Axel Lilienblum is a physicist. Technically, that is. But today he is one thing above all: the founder of Grow.Photos, a start-up founded last year that takes a completely new approach to the subject of photo books. Grow.Photos is a photo book that literally grows with the user and is a subscription-based model. Axel Lilienblum talks to Bernd Zipper in the new episode of Zipper’s Insights to explain what it’s all about, what role apps and automation play, and what the functional principle is in general.
Read a slightly shortened version of the podcast interview here or listen to the conversation in full and in German on ZIPPERS INSIGHTS or on Spotify.
Bernd Zipper: Welcome to Zipper’s Insights and a new story about an “old” product. Today’s topic is photo books, but a very special one. For this we have Axel Lilienblum from Grow.Photos on the other end of the line. I’m calling Berlin, hello Axel.
Axel Lilienblum: Hello Bernd, hi.
Bernd Zipper: I’m curious if we can uncover today what’s so special about your photo book. But first let’s get to you, because you’re actually a physicist, right?
Axel Lilienblum: That’s right. Yes, I studied physics. At first, I thought I was going to be a physicist, but during my studies I realized that research is not right for me.
Bernd Zipper: I have quotes here, including ” You forgot me on the balcony,” “I’m here, but the front door isn’t,” or “Still drunk?”
Axel Lilienblum: Right, that rings a bell, yes.
Bernd Zipper: At the time, you reinvented yourself with a product for which you simply put curious SMS messages and chat histories on a website.
Axel Lilienblum: Exactly. But let us return to my studies in physics – it’s not necessarily clear and it’s not straightforward. After my studies, I first became a management consultant, for a short time. But then I wanted to become an entrepreneur and tried out all sorts of things. I was particularly interested in products and marketing. In the end, I founded the website ” SMS von gestern Nacht” (“Last night’s text messages”) together with a friend, where we did exactly what you just said: collected and published curious chat messages that users could send to us anonymously. That was in 2009, way before the smartphone boom. We went viral with that, although virality didn’t really exist in Germany yet. “SMS von gestern Nacht” went through the roof and was in all the media. Then Rowohlt Verlag approached us, and over the next few years we sold almost a million books with them, paperbacks featuring the all-time favorites. But the website itself was also super successful. Later, there were also apps, which were also very successful with a million downloads.
Bernd Zipper: The website itself is no longer online, but if you Google it, you can still find a bit. However: If you do something like that, how do you come to think about photo books?
Axel Lilienblum: Well, it sounds logical to me. As I said, I was primarily interested in the topics of product and marketing. And for my co-founder and me it was also clear that we didn’t want to continue with this topic of SMS and chat messages forever. She wanted to make movies, which she does now, and I wanted to be an entrepreneur and do something that made even more sense to me than these funny jokes. So, we sold the website. We each became parents. I’m a father of two and I thought a lot about what products might be interesting now, what I’m interested in.
Photos and photo books have been a topic for a long time, even in my family. I have photo albums myself, great ones from my parents, and yes, at the end of the day, that was the topic that grabbed me the most, that resonated with me the most, and that I also had the most desire for. I’ve already heard from others how that’s such a classic: that someone goes on parental leave and then comes up with a photo product idea.
Bernd Zipper: I can well imagine that, of course you want to document everything that happens with the little ones. But the idea of developing your own photo book concept is quite clever. So, you have a photo book that grows with your children?
Axel Lilienblum: Exactly. That’s the novelty. Of course, I didn’t want to just put out the next photo book. That wouldn’t have been appealing enough. I was and am very dissatisfied with the solutions that exist in the field of photo books and photo solutions. Many parents approach me and ask “Hey, how do you do this? How can I sort my photos? How can I keep track of these many, many thousands of photos?” At the end of the day, all the parents I know want a photo book of their kids growing up. But most of them fail to implement it. And that’s exactly why we have developed a solution. Namely, that the photo book grows with the child. That is, it is an expandable photo book, where you can add the pages little by little. Creating the pages is very straightforward; ideally, you do it on a monthly basis. That is, every month you upload a few photos, and they are then printed, and you get the pages sent to you, you can insert them and that way the work just spreads out over time.
Bernd Zipper: In plain language, that means having a small app on my cell phone, currently only on the iPhone – I don’t think you’ve got Android up and running yet – where I select the pictures, for example the pictures of the month of June 2022, of little Jürgen, right?
Axel Lilienblum: That’s right, that’s how it works. The basic idea is that creating the pages should be super-fast and easy. Ideally, you can do it on the side. The idea is that you can create these monthly pages within maybe ten minutes, eliminating this extreme effort that you would otherwise have to go through when you have to sort out thousands of photos and click together a photo book over weeks.
Bernd Zipper: That means it’s also suitable for grandpa and grandma. They can do that, too?
