This week on #ForWhatitsWorthwithBlakeMelnick, the next installment in our series #ManyFacesofInnovation, #EyesWideOpen - my interview with #SueSiri, Founder and CEO of #IrisBooth.
Often times good ideas "die on the vine" so to speak, because at the time the idea was conceived, there was no context to which it could be applied.
In some cases, the right context might be the right market condition. In others, it might be the lack of funds and expertise for development. Or it might be an outlier idea. In many cases, however, it might something right in front of us; a new twist on an old theme, or an idea that no one knew they needed ...For what it's worth
This episode is dedicated to #HughSegal who passed away yesterday at the age of 72. Hugh was a guest on For What it's Worth in 2020 - in the early days of the show. He was smart, passionate and pragmatic and taught me a great deal about the need to look after all the health and welfare of all our citizens in a way that it benefits this beautiful country of ours ... RIP Hugh Segal.
For those of you that are unfamilar with #HughSegal and the contributions he made to Canada, check out the 2-part interview with Hugh called #ComesaTime from 2020
Part 1 - https://fwiw.buzzsprout.com/1151660/6641008
Part 2 - https://fwiw.buzzsprout.com/1151660/6777250
Link to the episode blog post
The music for this episode, "Bible Thumpin' Sundays and "Night Falls" is written and performed by our current artist in residence, #DouglasCameron
You can find out more about Douglas by visiting our show blog and by listening to our episode, #TheOldGuitar
Eyes Wide Open
[00:00:00] Blake Melnick: Well, welcome to this week's episode of, for what it's worth. I'm your host Blake Melnick. And this is our next installment in our series. The Many Faces of Innovation. Called Eyes Wide Open. My guest today is Sue Siri, Founder and CEO of Iris booth. Sue welcome to the show.
[00:00:48] Sue Siri: Thanks, Blake. I'm really happy to be here.
[00:00:50] Blake Melnick: Let's begin with a little bit about you. I always do this with my guests, so our listeners get a sense of who you are. So tell us about Sue Siri.[00:01:00]
[00:01:00] Sue Siri: Absolutely. I was, born and raised in Nova Scotia.
[00:01:04] I am a professional photographer, have been my entire adult life. I got my start in photography, becoming the first female press photographer to ever work in Nova Scotia, working for the Halifax Herald and went on to have a fairly successful career in both commercial lifestyle, portrait and studio photography.
[00:01:26] My most recent gig was as a studio photographer in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
[00:01:31] Blake Melnick: Was photography, something you wanted to do ever since you were a young child.
[00:01:37] I have always been really fascinated by photography. So Blake, I grew up really, really poor.
[00:01:43] No one in my family, no one that I knew, had any photographic equipment. So there is such a scarcity of photographs from my childhood. I don't have... More than two or three photographs of myself, my family members, my parents. [00:02:00] So, photographs always seemed kind of magical and otherworldly to me. And at the age of 15, a career counselor at my high school in rural Nova Scotia put a Nikon EM in my hands.
[00:02:14] And crowned me the head of the photography club, and gave me the keys to the darkroom, and that was it. I have never done anything else in my life.
[00:02:22] So, I assume you were developing your own, pictures in a dark room. This seems to be a lost art. I don't know anybody that does that anymore.
[00:02:31] Sue Siri: It is a replaced art. It has become replaced by the art of Photoshop.
[00:02:35] Blake Melnick: Right.
[00:02:36] Sue Siri: So we went from doing it in an analog fashion to a digital fashion, but actually the artistic. process isn't that different.
[00:02:44] Okay. So you've been a photographer since a very young age.
[00:02:48] Blake Melnick: , you were born and raised in Halifax. Let's talk a little bit. about those early days and what it was like for you.
[00:02:55] Sue Siri: was one of those lucky people that got up every single day, [00:03:00] every day of my life and did exactly what I wanted to do. What happened though, was that technology was threatening the industry. Hmm. In a really profound way. Remember, I had lived through, auto exposure, auto focus, the age of digital.
[00:03:15] Sure. But cell phone photography was the greatest, most present threat to our industry. Right. In that moment. Also, I was Approaching an age where photography was becoming more difficult. It's a very physical job, It's very style based, so I felt my younger peers were sort of nipping at my heels in terms of creativity and fresh approach.
[00:03:38] So I recognized that I had to have A final chapter, a swan song, so to speak.
[00:03:43] Where are you doing a lot of, school photography, student headshots and that kind of thing.
[00:03:49] Never school photography.
[00:03:50] I had a very experience. exclusive, beautiful studio in downtown Halifax. And I did very high end corporate headshots. Three to [00:04:00] 500 a pop, they were coming in all day long. It was the who's who of the Halifax crowd. So I was already doing headshots.
[00:04:08] And remember I started back in the nineties when only. Really high level executives and real estate agents had headshots. Right, of course. And then we transitioned to this time where even my plumber has a headshot on LinkedIn. So it was the only genre in photography that was actually still thriving.
[00:04:27] Everything else was struggling. So I had already intuitively been moving towards more headshot based, studio in Halifax when I got an RFP from a local university to do 4, 000 grad photos. And I cringed, but the business sense in me was like, how can I do this?
[00:04:47] Blake Melnick: And then you had this aha moment. An epiphany of sorts.
[00:04:52] Sue Siri: I had an aha moment around the dinner table. So I, two children, at the time, both in university. Believe it or not, Kim [00:05:00] Kardashian had just come out with a book called Selfie. Selfies were just becoming a real thing. And I was joking and I said, I'm going to take all my gear and I'm going to set it up in a vacant classroom at St. Mary's. I'm going to record my voice, you know, like lean in, look at the camera, keep your chin down. And I was going to give the kids a remote and charge them 20 each to come into the room and take their own selfie grad photos. Both my kids put down their utensils and said, wow, that's an idea. That'll actually work.
[00:05:35] That's a really good idea. Kids would love that.
[00:05:38] Blake Melnick: So, where did you go from there?
