Two years ago, we featured PhotoUp, in one of our blogs. Consultant Bob Bush recently suggested we interview CEO Kristian Pettyjohn, about their experience during COVID in 2020. Bob had been coaching this 9-year-old company on themes related to sales, executive development, and integration; and recommended the PhotoUp story as a great example of Business as Mission at its best.
Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures
PhotoUp, a photo editing and real estate marketing social enterprise with operations in the Philippines, USA and Canada, like most companies has felt the pressure, stress, and uncertainty of COVID-19. From a record sales month in March 2020, to a record sales low in April 2020, and the ensuing need to move their entire staff of 250 employees remotely with four days’ notice, 2020 has been a monumental challenge for their team.
While there was extreme uncertainty and layers upon layers of contingency plans, often re-written weekly, fast forward six months, and PhotoUp has found new focus and forged a path to profitability while still placing priority on their social mission: to put people, planet, profit and purpose on equal footing in business and beyond.
“I think the biggest benefit of COVID has been the ability to rethink our business from the ground up, and focus back in on our core business”, says founder and CEO Kristian Pettyjohn. “We have big, bold, long-horizon ideas, but we had to pivot quickly to reign in expenses. For example, we’re still investing in future R&D projects, but we’ve now linked expenditures to revenues and are more focused on expanding what we’re best at, photo editing and real estate marketing”.
This new-found discipline has helped PhotoUp strike a better balance between growth and profitability. “We looked at the numbers, and were like ‘WOW’, we are flat on the top line, but we’ve improved our free cash flow significantly”. So much so that PhotoUp will have its first profitable year for the startup, after running break-even the last three years while it pushed growth harder.
“I’d be lying if I said we weren’t pulling out our hair for a few months, working 12-hour days and calling our board members frantic every few days” said Mr. Pettyjohn. “We had to make some hard calls. We put many staff on forced leave for several months, myself included, and permanently dismissed our seasonal employees early this year”, however, when the dust settled PhotoUp had brought its core staff 100% back to full time work by August, and still remained cash flow positive.
The company was also able to pivot their business, which is heavily seasonal based on the real estate industry’s summer boom and winter lull, to a more flexible model which now includes 70 socially distanced employees in-office, 100 employees reporting from home and over 100 new flexible freelancers.
“The idea to build a freelancer program was born out of necessity, we typically run three shifts per day to meet tight industry deadlines but when work-from-home was required, we didn’t have enough workstations. Amazingly, we built and launched a freelancer editing program within a matter of days and now we don’t know how we ever operated without it. It was the missing key for how to tackle our seasonality problem”, said Kristian.
The company expects developing countries like the Philippines to be without a wide-spread vaccine to the coronavirus until at least the end of 2021, which presented another challenge, transportation. “Once we were able to re-open the office at a limited capacity, we realized many of our staff members didn’t own personal transportation, as much of the public transit system is still largely shut down. COVID forced our hand at another wonderful innovation, micro-lending”.
In September, PhotoUp piloted their first micro-lending program to purchase six motorcycles for managers. The program offers a 3-year repayment term with 0% interest and a 50% forgiveness grant. “Employees have been really excited and thankful about the program. In a very literal sense, it allows us to be the hands of the church, meeting the community at their time of need and providing them upward mobility. It’s what business should be, business for good.”
As PhotoUp approaches the end of 2020, it’s ending on a high note with sales projections growing, new product and service launches, and a new website scheduled for January to help the company position itself to sell directly to realtors; (they previously only sold directly to real estate photographers), greatly expanding the company’s addressable market.
“In a year that has been so hard for our team and humanity at large, we’re filled with gratitude and contentment for the blessings we’ve discovered in this challenging season”, says Kristian. PhotoUp is a warming reminder that in turbulent times, there is also opportunity to embrace change and be a blessing to those around us.
“While many of our prayers have been answered, we’re asking for the BAM community to continue to pray for the Philippines, and that the Lord may bless such a generous and warm people”, said Kristian. Pray that PhotoUp continues to prosper, so they may grow their impact in the Philippines and that they may be a model of sustainable social enterprise to other BAM entrepreneurs around the world.