Zento pics has been making massive steps forward in Birmingham’s thriving entrepreneurial circuit. The company was invited to pitch its business in front of hundreds at the recent #OKBrum event held at iCentrum. More recently the company won a Chiclet’s Choice award at the recent #GoDoEntAwards which is nominated by fellow entrepreneurs. We recently caught up with Zento’s founder Oli Hills to find out more about his journey, how Zento came to be and what they have planned for the future.
Hi my name is Oli Hills and I’m the founder of Zento pics.
What is Zento pictures?
Zento enables event photographers to take the hassle away from selling their photographs. If you think of a 10km running race as an example, most racers will usually finish the race in an 1 hour to 1 and half hours. As an event photographer. you would usually end up taking photos for that amount of time. Once you get home, you might spend upwards of 20 hours categorising the photos, watermarking them, uploading them. There is also the added element that once you have done of these things you have to think about distributing them and the e-commerce element. Most of the photographers we have spoken to have said that 95% of their time on everything except the photography itself. Using Zento, you create and event using a simple interface. Here you enter the details, the pricing, the date etc. