Startup profile: Foto Ruta

This is the first in a series of profiles about startups.

Foto Ruta is an energetic, young company that offers creative ways for travelers to explore a city while becoming better photographers. Get a taste of their flagship tour by reading about my experience from last weekend. In addition to the weekly tour that covers a different neighborhood each Saturday, Foto Ruta offers a set of creative photography options in Buenos Aires: half day and full day street photography excursions, a half day iPhoneography tour and workshop, a full day post-production workshop on learning Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, as well as custom excursions.

Foto Ruta photography tours Buenos Aires

Founded by Joss Mandryk and Becky Hayes, two expats living in Buenos Aires, this company is much more than the typical expat starts a walking tour business that you see everywhere. Foto Ruta is prepping to go international with franchises in New York and Santiago, Chile in the works. Plus, they planning an iPhone app.

The founders’ backgrounds are visible in the success of the company. Joss is a graphic designer and photographer, and Becky comes from a career as a Marketing and PR Director. That combination is evident in their extremely well design marketing materials:

Foto Ruta marketing materials

To gain a better sense of what drives Foto Ruta, I talked with co-founder Becky Hayes.

What was the spark that gave you the incentive to start this specific company?

We’re both expats living in Buenos Aires and started off as tourists. We fell in love with Buenos Aires but found that tourists who were here for only a few days often missed out on what was great about the city. People who’d heard so much about the city, arrived, spent a few days visiting the main tourist sites and then went away bemused as to why Buenos Aires got such rave reviews from travellers. In other words, it’s a city that requires a bit of time to really appreciate.

We wanted to offer a way to show tourists the greatness of Buenos Aires, such as the crumbling architecture, secret restaurants, passage ways, street art, quirky street life. As photographers we are both aware of the way photography can be a great way of seeing a place and hunting out the unexpected. And so we came up with a concept that would fuse the two…tourism and photography!

Foto Ruta has a solid momentum going, which is hard to achieve in a young company. What was a challenge that you had to overcome to get the company on course?

I’d say as with most start-ups the biggest challenges were financial. We started Foto Ruta with a miniscule pot of money with the hope of growing organically, so we had to work really hard to prioritise expenditure. With our combination of skills we were able to launch the company without having to make huge investments in design/programming and marketing. Foto Ruta managed to get a momentum going fairly quickly towards the end of 2011, which was great but it meant that we grew quite quickly, and what we planned was originally going to be a part time set up, became a full time job (while we were both still having to juggle other full time jobs!). The balance between growing a new company and making it profitable whilst also earning a living is a tough one to manage.

You have a good mix of products that are well defined at varying price points.  Do you have any suggestions for other entrepreneurs on creating a slate of products that offer value to different customer segments, AKA product market fit?

It’s definitely been a bit of a process of trial and error. We began with our lead product Foto Ruta Weekly, a clue based tour that explores a different neighborhood each week. It was this product that we felt had a real unique selling proposition. It was totally unique to us, and, as it’s a tour that supports large groups. We rely on volume, so we can offer it at a very low price. This means it appeals to every type of traveller, and we find due to its uniqueness, it appeals to pretty much every customer segment from budget traveller through to the top end of the market. We also find due to the low price and the explorative/fun nature of the events, it appeals to photographers and non-photographers alike.

Customers meeting before a tour

As Foto Ruta Weekly began to grow we were getting to know our customers and their needs more and more, and realised there was genuine demand for longer, more intense photo experiences. So we launched the full day Academia tour. The idea behind that tour was to take Foto Ruta to the next level by focusing more on technical and practical aspects of photography and showing people some amazing places in Buenos Aires that otherwise they would never get to see. The price point was higher which made the product more niche, i.e. for people who were either photography enthusiasts, or those for whatever reason, were willing to pay a bit more for their experience.

As time has gone on, we’ve realised there is also a middle ground in between those products, so we created the 1/2 day Academia as a more mass market version of the full day. In addition to creating products to fit market, we’ve also created products we feel are relevant and push the boundaries creatively and professionally. e.g. Labs (Photoshop Lightroom course) and iPhoneography.

I can only offer advice to service providing entrepreneurs..and my advice would be:

Know your market and stay nimble. As long as you know your market and have a good solid product, you can tweak everything to adapt to the market as you go. Nimbleness and constant awareness of your market is crucial as its a continuously evolving beast.

Did you always plan to expand beyond Buenos Aires? Or at some point did Joss & you say, “Oh, we’re on to something.” Or did expansion simply come about through opportunity with someone proposing to work together in a different city?

Joss and myself are both quite ambitious and passionate about what we do. As soon as Foto Ruta took off we knew it was always going to be more than just a hobby business. Since the start, we’ve had participants coming us to say ‘oh you must do a Foto Ruta Philippines’ or ‘FR Istambul!’ so we’ve definitely had international ambitions and a ‘hit-list’ of cities we’d love to run Foto Ruta in. New York City was the first overseas pop up we’ve done, it seemed the logical next step because we have contacts over there who were keen to get involved and help us set it up. We’re now also in the process of planning to launch Foto Ruta in Santiago very soon.

Participant in a Foto Ruta workshop

What’s the vision for the company?  How do you envision Foto Ruta growing over the next few years?

Our vision is to continue growing our Foto Ruta roots in Buenos Aires, whilst gradually expanding into new territories and seeing how they go. Our challenges will most likely be, managing the financial unstable environment that exists in Argentina and in terms of expansion, dealing with the huge physical distance between territories!

What’s the business model for expanding internationally?

We’re considering a number of options for expansion. The first being licensing to partners in new territories and the second, franchising the product to franchisees in new territories. We favor the first option initially as we’re keen to maintain control of our product and brand in the early stages of growth.  One of our key strengths is service. We pride ourselves on offering a personal, friendly service and a great customer experience. So at this stage it’s really important we have a tight hold of the reins. However, in order to achieve our future expansion goals, we will look to use the franchise model, and look forward to getting that off the ground within the next year.

Reviewing photos after a Foto Ruta tour

What’s one tip you would give to entrepreneurs who do not have a marketing background?

The most important thing is to know your customer, get into their mindset. For example for a tourist product like ours, I’d ask the following questions: Where are they coming from? What are they reading? Who is influencing their holiday activity decisions? What are their deciding factors for them when booking a tour? Where are they drinking coffee/eating? 

It’s all about maximising opportunities to reach them in their environment.

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