[00:05:41] Sue Siri: Where I went from there was to try to imagine
[00:05:44] how I could do this in a really automated, professional looking way. So I went... into my living room with cardboard and craft paper. And I crafted a very rudimentary prototype of what I thought this could be.[00:06:00]
[00:06:00] And I took 8 1 2 by 11 sheets of paper and, made a user experience, user flow, and just went about it in a very kind of kindergarten way initially.
[00:06:15] Blake Melnick: Well, I love this. And this is really designed thinking, young children have this innate sense of experimentation and creativity. And if we allow ourselves to go back to that, Childlike state of play almost in order to create the prototype using whatever you have at hand. Bits of paper, objects in your house furniture. You're able to create a visual. or at least an imaginary representation of your idea. And I think that's really cool. So you created this mock-up and then what.
[00:06:50] Sue Siri: And then I knew I had to go to the next step, which was to develop a functional prototype. And what's really nice and somewhat unique about the [00:07:00] Halifax environment is we have a lot of public funds that we can access. Right. And Halifax was just really focused on innovation and becoming a tech hub.
[00:07:11] So there was a lot of... funding and supports available. So I immediately started looking for those supports and those supports ended up being thankfully not just financial, but also mentorship, uh, resources. I was connected to the engineering department at Dalhousie to help develop this. I was able to hire, software engineers to come in.
[00:07:35] So I really tapped into that sort of public. support network that's available in Halifax.
[00:07:41] Blake Melnick: And public funds. So you worked very closely with universities to help develop and refine this initial prototype.
[00:07:49] Sue Siri: First pitch was to National Research Council of Canada and I remember walking into this guy's office and I had been told probably [00:08:00] about an hour before that pitch that this guy's nickname was the dream killer.
[00:08:06] I've met some of those guys. So nervous. I was just thinking he was going to shoot this idea, like all the hell. And I walked in and I gave him the pitch and it turns out that he was a really avid photographer. So he kind of understood what I was saying. He understood what I was doing. He loved the idea and ended up becoming a bit of a champion for me.
[00:08:29] Right. So not only did he not kill my dream, he was instrumental. Sort of that early development of the prototype.
[00:08:36] Blake Melnick: Sure. because he understood the medium. And that's really important. So you came to the national research council, you pitched your idea and did they give you money?
[00:08:48] Sue Siri: The Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency. And, N SS B I, which is the Nova Scotia Business Inc. I was able to access funds. resources, mentorship through them, and [00:09:00] also partner with the local university to make that first prototype.
[00:09:04] Blake Melnick: And so, tell me about that first prototype. What did it look like? How did you come up with the design idea? Did you have a vision in your head? Was it the result of your collaboration with the universities and their engineering departments? who came up with that initial design?
[00:09:21] Sue Siri: The initial design intention to make it as different.
[00:09:25] from that nostalgic photo booth we would see at the mall. I wanted it to be such a departure from that it ended up looking like a Campbell's soup can. It was round. It was a cylinder. No one understood what it was. it was very difficult to manufacture. And it had a lot of structural problems, but I did hear from somebody really early on that if you don't look back at your initial Prototype of your product five years down the line and just cringe then you haven't come far enough So I've definitely moved on from that [00:10:00] early design
[00:10:01] Blake Melnick: Well, that's a perfect segue to the next part of our conversation. Which is Iris booth itself. So. What is Iris booth?
[00:10:12] Sue Siri: Iris Booth is a self serve product that delivers professional headshots and integrated badging solutions.
[00:10:19] Blake Melnick: So, Iris Booth is really sort of the next generation of something that we all know and are familiar with, the photo booth. You and I, of course, remember going into these photo booths. When we were kids with our friends or by yourself, you put in your money and then you wait patiently while the photos are being produced in the
[00:10:37] machine and they drop out in front And you have this wonderful Momento. I know for me growing up in Toronto, we had them at the Canadian national exhibition. We had them in the subway stations, and they were always a lot of fun. So, that's really what Iris Booth grew from. Was it not? It's kind of the next generation of the classic photo booth.
[00:10:58] Sue Siri: It is, [00:11:00] it's a combination of the evolution of the nostalgic photo booth and how fun and fanciful that was. And Taking a professional, studio headshot, which can be for some people very anxiety inducing, but delivers great results. And then I married those two things. So I'm giving you a fun, easy, relaxed environment where you're in control, but I'm still delivering professional quality headshots.
[00:11:29] So I married the two together.
[00:11:30] Blake Melnick: You know, when we first talked about this idea. a couple of years ago, Sue, I really didn't get it. And I said, this is on my trailer. I understood it, but I didn't, see the value proposition. In my head, it was okay. So this is a new version of the photo booth.
[00:11:47] Eventually, though, I did start to understand how this could be a value. But
[00:11:53] I have a couple of questions. Number one. What do you think? Has changed in the world? to make the product [00:12:00] you've developed. Number one, grows so quickly. And number two, have such mass appeal.
[00:12:07] Sue Siri: The easy answer to that is LinkedIn. LinkedIn is sort of the pinnacle of online presentation for professionals. And how we think about, and how we define professional has really expanded over the years. Professionals used to be C level executives. Now you can be a professional in pretty much any industry.
[00:12:29] And it has become very imperative that we have a personal brand because no longer do we enter the job market. Anticipating to retire from our first position. So we continually have to promote ourselves online and that has. It's driven this demand for personal branding and we're a really key piece of that.
[00:12:52] Blake Melnick: I was booth looks very much like an apple product. In fact, I could imagine apple designing [00:13:00] something that would look almost identical to what you've done here. So what informed your current design? Of the booth.
[00:13:08] Sue Siri: So there were a few major considerations. The biggest one, like I mentioned earlier, was not to have it too reminiscent of that
[00:13:21] I wanted it to feel very fresh, very modern. It is a digital product. I wanted it to feel very open and inviting with no physical barriers to get in while still maintaining a small footprint. So those were my physical. challenges was how do we make it feel as big as possible while maintaining the smallest possible footprint
[00:13:44] Blake Melnick: And how big is it?
[00:13:46] Sue Siri: It takes up a footprint of 20 square feet. So four by five So it's not quite that large, but it needs 20 square feet to live and operate,
[00:13:55] Blake Melnick: Okay. So you've got this slick prototype design. Who was your [00:14:00] first customer?
