The Dead Pixels Society podcast

Mixbook's Photobook Evolution and AI Journey, with Andrew Laffoon

February 01, 2024 Andrew Laffoon Season 5 Episode 150
The Dead Pixels Society podcast
Mixbook's Photobook Evolution and AI Journey, with Andrew Laffoon
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Join the celebration as we hit 150 episodes! This time, Gary Pageau talks with long-time Dead Pixels Society member Andrew Laffoon, CEO and co-founder of Mixbook. Listen to the story of Mixbook's transformation from a simple yearbook concept to a pioneering force in photobook storytelling. Laffoon shares the story of how the company continually adapted to the seismic shifts in photo printing technology, from the boom of the mid-2000s to today's cutting-edge AI, all while responding to the creative needs and desires of their customers.

Uncover the secret sauce of Mixbook's success: A combination of a robust bootstrapping culture and a deep understanding of consumer needs. Laffoon sheds light on the strategic establishment of an Eastern European engineering hub, the underappreciated role of company culture, and the gritty determination that fuelled Mixbook's growth while maintaining a lean investment strategy. Then, he shares the nitty-gritty of AI's role in curating customer experiences that resonate with authenticity and personal storytelling, and how Mixbook is navigating the delicate balance between technological advancement and user agency. If you're fascinated by the confluence of AI, creativity, and the personalized future of print media, this is one episode you won't want to miss.

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Hosted and produced by Gary Pageau
Edited by Olivia Pageau
Announcer: Erin Manning

Erin Manning:

Welcome to the Dead Pixels Society podcast, the photo imaging industry's leading news source. Here's your host, Gary Pageau. The Dead Pixels Society podcast is brought to you by Mediaclip, Advertek Printing, and Independent Photo Imagers.

Gary Pageau:

Hello again and welcome to the Dead Pixels Society podcast, the 150th anniversary episode with Andrew LaFoune, the CEO and co-founder Mixb ook. Oh my gosh, Andrew, we go back how far.

Andrew Laffoon:

Woo, Gary, I'm pretty sure we met back at the PMA conference Right, and it was probably around 2008, 2009, right when Mixb ook was just coming into the industry bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, no idea about photo space.

Gary Pageau:

Yeah, I remember I was at the show and you were wondering around looking lost and I said I need to take care of this guy. He looks like he just fell off the puppy trail or something and he needs someone to help him. That's where we started back in the day. So for those who aren't familiar with Mixb ook, can you talk a little bit about how on earth a kid from Stanford gets a partner and decides to start a photo book company? Of all things?

Andrew Laffoon:

Yeah Well, by the way, it's Berkeley, not Stanford.

Gary Pageau:

Oh God, we got out of there now.

Andrew Laffoon:

We don't talk about the junior college across the Bay very much.

Gary Pageau:

Okay, okay, that's fair, that's fair.

Andrew Laffoon:

So funny. I always joke with people. My co-founder and I were scrapbooking in our dorm room together, just kidding. We came into this a bit differently, so we had an idea going to Berkeley that we thought you want to democratize all the things. How do I empower everyday, ordinary people to do new things, to do things better, and the thing we were passionate about was storytelling. We believe every person has a story to tell and actually the initial market for the idea was yearbooks. Because in yearbooks you've got 10 kids making a yearbook for 2,000. Most people's stories really aren't in there. You've got your photo on the page for your grade. Maybe if you're on a sports team or in a club, you might have a couple more photos out the book. If you're on the editing team, you have a lot more photos in the book, but most people's stories aren't really there. And that's actually how we started was hey, let's go after this yearbook space. That seems like a great opportunity. But as we went along we realized democratizing storytelling is much bigger than school yearbooks. It actually is all storytelling. And there's this whole new market. At the time when we started in 2006, still relatively new five-year-old market called Photobooks we thought that was the future.

