Cramming for exams, maintaining a 3-5 night per week diet of microwaveable dinners, tailgating hard for 6 hours prior to kickoff so you don’t even know who’s playing by the time the game begins – all favored pastimes of the college student. As coveted as these practices are, one activity still stands above them all – taking pictures… hundreds upon thousands of pictures to ensure that no single moment of the campus experience goes undocumented. You’ve seen this phenomenon manifest itself on the social networking grand stage of Facebook and it’s not going away anytime soon. No, it is just mere science: where there are students, there are pictures – the two go together like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as the Benedict Brothers in Twins. With knowledge of the picture-loving trend that has embedded itself at universities nationwide, isn’t it clear that there is a tremendous market for photography services to meet the requests of today’s students?
The creative minds behind GreekYearbook made note of this demand when launching their professional photography business in September of 1999. GreekYearbook currently offers photo services to upwards of 100,000 students and, in the decade since their inception, their reach has extended from an initial 15 colleges to now 450 universities in the United States and Canada. Built by former members of the Greek community, the company caters exclusively to fraternities and sororities and is the industry leader in designing composites as well as covering benchmark events including Bid Day and conventions. With Greek life present at nearly 1,000 campuses, GreekYearbook is a source of limitless business potential and promises to grow as fraternities and sororities continue to play a large role in the college lifestyle. Harvis Kramer, 29-year-old President of GreekYearbook, has been kind enough to sit down and chat with The Campus Tycoon in an interview that will shed some light on growing a company from the ground up, staying in touch with the constantly shifting student demographic, and the daily life of a young entrepreneur.
How did the idea for GreekYearbook arise?
GreekYearbook was started by Ryan Millman in 1999 while in college at the University of Arizona. He was a member of Zeta Beta Tau who held a lot of weekly events with various sororities on campus. Back then digital cameras were becoming bigger and better each month. Ryan wanted some way to capture all the moments of his Greek life experience and share them with the rest of his friends at schools across the country. So he came up with GreekYearbook.com, the online photo super site for fraternities and sororities. The idea quickly became popular and people were hiring GreekYearbook photographers to attend their various events – date parties, formals, alumni events, and just about anything. Ryan Millman and his childhood friend Jon Weinstock got GreekYearbook off the ground, photographing dozens of events each week at schools across the country.
Ryan Millman (left), Harvis Kramer (center), and Jon Weinstock (right)
I came on as the Director of Marketing and one of the first full-time employees of GreekYearbook in 2002. Having a love for photography and an entrepreneurial spirit, I took a big risk with a small company with a small marketing budget. Back then we were only at a dozen or so schools, but quickly we began to spread to hundreds more all over the country. Each year GreekYearbook would photograph over 1,000 events for fraternities and sororities, making it one of the most popular websites for college students with over 750,000 unique visitors per month.
As the digital photography industry changed and the general public was able to obtain higher quality digital cameras, GreekYearbook switched gears and began focusing less on event photography and more on professional bid day and composite photography services. These photos were needed by every fraternity and sorority on an annual basis. GreekYearbook began building an army of professional photographers across the United States and Canada providing these services. Today, GreekYearbook works with fraternities and sororities at over 500 Universities. Over 500,000 college students have been photographed by a GreekYearbook photographer.
I am sure that many responsibilities are laid upon the President of an ever-growing college photography company with a wide range of clients throughout the nation. Just how consuming are your GreekYearbook duties and how does it influence your day-to-day routine?
Each day is a new challenge for a growing business. With our immense success we have also had a lot of growing pains. It is constantly a delicate balance of keeping your quality up while keeping your costs down. While we can forecast what our growth will be each quarter, in this economy and in our specific niche market, you just never know for sure. Therefore hiring new staff, ordering supplies in bigger bulk, investing in better technology, and expanding in new office space is all a gamble. The key to being a successful manager of a business is to know when the right time is to go to that next level. You constantly have to be on top of the numbers and see five steps ahead to ensure you keep things at that same delicate balance.
Another big part is keeping your team together and happy. GreekYearbook has a direct staff of 18 employees running things on a daily basis and an indirect staff of over 40 at our sister company NationsPhotoLab.com which handles all of our professional printing needs. We are very fortunate to have an amazing team of employees who are the key to GreekYearbook being a success. We tend to hire people who were in fraternities and sororities in college, and who can mesh well with our clientele. Everyone here is part of the bigger picture and works hard at their job because they know that they all directly affect the success of the company.
GreekYearbook was founded by college students. With that being said, how did the company secure the funding to get off the ground and running and did you have the assistance of any investors?
GreekYearbook was fortunate enough to not have a large amount of costs in the beginning and was started with a small loan. All that was needed were a few cameras and money to get the website up and running. The company took several years to become profitable, and luckily the company was being run by people who were dedicated to the future of what GreekYearbook would become. We all took low pay for a long period of time to help the business grow, at times the founder Ryan Millman was even making less than his employees. You have to have that type of dedication towards what you are trying to build in order to succeed. In the end it will pay off and you can be proud of what you accomplished. Anyone who has the short-term vision of wanting to make money right away will most likely not get very far.