[00:14:01] Sue Siri: Our first corporate customer was indeed the online hiring platform, right?
[00:14:07] And I got a call from a Gentleman in Dublin who according to his colleagues is difficult to understand so for me in Canada listening to his accent and he spoke very quickly and I'll be honest I thought it was a prank call. I did not believe this was happening, but he wanted a booth for their corporate office in Austin, Texas.
[00:14:32] And they were our first corporate client. We had a brief stint with a retail model where we corporately deployed booths, offered them to the public, and charged an individual fee, but indeed was our first corporate client.
[00:14:47] Blake Melnick: And what was the value they saw in Iris booth for their company?
[00:14:53] Sue Siri: So the fellow from Dublin was in their physical security department, he was looking for a [00:15:00] badging solution. He wasn't even looking for headshots, and we weren't even thinking about badging at that particular time, but he wanted to automate badging. So, that's what he was looking for,
[00:15:12] Blake Melnick: And this was all for internal purposes for indeed staff.
[00:15:17] Sue Siri: That's correct.
[00:15:18] Blake Melnick: You mentioned, you began with a retail model. But then you changed. directions. Tell me why.
[00:15:27] Sue Siri: The retail model was a really quick way to bankrupt the company. And I was fortunate enough to figure it out just in time.
[00:15:38] So with the retail model, we had a brand new product that, The population didn't understand. You yourself said, I didn't quite understand it initially. So you put, basically what looks like a fancy photo booth in a shopping mall. And try to charge people 20 and get them to understand. It's not for fun.
[00:15:55] It's for professional headshots. We take an enormous amount of marketing. It also [00:16:00] meant that we had to manufacture and deploy and maintain all of these units in the market. Of course. Yeah. And it was going to take millions and millions of dollars. To even start to make a dent. So there's just no way to capture a market big enough to get momentum.
[00:16:18] To earn that money back 20 at a time. It was just a failed idea. The product idea was there, but the business model was
[00:16:26] really flawed.
[00:16:27] Blake Melnick: So talk to me about how you changed your business model.,
[00:16:32] Sue Siri: David Boshel gave me a phone call one day from Ireland and said we need a unit at our corporate office in Austin, Texas.
[00:16:38] And I said, here's the way we do this. This is our path forward. I recognized it instantly because it was an immediate sale. Our business model is that we sell the hardware much like you would buy a cell phone, but the hardware doesn't really do anything unless you buy a service agreement from us, which is a recurring annual service fee.
[00:16:58] So it's a really [00:17:00] nice business model. It's very stable for us. And it turns out that lots of corporations, indeed now has about... 12 of these in three countries. We have a lot of clients that have multiple units and, we sell the product, we build to order, we don't need to maintain Massive amounts of inventory, and then we also have this nice business model with recurring revenue.
[00:17:23] Blake Melnick: Right. So my understanding is, an organization buys the hardware, which is the booth itself. But then they're paying a recurring fee for use of the software, which makes the booth work. I want to talk a little bit about the software, because when you first mentioned Iris booth to me, I thought, oh boy, there are going to be some real issues around disclosure of personal information or risk of disclosure of personal information and that kind of thing.
[00:17:50] So tell us how the software works with the hardware and how you manage to navigate around this potential liability.
[00:17:59] Sue Siri: The [00:18:00] software that we utilize on the back end is all proprietary. It's something we've developed in house. And what I basically tried to do was to be mindful of all the pain points that I would have experienced doing multiple headshots for corporations in my shooting years, and then try to resolve those using the software that we built.
[00:18:21] So one of the issues that was always a big concern, is that I would go into a law office and do 50 headshots. 48 people would show up, there'd need to be reshoots. So right away the booth excels, because it's there, it's 24 7, come in as you want. Another one was how you disseminate those photographs. So the individuals would want to see the photos and approve them first.
[00:18:44] But the client would say, no, no, no, send them to us. So we have this great mechanism where the client, the end user, the subject of the photograph gets to approve their image before anybody else sees it, before it gets saved. It then gets directly sent to an [00:19:00] admin account that the corporate client can access.
[00:19:03] So the software really solves a lot of logistical problems and automates a lot of things that used to be done manually. It does. Open us up to some data liability issues to that end. We are very, very careful not to collect any personally identifiable information, but for an email address for the sole purpose of delivering the product.
[00:19:26] So we have such low level, low value data that we would not be a high target priority for hackers. Having said that, we follow. All of the industry standard data protection rules. We have third parties inspect our software, our systems, our platform annually to make sure that there's no holes.
[00:19:50] We take data protection very, very seriously. Keeps me up
[00:19:54] at night.
[00:19:54] Blake Melnick: But my understanding is you're not holding any corporate data. Is that correct?[00:20:00]
[00:20:00] Sue Siri: Absolutely not. So we are not integrated into any external or internal networks in these corporations. What we do is we provide a custom API that allows them to reach into our servers and pull their own
[00:20:16] Blake Melnick: That makes a lot of sense. Because when we first talked about Iris booth, I thought, oh my God, this would be a legal nightmare. And I gather you did go through some hard clients in terms of testing your data integrity. It was your hardest client to sell on this in terms of protecting personal information.
[00:20:34] Sue Siri: There's been a lot of hard clients in terms of data protection and I respect them all for being so very careful. I mean, some of our clients include names like Microsoft and Indeed and LinkedIn. where data security is vitally important. But I would say the two that have been challenging, we have a very healthy school program, and those are often, publicly [00:21:00] funded, so they have very stringent rules around data protection.
[00:21:04] But healthcare. Healthcare. Healthcare. We do big healthcare in the U. S., and that's where we see a lot of second guessing and a lot of... Concern around how we handle data.
[00:21:17] Blake Melnick: that makes sense. to me. But you touched on something else, I'm interested. in exploring with you. Your market.
[00:21:23] Sue Siri: Yes.
[00:21:24] Blake Melnick: Is it largely in the U. S.
[00:21:27] Sue Siri: It is. Probably, 85% of our revenue comes from the U. S., 10%. comes from overseas and maybe 5% here domestically.
