Thursday, June 19, 2014
How PolarPro's Photo Filters Are Riding The GoPro Wave
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Anyone who is into action sports know that GoPro has absolutely changed how the market since its debut, where it's more odd to see action sports athletes not using a GoPro than using one. As part of that, a healthy market for accessories for the camera has developed, including for the photo filters from Newport Beach-based PolarPro (www.polarprofilters.com), which makes special photographic filters specifically to fit the GoPro. We caught up with Jeff Overall, the founder of PolarPro, to better understand the company--plus the popularity of accessories specifically for GoPro cameras.
What's the story behind the company?
Jeff Overall: It all started back in 2011, when I was going to the University of Santa Barbara. I was on the ski team, and was doing a lot of skiing up at Mammoth, and filming with a GoPro camera. This was when GoPro was just getting started, and becoming real popular. We found out that, when we were filming around the snow, with everything being very bright, we were getting a lot of overexposure from the light bouncing off the snow. After we started coming back and looking at all of the videos we were shooting with the GoPro, it was horrible--it was all overexposed. So, I started looking for a few solutions to fix that. I saw that there were a few solutions out there people were blogging about out there, mostly about taping polarized filters on the cameras. I went--okay, I might as well try this. I ordered a big, DSLR camera filter, and duct taped it to the GoPro, I went to the beach, and took some test images around the water. I went back to the computer, and found out it makes a huge difference. So, we started bringing those filters up to Mammoth, made a couple for my friend's camera, and we were all filming with these polarizers taped onto the lenses. I was then sitting in my economics classes, and saying--I bet other people would like to buy these. I ran home, got a domain name, and started building up the website, and it just kind of snowballed from there, and everything started falling into place.
How did you go from those prototypes to a real product and manufacturing?
Jeff Overall: It all started with taping these filters onto the case. When I knew that I was going to sell these things, I figured out it would have to look a bit nicer, and fit a specific GoPro camera. So, I started toying with a few ideas, and found that I could add these tiny inserts between the camera and waterproof housing. It was super easy to install and remove, and I started listing them on eBay, selling them on Amazon.com, and also through our own website. It started super small--we were probably only selling one or two a day. It was pretty funny. I have a little PayPal application on my phone, and every time someone bought one, I got a popup notification. When we were at the bar, or at parties, that would cause a bit of a celebration. So, we'd only sold about one or two a day, but one day, I had a wholesale company in Germany interested in buying a bunch of them. At that point, I was just making them in my house at school. When the wholesale company asked for 100, I went--oh my god, that's going to take me more than two days to make. So, I brought in a couple of friends and realized that maybe wholesale would be the way to go, because although there is less margin, we could reach more people. So, I started reaching out to the stores that were carrying GoPros, and as you might expect, all of the big companies were hesitant about the product. However, the little mom and pop surf shops took on to the idea. I went to a couple of them, and showed them my packaging, which at the time was essentially a Ziploc bag stapled between two business cards for shipping. They said I couldn't put it on the shelf. So, I went to a packaging company in Van Nuys. They decided--we'll take you in, even though you're little, and make some packaging. After we got that packaging made, we got into a couple of small surf shops. After graduation, where I got a degree in economics and accounting, it was time for me to decide if I wanted to join a company like KPMG or Deloitte, or become an accountant. Or, I thought I could also run with this, and see where it goes. I decided that I really didn't like accounting, and choose instead to move back in with my Mom and open up PolarPro International's headquarters in her garage. At that point, I just started reaching out to as many people as I could who had surf shops. That's when we started working on a couple of new versions, making it a little better and easier to use, and there we went.
When did things start taking off and start scaling?
Jeff Overall: The big thing which took us from working out of my mom's garage, to what we have here, is when we developed an acrylic filter. We had been using small gel inserts, and determined we had to put something on the outside of the housing, which people could snap on and off very easily. We reached out to a few molding companies, but they all said we were too small and couldn't help us with what we needed. However, one company in Indiana took us on, and helped us develop a snap-on filter that was pretty cool. It was made specifically for the GoPro, was form fitting, and very easy to put on and take off. When we put that product on the market, lots of people started to take notice, and shops really liked the idea because you didn't have to open up the GoPro housing and take out the camera. With that, and when that original distribution agreement we had from Germany resulted in orders for a ton of stuff, that was the big turning point. We saw growth from just 850 filters in 2011 to 7500 filters in 2012.
It seems like there's quite an accessory market for the GoPro. Why do you think that's the case?
Jeff Overall: Yes, GoPro accessories are just huge. I think that people who have the GoPro just like gadgets, like accessories, and because of that there's a ton of accessories for the camera. You can customize it for what you are doing exactly, whether that's scuba diving, skiing, or jumping off a cliff, or doing a bunch of crazy stuff. I think because they are so versatile, it just creates a ecosystem around those cameras. I also think, because they have all these athletes using them who are influencers, there are lots of people who are eager to buy whatever accessories they have strapped onto their chest. I think a lot of it is because you can customize them on what you want to do specifically.
What are you guys working on now?
Jeff Overall: We started just with the polarizing filter, but in late 2012 we started getting into the scuba diving market. When you are scuba diving, you need a red filter due to the red light loss underwater, and helps color correct the GoPro quite a bit. So, we moved into that market, and also launched a macro lens. At that point, our filters and lenses were pretty solidified. Now, what we're trying to do is not only create products for the GoPro, but branch into other cameras. We also have a cool microphone we're about to release next month. That's more geared specifically for the GoPro. We also have three other really cool, completely new accessories for the GoPro we are planning to have come out in late August to September. We're trying to expand not just as a filter company, but as a high end accessory company for the camera space.
Finally, what's the biggest lesson you've learned so far?
Jeff Overall: I would probably say that our mentality we've had since day one, was to just put our heads down and get the product out. However, I now wish we had spent more time working on intellectual property from day one. We did get a patent on our first, snap-on camera mount, but maybe if we had put a little more resources and time into solidifying those patents, so they were not easily worked around would have been good. The second thing I learned, is that it it really helped that we were able to get into retail stores, and scale out faster than any other competition. Now that we've gotten into those retail shops, that makes it really hard for another company to come along and try to replicate what we're doing, just by offering things at a lower cost or by trying to knock us off. The way we really put our heads down and reached out to retail accounts, and reached out to distributors and maintained really good relationships, has been one of the most beneficial thigns for us. It's prevented outside competition from coming in, and prevented anyone from taking up any decent market share from us.