When Andrew Laffoon was in fifth grade, he didn’t act his age. “I started coding when I was 10, and I was kind of known for taking electronics apart and putting them back together. I was basically the kid who liked to stay inside, code on the computer, and play with electronics,” he recalls.
While his innate intellectual curiosity might not have won him any middle school popularity contests, it is one of the reasons why he is so successful now as the chief executive officer of Mixbook, the photo service company he co-founded.
Originally designed to let users create customizable physical photo albums, Mixbook has evolved over time to offer card- and calendar-printing services. It has also unveiled innovative product offerings such as Mosaic, a simple-to-use mobile app, and Montage, a web-based service that streamlines the photo book-building process.
For Laffoon—who, let the record show, has since racked up numerous awards, including placements on the Inc. 30 Under 30 and Forbes Up and Comers lists—Mixbook has been a decade-long learning experience. What, then, are his biggest takeaways?
In an interview with Free Enterprise, the University of California, Berkeley graduate talked about Mixbook and shared some of the most important and practical lessons he’s learned over the past 10 years.
An idea for a company can come from anywhere.
The premise for Mixbook came from a desire to fix something that frustrated Laffoon and his co-founder, Aryk Grosz. “He had an idea around the yearbook space, which hadn’t been disrupted in a very long time. He called and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if groups of people could create their own yearbooks?’ “ Laffoon says.
“At the same time, I had had this terrible experience trying to build photo albums online, so we realized that maybe there was something there. Mixbook really came out of this painful experience that my friend had working on the high school yearbook, and I had building photo books.”
Don’t get discouraged if your business doesn’t achieve astronomical fame right off the bat.
Though Mixbook’s launch came and went, without any of the fanfare that the co-founders had imagined would accompany it, that didn’t deter them. “We expected billions of users and nobody came,” Laffoon says, laughing.
“This is what’s typical in the first version of anything a startup launches, especially two kids fresh out of college. But then we ended up launching a Facebook app, which went viral and grew to 2 million users. None of them paid any money, but it got us users and traction. From there, we figured out that there was a segment of users who were paying, and we decided to listen to them and build the features they wanted.”
And don’t get discouraged if not everyone believes in your company as ardently as you do.
“In 2006, we pitched over 50 VC firms and none would fund us,” Laffoon recalls. “The reason they cited was because newspapers were going away, physical books were going away, and everything was shifting to digital. Everyone told us that print photos were a thing of the past, and that no one was going to invest in us because we were targeting an old market and an old model.”
They were wrong.
Create a business that excites you on a personal level.
“If you want to clarify what we’re about, we want everyone to experience that magical moment of taking life’s most important memories and being able to reframe them in a story that can last for generations. It’s a rare and powerful thing,” Laffoon explains.
Similarly, what most excites Laffoon about Mixbook is the feedback he routinely gets from customers. “The most exciting thing for me was when all these people started to write in and said, ‘I gave this book to my dad and he cried, and I’ve never seen him cry before. And he said it was the best gift he ever got,’ ” he says.
“I know it’s not something you normally talk about, but it’s something that really made our success—that we hit on something so powerful and emotional for so many people.
Be a contrarian.
Throughout his career, Laffoon has consistently made decisions that diverged from conventional thinking. Yet it’s this boldness that has ultimately helped paved the way for many of the company’s successes. “I have always had a very contrarian view on the notion that everything printed is going to die. I think that print mediums that are fundamentally a one-time consumption medium—like newspapers—will go digital,” he says.
“But what bridges the gap are the things you have that are more than one-time use, that you want to look at again and again, and that you want to have on your shelf because it says something about you. Those are the products that aren’t going to go away. I actually think that, the fewer things you have around you, the more valuable they become. The books you’re going to choose to put on your shelves in the future are really going to speak volumes about you.”
Take risks—but only intelligent ones you believe in.
In keeping with its contrarian outlook, Mixbook isn’t afraid to try something different, even if it could end in failure. “As I see it, Mosaic was a risk, and when we proposed the idea, our board said it was stupid and that we shouldn’t do it,” Laffoon says.
“They told us to not do it. But we thought, ‘No, this is the camera of the future, and this is the place where people are taking their photos. Yes, it is possible people don’t want to create a photo album from their phones. But I think they will.’ ”
Above all else, emphasize customer service.
If you don’t have customers, your company doesn’t exist. But if you have happy customers, you’re that much closer to having a successful company.
“We are crazy about customer service,” he says. “With Montage, for example, every order comes with a return label. Nobody else in the industry does that. The only way that a return happens is if somebody isn’t happy with the product, and we absolutely want to know if that happens.”
To make sure its customers are happy, Mixbook methodically chooses whom it partners with, and it regularly assesses its and its partners’ performance. “We do everything from issuing a report card that every printer gets every week to mystery shopping ourselves and our third-party vendors to make sure our performance stays at the highest level,” Laffoon explains.