In a world of DIY projects and photography enthusiasts, 31-year-old Amit Gupta has learned how to make his passions pay. Nowadays he does that virtually (from Photojojo.com) and on the ground (from his headquarters above Mission Bicycle on Valencia Street). His online business is a happy fusion of a free photography advice newsstand and a retail shop for unconventional photo gear.
Photojojo was founded in 2006, when Gupta came up with a concept that has fueled photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Facebook: the simple idea that in our digital age, people take many photos, but rarely do those photos make it out of hard-disk storage space.
“I saw a lot of my friends taking tons and tons of photos and those photos sitting on their computers gathering digital dust and just being forgotten about,” Gupta said. Instead, he wanted to figure out how to re-create the art of photo printing.
His website was originally an editorial collection of DIY-style photo project ideas that Gupta was tinkering with to showcase and share images with friends.
“As I figured out fun projects to do with my camera and my photos, I figured, why not tell other people what I was doing?” He created and compiled how-to guides for everything from making temporary photo tattoos to how to beat the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block.
The website picked up word-of-mouth attention and momentum through his friends and beyond, and Gupta quickly began selling advertisement space alongside his editorial content for a profit.
Ever the entrepreneur, he soon realized a new direction for his site: retail. The site had featured so many unique photography items that it was a natural progression to begin selling them. The product list quickly grew: screw-on bottle-cap attachments that transform any bottle into a tripod, tiny cameras, bizarre photo frames.
Gupta started out small, with help from his friends.“We just packed up boxes in my small apartment in Manhattan until midnight, then wheeled them over to the 24-hour post office.”
“Getting people to pay you money for physical goods instead of selling ads and bits seemed so alien to me,” Gupta said. Still, he’s kept it up. A hot item this season is a coffee mug that is an exact replica of either a Nikon or Canon camera lens. Even as the business has grown, Gupta has kept the product list deliberately small. “We want to keep a curated selection. That’s where we can add value.”
When Gupta moved to San Francisco, he settled first in SoMa. That lasted a little over a year. “The vibe of the Mission, the young energy and the artistic energy, was better suited for us. Everyone I know lives in the Mission. It seemed like the place to go. I love it. It has a great energy. It reminds me of Brooklyn; it’s got everything.”
Like most Internet entrepreneurs, Gupta can often be found working late through the night, sometimes until 7:30 am. He likes the quiet of the office at odd hours. Plus, it’s only a few blocks from his home. This week’s Cyber Monday, a marketing term used to describe the onset of online holiday shopping, marked the beginning of his busiest season.
On his Facebook bio Gupta writes: “I’ve been an entrepreneur since birth. I like making things.” This seems like a fairly accurate statement. Gupta started his first web project, the Daily Jolt, during his sophomore year at Amherst College. It went so well that he took two-and-a-half years off to focus on the site. After graduating, he worked in usability consulting before starting Photojojo for fun. Now it’s his full-time job — a company that he describes as both a business and a creative outlet.
“We’re a company devoted to helping people have more fun with photography,” Gupta said as he sat in his office, artfully decorated with 4-by-6 photo prints. A poster hanging on one powder-blue wall reads: “Work Hard and Be Nice to People.” Gupta says the site’s following is international, but strong especially in U.S. coastal cities, and among the scrapbookers of the Midwest.
An Internet search for “gifts for photographers” yields Photojojo as a top hit, but the site continues to emphasize editorial content. Photojojo boasts 1.5 million monthly pageviews, and has more than 300,000 newsletter subscribers. The company’s two sides converged last year, when Photojojo published a book of DIY photo projects that was sold in Urban Outfitters stores.
Photojojo operates with four employees including Gupta, plus a handful of workers who telecommute via the Internet. Gupta now travels quite a bit; trade shows take him everywhere from Japan to Germany. He’s constantly searching for new, interesting products to feature on his site. His niche, he says, is discovering new products and figuring out innovative ways to use them before other people do.
He sees a future, though, in which the store is geographically local as well as internationally virtual.“We have our eyes open for retail space in the Mission. But we’re not in a rush. We’re looking for the right space.”