Season 3, Ep. 1 – Using tech to empower personal growth, with Jordan Ambra, Photobooth Supply Co. CTO
To kick off Season 3 of the Frontier Podcast, we have Jordan Ambra, CTO of Photobooth Supply Co. We talk about the challenges of building a product that involves both hardware and software, how technology can be used to help empower personal growth, and, of course, why having chickens in this time of rising egg costs isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be.
I was gonna say, it looks like an absolutely gorgeous, gorgeous day where you are. Just bright and sunny and <laugh>.
<Laugh>. Yeah, we’ve had rain for a whole day, basically since like, 6:00 a.m.
It’s been tricky. But, it’s January. What are you gonna do?
Yeah, I’m in Nashville and it’s like, crazy windy here, and I work out of my garden shed, and the windows are very flimsy. So, I’m kind of like, this would be the funniest recording ever, if there was just like, a limb that came through our window halfway through <laugh>. (Jordan: Yikes.) Yeah.
<Laugh> I hope not.
I know, me too. Fingers crossed. Well, Jordan, welcome to the Frontier podcast. I’m so excited to chat with you. Mostly, ‘cause everybody I talked to today was like, “Oh my gosh, you’re talking to Jordan.” Like, Jesse loves working with you. You’re kind of like, notorious in a good way at Gun.io HQ, so…<laugh>.
I’m glad. Like, did I have a reputation? (Faith: You do.) That’s good, I think.
Yeah. Yeah. Reputations are good.
I’ll take it.
Where are you based out of?
I live in southeastern Pennsylvania. We moved out here…oh boy, I think, 2007 to get away from Dallas and the, you know, big city life.
Dallas was a good place to start my career. Back at the time, a lot of jobs were like, in person, so I needed to be in person. But, the company I was working with at the time, thankfully, gave me a chance to work remotely. So I’m like, all right, cool. Well, let’s go live wherever we want, and we chose to move back up here for family.
Yeah, that’s like, way ahead of the curve in ‘07.
Yeah, it was the battle days. I was on Skype, (Faith: <Laugh>. Oh no.) and I had like, a constant on-camera. So, I would just be like, there, <laugh> and there was like, a laptop sitting in the office at the actual company that I worked with, and it would just be my face there, and if anyone wanted to talk to me, they’d just come up and say hi. It was weird. I don’t like the constant presence thing. Thankfully, that has gone away.
Yeah. That seems just not sustainable at all. I’m very glad that was not the case when we went remote at the start of the pandemic, because there’s no way. So, you’re a developer on our platform, and you also, you know, we’re here today talking about your company, Photo Booth Supply. So, when you’re talking about the early days of your career, were you working as a developer?
Yeah, at the time, I was working for a company that, through a series of acquisitions, is now owned by Cox Automotive, which is, I think, the largest, or very close to it, sort of like, automotive industry group business. We built this platform for running like, websites for car dealers at the time, (Faith: Oh, cool.) and we tried to do a lot of bleeding edge things. So, I was running the product, and building it, and trying to see and explore what we could do. So, that was pretty much, as a programmer, when I first started. You know, you don’t really need to manage a team when you’re the only guy. (Faith: Right.) But, over time, we hired more people, and I did a lot of the hiring. Ended up interviewing, oh boy, probably like a thousand people (Faith: Oh my god.) over the course of working there and hiring several dozen. And, working with a lot of really great folks, some of whom I still work with, including one who’s with me now at Photobooth Supply Co. So, I like to stick with people. You know, you find good people, and you try to keep with them. I think that’s what a network is for, in a lot of ways. (Faith: Yeah.) As long as you can find people you can rely on or, you know, know the good and the bad things about them, you can, you know, make it work. Doesn’t matter the company as much.
<Laugh> I’m gonna make a note for Abbey that we should have you back on to talk about your philosophy around hiring, because I feel like you’ve probably seen a lot both as a hire and being hired, so that would be fascinating. Yeah, but today we’re talking about Photobooth Supply Co.
I think, one of the best parts of working with the people I work with day to day is that we get to like, see things come to life. That’s probably my favorite thing. Like, we get to create every day.
