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Quotes on Blakeway's Early Days

Jim Blakeway


"Early days" included selling posters out of a garage, on the beach and the back end of Honda Prelude. From a recent interview with James Blakeway, founder and CEO of Blakeway Worldwide Panoramas, Inc.

Q: How did Blakeway Worldwide Panoramas get started?

Blakeway: That's a simple question with a complicated answer. First of all, my early career had absolutely nothing to do with photographing and marketing panoramas. My first job out of college was a sales position with Procter and Gamble.

In 1988, I was going through the interview process for sales management positions with several different companies. As I got closer to the point of actually having to say yes or no to several job offers, I started to question whether a company sales position was really what I wanted to do, and whether this type of job was going to make me happy five years down the road. As I thought back over my life to that point, I realized my most fulfilling experiences were connected to the entrepreneurial ventures I had pursued in college. Several of these that had turned out quite profitably and were extremely fun and rewarding.

I had applied for a tourist visa to Australia several months prior to these interviews and one day my tourist visa came back approved. It was at that moment that I decided it's now or never; if I don't do this now, I most likely won't do it until I retire, so I packed my bags and headed for Australia. I went to Australia to work and to investigate what we had in the U.S. that might be of interest to the Australians, and what they had that might be marketable in the U.S. I joined every young entrepreneurs club and business club I could find and introduced myself to people everywhere I went. I'd go down to the yacht club and ask people if I could go sailing with them for a day. I really hustled, meeting as many people as I could and discussing all sorts of ventures and new ideas.

After about five months, I met a photographer and a designer who had developed an innovative design for a poster using photographs shot from a helicopter. They had produced a panoramic photo of Sydney Harbor that was phenomenal. Neither of these guys knew the first thing about retailing so I proposed helping them take the poster to the marketplace.

I immediately went to work building displays in stores and window fronts and we started to sell a lot of the Sydney harbor poster. Then my visa ran out so I sold my share of the business back to these guys in exchange for a couple of hundred posters, and returned to the U.S.

I was impressed with our success marketing the Sydney poster and immediately began to search for photographers in the U.S. who could shoot panoramic pictures. I eventually teamed up with a guy in California who was building his own rotational camera and we came up with six or seven photographs we thought were pretty good. I had money in my pocket from Australia, so I found a place on the beach to live, I found a printer, and I started shipping posters out of my garage and selling them out of the trunk of a Honda Prelude.

About a year later I moved to Newport Beach, California, and continued shipping posters out of my garage for another year and a half. One of our first panoramas was a Marina Del Rey shot that we promoted with some pr stories that carried the headline: “Smile Marina Del Rey, you’ve been chosen as one of four U.S. cities...” The story was picked up by several newspapers.

That’s basically how the business got started.

Q: When did you begin shooting your own photographs?

Blakeway: I hired photographers for about the first three years to shoot some of the bigger markets - New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Then I decided to move the business to Minneapolis in 1991 and it was then that I met Chris Gjevre, a customer of mine who had a photography background. Between what Chris knew and what I had learned from being out in the field with these photographers, we started renting camera equipment and taking some of our own photos. Our first success was a series of shots of the Minneapolis skyline and the winter ice palace that had been constructed for the St. Paul winter carnival. These prints hit the market in January 1992 just as the Twin Cities was hosting the Super Bowl.

Once we started shooting our own panoramas, everything changed. Shooting our own photos put us in control because now we didn’t have to rely on hired photographers to shoot a city when the weather was good. Now we could travel around the country to market posters and, on days when the weather was perfect, we could drop everything and start a shoot.

I remember some months where things got pretty thin financially and I was using credit cards to make payroll. I was single at the time and I spent the good part of a couple of years driving around the country in a Chevy Astro van full of cameras and posters. I sold stuff whenever the weather was bad and shot photos whenever the weather was good. And this procedure has gone to this day...anytime we’ve had some extra money, we’d use it to print another picture. Looking back, I essentially lived on no income for probably five years. And then all of a sudden, we got to the point where we had enough pictures and were selling enough volume where the business turned over and we’ve been viable ever since.

Q: What have been some of the most important milestones in the business?

Blakeway: Moving to Minneapolis was important because that’s when I hired Chris and moved into a real office, rather than selling out of a garage. These two changes meant it had become a full-time business. Bringing the photography in-house was another milestone because it wasn’t more than six months into shooting our own panoramas - including Minneapolis and the Ice Palace - that we were shooting better material than we could hire.