[00:21:38] Blake Melnick: So, let me make sure I understand this. You're a Canadian innovator.
[00:21:44] You received. Public monies in Canada. To help develop your innovation into a very successful product. And yet. you have almost no market here in Canada. That's a bit surprising.
[00:21:59] Sue Siri: No, it [00:22:00] isn't. Because we are a very innovative population, but we are incredibly risk adverse, and we are late adopters of technology.
[00:22:07] Blake Melnick: This is a concern I have about Canada's overall. Capability and willingness to support innovation. Your story is not uncommon. An innovation has developed here in Canada. But the business and the actual product, the end result is exported to the United States. We don't do a really good job at supporting our own entrepreneurs. Our government funding is such that we use, an indirect funding model. Whereas other countries, for example, Israel use a direct funding model. They support an entrepreneur who is developing a new product or a new service by being the first customer. It's a guaranteed sale. And what it does for the entrepreneur is it makes them want to continue to develop and advance their innovation in Canada. But [00:23:00] because we don't do that. And our market is much smaller than the U S and elsewhere. Entrepreneurs get to the point of development, but then have no support. afterwards. And therefore they go to where the bigger markets are.
[00:23:13] Without that ongoing support mechanism. It's very difficult for Canadian entrepreneurs and inventors and innovators to get the support they need. To keep the IP within Canada.
[00:23:29] Sue Siri: It is. It is. And Canadian. Companies are also, like I said, a bit, gun shy on new innovations.
[00:23:36] So they'd like to see it succeed somewhere else. And now we're starting to get more traction in Canada. Now that they're seeing success in other markets in the U. S.
[00:23:45] Blake Melnick: Sue's story illustrates some of the shortcomings we have around how we fund. and support innovation in Canada. And while I agree with Sue, that Canadians tend to have a low risk tolerance for the new Iris booth. [00:24:00] Is not a new invention. It's an innovation on something that we're all too familiar with. And it's not hard to get one's head around the myriad of potential applications for this product here in Canada. Clearly Sue's experience with funding agencies. like the national research council illustrate that we had folks out there who recognize the potential of this product. early on. To the point that they funded Sue through her early development stages. And yet there was little support. for bringing the final product Iris booth into the Canadian marketplace. We have the same needs as Sue's clients did in the United States.
[00:24:40] Sue it was talking about the healthcare system. We need photographs for all our health cards. and for our passports and for our driver's licenses. These are logical first applications and first customers. for Iris booth. If we had a mechanism in place to support [00:25:00] innovation, in Canada, whereby the government agreed to be the initial customer. And that way they could have supported both Sue and the development lifecycle and marketing of Iris booth here in Canada.
[00:25:11] While satisfying the needs of the Canadian taxpayer by providing a more cost efficient way for Canadian organizations. to produce high quality, consistent photographs, for all our needs. I worked in. aerospace, nuclear, energy. Oil, and gas. And each of these sectors required digital badging. In fact, it's such a critical element of these businesses that a good many companies, which operate in these sectors, employ people. Full-time to take employee photographs.
[00:25:44] Tom Locke: Hi, everybody. This is Tom Locke from Moments in Time, and you're listening to For What It's Worth with your host, Blake Melnick
[00:25:51] Thanks for following our podcast. If you like what we're doing, please consider helping us to continue to produce great content for listeners [00:26:00] everywhere. By making a small monthly donation using the support, the show link in the show notes of every episode. For what it's worth.
[00:26:10] Blake Melnick: Sue for our listeners sake. I'd like you to walk us through the process of how someone would engage with Iris booth within a corporate setting.
[00:26:19] So assume I'm a new employee. It's my first day of work. I go to corporate HQ. and they say, I need a
[00:26:25] badge and I need to have my photograph taken. Walk us through the process of using Iris booth.
[00:26:31] Sue Siri: So the first thing the employee would receive is either an ID number. or an email address. They would then stop by an iris booth, enter their email address, take a photo, approve the photo, so they can take as many as they want until they get the shot they need.
[00:26:48] That photo immediately gets sent to the badging office. By the time they finish their session and step outside the booth, they have the photo by email on [00:27:00] their phone instantly. It's uploaded to our servers and then it's made available to the badging station. Oftentimes, by the time they hit the end of the hall, their physical badge with the photo is waiting for them.
[00:27:13] Blake Melnick: Perfect.
[00:27:13] Sue Siri: Yeah, it's easy. It's great.
[00:27:15] Blake Melnick: And I'm assuming that all the personal data then goes to the corporate database. Wherever it is, interfacing through SAP or Oracle or whatever the company is using as a backend. So that the HR department has all that information at the same time.
[00:27:32] Sue Siri: We can automate everywhere this needs to be disseminated. To the badging station, to the interweb, wherever it needs to be. We can resize, rename. And deliver photos instantly.
[00:27:44] Blake Melnick: Amazingly efficient.
[00:27:45] Sue Siri: Yes.
[00:27:46] Blake Melnick: So let's talk about the cost. Let's begin with the hardware. How much is it to buy an Iris booth?
[00:27:54] Sue Siri: Anywhere from 15,000 to 39,000, to buy the hardware. U. S. dollars.
[00:27:58] Blake Melnick: And what accounts [00:28:00] for the variance in pricing.
[00:28:01] Sue Siri: We have two products. We have a full size booth, which is a stunning piece of, furniture. showstopper. Yeah. And it's a fully enclosed unit, and it just costs more to build. And then we also have, which outsells the booth now, just because it makes so much more sense in many applications, something called an IRISAir, which is a portable unit.
[00:28:24] And what we've done is we've taken all the electronics and made it a digital standing wall. So it's easier to ship, it's easier to move, it's still quite easy to set up. It delivers essentially the exact same product. It's the same user interface, same electronics, same supportive.
[00:28:39] Software in the background. And it's significantly less expensive. And we also have special pricing for a school program that we are having great success with.
[00:28:49] Blake Melnick: And then the software side, what's the, annual fee for the software.
[00:28:53] Sue Siri: Six thousand dollars U. S. annually per booth. Not per client, per unit.
