You know it’s been an unusual year when you plan a guest article in May and start to write it in November! Either that or I’m just terrible with deadlines…
My name’s Paul McKay and I’m one of the founders and co-owners of Analogue Wonderland. Today I will be taking you through the past 18 months in the rollercoaster life of a fledgling small film business. EM’s invited me on to talk about Analogue Wonderland a couple of times since we started. You can get caught up here and here but links do also follow in the text below.
We begin with…
Think back to the second half of 2019… It was a glorious time of freedom and socialising that feels a lifetime ago. And a period of time that changed a lot for Analogue Wonderland!
In the summer of 2019, shortly after we celebrzated the first birthday of the business, I left my corporate job and committed full-time to developing and growing AW. At the same time we moved the business premises into a large office/warehouse unit in High Wycombe.
This combination of change drastically increased the financial stress – and risk – for both myself and Mary, but we couldn’t ignore the pressure that the growth of the business was already putting on our time and energy. It was time to make a big decision, and we felt ready for that jump.
Autumn and Winter passed in lightning time as we coupled the admin and logistics of the change with Paul’s personal house-move, trying to plan for a great Christmas with our community, and beginning the process of hiring employees for the first time.
Our suppliers also contributed to the excitement of the period by launching Kodak EKTACHROME in 120, ILFORD ORTHO PLUS 80 in 35mm and medium format, Acros II back into market, and Lomography Metropolis across all formats! Film photographers were given the incredible opportunity to shoot new black and white, colour negative, and colour slide films within a matter of weeks – and the relentless innovation attracted attention from the wider photography industry. Film is alive!
2020: A bright start
January allowed us a small breathing space where we could regroup, finalise contracts for our first permanent warehouse staff, and work out our priorities for the new year.
High on the list was attending The Photography Show as standees. By combining with other small businesses in the film photography world a group of us had persuaded the company behind TPS20 to carve out an ‘Analogue Spotlight’. This would be a focal point for film-lovers in a conference that has been digital-dominated for many years, and a really exciting step out of the niche for all of us.
It was not to be.
As COVID spread across the globe we moved from excitedly designing stand flyers… to speculating about attendance from Asian camera manufacturers… to doubting the number of public visitors who would risk the trip… to cancelling the entire event. At first the group tried to arrange a smaller Analogue Spotlight in Worcester, in line with live government guidance, but within 48 hours had decided against that as well.
The next few weeks passed in a blur. Changing regulations, supply issues popping up on many of our best-selling films, brand contacts disappearing on furlough, understandable anxieties from our staff about health and personal finances, schools and nurseries shutting, and all of the other issues that hit everyone around the world. It meant for one of the most tumultuous periods of our small business’ life – every week (and sometimes every day) we were having to start from scratch with warehouse shifts, cashflow planning, safety considerations, and managing stock, desperately trying to keep things afloat.
I know these issues weren’t unique to Analogue Wonderland, and I am also immensely grateful for the support from the film community throughout this time. People messaged support, people placed orders, and when things went wrong with deliveries or stock then people were forgiving and kind. It made a huge difference and kept us sane and focused through the worst days.
We also took the opportunity to invest time and energy into hanging out with the UK film photography community on YouTube. Hosting weekly live chats with brands and contacts from all over the film photography world: from Matt Day in America, Hanna and Michael in Austria, and even Hamish calling in from the Worcestershire wilderness! Thursday nights became a little ritual of opening a beer, chatting about film with lovely people, and letting some Usual Suspects from Twitter and Instagram pose questions and challenges to our guests. I don’t know about the people watching but having something fun, stable and fixed every week was a huge help for my own mental health!
The next stage
Eventually things seemed to settle. The country moved out of lockdown and factories, nurseries and schools reopened – allowing for the basics of the industry to restart. We also managed to get back into the swing of our ‘usual’ marketing activities, with a Kodak Summer Competition celebrating the quality of Kodak Ektar and new products from Dubblefilm (straps) and Street Candy (eco-packaging).
We had also taken the opportunity to upgrade parts of the Analogue Wonderland operation. We redesigned our small boxes – that from launch we estimate fit through approximately 60% of our customers’ letterboxes – so that they now fit through >90%.
We launched a mobile app for iPhone and Android to make it even easier for folk to browse and stock up on film while out-and-about. And we’ve recently started the mammoth task of translating our site into multiple European languages!
Our suppliers are reporting that – generally speaking – the COVID pandemic hasn’t seemed to dent the analogue momentum. Sales and interest are continuing to rise, albeit with greater variation across regions, and it would appear that lockdown has allowed people with the luxury of financial stability to spend more time enjoying their favourite hobbies.
Speaking personally I went through a very dry photographic patch across the beginning of the pandemic. I fell into the trap of feeling creatively empty and disengaged – which meant I stopped carrying my camera around as much and inevitably that fed back into the negative cycle.
This was broken by a discussion on Twitter where several people voiced similar experiences. It prompted me to start a ‘pass the parcel’ with my Lomography Simple Use Camera – heading first to Sandeep (@givemeabiscuit on Twitter) who was in full self-isolation – and also to force myself to go back to basic. Take out my favourite camera to shoot with, the Olympus OM1, and just start taking photos.
The summer provided a small respite as infections, and therefore regulations, stabilised. We could start ‘normal’ business planning again, and at the end of summer we launched something that had been in the works for months. The Analogue WonderBox! A 35mm film subscription service designed to expand film photographers’ knowledge and shooting range, and foster a community for shared wisdom, tips and tricks.
It has nudged me to invest time each week diving into a specific film’s strengths, weaknesses, and the honest view of our customers who have shot it before. This has been an eye-opener for me, and I feel like I’m learning more every week! For example: you can use Digital ICE to remove dust from Ilford XP2 because it is not processed in normal B&W chemicals; Rollei Retros 400S can ‘see’ through atmospheric haze thanks to it’s IR sensitivity; and Bergger Pancro 400 has two light-sensitive emulsion layers to improve exposure latitude! Who’d have thought.
It’s also been really fun seeing the subscribers take the information and translate it into delightful and creative photos. Our first Monthly Photo Competition showed a breadth of talent that was heart-warming and inspirational, and I cannot wait to see where this project goes over the coming year.
The joy of running a small business is that nothing stays constant, and already we have a long list of things to add, improve or change for next year. Many of these ideas have come from direct customer feedback – we read every message that anyone sends us on social media, email, or through the site – and we cannot thank the community enough for their passion and critiques!
But before we get started on that list we have the festive season to navigate. I’m also thrilled that EMULSIVE’s Secret Santa is back! The world obviously has a very different vibe for 2020, but I’m really looking forward to seeing the generosity, creativity and in-jokes that this community project inevitably unleashes.
On that note… I’m off to do some online research into photobooks 😉
To everyone who continues to support Analogue Wonderland, Mary and I would love to give you a great big heartfelt THANK YOU! We are incredibly grateful for the trust and love that you show us each time you choose us for your film orders, and we can’t wait to continue this journey as part of THE best community in the world.
#BelieveInFilm and Happy Shooting!
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This series is produced in conjunction with Hamish Gill's excellent 35mmc.com. Head on over to read the other half of these stories there.
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