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It sounds like the kind of pitch that would leave any investor with a disbelieving smile and a pile of cash stashed safely in a bank account that isn’t yours. You want to start an online social photo printing service? In South Africa? A country which has a tiny ecommerce industry and less than a million Instagram users — because the most-owned smartphone (BlackBerry) doesn’t even support the hipster app? Ha. Next, please.
It sounds crazy, but it’s working for Nifty250. The Cape Town-based startup is a self-funded printing service which is not only scraping by, but making a profit from printing Polaroid-style Instagram photos. Users simply connect their Instagram account, click on the photos they want to print, and wait for the courier to arrive.
“We literally have a business running off one photo format,” says managing director Lucas R Adams. “It’s actually ridiculous if you think about it.”
Nifty250 began as a side-project called 250gram by Roxy Rosenberg, which was later taken over by Adams and social media whisperer Talya Goldberg, and relaunched in January 2014. Adams (the entrepreneur behind Kraftisan and a maker with a product design and manufacturing background) and Goldberg (the founder of the TGETHER Blog Network and a business science and marketing graduate) completely reworked the business, down to the website, photo format and packaging.
By the end of the third month, the team was flying: they were seeing 30 to 40 orders a day, racking up followers on Instagram, and navigating around the country to do social printing events for major retail brands.
Six months after the relaunch, the company’s changed its name, grown its customer base, increased the baseline for minimum prints as repeat customers kept ordering, moved into a new studio and passed the 2 800 order mark. The team now consists of three full-time staff members and an assortment of freelancers, and is about to launch a new printing format and a redesigned website.
So, how did they do it?
Do it yourself, perfectly
Nifty250 is driven by an intense focus on user experience, customer service and attention to detail. Nearly everything is done in-house: from printing the polaroids, to designing the packaging, organising the paper, folding the boxes, and creating content for social media and the official blog.
While the development of the site is outsourced, it’s a completely custom build that’s been subjected to the same level of scrutiny as the prints it aims to sell. The team has worked to simplify and refine the website over time, learning from customer feedback and ecommerce success stories so they can reduce any friction and make ordering prints the easiest experience possible for their customers.
“If you don’t need it, get rid of it,” explains Adams. “You’re on the site, I don’t want to waste your time. I don’t want you to spend ten minutes trying to figure out my site, I want you to spend one minute. It’s good for me, so I can take orders and make money, and it’s good for you because you get your prints quicker.”
It’s a process that never stalls — yes, the business may be running smoothly now, but the team is always looking for ways to improve. It’s a deliberate refusal to be ‘just okay’, which is visible in everything from the company’s carefully framed behind-the-scenes photos on Instagram to the packaging (which, when opened, presents the recipient with a cheerful ‘Hello!’).
“There are always questions to be asked,” says Adams. “I think the moment you stop asking those questions and you’re happy with your system, that’s the moment when things start ageing and your competitors catch up.”
Building social influence
When your business prints photos from a mobile app used by a relatively small number of people (680 000 in South Africa at last count), the connections you make are incredibly valuable. Nifty250 can count some of the biggest social media influencers in the country as its customers, but it didn’t get there by pushing supplied text and asking for mentions.
“I’m a blogger, so I see through that stuff straight away,” says marketing manager Goldberg. “I’ve freelanced social media and I’ve worked with a lot of brands during my time. I knew a lot of people… so it was very easy going into it.”
At the time of the relaunch, the team emailed 30 to 40 of the most influential bloggers, Instagrammers and social media natives in South Africa and offered them a simple voucher. They didn’t ask for a tweet, give a deadline, or supply a hashtag they wanted to be shared.
The fact that the product is very personalised (they’re your Instagram photos, after all) gave early adopters something else that was innately shareable — Nifty250 didn’t push them to promote something that many people were already willing to recommended on their own.