[00:28:59] Blake Melnick: [00:29:00] Right. Okay. That's not a little bit of money, but when you think about what corporations have been paying for this service, You're delivering a lot of value at a really good price point..
[00:29:10] Sue Siri: You just mentioned that you were at, uh, was it Husky? You had a full time photographer whose sole job was to do this.
[00:29:19] I'm fairly certain he made more than 6, 000.
[00:29:22] Blake Melnick: I'm sure he did.
[00:29:24] Sue Siri: So we are a money saver. We try to really lead with this is economically efficient to do this. It's not a cost center. It's not you're paying for this. You're saving by using iris booth. Right.
[00:29:38] Blake Melnick: I know that Iris booth has been gaining a lot of traction within universities in the United States. I'm assuming, this is because of the need for student identification.
[00:29:50] Sue Siri: It's not. We're actually getting massive traction in career centers. So the career centers have a mandate to level the playing [00:30:00] field for all students, those that can and cannot afford, to, Build that personal brand that we talked about earlier. A lot of the, historically black colleges and universities in the U. S. What they have in their career centers are clothing closets that are funded by the likes of JCPenney. Interesting. Where they can get suits and business attire and things like that . They can go and get free headshots. So it's a career development tool. Fascinating. Yeah, I love being part of this. I love the idea of Providing opportunity to people who might not be able to access it otherwise.
[00:30:36] Blake Melnick: And you're also rolling out Iris booth to sports associations as well. I understand.
[00:30:41] Sue Siri: Yes. We just landed at the PGA and we've recently done an engagement with the NFL. So there's just so many places that this seems to fit.
[00:30:52] Blake Melnick: I know that's a bit of a loaded question because as you know, my stepfather, Paul Bogan was the COO of the PGA of [00:31:00] America. I know that if he, had seen Iris booth, when he was alive, He would have adopted it immediately.. Because an organization like the PGA of America uses badging for almost everything. For their internal personnel, at every major golf event, there is a different set of badges that reflect the event itself, whether it be the PGA cup or the PGA championships or the rider cup. And of course all the entourage, their families, and so forth would all have badging as well. So I had them when I would go to events with Paul and of course, golf professionals are all listed under the PGA of America, so that all have photographs associated with, their membership. And those photographs would also be posted at their local golf club. So natural fit for the PGA of America.
[00:31:47] I digress. So when an individual goes into the booth, They have a lot of control over that photo taking process. Do they not the editing of their own
[00:31:56] photographs, et cetera?
[00:31:58] Sue Siri: Absolutely. [00:32:00] Absolutely. So they get to take photos, we give them guidance, there are opposing tips and. and guidance all the way through the user interface. It's very simple to use. They get to review the photos, they can retake photos just like you would at a photo studio. Once they nail it down to three images, they can edit right there in the booth.
[00:32:19] It's a life size monitor. They can do things like whiten their teeth and remove blemishes and, add filters. And save it , they get access to that photo immediately. They also get access to the other photos they've taken and they can edit online as well.
[00:32:34] Blake Melnick: So they get to use those photographs for their own social media presence. And I'm assuming that's what happens.
[00:32:39] So it must be of real appeal. to the individual. Do you deploy Iris booth at a lot of trade shows? And if so, do you bring the big booth or the small booth?
[00:32:50] Sue Siri: We only ever bring the small booth. We always bring the air. It was developed specifically for events. And we like to say that our events division is in [00:33:00] fact our marketing division with a net negative cost.
[00:33:03] Blake Melnick: Right, right. , Well, I've attended many conferences, in my lifetime and I've had booths at conferences. I used to think of them as kind of a waste of time, because I couldn't get enough of my potential customers time. How does it work for Iris booth? at conferences?
[00:33:23] Sue Siri: So a client would hire us to be a part of their activation. And you're right. It's incredibly difficult to stand out at these events and headshots.
[00:33:32] Everybody is always looking for a new fresh headshot. So it attracts immediately a lot of attention. We set up any number of units within their activation. It not only draws people in, but it gets them to stay there. We did an event in, I think, in Dallas for LinkedIn a couple of years ago. We had eight units lined up in a row.
[00:33:55] People were waiting in line for up to an hour. Is that right? With [00:34:00] eight units going full tilt. Wow. And it was such, a lopsided room, everybody kept coming over and saying, What is happening here? Ha ha ha. So, so some of our, verbiage around our event division is, You can hand out a pen, And get a 10 second touch point or you can have your clients come in for an hour.
[00:34:21] And what that did is it gave, the staff within that activation time to go through the line and talk to people and get to know them. And, it's just a very different interaction when you're providing this service. But what's really nice about that too is something like 98% of the people who use Iris Booth, Download that image and then reuse it in social media.
[00:34:47] Blake Melnick: Sure. Well, why wouldn't you?
[00:34:49] Sue Siri: Exactly. So then what happens is you get a photo from LinkedIn, at an event in Dallas, you upload it to social media, and people start asking you, where'd you get that [00:35:00] headshot done? So then it becomes a conversation and you remember that as opposed to leaving all that swag in the hotel room before you go back home.
[00:35:08] Blake Melnick: Well, I can see that immediate appeal. when people can use something right away. It's always a good thing.
[00:35:13] I'd like to shift our discussion a bit, as you know, this series is all about innovation. So I want to talk to you a little bit about your innovation journey.
[00:35:22] So what was the timeframe? From ideation to designing the prototype to going into full production. And then your first sale.
[00:35:33] Sue Siri: From ideation, from the first time I had , that dinner table conversation to a working functional prototype was nine months. Nine months. I was a bulldog with this. I just thought, you know what, if I'm going to try this, I need to fail fast.
[00:35:49] Right. So nine months from the time we had the public using it.
[00:35:54] Blake Melnick: And that was to develop the booth itself.
[00:35:57] Sue Siri: the booth and we put it in a public space in [00:36:00] Halifax and we were charging people 20 to use it.
[00:36:02] Blake Melnick: That's blindingly quick.