Walk me through like, let’s just get a basis of like, company history, kind of how you got started, what y’all do, and we’ll kick it off from there.
So, I have to say that I have not been with Photobooth Supply Co. from the start. The company was started by Brandon and Katrina. This year is year number ten, so that’s a success, right?
Oh my gosh. (Jordan: Yep.) That’s awesome. Yeah.
Prior to officially starting this company, they both worked together as wedding photographers and ran a very successful business doing that. And, after a while, they were doing some like, expos. And so, they went to this expo, and they saw a photo booth. And, I might be butchering this story. Brandon might kill me later, but–
<Laugh>. It’s all good.
The way I understand it is that they saw it, and they’re like, we can do that. So, you know, they’re very scrappy, and I think in the course of like three weeks they figured it out. You know, how do we assemble the parts, the like, laptop, the software, the network, everything for like, actually making this. And on top of that, Brandon is self-admittedly not technical. Like, he doesn’t have a programmer background or anything like that. He’s just smart. So they figured it out, (Faith: Yeah.) and they built the first booth that then became the, essentially the foundation for Photobooth Supply Co. So, that was ten years ago, and the company rode on that for a while. It was mostly like a hardware company at the time (Faith: Hmm <affirmative>.) and support.
That’s a really hard business to be in, by the way. (Jordan: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) Hardware and support.
That’s one of the harder parts about the business, ‘cause, you know, it started in hardware, but then we started doing software about five years ago, if I’m doing the calendar math all right, with another product called Queso. We name all of our products after like, Mexican food or Spanish language food, anyway.
Mmm hmm <affirmative>. Yeah. So, Queso was the next one, and it was the first one where we did both hardware and software together, which is a whole new world, right? So, the company built software custom. Tried to basically like, hire a couple people to build it out, support it, expanded the team, and got a lot of, you know, growth, and learning, and other things. It was also the first combined hardware and software product. So, you know, I’d had good things, and had bad things, and, (Faith: Yeah.) you know, you learn a lot in that process. The next one is our most famous booth, which is called Salsa, and that is still a photo booth, but based on an iPad. The previous one was like, custom hardware, essentially with a custom camera, a really nice camera for the Queso, but the Salsa uses the built-in iPad camera that just pairs with the booth. So, you have all this hardware, you have all this software working together. It’s complicated. A lot of folks who are in software have worked in a software-only company. (Faith: Hmm <affirmative>.) So, you’re dealing with like, a traditional SaaS, right? You don’t really have to deal with supply chain all that much. You don’t have to deal with logistics of like, okay, all your hardware is out on a boat off the Pacific Ocean <laugh>.
Or repairs. Right.
We dunno when people are gonna get their booths.
Yeah. In software, it’s like, okay, something’s busted. Let’s like, ship a fix, and then everybody’s gonna have it on their device and, you know, however many hours it takes for us to figure it out. And hardware is just…(Jordan: Yup.) It feels like an ancient kind of struggle, but there’s so many products I use on a daily basis that really are like, it’s hardware and software combined. And so, there’s folks who do it, but hats off to y’all. That is, that’s tough. So Abbey kind of filled me in a little bit on like, you know, moving from producing these hardware and software products to be used by Photobooth Supply Co. as a business to enabling other folks to, kind of, start their own photo booth businesses using the Photobooth Supply Co. hardware and software. So, when did…(Jordan: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) has that been kind of a thing since the beginning? Or is this a more recent development?
Yeah, so that’s the business model. It’s what you would call B to B to C. So, we have two groups of customers, really, right? We call one group the owners, so that’s people who want to run a photo booth business. So, they’re out in the event space; they want to go run events. Essentially, half of the software that we build is actually just event management. (Faith: Interesting.) Right? Like, how do you go do proposals for people? How do you go like, show them what you can do as like, an event planner or a photographer who adds this on as a service or a DJ. There’s a lot of different types of people who are our owners. The market is actually really big. So, half of it is the owners and the goal is to make them as profitable as possible. Right? We give them marketing materials for free, we give them…I say for free. It’s included. (Faith: Yeah.) Lemme say it that way. (Faith: <Laugh>.)
