For serious photographers, one lens just isn’t enough, and Kellogg students Pano Kalogeropoulos and Abayomi Fasharo don’t think that this desire should mean breaking the bank. In an exclusive NBR interview, Pano shares the story of their start-up, Bokeh Fire, a finalist in this year’s Northwestern University Venture Challenge.
NBR: What motivated you and Mr. Fashoro to apply to the NUVC?
PK: As student-entrepreneurs at Kellogg, we were on the lookout for local startup competitions and accelerators to apply to. We were looking for potential funding for our idea and also a chance to hone our pitch. We thought NUVC was a great fit, so we applied.
NBR: What is it that inspired you two to create Bokeh Fire – in other words, why are you passionate about this field?
PK: I have been a photographer for a long time – 17 years in fact. I’m currently the president of the Kellogg Photography Club. The idea for Bokeh Fire came from a pressing need that I had identified as a photographer myself – not having access to DSLR camera lenses due to their exorbitant costs. I was always saving up money to buy my next good lens, and always looking for a way out of spending thousands of dollars to get it. But sadly, there were no other reliable options.
Then about a year ago, I started developing the idea of a rental service. The basic idea was, what if you could rent different lenses at very affordable rates to use with your DSLR camera? Then you wouldn’t have to spend years saving up the cash and end up being stuck with only one lens. With this service, you could try all the different specialty lenses and not have to spend the money to buy any of them!
From there, I spent a lot of time developing the idea, talking to Kellogg professors and classmates, and thinking through and modeling potential business models. This year [Cofounder] Yomi and I teamed up to tackle the challenge of building a real live business out of it. We’ve had tremendous success so far, and have several paying customers now, up from almost none just a few months ago!
NBR: How did you two meet each other to form this joint venture?
PK: Yomi and I are both classmates at Kellogg. Last year, we worked together very closely for a class at Kellogg where we lead a team of 30 students to South America. The experience brought us close together and we became good friends. Then I found out that Yomi was also interested in doing something entrepreneurial, and that’s how we started working together.
NBR: What would you say has been the biggest challenge you both had to overcome in bringing the idea of lending lens to market?
PK: Our primary challenge has been the capital investment required to build an inventory of lenses. We are buying brand new lenses to provide to our customers, because we want to ensure customer satisfaction. So right now, if you join our service, you get a brand new Canon or Nikon lens to rent. So that’s been a challenge, as these lenses can be pretty expensive. We’re managing through a combination of favorable financing and hunting out discounts wherever we can. We are also focused on a number of innovative ways to cut down our expense in this area that we’ll be implementing in the next couple months. On the bright side, demand for our service has been strong enough that we’re having to deal with growing pains, which as they say, is a good problem to have.
NBR: Going into this competition, what makes you believe that your idea will be one to win? In other words, how do you feel now about going into the finals round?
PK: We are very confident that we have a great idea that solves a real customer need. The main reason for this is that our current customers and potential customers we’ve talked to all love the idea. The response has been really strong with new people coming to us every week to ask about our service. And we haven’t even advertised yet!
We are equally confident in our business model. This is purely based on potential investors we’ve talked to who understand the need. It’s funny because most investors don’t get it because they’ve never felt that burning need to access better lenses that DSLR camera owners feel almost constantly. But anyone who owns a DSLR and is a passionate amateur photographer loves the idea immediately. These investors have been great and are supporting us in ways we never expected.
NBR: Out of curiosity, how did the name “Bokeh Fire” come to be?
PK: We chose Bokeh Fire for a number of reasons. We didn’t want to have another generic name like everyone else. But there’s also a “hidden” meaning to our name. Bokeh is a photography term that means background blur. It is an extremely valuable property in a lens and people will spend thousands of dollars just to get “good bokeh”. We liked this because initially, only photographers who are passionate at a certain level will get it. We’re not talking professionals, just anyone who has done a little research into the type of lens they want to try out next. For these people, our name will really stick out and they’ll remember us.
The “Fire” refers to the passion that we feel, and that all dedicated photographers feel, for the wonderful mixture of art and science that is photography. Combining the two words into one – Bokeh Fire – gives a clear image of who we are: we’re all about passion for photography.
NBR: Finally, what did you do before getting to Kellogg?
PK: Before Kellogg, I was a technology stock investor, focused on alternative energy and cleantech. While working as an equity research analyst, I was an active photographer, traveling the world and selling my photography to both corporations and individuals.
Yomi was a product manager at Yahoo and Intuit, where he gained valuable experience in launching new web products at some of the biggest brands in technology. He is passionate about building excellent customer experiences and is an amateur photographer himself.
Photo Credit: Tim McNiff