[00:36:05] Sue Siri: It was ridiculous
[00:36:06] Blake Melnick: so, let me recap a little bit. You took nine months.
[00:36:10] to go. from prototype to market. You began with a retail market and then you shifted over to a different model. I'm interested to know. what. pitch you gave your customers to articulate the value proposition? of Iris booth.
[00:36:27] Because of course, many companies have people coming at them with grand ideas, new products and services. I know I probably get a hundred. Emails a day from software companies trying to sell me something. What was your elevator pitch and how did you grab their attention?
[00:36:43] Sue Siri: Well So, first of all, I want to clarify that we were in that retail space for two full years.
[00:36:48] We were, located at universities in the U. S. Right. Very high visibility. And our tagline was Headshots for the Modern Professional. So those initial photo [00:37:00] booths. It's captured a lot of imaginations, and, I like to say that it doesn't matter what you're selling. If it's a good product, I will find you.
[00:37:08] You don't need to be on Queen Street in Toronto. You don't need to be on Spring Garden Road in Halifax, right? You just need a good product and the client will find you. And that's what I found every single step of the way. We've not spent a dime, not one nickel on marketing or advertising ever. Clients find us, and then we go, right, this is our next market.
[00:37:29] So, in that sense, it's been, I think a little bit of a unique experience for us. Right. And all of my time, just because I love the process of product design and product innovation, has been just making the product so good that people will find us.
[00:37:45] Blake Melnick: Fascinating. And again, your first customer was indeed. And we talked about why they needed iris booth. And I gather they've increased their install base from their initial purchase.
[00:37:56] Sue Siri: Yeah, I think they have about a dozen units now.
[00:37:59] Blake Melnick: So [00:38:00] following the initial sale to indeed. What, if any, changes did you make, to Iris Booth booth based on feedback? From your customers.
[00:38:08] Sue Siri: Well, the first big one was to shift away from strictly professional headshots to develop this whole badging software.
[00:38:16] And we did do that. We developed a whole badging software. What we've been able to do is stay very focused on the product, the outcome, which is a singular, professional, quality headshot. And what we've been able to adapt to market needs and market inquiries is how we deliver that product. But we don't change the product.
[00:38:37] The product is a single headshot. So we were asked by JFK airport. To build basically a double wide to do family photos. Right, and I considered it. And we've been asked to do all kinds of like really crazy things. But we don't. We do one thing. We do one thing only. And that's deliver professional headshots.
[00:38:56] Blake Melnick: I think that's a really great point. [00:39:00] Maintaining a singularity of focus. Because a lot of companies will start out with a great product. They'll get initial traction. And then it goes. off the rails. They're afraid to say no. When they get a customer saying I'd like to have this feature. So what happens is the product ends up becoming feature driven rather than function driven. And this happens a lot with software developers, they started with a good product. That's very intuitive, easy to use. And then they solicit feedback from their customers, and the customers request all kinds of changes and new features. And they're afraid to say, no. And that's a natural inclination. because of course you want to appease your customer. but then they keep adding bells and whistles and new features to their product, to the point where the user interface, makes no sense anymore. The rationale for the product itself becomes muddied. And anybody stepping in and using the product at a later stage of development, it feels absolutely [00:40:00] lost. It can be a really horrible. experience.
[00:40:03] Sue Siri: right. , we've been asked a million times to add video to the booth and to add all kinds of different types of animation and things like that. We are more focused on building out the back end because that's where the value is for the client and delivering that very, Elegant solution to the end user, which is a great head shot.
[00:40:24] Blake Melnick: Well, therein lies the strength of your business model. It's elegant and simple, and that's really important. So, what new markets have emerged for Iris booth that have come as a bit of a surprise to you?
[00:40:36] Sue Siri: I think the school program has really been our sleeper hit.
[00:40:40] We have made massive inroads into, the U. S. post secondary education system. All the Ivy League schools, all the big schools, all the little schools, almost every state. I love seeing how popular and how successful that market is. We've made real inroads [00:41:00] with healthcare. Right. I mean, our initial clients were all big tech because they're early adopters.
[00:41:07] So they saw the value. . But the ones that have been pleasant surprises have been universities, health care, those institutional organizations. I didn't initially see them as being such a big revenue generator for us.
[00:41:21] Blake Melnick: Were there any other markets that came as a surprise?
[00:41:25] Sue Siri: So many that you know what, I'll be honest, every sale and every successful activation feels like a miracle to me. Every time somebody plugs in a booth and it sparks up, , I can't explain it. It's like a miracle.
[00:41:40] Blake Melnick: exciting. Yeah. And so as you scaled the business, what was the biggest challenge you faced?
[00:41:46] Sue Siri: Scaling the business, I would say, money.
[00:41:50] Blake Melnick: Yes, most people would say money.
[00:41:53] Sue Siri: Yeah, money. As a middle aged woman. I think I heard a stat recently [00:42:00] at an event in San Francisco that, female founders get one of every 10, 000 that male founders get. And that older founders get less money than younger.
[00:42:13] Which is counterintuitive because the older the founder is, the more likely they are to succeed. Because we don't have time to fail. So we just make things succeed. Yeah, definitely access to capital has been challenging. And, access to good staffing. Comes out of that problem because you can't offer really competitive salaries to top talent.
[00:42:35] The first few years we were really doing things with a lot of students and new grads and just making mistakes that could have been avoided had we been better funded.
[00:42:43] This is an important point that Sue is raised and it shines a spotlight on some of the issues that we have with respect to how we support and fund startups, entrepreneurs, and innovators within Canada. The vast majority of funding available Can only be used for [00:43:00] capital assets.. or research. In other words, engaging a university partner.
[00:43:04] Blake Melnick: Which is a bit ironic because innovators, entrepreneurs are risk takers. In order to be successful, they have to be willing to take risks. And yet our funding agencies in our government are risk adverse. And while there's a lot of funding available in Canada for innovation. It's for things that can easily be quantified and audited. Computers hardware. Or it's for giving money to universities, which they already have a mandate to fund. Until funding agencies and governments start behaving like the entrepreneurs they want to support and aligning their funding dollars to the specific needs identified by the entrepreneurs and innovators. We're going to continue to have very little impact in terms of GDP from our funding dollars.