Gary Pageau:

Yeah, everyone did. Everyone thought it was the future. I mean, think about the era back then For you kids who are just coming into the industry now didn't realize. No one knew what was going to be going on in the mid-2000s. I mean, the expectations for print were far different. People like Eastman Kodak was thinking oh sure, people are going to print all the pictures that they take. Now they're going to be printing like you wouldn't believe and it's like well, when they can pick the pictures. That's a different dynamic.

Andrew Laffoon:

Yeah, I think that's totally true. Time warping back to that time. Anyone new in this space now has missed a lot of that transformation. I think what three things I observed coming to PMA. When I was at PMA, the whole dynamic was how do we get people to print again and digital and oh it's all about how do we educate people. And my thought was prints are already dead and you just don't realize it yet, because Photobooks are going to replace them and they're going to be replaced by all the other products Prints on the wall, canvas prints, acrylic blocks, all these new products. Of course, it turns out I was wrong. Prints are far from dead, but as a percentage of photos, they've gone down dramatically. What do you do with that? Of course, photobooks have grown tremendously from then. They've become a huge market and a popular product. The second thing I realized about this market is the companies who are still around it are crazy resilient Because, if you think about the transformation this market's gone through, you went from analog cameras to digital cameras. You went from digital cameras to smartphones. You went from smartphones. Now we're making the transition to AI Every five to 10 years. The whole market is getting thrown upside down.

Gary Pageau:

Right.

Andrew Laffoon:

This is a market that requires high degree of resilience, high degree of staying in touch with your customers, figuring out who the new customers are, and a degree of innovation.

Gary Pageau:

Right. Yeah, that's the thing. You can't just sit, Like you said, the folks who lived through the analog to digital conversion, which was fraught with casualties all over the place. Then there was the whole desktop to mobile change, which again does stop so around, but obviously mobile and the people could manage that transition well. And then, like you said, now there's the AI space, which we're gonna talk about AI later, but because you guys are heavily involved in that, but for the folks it's kind of an overview. I mean, you are known for books but you do other stuff too. So how did that kind of come about as a business decision, that we're the mixed book company and now, but we also make all this other stuff? What was the? Was there resistance within the company saying, hey, listen, we're the book company, we're not the wall decor company or the gift company?

Andrew Laffoon:

We are. We're a company that focuses a lot on our customers and, candidly, we added new products very early in the life of the company because, because our customers were asking for it and because we wanted those products right, we looked at the offering out there for card companies and for us it's all about storytelling.

Erin Manning:

It's all about creativity.

Andrew Laffoon:

And most card companies are. You drop a photo into the template. Most local companies are. You drop photos into the template. You're not big on that. We want to enable people to truly be creative and express themselves, and we said there's no one out there who does that in cards, let's do it in cards. There's no one out there who does it in calendars, let's do it in calendars. Things like home decor, it's less so. You know, people aren't spending hours designing their wall art. Usually they're doing that in assortment, right, they're designing wall like that. So wall art less so. But over time, you know, our customers want it and they have to go to somebody else if we don't offer it. So that's how we've been in so many product categories and the truth is it's still few. Our philosophy is a lot more like Apple.

Erin Manning:

We're not going to do everything.

Andrew Laffoon:

We're going to do products where we believe we have some differentiation, some uniqueness and we have a reason for just doing the same thing as everybody else Might as well. Let the other companies do that. That's just noise in the market.

Gary Pageau:

So it's almost like the 80, 20 rule, right, the classic. You know you're going to do the other 20 stuff, but it's not going to drive the company per se. Yep. We'll do a little, so talk a little bit, because I want to kind of stay in the history a little bit. So you launched in 2008 and what was the environment there in the startup world when it came to? You know, you're pitching this thing right, you're looking for support and you haven't gone public. You haven't done a lot of those kind of things. You bootstrapped a lot of what you're doing, but what were those conversations like? Because you said some of your conceptions were not correct.