<Laugh>. We support them. We help them like, tremendously well, compared to like, most other companies that I’ve worked for. Like, our customer success team and our customer experience team support, do an awesome job at taking care of people, making sure that they are, you know, using the software correctly, taking advantage of all of the features, helping them get to the next stage in their business, (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) right? And the other part of it is the guest experience. You know, you’ve got people at a wedding, maybe, and what we’re offering is, you know, maybe a beautiful memory of everyone in the family being together for a wedding. And maybe that’s the last time you see your grandparents and you have this beautiful photo and video of them. You know, you’re making a really big difference, and I like that impact. And it’s multi-layered, right? Like, you’re not just providing people memories, you’re also helping people get out of like, month-to-month payment or income kind of a thing. Helping people start a side hustle that turns into their main hustle, and then they make more money than they ever dreamed. Making that dream become a reality for people is really cool.
It seems like you are a very mission driven company. Like, I’m hearing…the mission is very clear with the impact that you’re having on folks’ lives, whether they’re the owners or the guests, because some companies struggle with that. In fact, a lot of companies do. And it’s hard to rally a team and a market around the thing that you’re creating without that like, crystal clear mission. And so, I’m curious about like, how that’s cultivated on the team. Have you seen that it’s been intentional, or is it just kind of like everybody gets it, it’s easy to grow out; you come on, because this is the kind of work you wanna be doing?
I will say that that makes hiring a bit easier. (Faith: Yeah.) It’s really easy to see the impact of something where you can say, “Hey, like, you’re giving people photos and videos of key moments in their lives. Fantastic.” Like, that’s not hard to describe, and people are pretty much on board immediately with that. Plus, it’s fun problems to solve on the engineering team, right? Like, not everybody gets to work on photo and video capture. But it’s visual, it’s fun, it’s interactive, and you know, that there’s a draw to that for sure, just from the hiring perspective. (Faith: Hmm <affirmative>.) But I do think it goes a bit deeper than that, too. We end up with like, our product itself ends up being very customer driven, right? You can make data driven decisions about your customers a lot more easily when you know what your mission is. Like, you know who the other people are who are using your product.
And our product department has done an awesome job of, not just deeply understanding the customers, but also spreading that knowledge out to the rest of the company, too. For people who don’t, maybe, talk to the customers every day, you can keep it in mind, but you know, as a programmer it’s really hard sometimes, right? ‘Cause you don’t have like, necessarily a specific person in mind. You just sort of have a vague idea at a lot of companies about how people would be using the stuff that you write. But, you know, we have an advantage that it’s really obvious. You know, you build a new face filter, (Faith: <Laugh>. Yeah.) you know, similar to how you might see on Instagram, or TikTok, or Snapchat, and you end up actually seeing people use it, and you can see the captures like, on your own events and such, and it’s fun. (Faith: Yeah.) It’s like, immediate impact.
That’s so cool. I’m curious about, like, I call them like, my “fairy god companies.” You know, my role at Gun.io is growth and marketing and, you know, everything we’re doing, we’re doing for the first time. And so, I always have kind of a set of like “fairy god companies” who for me, kind of embody all the things that I want us to be really excellent at, too. So, I’m curious if you’ve got any other companies that are, kind of, who are working towards the same goals, right? Like, empowerment and have a super solid mission that you kind of look to as solid examples in this space.
Well, let me talk about some of my other clients real quick. One of my favorite clients has been this company based out of New York called Testing Mom. And you know, again, going back to knowing people forever, the CTO of that company was one of my professors in college.
So, outta the blue one day, he’s just like, he emails me, he is like, “Hey, you do this kinda work, right?” I was like, “Yeah.” So, I came in and helped them get sorted out. They needed to, you know, turn, essentially, their website into a product. They kind of made a lot of improvements on a WordPress site and needed, you know, to make a real app out of it, so I came in and helped them. And what they do is they help people, essentially, get their kids prepared. Like, doing test prep, doing education prep, and, you know, giving kids fun games and learning activities to help, you know, provide education. Early childhood education is really important to me as a mission, because (Faith: Yeah.) there’s a lot of opportunity in the education space to improve how we help kids learn, and grow, and figure things out, and understand the world. And, you know, they have a part in that, and I really appreciate that, you know, their goal and their mission is to prepare kids. Which seems a little weird, you know, you’re preparing kids for tests and such, but what that does is it opens up a whole lot of opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, especially in, you know, the New York like, public school system, which is wild and crazy.