[00:43:51] As Sue mentioned, startups need the best and brightest people to help them grow their business. And they can't attract those people unless [00:44:00] there's funding, that's earmarked for staffing so that they can offer competitive salaries and attract the right people.
[00:44:08] Sue when you talk about the need for talent, What, talent are you using with respect to Iris booth? Are you strictly looking for people to assume a sales role? Or is there more to it than that?
[00:44:22] Sue Siri: Definitely more to it than that. We have an in house IT team that develop, maintain, and provide customer service to all the software related products. We have a manufacturing team, we have an events division, we have a sales team.
[00:44:37] Blake Melnick: So how many people in total.
[00:44:39] Sue Siri: I think we're up to eight or nine now.
[00:44:41] Blake Melnick: So understandably money is a challenge.
[00:44:44] What about production? I assume you're having these booths made by an outside manufacturer. Do you run into problems related to on time delivery of these booths to meet your customer demand.
[00:44:58] We're contract [00:45:00] manufacturing and we're on our third or fourth manufacturer over the course of eight years.
[00:45:03] And I think we've landed on the right one now. But we always have
[00:45:07] capacity issues and we're growing so fast. We've doubled year over year for the last three years. So that, can become challenging. At one point coming out of COVID, we had a wait list of 16 weeks to get product. That's unacceptable.
[00:45:21] We've definitely shortened that. We're working to get on top of it, but manufacturing and shipping are always challenging.
[00:45:30] Was that, part of the reason why you went to your air booth model? Because it was easier and cheaper to manufacture? and ship.
[00:45:38] It is definitely faster, which means we can pump out more products.
[00:45:42] And it's not just the profit margin on the hardware. Really where our profit margin lies is that recurring revenue in the software agreement. Sure.
[00:45:51] Do you ever see eliminating the hardware altogether? from your business model?
[00:45:57] Sue Siri: During COVID, when we had such a [00:46:00] mass exodus from office space, and a lot of companies were shedding tens of thousands of square feet of office space, we developed, during those dark days of COVID, we developed a remote badging app.
[00:46:11] to address that situation because now people are working from everywhere. That remote badging app is our first step towards a not hardware based product.
[00:46:20] Blake Melnick: Well, this makes sense to me because as you say, people are working from everywhere. So in order to meet the needs of your customer, you've got to take your product to where they are.
[00:46:29] So, you've had a long and successful journey with the development of Iris booth. I'd like you to tell me a little bit about your biggest success stories, what achievements. Are you most proud of? to date?
[00:46:44] Sue Siri: I think there are two, that stand out in my mind. One, when the first time I realized I had made it.
[00:46:53] We were installing a unit at the LinkedIn offices in the Empire State Building. And I'm [00:47:00] walking down a street in New York from my hotel to the Empire State Building, realizing, oh my goodness. I'm going to install my invention in the Empire State Building. If this business collapses tomorrow, I can still look back and touch this moment.
[00:47:16] But about a week before we were set to install this unit, and remember we had no air at this time, it was just the booth. I got a frantic call from the client saying, it's not going to fit in the elevator. It's too big. And I was devastated. And I was trying to find out if we could crane it up the side , using a crane up the boat.
[00:47:38] I was like, at this point, the money doesn't even matter. I just need to have this thing in. I think just a few days prior to this being shipped out, my manufacturer at the time literally took a chainsaw, cut it in half, down the middle, we flat packed it, we shipped it to New York, and reassembled it on [00:48:00] site.
[00:48:00] Wow. It was the craziest thing up to that point that I had ever done. And what came of that is that we now have a very slick system where full size units are like IKEA furniture. They're ship flat fied and you just put them together on site if necessary. The second one I would say, also from the same client, with maybe four or five months notice, wanted to take us to the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, which I really wanted to do.
[00:48:30] Big ticket event. And... We didn't have enough time to ship a full size booth by sea, and it was too big to get in air freight. So that event is what sparked us to build the air. So we prototyped, designed, built the air in three months. Wow. And shipped it to Davos. Shipped the prototype, the working prototype.[00:49:00]
[00:49:00] We weren't even sure it was going to, hold up. Shipped it across the world. I went to Davos and the thing worked. Again, I always think it's a miracle every time.
[00:49:11] , and it just feels like a, a pinnacle moment for me being there, seeing everybody interact with it. These are, economic and political giants, using my product. It was mind blowing.
[00:49:22] Blake Melnick: Well, I've been inside the world economic forum, building. So I know just how perfectly that would have fit within that structure. That's a fascinating story and a great example of rapid prototyping. When we talk about innovation, A lot of people will say that true innovators, can't be afraid to fail. They have to be willing to take risks. And oftentimes. Something might go wrong, but if you don't take the risk, you never advanced the product, the idea, or the innovation.
[00:49:53] Sue Siri: I 100% agree with that.
[00:49:55] Blake Melnick: What's the biggest lesson you've learned throughout your whole innovation journey. [00:50:00] It could be about yourself. It could be about the world at large. It could be about people. It could be about the whole process of innovation. What's the most important lesson you've learned from this experience..
[00:50:11] Sue Siri: Oh my gosh, I've learned so many big, big lessons that my former self from nine years ago is unrecognizable to me.
[00:50:20] I would say that innovation is a mindset. It's not a process. It's not a singular event. Innovation is being able to see how something's always been done and then recognizing that there might be a better way to do it. That's what I've learned about innovation. I always thought innovation was like a bolt of lightning.
[00:50:38] Oh my goodness, here's a new idea. The proverbial light bulb, yeah. And I always thought the idea was the product. And it's not, because everybody has great ideas. The value is in being able to execute them. And having that kind of grit and determination that I didn't know that I had. To [00:51:00] make it through the most heartbreaking, devastating events, because it will be excruciatingly difficult to swim upstream.
[00:51:08] I remember... Shortly after I launched the product, I was receiving such negative comments from my colleagues. Photographers were furious. We got a big write up in, Pixel Magazine and Digital Trends, two big online publications. And they did this like, hey, everybody watch out for this, this is coming for your jobs.
