Five years ago, Joel Plotkin was just another photographer who had gone digital and was less than satisfied with the online printing services offered to him. "I couldn't find an online lab service that worked the way I liked, and that provided the support I required," says Plotkin, now president of Efotolab.com. An avid customer of Colourworks Photographic Services in Wilmington, DE, a pro lab that catered mostly to commercial photographers, Plotkin worked hand-in-hand with the owners for 16 years, cultivating a business savvy that eventually brought his sights to the internet. He wanted to create an online service that would not only be readily available to its customers at virtually anytime during the day, but also one that ensured a high standard of printing quality. Plotkin's solution: Efotolab.com, an online ecommerce pro lab, which provides its customers with service around the clock and calendar. "Prior to going online, we had standard hours, which were 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Now we can accept files and orders 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Customer service is available from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m."
Not your traditional pro lab, Plotkin's virtual brainchild was a gradual step in what he sees as a natural progression toward more internet-based services in the industry. "With the growing use of digital technology by professional photographers, affordable pro-grade digital cameras, and high-speed internet connections, it just made sense to bring our services to the internet."
Plotkin approached the owners of Colourworks, who at that time weren't offering an online sales solution, with his idea of creating an internet service. "Colourworks was the leader in its region in regard to quality and in their focus on the digital future," he says. "They were one of the first labs to install LED and laser printers--all the other labs in that area were still using optical printers and couldn't accommodate the growing digital market. The owners were excited about the idea, so we joined forces and I started developing the website."
And though he knew that his online service would meet high demand, Plotkin never expected the large response he received. "In the beginning, we thought that at a minimum we'd be creating a service that could be used by the local market," he says. "We ended up creating a business that has grown across the U.S."
MAINTAINING A DIGITAL FACE
Efotolab.com is an online business only, which means that there's no storefront to draw in clients. "Dealing face-to-face with photographers is an important part of a professional lab's business model, and we knew that going online would affect how our service is perceived," explains Plotkin. In order to foster client relationships, Plotkin and his team work hard to maintain an ever-present online face. "Being available to answer questions and assist photographers is one of the key factors of our success," he says. "Our customers know that we're there for them when they need us."
A full-service operation that also provides traditional lab services, Efotolab.com uses Colex processors for C-41, E-6, and RA-4. All of its silver-halide printing is done on a combination of machines depending on the print size: Large silver-halide prints are printed on a Chromira printer that uses LEDs; smaller prints (4 to 12 inches) are printed on silver-halide papers using lasers; giclée prints on paper and canvas are done with HP 12-ink inkjet printers. "We use Mac and PC platforms for all production work," he explains. "Our main software applications are Photoshop for retouching and ZBE WorkStream for managing our output." With a fairly large customer base using film, Plotkin's team uses high-speed film scanners for roll film, and Imacon scanners for high-end scans.
With a custom appeal, Plotkin takes pride in low re-make numbers and high-end quality printing. "Our roots are in serving the professional market; therefore, we put a great deal of care into printing our members' images," he says.
In fact, 75 to 80 percent of Efotolab.com's member base uses its color-corrected print service. According to Plotkin, this number is reflective of his hands-on approach to customer service. "Each image is printed by a highly skilled technician who adjusts/corrects each photo ordered, which includes making subtle crop adjustments on photos that require it (i.e., adjusting an 8x10 crop so a head isn't cut out by the natural crop)," he says. "If we see something that doesn't look right, we'll call the photographer to ensure we're doing the correct thing for them."
Integral to Plotkin's detail-oriented style is his experienced staff. With an average tenure of about eight years, Efotolab.com's team is made up of photographers and photo imagers who know the business thoroughly. "All of our employees have a photographic background, and some still shoot," he says. "The key element in our hiring is that we find people who like people. Our employees understand our market and care about our customers. They know the quality of their work is not only judged by lab management, but that it also must hold up to the high standards of the professional photographers we serve."
Offering auto-prints, called EfotoFast prints, for photographers who prefer to manage their own color correction and cropping, Plotkin appeals to an even-larger customer base. Quite the entrepreneur when it comes to online services, Plotkin relies on his team of knowledgeable professionals to not only make prints, but to assist in the overall management of Efotolab.com.
His business is run day-to-day by an operations manager, along with two partners that are always on-site. "Being a full-time photographer has huge time demands," explains Plotkin, who balances his time as a photographer by delegating responsibility to his staff, ensuring a steady workflow that now includes not only professional photographers, but also their customers. "Bringing our services online presented challenges in regard to photographers' customers," he says. "We were put in the position to manage those relationships as well, which is very different from the walk-in-lab business model, where photographers never let their customers deal directly with the lab. This is an important part of our service, as it takes a lot of pressure off of the photographer--90 percent of the calls we receive can be dealt with internally, while 10 percent are passed on to the photographer to be resolved."
TARGETING AN AUDIENCE
Serving a wide range of photography clients, including professional wedding, portrait, event, sports, and fine-art photographers, Efotolab.com covers the gamut when it comes to artists looking to make high-end prints. "Our primary target market is comprised of photographers who want to make their images available online for sale," he says. "Our membership is not limited to full-time professionals, but focuses on photographers who have a genuine interest earning an income from their art."
And when it comes to working with artists, Plotkin admits that photographers aren't always the easiest clients. "Photographers are tough customers, and they're more than likely to select vendors who are close to home," he explains. "Breaking that bond was difficult in the beginning."
Over the past few years, Plotkin and his team have tried direct mail, email, display advertising, telesales, and online search marketing. "Display advertising has been working extremely well, so that's where we focus our efforts," he says. "There are magazines that target our specific market segments, so we try to tailor our advertising to fit that constituency."
In addition to traditional marketing endeavors, Plotkin has found the most success with sending press releases to existing and prospective clients, which highlight the company's new service offerings and any notable news. "Most small-business people are unaware of the power of a good press release," he explains.
Frequent participation in smaller events has also been useful in getting Efotolab.com's name into the local and regional vernacular. "We were recently approached by a new rental studio about some co-marketing opportunities," he says. "We will sponsor and run seminars for photographers in exchange for advertising space on their website. Our approach has always been to help photographers increase their income."
By helping photographers within the industry, Plotkin solidifies a loyal customer base while spearheading his own marketing initiatives. "A lot of the help we offer actually helps us with our customer retention efforts," he says. "For example, we're starting a new Marketing Help feature very soon, where we'll profile one of our members and include their images, as well as some useful marketing ideas."
According to Plotkin, the success of Efotolab.com is largely a result of keeping a fluid, creative marketing game plan. "The key to successful marketing is test, test, test--try many different things, and once something works, make that your control, and continue to test to beat your control," he says. "Most nonexperienced marketers end up with a winner, stick with it too long, and see numbers drop."
Fortunately for Plotkin, his numbers are only going up. Whether it's the photographer within him, the internet's special power, his open-minded marketing approach, or a perfect combination of all three, Efotolab.com is a digital force to be reckoned with.