Do you remember your boring school photos? UPGRD is here to redesign them to a level you've never seen before

Company:  UPGRD

Started playingQ2/2018

Joined the band: Q1/2018

We had an interesting chat with the founder of UPGRD, Kari Vähäkangas and one of the partners, Alex Günsberg. They share their unique story of how the company was founded and how they've succeeded in finding all of their current team members of four.

UPGRD is on a mission to upgrade school, nursery and sports photos across the globe to a new, updated level. The goal is to transform ordinary photos into visual and unique designs in order to end up on the walls.


UPGRD INTERVIEW


Icebreaker (IB): 

Hey guys, how’s it going?


Alex:
Extremely good! Now we have our first round behind us that Icebreaker was a part of and it was a big deal for UPGRD. We have fuelled up our tank for five years so to say, and focused mainly on entering schools, kindergartens, and sports organizations' photo shoots.


Kari:
We’ve also developed our software for a couple of years now, which is a SaaS service for other photo studios around the world. Our specialty is turning ordinary photos into beautiful and unique designs so they wouldn’t end up in a drawer at home anymore. In other words, we want to upgrade school, nursery and sports photos across the globe to a level where they are never seen before!


IB:
Cool! So what are you currently working on? Is your service ready for use at the moment or at what stage on the roadmap are you?


Alex:
Currently, traditional photographing spins around business-as-usual. When it comes to the software, our first international customers have recently registered as users at UPGRD. Also, we have a few photographers who’ve decided to join our reseller network and want to work more independently on a specific area simultaneously as using our software.


IB:
That is good news! So, how did you come up with your idea for UPGRD?


Kari:
I came to a business in my parenthood and a passion for visual culture. I have my background from advertising agencies for over 15 years, where I worked as a creative director and designer to youth marketing brands. When I saw my children’s kindergarten and school pictures, it all clicked; I realized that they still look the same as 30 years ago even though the world of tech and design has evolved a lot since then. It all became clear to me; there exists a remarkable gap in this industry, which I quickly acknowledged.

A bit later Matti, a professional photographer and a friend of mine joined the company. Then one thing led to another. We started our business in Finland, but because we are ambitious we thought that “how would they do this in Sweden?”. We also know that there is no such concept as ours in the photograph scenery.

Now that Alex, our business development officer, and Teemu, our CTO joined along, we now have a strong team, and the skills to build UPGRD with a big hand!


IB:
Kari, you have a long history in advertising agencies and editing photos. How did then Alex join UPGRD? You have quite different backgrounds though?


Alex:
I have graduated from Hanken School of Economics with a big passion for Finance. First I started working at a hedge fund as an asset manager and my friend there, the head of marketing, asked me to join a cool side-project at Retouch Group Oy. They needed help with selling their product, and he asked me to do it. It felt that it was a natural choice for me to join that company since my family has a long record of entrepreneurs. Later on, I agreed to a Skype meeting with Kari concerning this project, and we started to discuss selling and concept management, so I took the challenge. I gathered my team together and closed cases for a year with them. So, when Kari’s software idea got on a roll, and he got support from ELY for hiring a Chief Development Officer, he contacted me regarding the position, and I said of course without a doubt. And this is the path we are on now.


IB:
It is interesting how your paths have merged. But let’s talk about your product for a while. Could you tell more about how UPGRD actually works? Do you have a default design or..?


Alex & Kari: In practice, UPGRD product is two-folded. First, it is a work-tool with the purpose of broadly coordinating the photographer, since there is a lot of privacy protection policies, such as asking the parents for permission for taking photos of their children. Second, there is the online store where the pictures are published up for sale, where the parents can buy these photos. On the online store, we have a broad selection of design combinations for our photos, which means features like the background, frames, logos or icons, and much more. We can suggest different design combinations, and the buyer gets to choose design preferences accordingly. And what we do is that we locate good designs and acquire design protections, which we have already in the EU, and now we are trying to get it for our designs in the US area.

"In short, photographers get to administrate photos and then publish them online where the buyer can customize design photos according to their preferences."


Kari:
We have been in business for five years now and what we want is to create a work-tool and workflow for photographers. Finland has been a great test market for this purpose, but the question is how we can automate as many steps of the process as possible so that UPGRD users can grow their revenue from 100 000 to 1 million € as we did in our local market. We believe that good things are for sharing and this why we want to share our UPGRD innovation and knowledge to all photographers in the world.


IB:
Your business seems to require a lot of photographers. Where do they come from? Have you hired your photographers to UPGRD or are they mainly freelancers?


Alex:
Let's clarify one thing first. Our company is Retouch Group Oy, and then we have two brands: 1) “Oma Design” and 2) “UPGRD.” In Oma Design, our freelancers work seasonally as our employees. At UPGRD, we have the distributor and reseller contracts. Any photographer can basically sign up to UPGRD software and publish their photos through to our service and sell them directly to potential buyers at our online store. UPGRD consists of different roles since they are our employees in Finland but are our customers abroad.


IB:
This clarified the whole package! I noticed that you have mostly sports and school photos on your homepage. Do you have other target groups in mind in the future?


Alex:
We have built designs for different fields, and we can actually provide resellers in Finland church-related group photos, such as confirmation pics, military pictures or prom pics.


Kari:
Yes, we concentrate primarily on mass photography of children and the youth.


IB:
What would you say are your most significant challenges at the moment?


Alex:
At the moment it must be recruiting. It’s very challenging to find competent coders in Finland, and it takes a lot of our time. With photographers, on the other hand, the work- process of the photo sessions works very differently than the B2B scenery works typically since organizations/schools often want compensation from photo studios that takes care of the photo shootings, and it's not always about money. It can be a certain number of products concerning these photo shootings that they want to be delivered for free. Then there is a third party in the process of decision-making, such as the municipality, which makes this more complicated between all stakeholders involved.


IB:
How about your team, how do your backgrounds look like?


Kari:
I have to highlight our great team. As I said, I have a background in the design and creative work, as well in marketing and branding, but then we have Matti with experience from photography, who knows this scenery very well. Alex has the commercial knowledge and the skills for selling, and he is a great ambassador in any context. Then we have Teemu, our full-stack coder, with high skills from the tech scenery. This is our team of four in short, and as we get more coders recruited, we will be a killer team. We have high expectations.


IB:
It sounds like you have gathered a great team together with your specific competencies. What are your goals for the year of 2018?


Alex:
We want to focus on expanding globally, and we need to have our product ready for the most significant fair in our field before fall since we want to close some good deals there. That is our primary goal for this year.


IB:
What kind of greetings would you like to say to other people with similar backgrounds? Or do you have any life advice to share on this?


Kari:
We have a passion for what we do, which is a basic cliché, but when something feels right and good, it all comes down to believing in what you do. For me, it was a significant barrier to leave my job as a well-paid AD, but when our pilot photo shoots showed that people not just loved but BOUGHT our design photos and combined with the fact that life is short, at some point you just have to make a decision.


Alex:
My main advice touches the concept of risk aversion. If you are a big gambler, you choose entrepreneurship, but if you are a small-time player you want a corporate career. If we talk about finance jobs’ salaries in Finland, they’re not that profitable. Abroad the salaries are quite on a different level. And when thinking about my interests, I definitely want to go as a big gambler on the entrepreneurial path. I think it's good to acknowledge that the nice moments as an entrepreneur feels extremely good, but these moments are rare compared to all the grinding it requires to reach these kind of moments. The stress level can be pretty high, so this career path does not suit everyone and involves a lot of responsibility.


Kari:
You also have to find the right people around you, with the right skills and passion for forming a mutual vision.


- The End -