From technology company to retailer: The making of Snapfish

In the heady days of the Dot Com boom engineers and computer scientists ruled the world. A good idea and the basic architecture to deliver it was all you needed to become a stock market darling. A few made it big – very big, many more expired along the way, but there was a third group. The toilers who never set the world on fire themselves, but provided the spark for others to change our lives. One of these was the company that invented social sharing of your photographs – Snapfish.

Snapfish discovered the value in connecting networks of people to their photos. Launching in 1999, the idea was new, the technology was sound and the investors were interested. District Photo bought the nascent business and in turn it was acquired by Hewlett Packard in 2005. The big time beckoned… and beckoned… but never arrived. So after a decade with the Snapfish offer, HP decided on a change in direction and sold the business back to District Photo a couple of years ago.

That could have so easily have been the final chapter of the Snapfish story, were it not for Jasbir Patel, former head of Walgreens photo business who came on board as president and CEO last January.

The problem, as he saw it, was a business without a clear focus on the customer. The website engineering was second to none, the appeal of the idea had only got bigger (with the likes of Facebook’s Instagram) yet the customers weren’t there. He had to find a way to reconnect the concept with the customer base.

Patel had seen big change before. In his previous role in Walgreens he was pivotal in the growth of the Walgreens photo business. He also had the opportunity to work with mould-breaking British consultancy Egremont Group to transform retail stores to focus on the employees and customer. He liked what he saw there and wanted it at Snapfish, tasking Egremont with turning the business into a great retailer. The product was solid (Snapfish software to stitch images onto keepsakes) and the staff remained talented and committed. Egremont had to troubleshoot and fix whatever was holding it back and unleash the company’s commercial potential.

Many companies that grow organically share similar challenges. They develop without the processes and strategies necessary to tie the burgeoning operations together. Through Egremont’s work, Snapfish realised they had all the right components, but they were working independently of each other and not aligned to the needs of the end customer. Egremont’s lasting legacy was to create an operating model for Snapfish that brought in this focus and managed the economic model of the business. For the first time since foundation, Snapfish was working as one single high performing, customer-centric team. On an operational level finally that meant decisions on how to balance website R&D spend with enhancing the customer experience could be made effectively and efficiently.

The results were immediate. Ambitious business targets were consistently delivered and even exceeded. Following behind these bottom line improvements was a tangible cultural transition within the company. By focussing on the “customer back” operating model, Egremont took Snapfish on a journey from introspection to outward engagement where all activities within the business were joined up and focussed on consumer outcomes.

Perhaps the greatest change though has been the realisation that Snapfish is now a retailer instead of a technology company. With that in hand, Snapfish is now in a position to use its understanding of the market and customer base to leverage new opportunities and deliver against the growth potential the founders first identified all those years ago.

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