Mmm, yeah. Regents are no joke. <Laugh> I went through that public school system and I, it’s like whiplash still. So…
Mm-hmm <Affirmative>. They’ve done, in my opinion, a great job of opening up doors for a lot of kids who’ve then gone on with a much better education that they, other than they otherwise would’ve had. So, I love, you know, working with companies like that. I’ve been programming or in this space for like twenty-five years this year, (Faith: Oh my god. <Laugh>) and, you know, you just kinda get sick of working for companies that are just like, the same old…like there’s either no mission or you’re just like, okay, this is a copycat of every other fad that’s out right now. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) You know, I’m grateful that I’ve been around long enough that I can be picky and, you know, recognize that as an opportunity that not everyone has. But, you know, when you do get to that point in your career where you can start to make choices, you know, hopefully, it’s not an either/or thing where you have to choose a mission you believe in or a high salary. (Faith: <Laugh>. Right? Yeah.) But, you know, if you do have to unfortunately make that compromise, then the mission one is what will keep you going even when, you know, the job itself maybe isn’t as fun.
I actually, I used to be a public school teacher, and so what you’re talking about with education really resonates with me. And I think like, teaching is one of those, it’s one of those careers where you’re so close to the problem that it’s really hard, actually, to affect more broad trends, and I think the position of a software developer or a tech company that’s working in this space is a privileged one, because the scale of your impact is just exponential. (Jordan: Yeah.) So, what a cool place to be sitting in, right? Also, I have to ask. (Jordan: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) The structure behind you…I can’t, I don’t have a sense of scale. Is that a chicken coop, or is that a part of your house?
That is a greenhouse, actually.
Oh, how cool!
Although, I gotta be honest, we have very few green things in it except for weeds right now, <laugh> so it’s mostly for storage.
That sounds like my garden. I was gonna laugh if it was a chicken coop, because I’m looking out this window at my chicken run, and it’s like the best distraction during the day to look at them, so…
Oh. We’re gonna do that this year. We do have some space out that way for some chickens, so…
Looks like you’ve got like, infinite space over there.
Gotta combat the rising egg prices. <Laugh>.
<Laugh>. Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. Well, I gotta tell you, I thought it was gonna be like the golden ticket. I got these chickens like four years ago, and I get new ones every year, because chicken math, you know. You start with five, you end up with thirty.
And they all are on egg laying strike right now. It’s like they read the news and they’re like, “Oh, egg prices are high. We’re gonna get back at this lady for buying us the cheap feed.”
So, I haven’t had a single egg in the nesting box for like two months. I’m like, this is nuts. You guys are delusional.
That’s my fear, as we go put all this time and effort into the chickens, and they don’t lay eggs. But the good news is that, you know, my kids are excited to just have chickens and hold them so…
<Laugh>. They are fun to hold.
<Laugh>. Yeah, as long as that doesn’t get taken away from them.
<Laugh>. Yeah. Nope. They’re hilarious. Just, you know, keep in mind whatever coop you build, you’re gonna need one that’s four times as big, because you’re gonna end up with four times the chickens (Jordan: Oh.) you think you’re actually gonna get <laugh>. (Jordan: That’s true.) That’s the rule. That’s the rule. Well, I wanna circle back to this hardware and software, kind of, conundrum. We talked about, you know, it’s a really difficult space to operate in, and I think there’s lots of folks, maybe some who are listening, who have a great idea, and it involves custom hardware, and that scares them away from pursuing said idea. And so, I’d love to hear your take after several years of working in this space, like, what are some lessons, hard one lessons, or advice that you could share for other folks who are, kind of, navigating that hardware space?
