When Convene spoke with Snapbar CEO Sam Eitzen in the summer of 2020, it was after he and the company he founded with his brother Joe — a custom photo-booth business based in Gig Harbor, Washington — had made two strategic pivots in wake of the shutdown of face-to-face events. One was to develop software for a virtual photo-booth service. The other was a move made for the sake of survival: To bring in revenue and avoid layoffs, Snapbar went into the business of assembling and mailing city-specific gift boxes filled items sourced from small local businesses in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and Brooklyn.
The gift-box business “did really well in the beginning and got us all sorts of press,” Eitzen told Convene in September. But as COVID dragged on, the growth of that business began to stall — fortunately, as the virtual photo-booth business was taking off. And from 2020 through 2021, sales of the company’s virtual photo-booth product climbed, Eitzen said.
In the summer of 2021, as events reopened unevenly amid new COVID strains, the company began to see clients use the virtual photo-booth product for some in-person events, he said. For a few months, Eitzen and his brother looked for ways that could straddle the market, providing both in-person and virtual photo-booth services.
That shift “made us think of two big things,” Eitzen said. The first was that he and his brother were tired of the travel and complicated logistics that came with managing a team spread across many cities, he said. “We didn’t do it for about a year and a half during COVID. And as weird as it sounds, we loved some of the freedom.” In particular, Eitzen, a father of three, liked the fact that he wasn’t getting calls at all hours on the weekend nights or being interrupted at family dinners. “I said to myself, ‘I want to do everything I can to keep that.’” The other shift was in seeing the benefits of virtual photo-booth service in providing clients with a cost-effective, environmentally friendly way of creating branded content. It doesn’t replace the visceral fun of jumping in a photo booth, Eitzen said, but companies can use the software to “mobilize all these people to take photos of themselves, and of each other, without a single photographer or photo-booth company being there, all really easily and far more affordably.”
So instead of going back on the road with physical photo booths, “we focused all our efforts in trying to create a new kind of photo booth, which we felt was going to work for both the virtual event, the in-person event world, and hybrid events. And the idea for this new kind of photo booth was simply that we are going to put it on every phone, and that’s what we’ve done.”
The product they created, Snapshot, “saved our company and allowed us to keep our team together,” he said. “It’s opened us up to a lot of new clients and of course, to this new world of virtual events, which, though it has really taken a big hit recently, it’s still very prevalent for a lot of companies.”
Speaking of Snapbar’s response to the dip in online-only events, “when we saw virtual events start moving down in the ranks in terms of how frequent they were, we wondered ‘What are we going to do?’” Eitzen said. Earlier this year, Snapbar debuted a product called Studio, based on their observation that HR departments in big companies were using their Snapshot software to create headshots for their own teams and employees. That, Eitzen said, has “actually been a huge blessing because we’ve never been exposed to an industry outside of events.”
That’s at least four pivots in two years, and Eitzen is candid about how taxing the demand to adapt has been. “It’s easy for an entrepreneur like myself to talk about their product like their baby and be so excited about it,” he said. “But getting here has been really difficult. I ended up going through burnout in 2021 and had to take about five weeks off when I developed insomnia and heart palpitations.” He has since taken better care of his health and sets limits around the number of hours he works, he said.
When Convene first talked with Eitzen in 2020, he described the investment that he and his brother had made in the company’s culture in terms of compounded interest. Employees showed themselves ready and willing to innovate and adapt, he said. “We could not have made these pivots without a great team.” That’s continued to be true, he said.
“You can’t build culture overnight. It’s just this little drip by drip, where you have to stay disciplined in continuing to invest in people even when it’s challenging, and continuing to be gracious with people, even when you need them to work hard.” The pandemic has taken a toll, however. “I think as excited as I am about the product and our future, it’s been a very exhausting couple of years to be an event company. And I imagine that’s probably a shared feeling for a lot of people.”
Ultimately, Eitzen said, as an entrepreneur he understands that “business requires risk. Oftentimes, the risk takers are the ones that are rewarded. And sometimes the risk takers are the ones that get hurt. But I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s better to take risks for the things that you believe in.”
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.