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Ways We Work

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From a newsletter to an online photography store

On our recent trip to San Francisco, Matt and I had the opportunity to drop by the offices of the photography-loving Photojojo and spend some time with the team there. Photojojo started as a side-project as a weekly newsletter and has since grown into a full online store, chock-full of the most popular and unique photography accessories around (think a lens cover that looks like a burrito). Being photography enthusiasts ourselves, we wanted to learn more about the growth of this company, and get a behind-the-scenes look at the team’s process for keeping their audience of over 500,000 subscribers engaged.

As we arrived at Photojojo’s new office on Market St. in downtown San Francisco we were greeted by Jen Giese the company’s CEO, who took us up the stairs to the third floor where the team was working. Appropriate for a photography-related company, our first observation was that the entire space was filled with incredible natural light. We walked around and Jen introduced us to the rest of the team. Every desk and shelf was decorated with Photojojo products, trinkets, the odd fuzzy green rabbit and other fun things. The colourful trinkets stood out against the bright walls and clean, minimalist aesthetic. After introductions and a tour of the space, Jen began to tell me about how the company got its start.

Founded in 2006 by Amit Gupta, Photojojo began as a newsletter that would feature weekly photography tips and unique ways to do more with your photos. It’s worth noting that this was pre-Instagram and even before mobile photography’s true potential had been realized. Much of the newsletter’s early content was focused on helping people find creative ways to use all the photos they were taking with their compact digital cameras.

“It was very similar to now, with people taking more photos with their phones, opening photography and making it more accessible. There were more people doing it but not really knowing what to do with the photos they were taking or how to take it to the next level.” —Jen Giese

Jen explained to me that as the newsletter grew, Amit began working with advertisers as a source of revenue, but really hated the process of working with them and constantly having to sell ads for the newsletter. Instead, he began experimenting with selling some of the cool products and tools he was discovering through his search for content for the newsletter. Starting with just four products and using his mom’s garage in Connecticut as the fulfillment warehouse, he started selling products to his readers. Products resonated really well with Photojojo readers because not only could they read about the tools available to improve their photography, it was now easy for them to get them. Photojojo began being featured in popular blogs and as the audience continued to multiply, Amit wanted to explore the potential of carrying more products and focusing his attention there. It was clear: he was going to need a warehouse, and most of all, he was going to need a strategy to take it to the next level. That was when Jen Giese came on board to help with marketing, fulfillment and strategy. Having been with the company since the beginning she has seen it grow from a newsletter into a full online photography store.

Jen equates a lot of their success and growth to simply following the trends in photography and making sure they were always one step ahead. They were carrying photography accessories for the iPhone 3G before people had even considered it’s potential to replace dedicated digital cameras. Through travelling, attending tech shows, and hearing about the latest product trends from Photojojo’s vendors, they made sure they were always carrying the newest and trendiest products available. They started to notice external lenses for camera phones popping up. Jen told us how at first she thought they were ridiculous, but took a leap of faith and decided to carry them and they blew up.

Sitting in Photojojo’s office, one thing we noticed was that the team was smaller than we had expected, there were around 6-8 people in the office that day. Jen explained that what we saw in the office was actually about a third of the entire team. She went on to tell us that as they grew, they ended up with a pretty large remote team, mostly by accident. As an example, the team’s editor Laurel Sittig who was originally from San Francisco decided to move to Chicago, and the team loved working with her so much they found a way to make her role work remotely. When they needed to bring on developers they found a developer in Texas they wanted to work with and when he eventually needed help he hired local developers, so their whole dev team is there. The Director for one of the team’s newest print products Parabo is located in Pittsburg. Zoomin, which is the company that acquired Photojojo in June of 2014, is where all of the company’s print operations are and they’re located in India so they have a large portion of the team there that they’ve grown close with as well.

“I think any company of this size and in this day in age is trying to get things out as fast as they can and be first and stay relevant and it can be hard to do all those things at once.” —Jen Giese

Naturally there are some challenges to having a team that spans across the globe but Jen said they have their ways of keeping everyone connected. One of the most important is the team’s “workcations” that they try and do every few months. Jen explained that for those they try to bring the whole team out to San Francisco for a couple weeks. Occasionally they’ll have one on the East Coast, with the main goal being to get everyone together in the same place. When they can’t physically be working together, they’ve developed some creative ways to work around it. In their San Francisco office they have a monitor that is always Skyped in to other locations. When they want to talk to a team member in another location, they can just yell over as if they were in the same room.

There are still challenges, as Jen explained “things get done a lot faster when your bodies are in the same place together and it’s definitely important to make sure that everyone knows exactly what they’re doing.” The team uses a lot of task management software to keep everyone on the same page and project management is always an area they’re improving in. Making sure that the whole team stays up to date across multiple time zones can be challenging but Jen believes it’s worth it to be able to work with great team members.

“It’s not perfect but it’s what we ended up with and the people that we’re working with remotely are so amazing that it makes up for any sort of struggles that we have in the process.” —Jen Giese

The photography industry and now even the mobile photography industry are huge and there are a number of new trends and products popping up daily. When I asked Jen what some of the challenges are that Photojojo faces working in this world, she talked about just trying to do a lot of big things at once and having to move quickly. She elaborated by saying “I think any company of this size and in this day in age is trying to get things out as fast as they can and be first and stay relevant and it can be hard to do all those things at once."

After we talked Jen and a couple members of the team invited us up to their rooftop space. Which they explained wasn’t really designed for holding any significant amount of people up there, in fact the first time they went up they discovered the hard way that there was no handle on the external side of the door. This however made for a good story as they showed us how one of them had to shimmy down the fire escape to let everyone back inside the building. Once we got on the roof we immediately understood that the view of the city was to blame for the team’s desire to spend time up there.

Photojojo’s newsletter now boasts 500,000 subscribers and they’ve built a loyal following over the last 9 years, but despite their audience size and influence it was refreshing to see a small close-knit team of people just working on products and projects they enjoyed every day. As we headed out we left with some serious workspace envy and anticipation for what Photojojo does next.