[00:51:31] And boy, I was not prepared. for the fallout from that. My husband would say my biggest lesson is not to take things so personally because I am very thin skinned. So I have to kind of insulate myself from some of that.
[00:51:46] Blake Melnick: Well, you've touched on a couple of really interesting things there. Number one, the need to develop a mindset for innovation. And part of that mindset is the need to be very resilient.. to stick to your beliefs, to [00:52:00] stick to your vision. Because of course, there will always be people that will try to knock you down. And come up with some reason why your idea won't work. And this is largely self serving. In your example, with the two magazine articles. It's almost a knee jerk reaction. Where people see something new and think, oh my God, this is somehow going to negatively impact my world. It's going to impact what I do for a living. And in your example, take away jobs. Now that's a tough hurdle to get over. But you're stuck to your guns and aren't you glad you did. Now, I know this is a tough question, but what's the one, piece of advice that you would give. Innovators entrepreneurs or anyone that has a great idea. They'd like to bring to life. What's the one piece of Sage advice that you would give them?
[00:52:50] Sue Siri: This predates my Iris Booth experience. This has always been my mantra, that perfection is the enemy of done. You can't wait for [00:53:00] something to be perfect, because you don't have enough time and you don't have enough money, and the world will not wait for you to get it perfect. You must launch everything when it's functional and fix it along the way.
[00:53:12] Blake Melnick: Well, this is certainly the approach that the software industry has taken for a number of years, releasing. Their products in beta, form. Because they need the feedback. from the user and they need to see their product and action in order to identify where the issues are, and where they need to go for future development.. I worked in the engineering industry for a number of years. And there were two prevailing mindsets.
[00:53:38] The first one was called the waterfall. Which was all about predicting what was going to happen throughout the entire engineering process. To deliver a very specific and known end result. Then there was the agile approach where the engineers built what I will call off-ramps. In case there were [00:54:00] opportunities To take product development in different directions, and that allowed them to pivot very quickly if an opportunity arose that they hadn't anticipated at the outset. and it seems to me that you really advocate for more of an agile approach. So it doesn't have to. be perfect. You have to get it out and you can make improvements along the way.
[00:54:22] So knowing what you know now, if you did it all over again, Would you do anything differently?
[00:54:29] Sue Siri: No. I had some monumental setbacks. Both professionally and personally through the process of developing both the product and the company. But I wouldn't honestly do anything different because to short step any of those obstacles would have been, a shortcoming in the end.
[00:54:48] So I would do it all the same. Maybe just try not to take everything so personally. I would do it the same.
[00:54:56] Blake Melnick: This has been a really fantastic discussion Sue. [00:55:00] So how can people see your product? Where can somebody go to see an Iris booth or experience it in action?
[00:55:08] Sue Siri: So this is a very self serving answer. I think absolutely everyone should go to their employer, to their school, to their organization, to their corporation, and lobby to get an iris booth in their office.
[00:55:20] Because this is such a great product, both for the individual end user, in terms of personal branding, but also for the organization in terms of just efficiency. It's a way to provide professional development in a really easy, fun environment. There are no public facing booths, so you can't just go out and find one.
[00:55:44] You have to have one available to you. But I can't think of many instances where an iris booth wouldn't be a value add when you have I would say over a hundred employees in a single campus
[00:55:57] Blake Melnick: Are there any up and coming [00:56:00] conferences that people might be able to attend and see the Iris booth in action.
[00:56:05] Sue Siri: Absolutely. So we haven't really talked that much about the event division, but we do some really big events We've done ad week in New York. We've done WEF we've done, the NFL We do South by Southwest. We're at a lot of events. our fall, lineup is pretty full. So if you're at a conference or event, there's a very good chance you'll run into an Iris booth, and if you do take it for a test drive
[00:56:30] Blake Melnick: Perfect. And of course for our listeners, we will put up some photographs and some contact information for Sue and Sue. Anything else that you would like us to include on our show blog about Iris, Booth, please feel free to submit that. People will be able to go and find out more about your wonderful product. . Sue I've really enjoyed this conversation. I think it's added a lot of clarity, the whole idea of the innovation mindset. That there are elements of tenacity, resilience, and [00:57:00] reflection that have gone into the development of Iris booth. And the show really is about trying to get people to understand that innovation isn't solely the preserve of well-funded universities or venture capitalists or huge corporations that people can access and become innovators themselves in the context of what. Excites them and what motivates them and that we need to develop the skills. Associated with that innovation mindset. I think you provided some great examples of great. stories, and I really appreciate you stopping by for the interview today.
[00:57:35] Sue Siri: Absolute pleasure. Thanks, Blake.
[00:57:37] Blake Melnick: Following our interview. Sue reminded me that I neglected to ask her how she came up with the name Iris booth. And it really is all in the name. Iris is Siri spelled backwards. For what it's worth.
[00:57:54] This concludes this week's episode of, for what it's worth called eyes wide open. With [00:58:00] my guest, Sue Siri, founder, and CEO of Iris booth. Join us next week for an episode of the space in between. Where I'll be joined by my cohost Cameron brown, to talk about what we're listening to, what we're watching and what we're reading. To give you something to do through to the end of the summer and into those early fall months.
[00:58:22] I'm sad to announce that Hugh Segal a past guest on for what it's worth passed away on August 10th, 2023. My sincere condolences to Hughes family during this difficult time Hugh was a remarkable man. , great Canadian. He served our country as chief of staff or prime minister, Brian Mulrooney and later as a Senator. Hugh was also the champion for basic income for Canadians and wrote a terrific book called boots need bootstraps, which he kindly gave me following our interview. I will post a link to our interviews with Hugh in the show notes [00:59:00] for this week's episode, if you haven't had a chance to listen to this interview, please do. It's very enlightening. very worthwhile. Hugh, you will be missed and I'll miss your energy and your passion for Canada and Canadians.
[00:59:15] Thanks for following our podcast for what it's worth with Blake Melnick please consider helping us to continue to grow the show by posting a review on your favorite podcast listening channel,. Thanks again for listening for what it's worth.