Photographers travel with their livelihood—whether to a beach in Bali or a wedding in West Texas. Making sure that sensitive photography equipment survives the journey? That’s top priority paramount. 

ThinkTankPhoto has built a reputation on exactly this: designing and manufacturing travel photography luggage that can survive whatever is thrown at it. But what happens when flights are grounded and events get postponed? 

In this episode, Ted Meister shares ThinkTankPhoto’s short—and long-term—plan for thriving with new product lines that align with the new reality. 

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What you need to know

  • Ted Meister manages the marketing department for a well-respected photography travel bag company, ThinkTankPhoto. 
  • The photographers who use ThinkTankPhoto’s bags are a unique audience of creative people with very technical skills. They rely on fragile camera equipment for their livelihood, which necessitates luggage that will keep their critical equipment safe. 
  • Business was going well until COVID-19 put a halt on travel and events. As a result, photographers stopped traveling, eliminating the need for new travel luggage. 
  • ThinkTankPhoto’s team transitioned to home, allowing for more time and space to think about how to adapt to upcoming challenges – both immediate and long term. 
  • Despite travel restrictions, ThinkTankPhoto has been able to thrive with promotions and special discounts.  As they look forward to the coming year, they see new opportunities in key travel categories like car travel, and are adapting their product line as a result. 

Thriving  in the New Reality Highlights

“Photographers, they’re busy people, they travel the world in many cases on a regular basis. So they beat their gear up like crazy and they have very expensive gear.”

“Photography is a very complicated process. You’re working with light and you’re working with time and you’re working within the constraints of the equipment that you’ve got.”

“We have stories like, I was in Italy and my wheel blew out on my roller bag, so I called the company and they sent me a new one FedEx overnight. That’s something that we’ll do because we have a live person on the other end of the phone who’s very knowledgeable and will bend over backwards to help our customers stay in business and keep going.”

“…we’ve seen a decline over the years of interchangeable lens cameras coming out. We know that the market’s going to contract, even though there are more people now being paid for photography, which is odd, it’s still a declining thing.”

“We’ve been looking into the travel market, and well lo and behold, here comes COVID, which completely shuts down travel. Now we’re going, well now what do we do? But there still are markets for us and we are definitely being very proactive in getting, expanding our business and being more diverse.”

“We thought, well there’s the moment right there, the epiphany moment is that when everybody like us wants to get out there into the world, they’re going to hit the road because the roads are going to be open and everyone’s got cars. They may be a little bit hesitant to fly around the world where people are still locked down.“

“…we are nimble and we can move fast. I think the whole genesis of Think Tank was built on the ability to think outside the box and be creative and work hard and get there because it’s part of our DNA.” 

“I think the team has actually come together and embraced this sort of challenge and are making things work in a way that we never understood we could do before. “

“I think a lot of people like us are just discovering now that yeah, the internet is going to help us stay in business and we’re going to push the envelope on that to make that work.”

Transcript

Robert Murphy: Hi, thank you for joining me today. I’m Robert Murphy and this is That Changed Everything. Today, I have Ted Meister from ThinkTankPhoto, and Ted, it’s great to have you on the show today.

Ted Meister: Yeah, great. Thanks for having me on the show.

Robert Murphy: To start off at the top here, I’d love to hear a little bit about ThinkTankPhoto. Who you guys are, what you do, et cetera.

Ted Meister: Okay. Well, we essentially make camera bags for professional photographers and we started 15 years ago. We had a couple of expert product designers that worked for a camera bag company and they united forces with a couple professional photographers, one of whom is Deanne Fitzmaurice, who is a Pulitzer prize winner and her husband, Kurt Rogers. Between the four of them, they were able to really study how photographers work and evaluate their workflow and determine what their needs were. It’s accessibility, like quick access to your camera gear. It’s a portability, you need to transport your gear all over the place, whether you’re walking around or you’re flying. And it needs to be extremely durable. Photographers, they’re busy people, they travel the world in many cases on a regular basis. So they beat their gear up like crazy and they have very expensive gear.