And the key to that was location. By spending our time out on the road, we got to choose the days that we shot, rather than waiting for good weather, and then having to hustle to to find a photographer who could get to Pittsburgh, or Memphis, on a moment’s notice. We were able to go hang out in Pittsburgh, or Memphis, and sell posters and call on art retailers. And then when a day of incredible weather came up in Pittsburgh, we were there to shoot it.

Shooting our own panoramas allowed us to be pickier about the days we were shooting, and we were getting better all the time at figuring out the best angles to shoot the city from. With hired photographers, they would literally come in, go up in a helicopter and shoot the city, and go home. We were able to literally spend days scouting different views, and looking at different angles, and then when the right day hit, we were ready to shoot.

Another milestone for our business was moving from a small second-story office in downtown Minneapolis to a much more efficient warehouse office. At the downtown location, we were constantly struggling with elevators and moving freight in and out. We knew we were spending an enormous amount of time with simply moving product. When we moved to a new location in Eden Prairie, we quickly doubled our business volume even though we were spending fewer hours packing and shipping posters. By handling and shipping posters more efficiently, we had more time to show our pieces to people and more time to shoot photographs.

One other milestone was getting our business computerized. Just switching our invoicing over to a computer was a monstrous efficiency gain for us because it freed up at least four extra hours a day between Chris and myself. And, of course, computers are completely changing the graphics business. Our photos now go direct from computer image to printing plate.

Q   : What have you learned about efficiency since you started your business?

Blakeway: I’ve never forgotten a case study in college about how UPS pays attention to every single footstep of a UPS driver. The case study showed how the UPS driver built his route so he only had to make right-hand turns and never had to turn across a lane of traffic. This kind of pattern saved the UPS driver 30 seconds here and 30 seconds there, and at the end of a day he had become more than one hour more efficient.

When we designed our office space, we build everything tight. We put our desks right next to the products we ship so we literally only have to walk 10 steps from our desk to put the order together, then onto a cart and out the back door to a UPS truck driver. We study our motions and try to practice efficiency in all of our tasks. We’ve literally reinvented ourselves time and time again, in an attempt to make ourselves more efficient.

We’ve been told by large art distributors who handle far more posters that we have the most efficient warehousing and shipping operation in the industry. Chris and I have built all our storage cases ourselves in precisely the position and configuration we want them. We’ve been studying and improving our efficiencies ever since we moved from Minneapolis, and the improvements are paying dividends.

Q: How do you view technology in your business?

Blakeway: We are constantly discussing and trying new films, new cameras, new lenses, whatever we can uncover that will keep us on the cutting edge in this industry. We have to continue being cutting edge so we can offer the best-available panoramas.

Just look at the single area of graphics. Today, people can sit down at a Macintosh computer and literally change the world. If we’re not willing to change and grow and try different things, somebody else will. The thing to remember about trying a lot of things is, not everything works. We make some mistakes now and then, and head down some deadend roads. With 113 catalogued posters, we finally have enough of a little cushion to allow an occasional mistake. In the beginning, we didn’t have that luxury. I made some mistakes early on and almost went belly up a number of times. Once I missed a flight because of a traffic jam and ended up missing a critical shot, and that was a very expensive mistake.

Q: Do you consider yourself to be a great photographer?

Blakeway: Prior to starting this business, I had absolutely no photography background. Even today, I wouldn’t know how or where to begin shooting a wedding or a building interior. But when you’re talking about shooting landscapes and skylines, I think Chris and I are as good as anybody in the world. There’s no one who has spent more time studying skyline panoramas - trying different angles, watching what happens in different seasons and times of the day, facing different directions to see the effects of a setting sun on the sky or buildings - we’ve done it all. We’ve shot double and triple exposures, studied the effects of different angles of the sun, in different temperatures, winter vs. summer, and on and on and on. Yet even with all the variables, a good part of shooting a great panorama is luck...being in the right place an the right time, or maybe just having access to a helicopter when you need it.

Q: Is obtaining photos the most difficult part of the business?

Blakeway: I’d have to say that marketing is the most difficult part of the business. Most photographers are artists but they’re not marketers. Most photographers can shoot incredible photographs, but they have a difficult time marketing them. Marketing is expensive, it’s time-consuming, and there simply is no way around going out on the street and wearing out your shoes. I was fortunate at the beginning that I was single and didn’t have any financial obligations. I could just disappear for a month at a crack and go out and shoot photos and peddle posters. As a result, we’ve succeeded where photographers who maybe could take a fancier photo haven’t been able to succeed. I’ve hired photographers who looked at the photos and decided not to sell them to us because they were so incredibly good. Then, two years later, they came back and offered to sell us the photos because they couldn’t make a go of it, or they simply weren’t willing to do the things it takes to market panorama photographs.