Smilebooth - school
Brought to you by the photographers at SmugMug

The Daredevil: Yes, You Can Think Inside the Box

Name: Whitney Chamberlin

Position/Title: Cultural Engineer/Owner

Name of Company: Smilebooth

Location: Earth

Market: Unique Booth Photography for Events, Parties, Weddings, Celebrations


Bragworthy Factoid:

Left a $250,000/year corporate gig to help people create their own images in the Smilebooth

Career Highlights:

Seeing his formula mimicked exponentially over the past 8 years

Atlanta, GA booth rentals alone topping $200,000 in revenues Making $30-40,000/year on his own local events

Growing his own company to 5 photographers, each with a Smilebooth

Fave Features

Simple gallery hierarchy that lets event-goers browse by location

Social media marketing: ability to quick-share images; place to view and discuss images

Seamless integration with their own site

Large, beautiful image display

A booth is born

In his former life as a brand manager and marketer, Chamberlin spent his time bringing back iconic Nikes and wallowing in indie music. He was creative and successful, but something was missing. “I was making amazing money but what I did didn’t have an end—what was I really doing?” he says. “Here I’m making people genuinely happy, just by putting something there for them to do.” The Smilebooth idea bloomed when he started joining his wedding photographer wife Jesse on weekend jobs. “I was in the giant corporate world during the week and my wife was shooting weddings on weekends. It was a bummer,” Chamberlin says. “I used to lose sleep worrying about [all the guests] being photographed. I said, I’m not going to walk around begging—it wasn’t my style. So I built the first photo booth out of plywood and a makeshift computer. It worked great.” He continues to refine the booth and grow the business—who hasn’t hopped into a Smilebooth at a party and let loose, usually with hilarious results?

Putting the “mug” in SmugMug

Smilebooth milks every drop of revenue from SmugMug’s tool set by exploiting the social aspect of photo-sharing. Citing SmugMug’s excellence at showcasing multiple images and large, beautiful displays, Chamberlin says he links directly to SmugMug from his own site so that customers can view and discuss their images on SmugMug without any extra clicks. Chamberlin likes having an online place to do event postmortems. “Then you can say, ‘I was at this event, come view my photos!’” he points out. Furthermore, Chamberlin has been known to build clients their own SmugMug account so they can collect revenue from events themselves. “Some of our brides were a bit iffy on using the Smilebooth,” he says. “I said I could discount their Smilebooth by $300-$400 and make them their own SmugMug account with Smilebooth images. She can set [the price]. It's enticing for the budget bride.” There’s a silver lining for the vendor as well. “As a rental business, I don’t really need [the revenue]; print sales are an amazing added bonus.”

And the Gods smiled on them

Chamberlin’s original venture has exploded into a diverse international enterprise. In addition to Smilebooth rentals and his own company’s shoots, he manages an affiliate network and continues to produce booths for purchase. Seamless integration between his site and SmugMug, along with advanced customization, lets him manage his diverse business arms and maintain a unified look and feel. To his delight, the Smilebooth concept has proved nearly recession-proof. “We created the first one eight years ago and growth has been spontaneously amazing. I used to get emails from photographers every week saying how do you get these shots in a photo booth?” he says. “We haven’t had any hiccups. The only challenge is getting photographers to stop interacting with everyone and let the Smilebooth do its job.”

Shooting inside the box

The main lesson Chamberlin brought with him from the agency world was the ability to channel anticipation without meddling. Although letting drama and creativity unfold naturally is second nature to him, getting professional photographers to do the same is more difficult. “For a while, I was frustrated with copycats,” he says. “Then I thought, why not build booths for them, because they’re not going to do it right. I created a whole other business, and that’s what I’m excited about right now, because I didn’t think people would get it.” Smilebooth has spawned many imitators, but Chamberlin thinks his team’s ability to let action happen without intervening sets them apart. “I’m not one to hide the feather boa and silly hats, but that’s not our esthetic,” he points out. “You are the creative. [In the booth], you can be creative with nothing in your hands or something physical in the room, instead of bringing the same props everyone has. Custom-made props? Awesome. Relevant props? Great.” Jesse’s classical training came in handy, he notes, citing her general knowledge of cameras and lighting as key. Typically, his team demo’s the freestanding booth and clicker for one person. Jesse avoids posing subjects, often just advising them to be themselves. “She has a photographic gift beyond the eye,” he says of her charisma and ability to help subjects let loose. “That’s what makes her an amazing photographer. How everything feels with the photo booth is basically that same feeling.”

No more “pasteurized” photos

Yes, the Smilebooth is addictive—and the results speak for themselves, all over Smilebooth’s SmugMug galleries. “People don’t get out,” Chamberlin says. “It’s like that ‘Risky Business’ moment where you’re sliding across the floor in your socks. People regain their childhood when they’re in front of this thing.” Chamberlin’s captured grandmothers flipping off the camera, dads hugging sons, and lots of devious teenagers smiling about something they shouldn’t be. “People get excited about doing their own thing in front of the camera instead of being told what to do,” he says. “The game of anticipation is really simple. When you’re in a group and one person has the wireless clicker remote, it’s exciting—it’s unbounded and limitless. You can push the button thousands of times or just once, and there’s a roar of laughter, because it’s a real moment, not a pause—not a tight, confined scenario.”

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