Andrew Laffoon:

Well, many, most most of our conceptions as 22 year old Berkeley grads Berkeley engineering grads you know we launched we first launched the product in 2007, actually, and we were trying to raise money along the way. Good news about being Berkeley engineering grads is most every VC will take a meeting with you, right? And pretty much the unanimous response was, hey, this is great, but all printing is going to be dead in five years and no one's ever going to print anything, ever again, right? So how about you try a different idea? You guys seem great, you seem really smart. How about what if you made a YouTube for photo books? Or what if you made whatever the thing is right? Insert your random idea of the minute here. And we just didn't agree with them. We said no. In a world where there's less and less physical things and in a world that becomes more and more virtual, humans are not becoming virtual. We're physical, so we're always in a value physical thing. In that future world, you might have less physical things, but the ones you do have should say something about you, right? So, we always believe a very contrarian approach. Truth is raising money in 2008,. All of you see, said no. We pitched over 50 venture capital firms. They all said no and we almost ran out of money. In fact, we were begging. We were basically just begging everyone we knew. I asked all the college friends we didn't have much money, can you have $1,000? I was like a non-profit. By the way, we were a non-profit at that time, not intentionally, because we couldn't get product market fit. When we launched, we thought, oh, we're going to win on price. And we're going to launch soft cover books only, and our customers were like, hey look, no, we actually want hard cover books. These are gifts, people. And you tripled revenue overnight just with one launch. And so it's things like that listening to your customers, being close to them, understanding them and staying true to your belief. Like we had some contrarian views, some of them were wrong. Many of them were right. Market actually turned out not to die. It's continued to grow. It's continued to change.

Gary Pageau:

Right? Yeah, it's definitely not. The entire workflow model has completely changed. I mean, the way it used to be it was you take your pictures out of a digital camera, you stick them in your computer, you sort through them, you organize them, you upload them, and now it's almost happening instantaneously on your phone.

Andrew Laffoon:

Yeah, a little story, since you asked about 2008,. We closed our million dollar funding round on July 11, 2008, which is the same day IndieMac Bank failed.

Gary Pageau:

OK.

Andrew Laffoon:

So we had amazing timing. Not through any fault of our own, we did not expect what was coming and, as you can imagine, the very next, the very first board meeting with those new investors, you're like, hey, we've got to get to profitability, right. And of course that's what we did. So we continued our bootstrapping MO, which I actually think is a great approach in this space, right.

Gary Pageau:

Yeah, I mean because I mean, you and I have both seen, like I said, we've been around, been friends for a long time, we've seen a lot of stuff, as they say, and you have people coming in with like wild, you know, checkbook strategies. I'm just going to start buying up stuff and they tend to blow through a lot of cash and then struggle because they haven't understood the buying behavior of consumers. And I think that's one of the things that entrepreneurs struggle with. Right, I'm going to build a thing I want. Right, I want to do this thing, and I'm sure there's other people who want to do it. If I spend enough money, I'll find them. And you kind of had the reverse approach. I mean, yes, you wanted to make books, but you were going to listen to customers as well.

Andrew Laffoon:

Yeah, and, of course, we started with making what we wanted 100%. We did, and we were the only ones who wanted it Like a small handful, and that small handful actually had great advice for us, and that's essentially what we followed to get to our work event.

Gary Pageau:

So give us an idea as to the scale of Mixb ook now you know you're what, how many years into this? I mean, I know you can't disclose a lot of information because you're private and that's fine but just kind of a scale of the number of books you may ship at peak or something like that, and I do the listeners idea of how successful you've become.

Andrew Laffoon:

Yep. So 18 years in, you know, annual number of books printed is going to be in the seven figures, right, it's millions, so it's a good scale business and most of our history we've been profitable, so it's been a profitable growth. We've raised some money, raised 11 million in total. So not a lot of money actually considering the scale of business.

Gary Pageau:

Right, exactly, and that's what we do, because you don't have a lot of people picking at you.

Andrew Laffoon:

Right, right, yeah, and I think the people who have invested in us by and large are really in it because they love what we're doing.

