that it had worked – months of planning and now we had a live service. In the early days we had the photo printing machine hooked up directly to the server that collected orders from the website. We might be sitting at a meeting table with a guest and all of a sudden we would hear the machine start to print some customers’ photos.

The first iteration

The first version of our website

Who came up with the name, and why? What does it mean?

PhotoBox – It wasn’t the first name I thought of – there were others (that were frankly less interesting) but they were already taken. Thank goodness that we weren’t called digiphotos.co.uk all this time (which was my first choice).

“PhotoBox” represented the box of photos I used to put on my shelf in 1999 (remember the APS prints box at that time?). I also thought that eventually digital photography would become mobile and the box was your device you’d carry around with you. It took a while but I guess that’s true today.

Early days are tough. Why did you hold onto the idea that it would work?

I knew the service would work. Right from the beginning I was determined to offer great service – the type of service I myself wanted to receive. Any contact with customers was extremely courteous. We rewarded them for their feedback and honesty. And we aimed to always ship print orders same day, so customers would get them the next morning.

But my doubts were about being able to grow beyond a small company. Growth was slower that we had hoped for, the internet’s bubble had burst in mid 2000 and we had to focus on running the service with very low costs. Me and my co-founder, Mark, did everything ourselves for the first year. I’m so glad that we persevered.

Graham on the first PhotoBox stand!

Me at the London Digital Camera Show back in 2001

PhotoBox has now become a leading brand. A lot must have happened in (almost) 15 years; to you, what have been the key moments in PhotoBox’s history?

Our first order in May 2000
Being interviewed on LBC radio about PhotoBox in June 2000
Launching our service in Ireland in September 2000 and pleasing my in-laws 🙂
Running out of money in September 2000 – oops
Moving out of our garage in 2003 to get a proper factory

Finn and Rory visiting our new premises in 2003

Rory and Finn visiting our new premises in north west London in 2003

Launching our first photo book in 2004

Our very first photo book

Joining together with Photoways in 2006 to form a truly European photo company
Celebrating our 10th birthday with the world’s largest photo book made out of our customer photos

The World's Largest Photo Book

The World’s Largest Photo Book

What are your most memorable moments?

All of the above and…

  • When Mark went on holiday running everything in PhotoBox myself for one week (unlocking the “garage”, printing photos, answering customer service emails, machine maintenance and dark room roll changes, locking up, taking the sack to the post office)
  • Hand delivering orders around London when we had some late orders just before Christmas 2003
  • Driving sacks of orders around the country in October 2007 when there was a Royal Mail strike
  • Visiting the Big Brother house for a party the day after the finale in 2001. We partnered with them to showcase images from that series
  • Seeing our first TV ad appear
  • Standing behind a girl in a queue and hearing her tell her boyfriend that she bought her ‘brilliant’ iPhone case from PhotoBox
  • Getting to 1 billion photos stored online (we have more than 4 billion now)
  • Code red: having the website go down briefly in December 2013 because a submarine dragged its anchor through a north sea cable, and the back up link didn’t work for a few minutes

How does PhotoBox differ from other companies?

I can’t think of a single month in the company where we have stood still. We have always been growing, always trying new things, always challenging ourselves. It’s a company in a constant state of change and that’s exciting (a little nerve-racking at times, but exciting).

How has it changed since the early days? Are the drivers still the same?

PhotoBox has felt like four completely different companies to me: the first 3 years of tough growth with a small company; a stronger period for the next 3 years but still very focused on the UK; the start of our European story 2006 to 2009 and a very fast paced period of change since 2009 as European market leader. But our values and drivers have remained exactly the same throughout.

What’s it like now to work at PhotoBox compared to day 1?

I’m constantly in awe at the amazing people around me who are so good at their respective jobs. It feels like a real community within the company and that feels so different to our 2 person company in 2000.

A few words to describe PhotoBox

It’s not about us, it’s about our customers’ photos and their creativity.

Finally…

Amount of the first transaction?

£2.70 in total for two orders on the first day!

Number of designs available / Number of product references

4 glossy print sizes. What else would you need?

When did you take on your first employee?

We had a temp IT guy at the beginning called Chris Allen. He wrote the website in 6 weeks. He’s been a full time employee of PhotoBox for the last 14 years and he’s now our Chief Scientist.

When did you know that you’d “made it”?

There’s always more to do.

What are you most proud of?

That we created a company that our employees are excited to work for.

Would you do it all again?

Absolutely, in a second. It’s the defining period of my career.