- Make Do - 11 Mar 2015

Up close and personal with Graham Hobson

Graham is the co-founder of PhotoBox and was the CEO from 2000 until 2006, when he stepped away from the day-to-day running of the company to become the brand’s CTO. After 9 years, we’re delighted that Graham is taking on a new challenge as the Managing Director of the Group’s Incubator.

Graham fostered the start-up culture that has helped PhotoBox become what it is today. We want to know what makes Graham get out of bed in the morning and what makes him so passionate about the start-up lifestyle.

How would you define a start-up?
I like the definition from Eric Ries in his excellent book “The Lean Startup”. He says a startup is “a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty”. This feels right. A startup normally has an audacious goal and is willing to take big risks to get there. If the outcome were predictable then it wouldn’t be a startup, it would be a small business.

What draws you to the start-up world?
In a start-up anything is possible. No idea is too crazy or too risky to be considered. I love the mixture of business knowledge, creativity and hard-graft required by a start-up. It keeps things interesting. 

What made you decide to take up the Managing Director role in the PhotoBox Group Incubator?
Compared to my previous role it’s a big change! One way or another I’ve been looking after technology for PhotoBox for the past 15 years. This role has a much larger focus on product, marketing, and daily management of a self-contained business. But the Incubator plays a vital role within the group; it’s on a mission to find the products, services and brands that will generate the next phase of growth and customer engagement. Basically it’s searching for the next hot thing within personalisation, and I can’t resist a challenge.

Besides capital, what are the benefits of working within a Group incubator rather than stand alone start-ups?
So clearly I’ve done the “real” start-up before; PhotoBox in the early years was a tough experience. Start-ups are demanding; they take all of your time and energy, and often don’t offer much in return. Most start-ups suffer from a lack of customers or revenue, and if that continues for too long you have to give up. Most entrepreneurs have a lot to lose professionally and personally if things go wrong.

Embedding the Incubator within PhotoBox means that we get an abundance of resources to help us succeed (our manufacturing plants, our customer service teams, technology resources for e-commerce and product customisation, finance and HR). We don’t have to do everything ourselves. And if we are finding a problem particularly difficult to solve there is usually expertise elsewhere in the Group that we can call on for advice.

Nothing can replace the adrenaline rush of a true start-up, one that gambles everything in its pursuit of success, but we have an amazing hybrid that reduces that risk and provides all the resources to help us succeed.

How have you maintained the same passion and drive that you had when you started PhotoBox?
I don’t know! Maybe it’s just the type of person I am; I love my work, and it’s genuinely thrilling to be in a creative role trying new products and services. The possibilities are endless.

I also encourage my team to treat every day as their first day at work. It doesn’t matter what we did three months ago, or yesterday even. Any bad or mediocre decisions are behind us. What matters most is what you do today and from this point forward, with the information you have available now. It encourages fresh thinking and energy to solving problems. I follow this advice myself.

How do you feel about stepping away from the PhotoBox brand for the first time in 15 years?
I still feel a sense of ownership of the brand I created, and it’s not far away. Hopefully in the future several of the Incubator products or services will be distributed through PhotoBox so I will keep my links with the brand.

Is there one lesson in particular you learnt when PhotoBox was in start-up mode that you’ll be taking to the Incubator?
Start-ups succeed when they can constantly experiment to find the right formula that works with customers. The shorter the cycle time, then the more opportunities you have to get it right. This is the lesson that worked for me from the early days of PhotoBox and I hope to bring to the Incubator now.

You’re clearly very comfortable in start-up conditions, but what do you think are the main challenges that you’ll face?
I will have to make lots of choices: which areas do we focus on and which to ignore. I will probably have a nagging doubt that the next big thing is in the pile of things we have chosen to ignore! But the main challenge is to get the balance right between creativity and demonstrable results. We have to make steady progress but also make some big gambles on totally new products and services.

What do you feel is the biggest difference between PhotoBox at 2 years old and the Incubator unit as it is now?
PhotoBox at 2 years old was a very small company! I think there were only 4 or 5 of us around then, and I was still doing many of the jobs in the company myself: technology work, printing the photos, answering customer services emails, business partnerships and several marketing tasks. Retail e-commerce was still quite immature at the time and many things we take for granted now didn’t exist (Google AdWords, Cloud, tablets, social media and many more).

The Incubator is over double the size that PhotoBox was at 2 years old with 28 talented team members, each of them a specialist in the areas that are now considered essential for successful online businesses. I feel privileged to inherit such a wonderful team.

Finally, where do you see the incubator a year from now?
The Incubator is a business designed to run rapid experiments. Who knows where that journey will take us. But I would like to see new products, services and brands within the Incubator. And I’d like to prove in numbers that we are achieving the growth and customer engagement that we seek. It’s going to be fun.