Picture This: Polaroid Fotobar

Warren Struhl has struck again. Struhl founded his first company, PaperDirect, maker of specialty paper and templates for digital printers, in 1988, at age 26. Since then he has founded or provided early nurturing to approximately 30 companies, including Popcorn, Indiana (which in 2011 was sold in 100,000 stores and took in $63.7 million); Sheets Brand Energy and Sleep products; and Vitals.com, an online physician-information service.

His current inspiration, Polaroid Fotobar, hopes to marry the new, smartphone-juiced global enthusiasm for photography with a venerable brand name and a retail experience, and capitalize on consumers’ untapped, perhaps even unrealized, desire to get pictures off their phones and Facebook pages and into large, vivid life on the walls of their homes and offices.

Struhl’s first Fotobar opened in Delray Beach, Fla., in March; he has seven additional stores already set to launch in 2013, including four more in Florida, another in Washington, D.C., and, coming in December, a two-story flagship location in Las Vegas that will include the first-ever Polaroid museum.

Q: Where did the idea for Polaroid Fotobar originate?

A: Photography has never been more popular. I read somewhere that thanks to the ease and ubiquity of smartphones, as many photos were taken last year as in all previous years combined. But when you say to people, “Show me your favorite photograph,” they pull out their phones, or go to Instagram or Facebook to show it to you. And when you ask, “Does this photo live on a desk or a wall somewhere?” nine times out of 10, the answer is no. So we’re trying to change that. The new digital is physical.

Q: That’s in line with one of the most interesting things about the venture—everything seems to be moving online, but you’re betting on brick and mortar. Why do you believe people will come into a Fotobar instead of just ordering a photo project online?

A: It’s the environment. The scene. We believe customers will respond positively to being in a cool social environment where they can actually see and feel and touch the products and have fun. There’s the option of going to PolaroidFotobar.com to order products, and no doubt there will be a number of customers who would rather do that than come into the store.

We use the phrase “Your Best Picture,” and we offer customers a lot of special ways to present it on their wall. They can get a picture framed, mounted, or printed onto something other than paper, such as canvas, metal, acrylic, wood or even bamboo. We’re talking about putting your little smartphone photo onto a 20-by-20- inch piece of bamboo! How cool is that?

So the photographs we’re talking about, by definition, have a special significance. People aren’t coming to us to get six rolls of vacation pictures printed. The customer already has an attachment to the picture he’s bringing in. By enabling him to personally make the adjustments and see what the final product will look like, the customer will feel more in control of these photos.

Q: Each location has a lot of elements reminiscent of Apple stores.

A: No question. The stores are sleek. They’re modern. There are workstations with computers—visitors can just come in and wirelessly upload their photos from their devices onto a workstation. That’s one of my rules: no plug-ins.

Putting the picture on the monitor allows customers to play around with the pictures using filters, get rid of red-eye, and adjust contrast and brightness; we can’t make a bad photo into a good one, but we can make a good photo even better. And if a visitor needs help, we have trained “fototenders” available, all experienced photographers, and they can help get the picture a guest is hoping for. Then the fun really begins.

Q: How did Polaroid get involved?

A: Polaroid has basically been out of the business of making its own cameras and film since 2008, when it went into bankruptcy. Today it’s owned by private equity firms that license the Polaroid name to other businesses. I thought having the Polaroid name attached to the Fotobar idea would be perfect. It’s a name that’s synonymous with “instant,” which is a key part of the digital photography experience.

Even more important, Polaroid is a name that’s synonymous with fun: One of my earliest memories of Polaroid is from a summer camp when I was 6 years old. When my parents came to visit, they brought a Polaroid. They started clicking away, taking pictures of me and my friends, and then we took the pictures and decorated our bunks with them—it was a blast.

Q: This is your 13th startup. What drove you to become an entrepreneur instead of working in a big company?

A: My dad always had a small business. So did his father. And so did his father. I guess it’s truly in the genes.

Q: Let’s tap your startup expertise. What’s your approach in reviewing potential job candidates?

A: Ask lots of questions; do lots of interviewing; do lots of background checks. I’m very thorough, and even then, it’s 50-50 if a candidate is going to work out in the long run.

Q: Do you follow a set plan in evaluating them?

A: No, I try different approaches. Recently, for a very important job in the company, I was considering a man I had known seven years. I invited him and his wife and children to my home for dinner, which is not usually part of the process. I wanted to hear what my wife and my mother thought of him, and I wanted to see him with his family. Not just to see how he was with them, but to see them all together. I’m the sort of person who works hard—my motto is “Do It Big or Stay in Bed,” and I wanted to be sure his family would support that kind of effort on his part. [He got the job.]

Q: Is there any quality in particular that you look for?

A: Several things, really. You look for people who would walk through a wall to be successful. Highly motivated, tightly focused, incredible multitaskers—these are the key qualities.

I place a lot of value on people who have previously been in entrepreneurial environments. Startups are demanding—not everybody is wired for the challenge. In fact, most aren’t. Most are risk-averse. I’d rather have someone who has gotten his or her feet wet on somebody else’s dime.

But when all is said and done, what I’m really looking to see is whether or not I like the person. We’ll be spending a lot of time together; at this stage of my life, I want to make sure I’m spending my time with people I like. I probably give more credit to personality than to experience.

Q: Who’s your hero?

A: Steve Jobs. I admire his commitment. When he was sure that he was right, nothing would stop him. There were times when his own board thought he was crazy, but he fought for what he believed and won.

Q: But not everyone is a Steve Jobs. What do you say to the entrepreneur who is running into obstacles? How can you tell the difference between a good idea that needs only some support to succeed and a good idea that just isn’t going to work?

A: Well, that is the toughest question of all. And there is never a certain answer. One thing you have to do is look at yourself in the mirror. I’ve spent a lot of time in self-reflection, asking myself what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. And you have to trust the people around you who are also tied to the endeavor. That involves learning how to listen, but it’s worth it.

I have a close friend who works for [the marketing and communications company] Young & Rubicam. Nine out of 10 times I have an idea, he tells me I’m nuts. But the 10th time? That’s when I know I’m really onto something.

Q: What is the best advice you can offer to someone launching a startup?

A: Be quick and swift in maneuvering. No business plan has ever been realized as it was written. Be willing to zig and zag, adapt, and seize the unexpected opportunity.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Not a startup. This is my last one, the culmination of a great 25-year run. Really—I’ve promised my wife.


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