Axel Lilienblum: They can do it too, at least if they know how to use a cell phone, an iPhone and apps. But it’s actually more practical for the children, in this case the parents, to create a photo book for the grandparents, for example, and then have the pages sent to them. That’s another use case.
Bernd Zipper: But how does your photo book differ from other photo books? It doesn’t make much sense if I get a whole photo book sent to me every month.
Axel Lilienblum: You don’t get the whole photo book, just the pages. In our standard price model, there are two pages, i.e. four pages with front and back and a cover page. You get that sent to you and insert it. We can fit about two years into one album, which is just under 60 pages. Then the photo book is finished.
Bernd Zipper: That means that when I contact you via the app, I’m sent a folder in advance with my first pages already in it?
Axel Lilienblum: Yes, you first get the empty folder, then you insert new pages month by month and in the end the book is finished. You always order the new pages via the app.
Bernd Zipper: Now folder sounds kind of like an office.
Axel Lilienblum: Actually, we call it an album. So you can imagine it: It’s like a binder in the end, but much higher quality. It has a ring binding in the middle, but also a linen cover and another slipcase for protection, which has a white embossing. It’s very high quality and when you hold it in your hand, it doesn’t remind you of a binder at all. But because you asked what makes us different from other photo books: We haven’t had this principle before. It’s completely new.
Bernd Zipper: I think the album is quite nice. You made me one from the Online Print Symposium, which is my “baby”. It’s very graceful, high-quality, fun. I’ve already tested it on fresh parents, who immediately said, “hey, cool idea, I’d actually like to have it, too. And of course, they were disappointed that you don’t have an Android app. But you’re already working on that, I heard, right?
Axel Lilienblum: Yes, exactly.
Bernd Zipper: But on the business model, how does Grow.Photos work? I have the app, that’s where I sign up and then it starts, right?
Axel Lilienblum: You have to register in the app, exactly. First download, sign up in the app and then, in order to use the product, you have to sign up for a subscription. Especially in Germany, people are very cautious about subscriptions. But the subscription model fits this product like a glove. In our case, the monthly subscription costs 14.99 euros. But you can also buy gift subscriptions that include monthly packages. For example, six or twelve or 24 months. That costs between 89 and 299 euros.
Bernd Zipper: Of course, that’s quite a lot in terms of pricing…
Axel Lilienblum: That’s right.
Bernd Zipper: Do I have a particularly cool paper there, or what does it look like?
Axel Lilienblum: Our claim is to deliver the best possible quality we can obtain. Starting with the album, which is very high quality with the linen cover, and ending with a paper that we think is the best paper you can get for it; a kind of photo paper. And then there are the cover pages made of a transparent paper. Our requirement is that the album has a superb quality, in terms of the photos, and that it also lasts a very long time. Ideally, it should last for generations and therefore has a certain sustainability requirement. Printing is never one hundred percent sustainable, but if it lasts a long time, of course you get more out of it.
Bernd Zipper: Whether printing is sustainable or not is a question I’ll leave open. Name any other medium… but nevertheless, I find it interesting. But of course, it’s a big deal, especially for young parents who want to do it for the long term. You already have a few subscribers – have you ever talked to them about the subscription issue?
Axel Lilienblum: I’ve already played around with the price a bit; higher prices, lower prices. And my feeling is that if you make it cheaper, not many more people will subscribe. The fear of subscribing is really the deterrent. And we already have ideas on how to get around that. For example, through monthly packages or perhaps also in retail, where you buy a complete album, which you can then fill or things like that, so that you can get around it. Nevertheless, the price itself is high, but whoever wants to have this album is also willing to spend that much. In the end, it’s no more than a Netflix subscription.
Bernd Zipper: Of course, as a customer you have to understand that there are several services. It’s not just about the printed sheets, but also about the app, the slipcase, and so on.
Axel Lilienblum: That’s right.
Bernd Zipper: And the slipcase is automatically replaced when the previous one is full, right?
Axel Lilienblum: Yes, the album and the slipcase are included in the price, you get them automatically. And when the album is full, you get a new one “for free”. It’s also true that we have a 30-day return guarantee. That means you can try it out, subscribe, and you can cancel at any time. That’s standard these days. We’re not a cell phone provider.
Bernd Zipper: When I upload the photos in the app, can I design the pages myself? Can I write something underneath or is it just plain and it just gets printed away?
Axel Lilienblum: You can write something underneath. We offer captions, which is also very important, because we don’t just want to offer the next photo book, but rather a solution for capturing memories as effectively as possible. That’s why it’s extremely important to be able to tell stories with captions. In addition, you still have options to customize the layout with a few clicks and arrange the photos, bigger, smaller and so on. But it’s very streamlined, I’d say, with the goal that it looks good in the end, without having to do a lot of work. Because the point is that you can do it in ten minutes.