Gary Pageau:

Right.

Andrew Laffoon:

They love the mission, they care about the mission, they love the space, they love the customers, they love the innovation, they love the technology. That's another weird thing about us. We started Mixb ook, started as a technology company Right, and that's what we are. But, as any good technology company needs to do, we became customer-driven a technology company.

Gary Pageau:

Right. Well, I want to talk a little bit about the engineering side, because you have done something unusual in the sense that you've set up an engineering arm overseas in Europe. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Andrew Laffoon:

Yeah, so interestingly, it's funny, hiring engineers in the Bay Area is always a challenge, right, and we did. You can definitely hire amazing talent here, right, and we're some of the best talent in the world resides. But my co-founder actually was from a small country in Eastern Europe called Moldova, and really, really from Moldovan Romania, and he went back there with an idea of what if we could benefit the place I came from, benefit my homeland, so to speak, and also benefit Mixed Book by building a hub there. So, yeah, we built a hub in Eastern Europe and that's been phenomenally successful and we still retain having a team here. We now have three hubs actually. I think that's the type of strategy that can scale. But that hub there has become really the core of our innovation.

Gary Pageau:

Which I mean. I've talked to people who've done business over there and that it's just, they said, the intellectual talent, the work ethic and the innovation coming out of there if you can access it. That's been the challenge the last couple of years with turmoil in that region, but if you can get to it, it's an outstanding pool of talent out there.

Andrew Laffoon:

It is. It is Totally true, and I think for me that kind of goes into culture being the method for success. I think it's something that doesn't get talked about very much. Entrepreneurial projects. Everyone's like what are the three ways to win? What are the five tips? Easy steps to success. If you have anything with the word easy in it, that is a lie. Just start out there, that's a lie Sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And the thing I underestimated as a technology founder as an engineer was the importance of culture, and culture meaning how do people work together to accomplish great things? How do you get an environment where people thrive and grow and be at their best? And to me, that's the key, ultimately, for long-term success. You want to have short-term success. All you need to do is get to an exit. Well, fine, culture is not going to matter that much. Get the right product, get the right marketing, get it out there, grow fast, sell it Right, make a deal. Let's make a deal. That is an option. It's an option and a lot of people do it and it's kind of the adrenaline let's go hard driving thing 80-hour weeks and all that stuff.

Gary Pageau:

Yeah.

Andrew Laffoon:

And you're going to need that in the beginning, no matter what you do. You're going to need that. There's no way around that. I would say you're going to need that all the time. If you want to do ambitious things, you're going to need hard work.

Erin Manning:

That's a basic.

Andrew Laffoon:

But the difference to me is if you want to go for a long period of time, if you want to make a transformational impact. It's about the culture, it's about how people work together. It's about how you're right people. Because, innovation is not easy Right.

Gary Pageau:

And you have to be patient. I mean, that's the other part of it. It's you know, if you do have a culture like you're trying to build, it's you've got to be willing for people to be comfortable making mistakes and learning from them and then doing something better. Yeah, and we've made huge mistakes.

Andrew Laffoon:

We've done a lot of innovative things. From you know, we've launched multiple different brands. We've acquired different companies Mosaic first, mobile First Mobile app for making photo books. Montage, AI-based first experience for making photo books. We were too early in many cases. We came up with a lot of ideas and we thought somebody's going to want them and we launched it and work. And then, five years later, someone else launched it and it worked. The timing was right.

Gary Pageau:

Right? Are those the type of mistakes you think are the biggest mistakes? You've learned from that type of the timing mistakes?

Andrew Laffoon:

No, the biggest mistakes are screwing up the culture by far, hiring the wrong people, not holding people accountable, not building the culture intentionally. That's the biggest Because, at the end of the day, that's the stuff that had the longer term consequences. Those mistakes around Mosaic and Montage were downstream of that, right. They were downstream of not building the right culture, not being as intentional, sure, and often times, right, it's a temptation to chase shiny objects. Oh sure yeah.

