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1Mby1M Deal Radar: Digital Photo Academy, New York City

Posted on Wednesday, Mar 23rd 2011

Typical studies of of the economic contribution of the arts tend to focus on the income jobs in the field produce. This approach is wrong, says Financial Times columnist John Kay, and reveals only a poor understanding of wealth creation. As funding for libraries, museums, and public school programs in art and music is cut, sometimes severely; as uninformed or weakly reasoned comments about the lack of value of a fine or liberal arts degree circle the blogosphere, it is more important than ever to try to truly understand the role of the arts and humanities in the economy, education, and public life. (For a more thoughtful debate than most, readers may want to see this week’s New York Times Room for Debate piece Career Counselor: Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?) To this end, the 1M/1M Deal Radar is seeking stories of entrepreneurs in these fields. But we want to do more than simply give examples of artists, writers, and others who have been successful in setting up a business; rather, we want to show, through their business’s story, what has made it work. The first such Deal Radar company is Digital Photo Academy, a workshop series that delivers 960 digital photo workshops and 80 photo retailer demonstrations a year in 25 cities and metropolitan areas in the United States. Workshops focus on both techniques in the field and the use of plug-ins and software for photographs.

CEO Richard Rabinowitz spent 24 years in the magazine publishing industry, including 14 years as VP/Group Publisher of Popular Photography and American Photo magazines. Rabinowitz launched several concepts of this nature while running the photo magazines, beginning with the Nikon Mentor Series in 1998 with the then marketing director of Nikon, Jerry Grossman. The program invited readers to join world-famous photographers in cities around the country – and the world – for long weekends or 10-day photo workshops. Readers enjoyed the opportunity to take travel photos under the tutelage of photographers they admired. Nikon, and eventually other sponsors, liked that the program reminded the hundreds of thousands of readers that big-time photographers used their respective products. The trips, attended by several hundred people, allowed the sponsors quality access to potential consumers and a chance to gather market research data.

In 2002, Rabinowitz worked with Jim Malcolm, who was at Sony at the time, and they developed Sony Digital Days, a classroom version of Nikon Mentor Series. Digital Days offered Saturday/Sunday lectures once a year in 18 cities a year.

These initiatives led to New York City–based Digital Photo Academy, which works with 60 pro shooters who live where they teach. This strategy enables a long-term relationship between students and teachers year round, instead of one weekend per year. Instead of one event a year with large groups, Digital Photo Academy offers 80 small events per year, per city. Also, when there are small classes offered monthly, each session can cater to the uniform skill level of that class, versus the broader approach required to accommodate attendees of a variety of skill levels.

Classes start at $35 for a two-hour class; $50 for a three-hour in-class point- and-shoot lesson; $65 for a four-hour DSLR session; and $150 for an eight- to nine-hour classroom/field shoot. Levels and specific courses include beginner, intermediate, advanced, composition, composition in the field, advanced Photoshop, and Lightroom, among others.

The millions of point-and-shoot camera purchasers each year often have questions about the cameras they bought and want to have better control over. While the digital SLR (DSLR) market is smaller, these purchasers are even more likely to feel that enrolling in a class is of value and also have a desire to shoot alongside a teacher. The program started in 2007, with 2008 as the first full year, and generated 1,889 paying students. In 2009 there were 2,607 students, and in 2010 there were 4,139. So far, the 2011 attendees are at 1,642 with an annual total projection of 7,500.

Currently for DPA, the top classes are for DSLR owners rather than point-and-shoot owners. In 2007 and 2008, the top market was point-and-shoot owners. In 2008, the breakdown was 72% point and shoot, but by 2010, it was only 23% point and shoot. The company’s website garners approximately 21,000 unique visitors who spend approximately four minutes each on the site. DPA does not accept paid advertising.

Early traction resulted from magazine advertising, but at present 75% of the students come from Google searches, and DPA is usually high in the search rankings of digital photo lessons in any city its classes are held in.

Competitors included classes taught by retailers, programs such as Maine Photographic and Santa Fe Photographic, and classes taught by independent photographers. DPA is going to launch a travel program this fall and believes that competition will intensify at this point.

Revenue is currently between $1.5 million and $2 million, and DPA has been profitable from year one. Most funding has been provided by Panasonic, with smaller contributions from other photo industry players.

The long-term strategy includes adding online instructions, Skype critiques, and apps. Another goal is to grow the program to other countries. To help with this, Rabinowitz recently enlisted the help of his former boss of 20 years, John Miller.

There are no plans for an exit. “My kids want to take over after I am buried,” says Rabinowitz. “I love my work and am fortunate that it also generates a profit, so I plan on doing it forever.”

Recommended Readings
Artist As An Entrepreneur Photographer: Tom Mangelsen’s Images of Nature
Deal Radar 2010:

This segment is a part in the series : 1Mby1M Deal Radar

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