The most important lesson, I think, with hardware is that it, you have to kind of treat it like it’s permanent. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) One of the mindsets that a lot of software engineers have is like, okay, well, we kind of messed up. We launched a bug; whatever, we can fix it on the fly. Especially, if you’re doing like, a web-based software as a service, it’s pretty easy. Even when you’re doing like, a release on a mobile app store, you know, you know that within a week or so, maybe a little longer, you can have a new version approved, and, you know, you fix your bugs. So, it’s not painful forever. Hardware choices (Faith: Hardware’s painful forever <laugh>.) are very long lasting <laugh>.
Yeah, you have to support it forever. And, you know, that’s another thing is like, you have actual backwards compatibility to deal with too. (Faith: Hmm <affirmative>.) So, you know, if you mess up on some of those decisions about like, what you’re gonna build in your hardware, and, all of a sudden, maybe that part gets, you know, off the market or like, discontinued or whatever, you’re kinda toast. You know, you have to go figure that out and rebuild your whole like, logistics about how you’re sourcing your stuff. (Faith: Hmm <affirmative>.) And when you’re dealing with like, integrations, you know, you have a software product that might be improving like, by Moore’s Law every eighteen months, like, getting more and more and more powerful and, you know, your hardware is like 10-years-old, and you still have to support that.
What are you gonna do? Yeah.
You do have to be more thoughtful, I would say. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) And, you know, people have this, I think, internal struggle thinking about Agile and Waterfall, you know, they tend to get contrasted. And an unfortunate trend that I’ve seen is that people will put off the hard work of doing the thinking about how to build good software until it’s really late in the process. You know, they’re like, “Oh, we’re Agile. We’re gonna iterate on this.” It’s like, well, you can but it might take you a way longer time than if you just sat down and had a really tough conversation about the making choices. (Faith: Hmm <affirmative>.) In the beginning that leads to better architecture long term. You see this a lot in startups where it’s an “anything goes” mentality. We’re just gonna get it out the door (Faith: Move fast and break things.) with like, zero thought.
Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. And that’s a damaging mentality sometimes, (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) because people will assume that they’ll be able to fix things and they won’t. You know, you run outta time, you run outta resources, there’s a new feature to develop, or worse, you have to build features on top of the horrible foundation you made. I’m not saying that we should give up Agile, (Faith: <Laugh>.) but I don’t really think it’s very Agile when you’re wallowing in technical debt and have to pay it off for like, three years instead of actually releasing any features, you know. That’s not Agile; that’s drowning. So, a little bit of thought upfront towards, at least, a general architecture. Plus, you know, putting in the time and the energy to make some of those hard decisions, regardless of whether you have a hardware integration or not, can make a really big impact. Being thoughtful, getting people in who have seen what happens when you don’t think about that stuff, and have the battle scars can really help improve quality of life for the whole team down the road.
It almost sounds like having to work within the constraints of hardware have made…have formed your kind of hypothesis around good software development. Right? Like, it’s made you a better, kind of, more careful, more like, intentional software developer.
Mm-hmm <affirmative>. That, and also being part of the, what I would say is, the worst part of startup culture where it’s just like…iterate endlessly and be burned out and that’s fine. Like, that is definitely another one-two punch of like, I don’t know, I don’t wanna be up, you know, working a hundred hour weeks just because I made some bad decisions a few months back. You know, it’s better to be thoughtful.
Yeah. Or just like, shipping, because there’s an expectation to ship weekly or daily. (Jordan: Yeah.) Right. And, for what reason and what impact, nobody really knows, so…
Yeah. There’s some solutions nowadays that, I think, are starting to take hold, which are really good. Like, being product-led is, you know, something that we’re working on at Photobooth Supply Co., right? And it’s a really nice way to do business, because it is very much customer-first, (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) and it’s data-driven. You know, you end up having to do a volume business versus like, having whale customers. So, it’s not always great for very large corporations. But, you know, if you’re a startup or ideally, you have some traction, you know, doing that research on what your customers actually want and specifically building something for more than one person, once you have the luxury to do that past the prototype stage, go for it. You know, (Faith: Yeah.) go get that data, go find out what they actually want and what will make improvements on their lives. And, you know, figuring out what you’re gonna build is way more important than how you build it, (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) you know. It doesn’t really help to have a perfectly architected piece of software that nobody wants.