It needs to be protected and it needs to be obscured too. You don’t want to be rolling around your camera gear with everybody knowing you’ve got $20,000 of camera gear on your shoulder. So by making bags that don’t necessarily look like camera bags we’ve really been able to find a nice little niche with our professional group because having Kurt and Deanne on board, they were able to get us in with all their photographer friends. It really just was an expert grassroots effort getting us into business and maintaining our business against some very big giants who have a lot of money behind them. We just keep working with photographers and we keep listening to them and we keep watching the trends. It’s just really amazing to see people who can find a better way of doing things by simply spending a little more time. We call it the extra 3%.

Ted Meister: That’s not just pumping out a camera bag that’ll work, that’s really putting it through its paces and getting it into the hands of people who can evaluate it and test it, and then give you feedback, you need to be able to respond. That’s been the core of our success. We have a great manufacturing supply chain. We do build everything in Vietnam and they’re very skilled workers over there. Everything is sewn using durable materials such as nylons and poly and heavy canvas, things like that. So, the stuff is built to last and it really does last. We see stuff come back all the time through customer service. We’ll put new wheels on an old roller and find out the thing is 10 years old and it’s still going strong. By having great customer service and top quality products and innovative design we’ve been able to maintain a good business in a very tough environment.

Robert Murphy: How did you end up in this industry, Ted?

Ted Meister: Well, I started in photography as a college student. I just took it on a whim as an elective. In those days it was all film. I remember being in the dark room and running my paper through the fixer and the image came up on the paper and I was like, wow, it’s like instant gratification. It was a great thing. You think about that now with digital photography where you snap the picture and you’re looking at it, that’s instant gratification. I was doing graphic design at the same time and I thought, am I going to be a professional photographer or am I going to be a designer? If I go to one wedding and I come home and my film is black, I’ve ruined that person’s wedding and I don’t want that kind of pressure.

Ted Meister: With graphic design you can make changes, you can come back and fix stuff. I went with the graphic design route and that got me into all kinds of good jobs where I started in digital prepress and I was one of the early adopters of digital prepress and new Photoshop and I knew all the page layout tools. That just got me in touch with a lot of people who ended up hiring me as a graphic designer. I jumped in on that. I rode that wave for a long time and then I got into web design through a company that I worked for and it was one of the early web designers. In the meantime I was doing some freelance work and I ran across a company called ThinkTank through a guy I had worked with and he was doing their marketing.

A friend at ThinkTankPhoto said, “Oh, we need a logo.” So I ended up designing the logo and that was 15 years ago. I ended up working down my job and still doing my other job and that kind of just got put on the back burner. Then five years ago I was working at a place that was going to be shutting down and I would be losing my job, so I was out looking for work and my contact there called me again and say, “Hey, we’re going to have the 10-year anniversary party, would you like to come meet everybody and see the fruits of your labor?” And I said, “Sure.” And he said, “Well, by the way, we’re also looking for a marketing director.” And I thought, well I just happened to be looking for a marketing director job.

Ted Meister: Because in all the years in marketing, I’ve built up a lot of good skills, writing and design and all this stuff that works together, and branding and brand management. So, here’s this perfect opportunity for me to come in and start at the ground level where I could build my team up and have been running on the treadmill over there ever since. I’ve got a great team and we’re cranking out good marketing deliverables and continue to learn more about marketing with digital advertising on Facebook. It’s amazing to see the results… A marketing dream is that you put money into something and you can see how much comes out. Before you would put an ad in a magazine, you had no idea if that even got to anybody and they bought anything.

But here, using Facebook or something like that, I can put in $1000 and see that I made $5,000. When you can go back to the boss and say, “Hey look, I made 500% on your investment.” They say, “Well, do more.” That’s been huge for me and it’s great. It’s very satisfying too, to be able to put your energies into something and come back and see the money come in. That’s kind of where Think Tank is now. That’s how I got started in there. We’ve got all kinds of new challenges in the future and we’re going to adapt. I mean, we can talk about that too.

Robert Murphy: I was thinking about the mindset of a professional photographer, let’s say you’re a photographer on assignment, you’re heading to Bali. Showing up with broken equipment is not only not acceptable, it’s your livelihood. You have to have these tools available. So if I’m thinking about that and I’m thinking about what it would be like for me to go into that kind of a situation, my requirements would be incredibly high. Can you tell me a little bit about the mindset of a professional photographer that you found in your experience and what they look for in the products that they choose?

