Local tech startup looks to revolutionize event photographyWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Several years ago, Toledo native Aaron Harwell had an epiphany while running a traditional photobooth business.
“What I noticed was people would take their print, put it on the table, take a picture of it and put it on Facebook,” Harwell said. “I also saw everybody was taking pictures with their phones, but the bride and groom probably didn’t get to see any of them.
“The thought was, ‘Let’s create an app and see if we can capture all those pictures and put them in one spot for everybody to enjoy and do it automatically, as opposed to the whole ‘Send me an email’ or ‘Text it to me,’ which never happens,” Harwell said. “Our idea was to create something very portable and marry the two, the photobooth and the digital app.”
The result is twine.it, a local technology startup poised to revolutionize the photobooth industry with an innovative new setup that integrates social media, photo-sharing and branding opportunities. The business’s corporate name is twineLABS.
“We’re looking to do full commercialization here in another month or two,” including launching franchises nationwide, said Harwell, a University of Toledo graduate who now lives in Perrysburg.
Twine.it’s self-serve photo stations are popular at fundraisers, weddings, sporting events, parties, corporate gatherings and other events, Harwell said, and have already been used at more than 180 events throughout the country.
Users operate the system via an iPad on the side of the photo station. By tapping the “Snap It!” button on the touch-screen, a 3, 2, 1 countdown begins and a photo is taken.
What sets twine.it apart from other photobooths is that guests can download the free twineLIVE app. They scan a QR code or enter an alphanumeric code to access an album of event photos, which are uploaded as they are taken. From there, photos can be saved or shared on any social media platform and other group members can comment on the photos. A “like” feature is coming soon. Users also have the option of uploading their own photos into the event feed. Each user’s events are saved as albums in their app to browse through or share anytime. Photos can also be viewed online or sent via email for those without smartphones.
“We’re creating a temporary social network for an event,” said business partner Jon Hawker, a Perrysburg native. “What we do is create an access point for people to come into our social network without being connected any other way in advance. The idea is you get to interact with each other just for that night of the event. You don’t have to be friends before, during or after that event.”
“It’s a little tongue in cheek, but someone once told us we’re like the one-night stand of social networks,” Harwell added. “You don’t have to get up tomorrow and have another friend or follower. You just enjoy the night and the next day all your memories are on your phone.”
Les Lipski of Perrysburg had two daughters get married in 2013 and used a twine.it photo station at both receptions.
“It’s definitely 10 steps above a regular photobooth,” Lipski said. “The design is very welcoming, it’s really easy to take pictures and it’s neat because everybody gets to see all the different pictures. We wouldn’t have had a lot of the pictures we got if it wasn’t for using Twine.”
The best part was that those who couldn’t be at the wedding, including the family’s former exchange student, who lives in Poland, were able to follow along through photos via twine.it.
“She felt like part of it and really felt like she was there,” Lipski said.
Twine.it’s business model is unique, Hawker said.
“We’re not just creating access to social networks. We’ve created a social network ourselves,” he said. “We’re not competing with Facebook or Twitter or Instagram; we are in between a gap in what they can provide. It’s embracing what the current technology allows us to do in a very experiential way, where people can have fun and also create value.”
The photo station is simple to set up and take down — a twisting motion folds the lighted 80-inch column into an 11-inch suitcase in a matter of seconds.It can also be personalized or branded for each event.
Each photo can also be “branded” with a business logo, sponsor logo, message or hashtag, which is retained when the photos are saved or shared.
“Event sponsors usually get their name on a banner or website, but once the party’s over their name isn’t anywhere,” Harwell said. “Now their name is always going to be synonymous with that event. It’s going to be living in tons of people’s phones and pushed out to other social media as people share those photos.”
Harwell tested the photo station for the first time at his high school class reunion.
“I was really nervous, thinking, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t seen these people in 20 years’ and I’m bringing this thing, hoping people would like it,” Harwell said.
“I put it on and it was insane. I said, ‘I think we’ve got something here.’”
Seventy-two people downloaded the app and, within three days, the 300 photos taken were seen or shared 40,000 times. Guests at a UT sorority formal took 983 photos in four hours — one photo every 11 seconds — that were seen or shared 118,000 times, Hawker said. The grand opening of Bar 145 in Columbus had 409 photos viewed 12,747 times.