Gary Pageau:

And I mean, you and I both know, like, with the AI thing, right, we were both at Visual First with some of their generative AI stuff that was shown two years ago and everyone was floored. They thought there's crazy. And then three months later it breaks out mainstream and everyone's doing it and it's crazy. But is it a business, right? I don't know. Yeah, the word is still. I mean, it's an investment, people are doing it and I think someone will probably figure it out, but right now it's a gimmick, right? I mean, let's talk a little bit about AI, because you are using it, you kind of have applied it to some of your products, but it's in a very you know, you're not screaming AI at people.

Andrew Laffoon:

Yeah, I would say how do you market AI in this space is a challenge that I don't know if we really know how to do very well yet. But how do you integrate AI into the product to make the experience easier, to unlock new creative possibilities, to enable new things that you just couldn't even do before? Right, that's expertise area. Yeah, we do risk, we totally risk being too early there again, but we believe the opportunity is so big Right In the space for this, and not only to help current customers but to find new customers to enable new use cases, new audiences. Right so that's you know. We're all in on that.

Gary Pageau:

So talk a little bit about, like, your approach to AI. You're not doing a lot of, you know, goofy avatar creating stuff. I mean, that's all out there and you can certainly plug that in, I'm sure. How are you using AI to improve the customer experience?

Andrew Laffoon:

Yeah, so we can kind of go multiple different pieces. I'll just share a couple of our product principles for you. A core product principle for us is authenticity. We're about creating and talking about what's real, what's true, what really happened. Our customers can totally make up stories if they want to, but we're not trying to create tools that are about. Let me make up a you know a photo book about the time Gary and Tom Cruise went on a vacation together. That's fake.

Gary Pageau:

Well, no one's supposed to know about that.

Andrew Laffoon:

Exactly. Sorry for disclosing your top secret project. So for us, it's actually not about the gimmicky piece. It's about how do we take AI and enhance human creativity in a way that enables people to tell their stories For us, we're storytelling company at our roots, that's our core. So how do I help that? Well, in fact, much of the AI that exists, much of the gender to AI exists. That exists doesn't necessarily directly help that today. So, that's where we're on the emerging frontier of building tech that it might be a year away, it might be five years away. Some of this stuff is really hard and there's no way to predict right Until you are and you don't know how long it's gonna take.

Gary Pageau:

Right and when the customers will accept it right. I mean, that's the other piece of it, right? Is you gotta be in the right place where customers are saying, yeah, I wanna try and do that. I will allow Mixb ook to look at all my pictures and suggest a book. Yep, and that's a bit of trust that I'm not sure I want X Photo Book company to do that Right right and I think you're totally right in it.

Andrew Laffoon:

That's I think that's one of the things about building on principles, building from a principles perspective. That's if you don't the AI, the big risk with AI is you can lose your brand trust, right. And not to mention, of course, you can do a lot of damage in the world, right. AI got me wrong. So for us, we believe AI is a good thing. AI is a tool if it's put in the hands of humans to enhance their creativity to enable new possibilities. That's what we're doing, really, candidly. We've been doing it since the beginning. The first version of Mixb ook launched, the core idea was actually algorithmic creation. Right Now, at the time, all people want it. It was more creativity and turns out that's true. Up until now there's really not been a way to merge that high degree of creativity and creative possibility with AI. It's really been one or the other. You can go spend 10 hours and make the book you want, or you can do it in one automated tap and get a book you don't exactly want, but as good enough.

Gary Pageau:

Right. If it gets you 85% there, you're probably fine with it. And that's one of the things I think stalled the early photo book market was people instinctively knows no stories. Right, let's help people communicate. They tell stories, but they don't necessarily know how to build a story in a book right Beginning, middle end, transitions between things and all these things. And that's where AI can actually help is some of the assistive applications.