Ted Meister: Right. Well, I think for one, a lot of them, aside from being very creative people and learning how to do storytelling through visual things is their gear heads. They love the technical data. They love to understand more about the specs and the speeds and the feeds and all that stuff that is so essential in a digital camera system today. Photography is a very complicated process. There’s a lot of, you’re working with light and you’re working with time and you’re working within the constraints of the equipment that you’ve got. So there’s a lot going through your head as far as how all that data fits together to result in a great photograph. That’s just the technical part of the photograph.

You also have to be the creative person who understands what you’re shooting and can put yourself in the right position to be there in the right moment to get that shot that you know is coming. A great example of that is one of my colleagues, his name is Terrell Lloyd he’s the photographer for the 49ers. He was telling me that not only you have to be a good photographer, you have to anticipate what the action is on the field is going to be, so you have to know something about football. He can put himself, knowing where he is in the game and where the game is and the situations are, he can put himself in the right spot on the field to capture that touchdown pass that he knows is coming.

Ted Meister: It takes a lot of understanding about your specific interest in what you’re there to photograph. That’s why a lot of photographers kind of stick with a genre like, oh, I’m a sports photographer, or I’m a wedding photographer, or I’m an events photographer. A lot of younger photographers will take anything they can get. But when you’re investing in being, let’s say, a nature photographer, you’re going to put a lot more money into big glass, big lenses that you can reach out and get close to the rhinos and the tigers and all that stuff. That builds a specific skill set that you need to learn about the animals and their behaviors. Just like Terrell had to learn about football.

I think there’s a lot of, you’ve got to be very interested in the subject matter as well as the technical matter. When you go down that path and you start… For example, you’re the travel photographer going to Bali, and you’ve got all this expensive gear, you’re not going to check that under the airplane along with everybody else’s stuff because you’ve seen how TSA handles the luggage. They throw that stuff around, they lose it, they break it. So everything that we make is designed to essentially go into the overhead compartment of the aircraft because every photographer is going to want to bring their stuff on the plane with them so they know where it is, they know it’s safe and they can protect it.

They’re very protective of their gear. They’re very interested in the inner workings of the gear, and they’re very interested in the subject matter that they’re out there to shoot.

Robert Murphy: That’s interesting is I hear a lot of left brain and right brain combined together then also that the dual expertise you mentioned is very interesting. I’m a gear head, I’m hunting around, I’m searching for a bag. I find you guys. What is it about ThinkTankPhoto that’s really going to appeal to them and connect to them as an industry professional?

Ted Meister: Well, I think that they’re going to really understand that the quality is there. On our website for example, we provide a lot of information about the products as far as the size and what fits, a lot of photography showing all the features and the benefits that the features bring. We do a lot of gear shots where it’s like, okay, here is a number of different types of photo gear layouts in our bags, and that helps a photographer say, “Okay, yeah, that’s my stuff right there. I’m a Canon guy and I can see that my stuff’s going to fit.” Being the gear heads that they are, they can really do a deep dive into the product on our website or whatever marketing materials and whatever website they’re buying our stuff through and they can really dive deep in there and evaluate those specs.

So I think that really attracts them. Then when they finally use our products, they realize how well it works in comparison with other products that they’ve bought. For example, we use a YKK zippers, which you think, well, so what, everything’s got zippers on it. Well these zippers happened to be the best in the world. Every photographer will tell you, “God, these zippers are great. So many of my zippers have blown out on my bags and it just ruined it. It’s a wasted bag when the zipper’s blown out.” So by using top quality materials such as the zippers and such as the fabrics, a photographer who has any experience working with this stuff over time is going to know that this is high quality stuff and it’s worth the price. So I think that between the innovation and the quality, the third big pillar of our brand is the customer service.

Ted Meister: We have stories like, I was in Italy and my wheel blew out on my roller bag, so I called the company and they sent me a new one FedEx overnight. That’s something that we’ll do because we have a live person on the other end of the phone who’s very knowledgeable and will bend over backwards to help our customers stay in business and keep going. Because when they’re out in the field, like you mentioned, if the gear arrives somewhere broken, if our gear arrives somewhere broken, like maybe it fell off the back of the truck, well we can certainly do whatever we can to get that person back in business. So, excellent customer service, it’s just a personal touch and I think that photographers appreciate the personal touch. So that’s been sort of the three big key points of our success.