“There’s so many neat opportunities for branding externally — we can make it look like anything the client wants, but the real power ultimately I think is the ability to brand the mobile experience,” Hawker said. “This is a game-changer for fundraisers. It’s amazing the spread of our pictures the night of and then a day or two after.”
TwineLABS won a business plan competition held at UT in January 2013, earning them business development assistance from University of Toledo Innovation Enterprises. That summer, they were asked to join UT’s Launch Pad Incubation Program.
Only about 10 percent of startups are successful, said Launch Pad Program Director Molly Reams Thompson.
“That’s like Startup 101,” she said. “But we looked at Twine and thought that was a business venture that was worth the risk.
“What they are doing is really cool and we’re very excited about the idea. They shift the paradigm of what a photobooth experience is all about and take social media and the photobooth to an entirely different level. But what makes us stand up and take notice of them is something far less tangible. People want to be around them. It’s inspiring. That’s what we look for in the companies we bring into our program.”
Hawker said people are sometimes surprised to find out twineLABS is based in Northwest Ohio.
“There’s a really neat tech scene that’s going on that people don’t know about much yet,” Hawker said. “There’s just a lot of creative things coming out of Toledo and people don’t think of Toledo that way.”
“It’s kind of a Silicon Valley startup in Northwest Ohio, which is pretty cool,” Harwell said.
The business currently employs six people and expects to hire more soon, Hawker said. In keeping with the startup’s fun-loving atmosphere, Harwell’s business card lists his title as “prime minister of party.” Hawker is “facilitator of fun.” Julia Johnston is “princess of partytown,” Ron Durbin is “executive of events,” Mico Cordero is “chief of campaigns” and Ashley Duvendack is “primadonna of photos.”
“There is so much good stuff happening in our region,” Reams Thompson said. “Just because you’re in Toledo doesn’t mean the ideas that come out are any less valid than anywhere else. They can be just as impactful as any of the coastal cities. … We’re starting to get some traction and that’s pretty great for us. People are starting to notice.”
After recognizing the need to intertwine the photobooth experience with social media — that’s where the name comes from — Harwell, a firefighter and paramedic with the Perrysburg Fire Department, started experimenting. Later, he enlisted Hawker, a stay-at-home-dad with a background in sales, to help him improve the app and write a better business plan.
Durbin, a Toledo native and self-described “serial entrepreneur,” was so impressed after talking with Hawker that he sold his corporate events business and invested in twineLABS.
“It was the most innovative thing I’d seen in our industry in probably 10 years,” Durbin said.
Johnston, owner of a mural painting business and former Face of FOX Toledo, joined the team after answering a call for an event host.
“When I received an email about the training I ignored it at first, but I really felt something say, ‘Tap, tap, go back to that email,’” Johnston said.
Cordero and Duvendack are both seniors at UT majoring in sales and marketing.
The team believes in keeping its business as homegrown as possible, partnering with Toledo-area companies, including Metzgers, Hanson, Elite Events and Madhouse as well as companies in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. A former Perrysburg resident now living in North Carolina developed the mobile app.
During April and May, twine.it plans to offer a special price of $499 for the basic photo station package. Add-ons like a slide show, extra iPads, digital uploading and more are also available.
Franchises will be available soon, Harwell said.
“It’s basically a business in a box that people can buy into and make a living from, which I think is crazy unique,” he said.
Last year, twine.it partnered with Rocket Sports Properties, the sports marketing arm for UT athletics, to set up photo stations at UT men’s and women’s home basketball games. They plan to add football games this fall, Durbin said.
Other upcoming plans include installing permanent photo stations at local bars and restaurants.
“My vision is by the end of year the majority of people in Toledo will have this app on their phone,” Durbin said. “There’s no one on the planet doing what we’re doing.”
For more information, visit twine.it.
Tags: Aaron Harwell, Ashley Duvendack, Facebook, Instagram, ipad, Jon Hawker, Julia Johnston, Launch Pad Incubation Program, Mico Cordero, Perrysburg, phone app, photo station, photobooth, Rocket Sports Properties, Ron Durbin, technology startup, Toledo native Aaron Harwell, twine.it, twineLABS, twineLIVE, Twitter, University of Toledo, University of Toledo Innovation Enterprises, UT, UTIE