GreekYearbook offers comprehensive photo services for fraternities and sororities across the country. Do you notice any differences among preferences and purchasing trends depending on the location of the customer’s school?
Absolutely there are trends, some that make sense and some that make absolutely no sense in our opinion. Many of the bigger schools that you would imagine to have high sales do in fact gross high revenue. The Greek market is a very funny industry though, and many times it is dependant more on external factors then the actual demographic you are working with. For example, if we start working with a school that has never had a professional company shoot their bid day pictures before, they are more likely to not order much. However if we work with a school that has always had a professional photographer, yet it is their first year working with GreekYearbook, usually sales are very high. You have to take those factors into consideration when creating pricing for individual markets.
It is extremely impressive that you have expanded your client list from just a handful of colleges to over 400 universities nationwide and I’d imagine that this took some strong marketing capabilities. Describe some of the most successful marketing and promotional efforts that you have employed to extend the GreekYearbook brand.
In the beginning we did not have much of a marketing budget. I was Director of Marketing at the time and had to somehow create new business with what tools I had available to me at no cost. Back then American Online was very popular, and people would go online using AOL and Instant Message or go into group chats. Essentially AOL was Facebook without as much personalization. I would sign onto AOL and search for people who had on their profiles that they were in a Greek organization. Slowly one Instant Message at a time we began to build the business.
Another key element I focused on was business development. I found companies that worked with our demographic and created mutually beneficial partnerships with them. It was a free way to gain advertising on various websites, school papers, and other media forums used by college students. This helped build our brand awareness.
Since we have such a niche market it was very difficult to find out who were the decision makers in the Greek organizations. Still to this day we have to constantly do research to stay on top of things. Every year there is a new President elected to a fraternity/sorority and it is our marketing/sales department’s job to find that information.
Today we are a much larger company and we invest a lot of time and money into SEO (search engine optimization), website optimization, variable data, social media, and other interactive marketing techniques which if I gave away our secrets we would not remain #1!
Fill us in on your most memorable on-campus photo shoot experience. What made this particular event so special?
Most memorable photo shoot experience took place when we used to have a photographer who looked like Justin Timberlake, almost identical. We walked into a sorority house for a bid day shoot at the University of Michigan to just meet our contact person and give them some tips on being prepared for the photo shoot. When we walked into the sorority house the girl who was our contact began screaming, fanning her face, and crying that Justin Timberlake was in their house. She thought she was on a MTV hidden camera show or something, and truly believed it was Justin. We had to get her off the floor and explain that we were GreekYearbook and we were there to take their bid day photographs. It was funny, we would get that everywhere we went, but that was the most extreme.
GreekYearbook Photographer and Justin Timberlake Look-alike, Jeremy Stritzinger
Do you plan on expanding your services to meet the always-changing demands of the student market? If so, what are your ideas to adapt to the requests of the Greek community?
We are always adding new services, products, and programs to our business model. That is why we have been so successful, because we stay in touch with our clients. As the company ages so do we, and the people who have been here since the beginning are a bit out of touch with being in college today. However, we constantly hire college interns and survey our clients to ensure we are giving them what they want and need. We have a few things in development that we believe will truly revolutionize the industry.
Looking ahead, what are your immediate goals for GreekYearbook and what type of progress can you forecast for the company in 2010?
Over the past 10 years we have been fortunate to say that each successive year has been our most successful year yet. We continue to grow at double and triple digit percentages in different areas of the business. Our goal is to continue to provide a great service at a low cost to our clients. In our business we begin getting in contracts for the following year early. Because of this we already know that 2010 is going to once again be the biggest year to date for us.
Since GreekYearbook has been such an overwhelming success, we’d love for you to leave us with some uplifting final words. What is the best piece of advice you can impart upon college-aged entrepreneurs looking to start their own company?
The most important virtue to have is patience. You need to be realistic and know that most businesses do not become profitable in the first few years. We did not begin turning a real profit with the company for quite some time, and all that were involved with the building of GreekYearbook had to make huge sacrifices and in the end it paid off. You need to make sure you have people you can rely on and believe in what you are doing so you all can get to where you are headed.
In addition to having patience and surrounding yourself with people who are passionate about what their goals, you additionally always have to think ahead. You should never get comfortable and always work harder than the previous year. We have been so successful because we are constantly changing and adding things to accommodate the fraternity or sorority member of today, not yesterday. A lot of companies get stuck thinking that the same formula will continue to work forever, but that is a mistake. While you grow externally you have to grow internally as well and always make the company better than it was before.
The GreekYearbook Staff
For more on Harvis and a complete look at the services offered by GreekYearbook, log onto their official site at http://www.greekyearbook.com/.