Robert Murphy: There’s something I wanted to ask about and that’s, when I’ve traveled in recent years, I’ve noticed a pretty significant transition from people shouldering massive cameras or even more significant SLR, DSLR to just bringing their iPhones. Is that something that’s impacting your business?

Ted Meister: Oh definitely, definitely. iPhone photography has gotten so good that half the time you just can’t tell the difference. I mean, the lay person really can’t tell the difference. And even though more photos are now being taken than ever before thanks to social media, we’re still seeing that camera sales are declining, and we call them interchangeable lens cameras. That’s how we sort of measure our market is by watching the cameras that come out of Japan for example. Most of the cameras, big camera brands come out of Japan. They track all that stuff and we’ve seen a decline over the years of interchangeable lens cameras coming out. We know that the market’s going to contract, even though there are more people now being paid for photography, which is odd, it’s still a declining thing.

You’re not going to show up as a wedding photographer, you’re not going to show up to a wedding with an iPhone and start taking pictures. You might do that for some social media stuff and you may have a drone or something too where you made a lot of… And a lot of wedding photographers are really kind of pulling out all the stops and doing a lot of different stuff. But there will always be interchangeable lens cameras, but it’s going to be a very small market. We’ve been looking at where do we apply our skillset and our expertise to get into other markets that aren’t so small and aren’t so declining. We’ve been looking at that and we have definite objectives and targets so we’ve been working towards those targets.

One of the things that we do very well is make travel gear. We’ve helped traveling photographers travel all over the world, so we make really good, we can call it luggage. We’ve been looking into the travel market, and well lo and behold, here comes the COVID thing, which completely shuts down travel. Now we’re going, well now what do we do? But there still are markets for us and we are definitely being very proactive in getting, expanding our business and being more diverse.

Robert Murphy: Let’s jump into that a little bit. I mean, that’s interesting. This is a consideration you already had, that as a group you sat down and said, “Okay, we see the decline in this one market. We need to think about how we’re going to continue to expand as a business.” Can you walk me through that process and how you arrived at the conclusion that you ultimately came to?

Ted Meister: Right. Well, we had a long-term strategy. We wanted to get into this travel market and it was a very long term and we had plans and we were proceeding down the line and everything was going great. Then the COVID crisis hit and we saw that suddenly traveling photographers were no longer traveling and event photographers were no longer shooting events and there are no more sports. So there goes the sport photography market. So we thought, well, now what do we do? Now we really got to act fast and we identified a possible outcome of this COVID crisis. We’re all stuck at home. Fortunately, I am working from home so I’m still getting paid. A lot of people aren’t. So we’re all stuck at home and we’re looking outside going, God I wish I could go out and go camping or I wish I could go out and go for a drive and then go to a park and go ride my bike and get back to doing the sports and things I always loved to do.

We thought, well there’s the moment right there, there’s the epiphany moment is that when everybody like us wants to get out there into the world, they’re going to hit the road, and because the roads are going to be open and everyone’s got cars, and they may not get on an airplane, they may be a little bit hesitant to fly around the world where people are still locked down so they’re going to hit the road. We have decided we’re going to proactively come up with products that will meet the demand of the road traveler. There’s a lot of different types of people that do that and they all need carrying solutions, and we’re experts at making carrying solutions that hold a lot of gear. When you’re going camping, you’re going to need some kind of bag that gets you there and get all your gear there and stay organized.

We know how to organize stuff and we know how gear heads love to be very maniacal about their gear and they want it organized and they plan and prepare and be ready. What’s going to happen is they’re going to be ready to go and they’re going to be able to jump out immediately with our products and get out there and enjoy life again. So that’s very exciting for us. It’s a very hurry up and do it right now type of thing too, which I guess is very stressful right now with the current crisis and that’s also very stressful. But we know that this is our big play and we’re going to make it happen.