Bernd Zipper: That means you practically curate your own memories?
Axel Lilienblum: Exactly. You curate your memories. What’s also special – because you said earlier that you don’t just pay for the book itself, but also for the app: These curated memories end up in the app, of course, and if you want, also in the cloud, where they are backed up and protected against data loss. And you can do a lot of things with these curated reminders, of course. You can put together a calendar to give to your parents or grandparents for Christmas with just a few clicks. Or actually create a bound photo book that you can then give to someone or for yourself. Because at the end of the day, you have in the app a hand-picked selection of the best-of photos with dates and captions. That’s a unique treasure at the end of the day.
Bernd Zipper: The app, did you develop it yourself or how did you get it? Did you sit down and program an app yourself or what did you do?
Axel Lilienblum: No, I’m not a developer. A physicist, but not a developer. But I am very deeply involved in the developments. At the end of the day, I worked with a team of developers. It took a very long time and was very expensive to develop this app at this level. If you look at it, it’s already a very high-end iOS app. We don’t have our own development team because we’re still in the start-up phase and want to be as flexible as possible. But it’s not unusual these days to work with freelancers and agencies in order to be flexible.
Bernd Zipper: If you take the idea of the app to Android, do you have to spend as much money on Android as you did on iOS?
Axel Lilienblum: No, it’s less, because the whole backend, the connection to the print shop and so on, can all be used. But we have the claim that the user interface and the user experience are always adapted to the respective mobile platform. That means that for the Android app, a lot of work would go into the design and the user interface.
Bernd Zipper: Okay, when can we expect something?
Axel Lilienblum: I think that will happen this year.
Bernd Zipper: Good, because in my eyes this is already relatively important. It’s not so bad for you, because if you think about it, you always have to give Apple a little bit of something…
Axel Lilienblum: No, we don’t have to.
Bernd Zipper: No?
Axel Lilienblum: The question comes up more and more often. But it’s ultimately the case that if you offer a physical product, one for shipping, then you don’t have to pay any fees to Apple.
Bernd Zipper: Oh well, that’s not bad.
Axel Lilienblum: The app itself is, after all, free to use. You just have to pay at the moment you want to order something.
Bernd Zipper: Now you’ve talked about the connection to the print shop. So that means you’ve automated everything? That is, my four photos or my four pages are automatically sent to the print shop? Or is there another final check?
Axel Lilienblum: Yes, everything is fully automated via the cloud, and no, there is no final check. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible to scale it up at all if there was still a manual final check. We work with very renowned players for the production of the pages.
Bernd Zipper: …which in turn, of course, have a final inspection, it must be said.
Axel Lilienblum: Right. Yes.
Bernd Zipper: So, in terms of print quality and the content, yes?
Axel Lilienblum: Of course.
Bernd Zipper: Final control is perhaps the wrong word. Not that anyone will misunderstand. It’s not just about whether the photos look good. There are also shenanigans that go on with such things.
Bernd Zipper: Now that you’re new on the market, how has the app been received?
Axel Lilienblum: It has to be said that we haven’t really scaled up yet. We’re still trying out a lot and looking at the numbers, talking a lot with our customers and evaluating their feedback. But what we’ve definitely found already is that we have phenomenal numbers, in terms of marketing. The click rates are great. When we run ads, we get a lot of inquiries. People are enthusiastic, think the product is great, and of course often have questions about it.
What we’ve also noticed is that when we get subscribers and they make it past the first month – we do have this 30-day return guarantee, but only a handful have taken advantage of that so far – but all the ones that have gone past that continue to stick with it. People are ordering their pages every month. And I’ve also talked to others in the industry who said that there’s usually an insanely high turnaround with subscription models, meaning that people drop out. They order for one or two months and then that’s it. But that’ s definitely not the case with us. That makes us extremely happy and proud, of course, because that’s what I want: for people to like it. I want to have a fantastic product that people are also enthusiastic about.
Bernd Zipper: I have one myself and am quite taken with it, with the value of the product in general. I think that also differentiates it from the normal photo book. That doesn’t mean that classic photo books don’t look good, but it’s always in the eye of the beholder. But with you, through the pre-curation of the templates and through the intelligence behind it, something clever comes out of it. That’s why I really, really like what you’re doing. Now you also offer gift certificates! How does that work?
Axel Lilienblum: We’re still trying it out. But yes, you can already buy vouchers from us. That means you can buy a 6-month, 12-month or 24-month package and give it away. This is ultimately a voucher code that the person receiving the gift can then enter in the app and use the product. This is, of course, a perfect gift for a wedding or birth for example, or pregnancy or something. The wedding season is just starting, so we’re very excited to see how it will be received.