Andrew Laffoon:

Yep, totally agree. We've been productizing real AI from a sense of computer vision and machine learning and neural nets for 10 years and for that technology much of it is very mature in the space at this point. Right, Computer vision is very mature at this point. Gen AI is totally bleeding edge. So that's where we're kind of operating right at that bleeding edge right now.

Gary Pageau:

Now, do you ever do things with AI or with some of these tools to enhance someone's product without them knowing it or choosing it? I mean, do you say, hey, listen, we're gonna adjust the composition of this picture, we're gonna crop it, maybe we'll clean up the face a little bit? I mean, how much you know is okay.

Andrew Laffoon:

Right now it's almost all opt-in. Yeah, okay, because now it's pretty a lot of customers are using it.

Gary Pageau:

Sure.

Andrew Laffoon:

But there's a group of customers who's like I wanna do everything myself. I'm in full manual mode. For those people, they're in full manual mode. They didn't opt-in to any of the features.

Gary Pageau:

They didn't opt-in to AI design. There's too much time on their hands.

Andrew Laffoon:

It's a hobby, right? Yeah, A lot of people it's a hobby. So that's a different, very different feeling than I. Just need to get this thing done for my wife's birthday.

Gary Pageau:

Yeah, exactly, yeah, exactly. Your Christmas is coming and the shipping cutoff is this date or whatever. Yeah, it's a little, you got it. So, looking forward, there's a lot of speculation within the industry we were talking a little bit about that before the recording about, kind of like, where are some of the future opportunities For the industry as a whole, not just Mixbook? You've been around and you've probably one of the most well-connected folks in the industry thanks to your involvement in the Dead Pixel Society. Of course, where do you kind of see the industry going, kind of from your position as one of the longstanding warrior companies in the industry? You've been through a lot.

Andrew Laffoon:

Yeah, so a few things. The good news is emerging generations seem to love printing. The good news is the younger generation loves is actually more creative. Right, the good news is, in a world where AI is automating a lot of the boring, repetitive tasks, the world is drawn more to creativity and storytelling and what makes us unique and personalization. All those megatrends point to a great situation for our industry. Right, we do feel that we're on the precipice of a situation where there's going to be a major adaptation needed, right, and many companies are not going to make it. Yeah, for that reason, it's the same thing that's happened before. It's the same thing that happened as we got the smartphones the same thing that happened with digital, and it's hard to know what's on the other side of the precipice what new? Products will come out of it? What new experiences will come out of it? But the market opportunity is still so big.

Erin Manning:

Right.

Andrew Laffoon:

There's nothing that speaks more to who we are than our photos and our memories. Sure, there's nothing that's going to create a better gift. There's nothing that's going to be a better thing to pass down to future generations. There's nothing that's going to be a better way of expressing ourselves. It's nothing that's going to give you more of that reminiscent, put you in that kind of place where you're reliving the things that matter most. All this piece is right. Nothing is going to be deeper than that. So I'm really bullish on this base. I feel like we're stuck in this weird niche.

Gary Pageau:

Right.

Andrew Laffoon:

And AI, if nothing should unlock a brighter future where our space is actually able to reach a much broader audience that we haven't been able to reach in the past. That's our belief, that's where we're going, that's what we're going after.

Gary Pageau:

Well, we are going to be super excited to watch you and continue to cover Mixb ook and your adventures as we go on. Andrew, if people want to reach out to you, how could they get in contact with you Just maybe partner or learn more about what you guys do?

Andrew Laffoon:

Andrew at mixbookcom. Very easy. Well, that's all.

Gary Pageau:

Well, Andrew, it's great to connect. I'm sure we'll be seeing you soon, the next few weeks, at industry events. Thank you for being my 150th guest on the show and a longtime supporter Appreciate it.

Andrew Laffoon:

My pleasure, Gary. The Pixels might be dead, but the Society is alive and well. The Dead Pixel Society.

Erin Manning:

Thank you for listening to the Dead Pixel Society podcast. Read more great stories and sign up for the newsletter at wwwthedpixelssocietycom.

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