Yeah. <Laugh>. Yep. And, unfortunately, it takes a long time to learn that nobody wants it if you don’t do the work upfront. <Laugh>. So, (Jordan: Yeah.) you mentioned Photobooth Supply Co. is leaning into a product-led model. I’m curious if you have any favorite resources for folks who wanna, kind of, transition the way that they think about growth and development to product-led as well.
I believe the title of the book is called Product-Led Growth. It is full of the foundations that you would need, and you can agree or disagree with some of the pieces. And, you know, that’s kind of the point of reading and advice in general is that you need to contextualize it to your own circumstances. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) But knowing the landscape of what it means to be product-led, I think, is really important. And, you know, what are the alternatives to that, you know, being dictator-led or being sales-led or, you know, being, you know, developer-led. Those are the alternatives and, you know, they all have their pros and cons. You know, for a while, Apple, for example, was dictator-led, and (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) now, they’re basically either number one or number two in market cap in the entire world, right? (Faith: Yeah.) So, you gotta figure out what works for your company. For the most part, not dictator led; don’t do that. (Faith: <Laugh>. Right.) If anyone’s out there is listening, thinking, <laugh> “Hmm, we need to switch.”
Yeah. That’s not the takeaway here. That’s not the takeaway, (Jordan: <Laugh>.) for sure. Well, I’ll have to read that. I just Googled it. I think it’s Wes Bush who wrote Product-Led Growth. Let’s see…yeah. Wes Bush. So, I’ll check that out. I get Alexa Grabell, she is the co-founder and CEO of Pocus, and she’s got a great newsletter, too, on product-led growth, which I really appreciate. Yeah. Well, Jordan, is there anything else specifically about Photobooth Supply Co. that you wanna touch on today?
Well, I can tease that we have some improvements coming. (Faith: Oh.) Some new software, some new hardware. Not (Faith: Heard it here first <laugh>.) allowed to share too many details. But you…we have some nice things coming out. This is very industry specific, but we’re all going to Vegas next month for an expo for photo booths. I will say running a photo booth is actually a pretty good side business, too. So, you know, a lot of developers or, you know, their significant others are, you know, looking for a side hustle, and running a photo booth is actually a really good one. It’s one of those things that you can kind of scale up or scale down depending on your schedule, which is pretty cool. That’s helpful. And you’re not beholden to it forever. You can just stop if you’re tired or busy or whatever.
It’s a great thing. I think, for when I think of folks who live in Nashville who are artists, they piece together a lot of, kind of like, passion projects, (Jordan: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) and they’re at events all the time. Like, Nashville’s a really event-driven city, and I can see, you know, running a photo booth being, it’s just an awesome idea for a side hustle for folks like that.
It really is. It’s a business in a box, which is really cool. Like, our Salsa product is $3,000, which you know, if you, I’m not saying you necessarily have $3,000 laying around, but that’s not a whole lot of money for a business that you can pretty much just like, flip the power switch on; (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) it’s not a bad deal. And a lot of our owners, as long as they’re, you know, diligent and do the work, it’s not magic. You just have to do the work. If you do that, you can make that back in a month (Faith: Yeah.) without even really running that many events. Will that happen for everybody? Of course, there’s no guarantee; I have to say that. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) But, you know, the owners who, you know, put their heart into it and give it a good try, you know, easily see the payoff where they’re in the black very quickly.
Yeah. And then, so folks can find you at Photobooth Supply Co….
Yeah. Photoboothsupplyco.com. We’re also on Instagram and TikTok a lot. You’ll get to (Faith: Oh, cool.) interact with Amber, who’s our social media manager. Very fun, very bubbly.
You can say “Hi,” to her on TikTok or Instagram at any time. She’ll love it.
Well, we’ll send people your way, Jordan, and it was so much fun to chat with you on all things, from the importance of a strong mission, to hardware challenges, to side hustles, to chicken coops. So, I really appreciate your time. Thank you for coming on with us.
Yeah, definitely. It’s been a while since I did one. So, nice to be on a podcast again.
Yeah, we’re back baby. We’re podcasting. It’s all coming together. <Laugh>.
<Laugh>. I like it.
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