Smilebox Takes on Shutterfly, Snapfish in Growing Global Market for Photo Sharing

Smilebox is on a mission to help people around the world capture life’s moments, and share them. The Redmond, WA-based startup’s photo service—something of a cross between a desktop application like iTunes, and a pure Web-based service like Google search—helps consumers share pictures and videos online, create original projects like greeting cards, invitations, scrapbooks, slideshows, collages, and DVDs with their photos, and manage and print them through local retail chains.

The four-year-old company has some pretty lofty goals, from what I gathered in a recent conversation with CEO Andrew Wright. He envisions Smilebox becoming a household name—a part of the basic life experiences of the global population. Every wedding, anniversary, birthday, holiday (international and local), child’s first day of school, community festival, reunion, and family vacation, Smilebox wants to be there.

“Our goal is to be the brand that is synonymous with life moments and how people share them, connect around them, experience them,” he says. “We want to be at the center of that, and we want to do that globally, and to do that we need to be in all these countries, we need to leverage a global approach to be culturally relevant.”

The global approach Wright’s referring to involves building a local culture around Smilebox in every country they expand to, and it has been the company’s main focus over the last year. When we last checked in with Smilebox in February, the startup had just raised a $2 million round to expand its market to the U.K., Germany, and France. Now, six months later, the company has passed the 12 million download mark, trucking along like the startup that could. But this isn’t good enough for Wright.

According to Wright, Smilebox has an awareness level hovering around 18 percent in its current markets. His goal is to drive that number up, and fast. “We want to get our awareness level up to 60, 70, 80 percent over the next several months so we can be one of the dominant brands in photos,” he says.

This means taking on better known brands in the industry, such as Shutterfly, Snapfish, Photobucket, and fellow Seattle company Picnik (which focuses more on photo editing, but shares some features with Smilebox). And it’s a task that proves difficult as the company moves forward with its international expansion plans.

“We need to build awareness globally and build reach,” Wright says. This means Smilebox needs to build out its technology to support the individual cultural environment of each and every country it enters so it can target its services toward local holidays, festivals, traditions, customs, and whatever else is specific to that market.

“It is a tough job, but it just means that we’re culturally a lot more relevant,” he says. And that added value is what’s helping the company find success, even as the underdog. Smilebox more than doubled its revenue in the fourth quarter of 2009, compared to the same period a year earlier. And this year is looking good so far too. The performance has been strong enough to make Smilebox think about international growth. “We want to make this a big company, and we’ve been investing aggressively,” he says.

Luckily, the international expansion through cultural awareness is also what differentiates Smilebox from its competitors, according to Wright. “The fundamental difference in the way … Next Page »

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