Point, Shoot, Print: Picplum Aims to Make Photo Printing Effortless

It should be far easier to order prints of the photos you snap with your digital camera or smartphone—that’s a no-brainer. But San Francisco-based Picplum is one of the only companies that’s actually working to make the process simpler.

For comparison, here’s how ordering a print works on a competing site, Yahoo’s Flickr. This will be all too familiar to any amateur photographer who (like me) has thousands of photos stored on the eight-year-old site:

Upload the photo. Find the “Order Prints” drop-down menu item. Select the print size and quantity. Click “Add to Cart.” (Repeat these first four steps for every photo you want to print.) Click “Proceed to Checkout.” Wait while your photos are transferred to Snapfish. Click Continue. Select your photo finish and border. Click “Check Out.” Enter or select a shipping address. Click Continue. Enter or verify your credit card information. Click Continue. Review your order. Click Buy Now.

And here’s how the process works on Picplum:

Drag and drop the photos you want to print onto the Picplum upload page. Select a print size, unless you’re happy with the default suggestion. Click Send Now. Select or enter a recipient and write a personalized greeting. Click Save. Enter a mailing address and your credit card information (unless it’s been saved from a previous order). Click Pay & Send.

That’s it. By my count, the Flickr/Snapfish process involves at least 14 steps if you’re ordering one photo, plus four or five more steps for every additional photo. The Picplum process involves five to seven steps, period.

Picplum's photo upload interface

And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between Picplum and almost every other online photo-printing service in existence: it’s about as simple as it could possibly be.

“None of us had built photo products or e-commerce solutions” before Picplum, says Akshay Dodeja, the startup’s co-founder. “We were able to start with no assumptions and throw away everything about how other people do it, and focus on the easiest way. Every second of the experience that people are investing in your application matters. It’s all about getting from ‘upload’ to ‘send.’”

That strategy makes a lot of sense in an era when time is scarce, attention spans are decreasing, and everybody is working harder just to keep their heads above water. On top of all that, companies like Apple have spent the last few years training us to expect everything gadget-related to be obvious and easy.

After all, why shouldn’t it be as simple to order a print as it is to shoot a photo in Instagram? With Picplum, it actually is: if you authorize the startup to connect to your Instagram account, it can automatically ship you a print of every photo you take in the app.

Dodeja and his co-founder Paul Stamatiou (pictured above right; Dodeja is on the left) founded Picplum as part of the summer 2011 term at the Y Combinator venture incubator program in Mountain View, CA. It was Stamatiou’s second time through YC: he’d previously worked for a mobile-notifications startup called Notifo that emerged from Y Combinator in March 2010 and folded about 20 months later. The advent of Picplum also meant a second life of sorts for Picwing, a YC company that I covered back in August 2008. Picwing had attempted to market a wireless digital photo frame that received photos via e-mail, then morphed into a subscription-based photo printing company that automatically printed and e-mailed the new photos in customers’ queues.

Picplum acquired the near-dormant startup and basically adopted its business model. The pitch to investors at YC’s Demo Day in August 2011 was that Picplum offered the “easiest way to send prints” for people like busy new parents who might not otherwise have time to send baby pictures to the grandparents. The company charged $7 per month to send an envelope containing 15 4”x6” prints.

Today, the Picwing-style recurring printing service is still available, but Dodeja says the startup eventually decided that the model was too limiting, and that it left out a big chunk of potential customers.

“It’s easy to explain a subscription to a magazine, but harder to do for a consumer thing like photo prints,” he says. “We realized we were missing out on all the people who just wanted to send photo prints, and didn’t care about the subscription. So [Picplum] evolved into a simple print-whatever-you-want service, starting at 50 cents per print.”

That idea is “working really well,” Dodeja says, though he declined to share data regarding the size or growth of the startup’s user base. The company is still small—Stamatiou and Dodeja are the only full-time employees, and they’re sharing an office in San Francisco’s SoMa district with Switchcam, a Turner Media Camp-backed startup that lets music fans assemble concert videos from YouTube clips. But it’s benefiting from the continuing explosion in smartphone photography and the spread of apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic. About 35 percent of the photos that people upload to Picplum were taken on an iPhone or and Android phone, Dodeja says.

There’s a pretty obvious reason why Picplum is one of the only companies trying to reinvent digital photo printing: it’s a hairy problem that requires not just great consumer-facing Web tools for uploading photos, but also an efficient backend process for printing and mailing them. “Paul Graham [the Y Combinator co-founder] had this essay called Schlep Blindness,” Stamatiou says. “His point was, sometimes startup people don’t want to tackle things because they seem hard. And from the outside, photo printing seems like a very hard problem, with lots of touch points.”

So while Picplum may be simple for consumers to use, there’s a lot going on under the hood, according to Dodeja. For example, the startup had to create a custom application programming interface simply to transmit the photos customers upload to the photo-printing facility in Texas that processes Picplum orders. It also had to come up with with a distinctive design for the Picplum’s mailers; those are printed in Oakland and shipped to Texas (though for months Stamatiou and Dodeja stuffed envelopes themselves). “We’ve spent a lot of time and money building out the infrastructure that people will never see,” Dodeja says.

But now that the infrastructure is built, Dodeja and Stamatiou have big plans for it. Coming soon: a way to turn photos uploaded to Picplum into customized holiday greeting cards, and a browser extension that would automatically superimpose a “Print to Picplum” button on almost any third-party photo sharing website, such as Facebook, Photobucket, Smugmug, or Flickr. “The thought is, instead of trying to integrate with everyone, let’s just build a tool that enables people to print any photo on the Web,” says Dodeja. (There will be built-in copyright protections to keep people from printing photos at sites like Getty Images, he says.)

Dodeja and Stamatiou also want to upgrade Picplum’s mobile presence. Right now the service is optimized for the desktop Web, which means printing smartphone photos isn’t as simple as it could be (unless you activate the Instagram connection mentioned above). “With the challenges we’ve had with backend integration, we just didn’t have the resources to build a mobile app, but having a mobile presence makes totals sense,” Dodeja says. “You might be at a picnic and you’re talking photos and you might want to send out prints. It should take less than 60 seconds.”

But that will take resources, and so far, Picplum has been running on its 2011 seed funding from Y Combinator, Start Fund, and 500 Startups. “We have not really taken the typical Silicon Valley route of raising a lot of money,” says Dodeja. “We have been trying to make it a more sustainable business. But Paul and I are not going to be able to grow the product forever. We need more hands on the table, and that requires more investment.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • This sounds cool but by no means even close to being new. PostalPix, Postagram and a few others have been doing this for over a year. Not to mention my company CanvasPop which features a 3 step process: http://www.canvaspop.com/instagram – we are the first company in the world to offer large format Instagram printing. Will have to check these guys out regardless.