Once the content was out there, it became a self-fulfilling cycle which generated more content. The team occasionally takes photos of new orders, giving their customers a taste of what’s to come as well as exposure to almost 5 000 Instagram followers (who might like their photos enough to follow them too). It also highlights some of the best shots the customers take of their freshly-delivered prints, thereby encouraging its followers and future customers to do the same.
Add in the fact that Nifty250 personalises its product packaging with the recipients’ name and includes hand-written gift notes in the parcels, and you’ll see why so many people are taking Instagrams of their Instagrams. “It’s the added extras and the experience that makes people so excited about sharing it,” explains Goldberg.
Although selling prints is the primary business, Nifty250 has also expanded into social printing – it sets up a stand at your event, and prints your guests’ Twitter and Instagram photos on the spot as a memento.
It’s a win-win situation: the brand wants to capitalise on and generate social media buzz around a launch, assess the PR value gained, and know how many photos and new followers it generated. It gets its logo on the print, and a cool party element with tangible results for their guests to go home with.
Nifty 250 gets exposed to the trend setters, bloggers and social media managers that attend some of the biggest launches and events in the country. Its logo and URL are on all the prints, and the service is subtly promoted by the association with premium brands. So far, it’s done over 30 events, for brands ranging from retailers like Mr Price and Cotton On to lifestyle brands like TRESemmé, Levis and Grazia.
Through a combination of a clever social media strategy and the right partnerships, Nifty250 managed to promote its service through word of mouth and customer recommendations. It’s only now beginning to experiment with paying for marketing online.
Genuine customer service
But it’s not enough to just get your name out there – you have to deliver on what you’ve promised. In a market packed with competitors from international heavyweights like Printstagram and Sticky9 to your corner print shop, Nifty250 was always in for a fight. Inspired by loved locals like Yuppiechef and NoMU, it set out to make sure you get more than what you pay for.
Through a process of asking for feedback, evaluating the level of service and print quality of competitors and a dose of trial and error, the team has found a system that works for it. It can offer next day delivery in some centers (and two to three days outside those place), personalized packaging and handwritten gift notes, along with good quality photo prints.
It sounds small, but in a world of mass-dispatches, it makes a difference. The team has seen how something as simple as a custom stamp and a thoughtfully penned note can have a major effect on how the customer views the order, and whether they share it with their friends.
“Those who don’t get [notes], they get annoyed,” explains Adams. “They’ll email with an unhappy face and tell us ‘I didn’t get my personalised note’. People feel quite strongly. I think that’s quite a nice testament that you’re on the right track when your audience responds in that kind of emotional state to what you’re putting out there,” he says. “If they didn’t give a sh*t, then you’ve got a problem on your hands.”
By caring about the experience from beginning to end, Nifty250 has found itself in a place where it has a group of loyal customers who reply to automated follow-up emails with lengthy essays and feel individually catered to.
It’s not something any old ecommerce site can fake. “You’ve got to genuinely believe in it,” warns Adams. “People pick that up.”
Steady and scalable
Nifty250’s end goal is to become an online print shop, offering low price prints in variety of formats for the everyday smartphone owner. But it’s focusing on conquering South Africa and continuing to improve its level of service before it reaches that point.
Based on feedback from its customers, Nifty250 will be adding a new printing format in the coming weeks — photo strips. After it launches the redesigned website, it plans to focus on making the buying progress more mobile friendly to help people shop without having to haul out a laptop. After that, it hopes to expand beyond Instagram, by allowing people to upload their own photos to print (a much-requested option).
While it has a clear vision of the way forward, Goldberg and Adams are wary of expanding too quickly, preferring to rather execute well and refine as they go along. “Now, my sole reason for existence is to print out your photos,” says Adams, “and make that fun.”
Top image: The Nifty250 team includes (clockwise from top left) Lucas Adams, Talya Goldberg, Stefano Montanari, Prince Ndadzungira and Gabi Goldberg. Social printing image: Nifty250.