Robert Murphy: So why not sit tight right now? I mean, I think it’s really interesting you’re moving so fast. Given all that’s going on in the world, you’re using it as an opportunity to move faster and to expand faster into this new market opportunity. Why not just sit tight and wait for things to blow over? Why is now the time to move fast?

Ted Meister: Well, we’re a small company, so we’ve been very scrappy for a long time and we’ve had to… A lot of the bigger companies, it’s like turning the Titanic, they just can’t do it. But we are nimble and we can move fast. I think the whole genesis of Think Tank was built on the ability to think outside the box and be creative and work hard and get there because it’s part of our DNA and to sit back and watch the market dry up would be suicide and we wouldn’t have a job. I think at this point it’s better to be super busy and super excited than to sit back and watch the world burn down and not be able to do anything about it.

So, hats off to everybody at the company. They are working as hard as they can right now and we’re working really well together. In fact, now that we’re all sort of working from home, we’re meeting online all the time and we’re trying to meet virtually. I think the team has actually come together and embraced this sort of challenge and are making things work in a way that we never understood we could do before. It was always, well you’ve got to come in the office and you’ve got to work though the work hours and you got to do it like everybody else does it. Well now we’re in a virtual world and the world’s been going this way for a long time. The internet is a big enabler and it’s being used now more than ever and I think a lot of people like us are just discovering now that yeah, the internet is going to help us stay in business and we’re going to push the envelope on that to make that work.

Robert Murphy:  So you would imagine that when this goes away, when this current pandemic eventually fades, that this will ultimately alter the direction of how you work as a business?

Ted Meister: I think so. Not only how we work, but what we sell and where we sell it. There’s all kinds of markets, mom and pop stores, the brick and mortars are really suffering. Will we be able to use that network in the future? Not as well. We can use the big players like BNH, they sell a lot of camera gear for your readers that might not know, and Amazon of course, giant marketplaces. I guess the new Google marketplace is really coming on strong and we can get into that and we can expand our sales globally through Amazon and other platforms like Alibaba and things like that. I think embracing the internet and getting in on all the new emerging technologies and being the first there or the second there Kickstarter, I mentioned Kickstarter, these are new things that didn’t exist before the internet and there’ll be new ones in the future. It’s a challenge, but I think just our DNA, as I mentioned before, is always to look forward and to look for the next new cool thing. It’s exciting.

Robert Murphy: That’s great, Ted. Any advice for other small businesses and any advice that you would give people who are in a similar situation and they’re trying to figure out their trajectory for the next, let’s say three months, six months, a year, maybe even two years. What would you tell them as they’re going through this?

Ted Meister: Well, stay active in what you do in your personal life and in your work life, always be curious about new technology and don’t be fearful of them. A lot of people are just like, “I don’t even know anything about that. I could never program anything.” They get so lost when they get into something new that’s online because it’s not part of their personal makeup to be curious about technology. Some people just fear technology. Well, we’re going to need to rely on technology going forward, but we also need to rely on the good old human interactions and building relationships. That’s kind of hard to do when you’re sitting at home by yourself watching CNN. You’re not going to build any relationships.

Ted Meister: You need to get a hold of people that you know and find people with like interests, and if you’re going to… I’m not an expert at starting up a business because a lot of that takes money, but I’m always thinking, wow, wouldn’t it be cool if I started up my own online store knowing all that I know about marketing and e-commerce, I could kill it, it’d be fun. Then maybe I could work on my own schedule or something and maybe I can be my own man and move to Hawaii and not have to worry about it again. But I do like the security of having a good job and working with other people. I’ll probably just kind of stick it out in doing what I’m doing. I don’t have a lot of advice for other people, but I’ve been telling my team who’s, they’re very stressed, but I quoted Winston Churchill and I said, “He told the guys going off to D Day if you should find yourself in hell, keep going.”

Robert Murphy: That’s great advice. Ted, if you end up in Hawaii, I know there’s a new line of bags coming out of ThinkTankPhoto that you might be able to bring with you on your travels there.

Ted Meister: Definitely.

Robert Murphy: I want to thank you so much for your time today. Thanks for your great advice and I look forward to seeing these new product lines coming out of your company in the near future.

Ted Meister: Good deal. Thanks for looking me up. It was a lot of fun. I appreciate it.