Bernd Zipper: I’m also curious about that. After all, there are a lot of providers in the photo book market. How can you attract attention there?
Axel Lilienblum: We have a product that is innovative in terms of its type and functional principle. We have the very top target group of parents, and we have a premium product. We truly solve the main problems for parents; namely, that they are dissatisfied with the quality, that it takes too long and that, of course, the photo album is usually much too late. If we package that properly in our marketing, which we do especially on Instagram, where a lot of parents hang out, then I think we manage to get that across very well already. Of course, that sticks out incredibly. It’s something completely different from the photo book products that are usually offered. And it works. People click on our advertising, ask about it, take a look at it and are often enthusiastic about it.
Bernd Zipper: Well, I took a look at Instagram. There aren’t that many posts there, as I saw. Are you more on Facebook or what?
Axel Lilienblum: No, no, that’s our concept that we’re still testing the waters. That is, we have our twelve photos on Instagram, and they stay there for now. We work more with ads and with reels and stories to reach people.
Bernd Zipper: Now you’ve made the clever move of saying, “hey, you can also order calendars and this and that.” That means you’ve got a network of partners involved as well, right?
Axel Lilienblum: Not yet. But those are the plans that we’ve come up with and are forging, but we don’t have partners for that yet. So far, we have partners for the production of the pages, for the production of the albums and we are of course interested in more partnerships, especially with companies that also share our values. To whom family and children are also absolutely important and to whom it’s all about the cause. And of course, we will definitely have to put in a lot of work to make this vision a reality.
Bernd Zipper: Yes, I think you’re off to a good start and I think it can still be scaled well. What are your next plans? Besides the Android app and more products? Where is your journey going?
Axel Lilienblum: Well, as you said, the Android app. Then there are a few features that are in extremely high demand. For example, you want to be able to add additional pages. That’s not possible right now, because we’ve concentrated on the actual core product. Then you should also be able to order individualized folders or different colours and so on. These additional products are planned quite soon, calendars and more photo books.
And then where does the journey go from there? I mean, what we’re working on here is not really a photo book and not a photo product, not a photo product app, but for me it’s the market of memories. It’s about capturing memories. And there are no upper limits. Holding on to memories doesn’t have to happen in a photo book. It can also happen digitally. And that’s where topics like virtual reality and augmented reality, which will be coming in the future, are totally exciting. How can you preserve memories and pass them on to your children and grandchildren?
Bernd Zipper: That’s an issue with photo books in particular. I have some very old ones here that are already 20 years old, and you can tell that the paper is no longer in top shape. I’m curious to see how your product will perform in terms of value. I’m going to put that on the shelf, too, and see how it turns out. But overall, I’m quite taken with the idea and also with the calmness with which you bring it forward. With start-ups, you often have the feeling that everything has to happen immediately. But you really have a plan, so step by step by step. Do you do most of this on your own?
Axel Lilienblum: We have a team. We are always between ten and 15 people. But as I said earlier, we work exclusively with freelancers and agencies. That means I’m the main person in charge there. And yes, I know where I want to go. I know how I want to do it. And I firmly believe in it. I’m simply going my own way. I don’t want to be distracted or pressured. Of course, I also have concerns and fears that a big company will copy it, but it’s still a question of whether you can do it in the same way and in the same quality. And maybe we can also work together. I’m totally open to partnerships.
Of course, there are many companies involved in the market for memories. In Germany, for example, Celebrate. There is Family Album from Japan, which is very successful. But they all take the approach that people upload their photos to the app, collect them there and then make a photo book out of them. For me, it’s more the other way around. I’m going to invent the phrase “photo book first.” You work on your photo album first, which gives you a lot of motivation, and along the way, without having to put in any extra effort, your photo collection is created, which you can then use to do other things.
Bernd Zipper: You are a classic start-up. You have reinvested a lot yourself. Now one could say, you also earned a lot with your books before. But there is a bit of time in between, between the books and the current business. That means: As a start-up, you’re actually looking for new partners who might want to get involved, aren’t you?
Axel Lilienblum: Definitely. I think you can’t really become big in the long run without strong partners. That is an illusion. There are certainly one or two lucky breaks. But I am on the lookout for partners, I also talk to a lot of people. At the same time, I don’t want to rush into anything.
Bernd Zipper: I think that’s good, no rush. You have a wonderful product, a beautiful example of how digital tools, for example the app with the pictures embrace and include grandma and grandpa and the whole family. We have the curated memories in one fell swoop, the pictures that people would also like to remember.
On that note, thank you Axel, have a great summer and you guys out there: follow us, like us and spread the word that we exist. Because of course we want to hear more stories. So, if you have any suggestions, keep them coming!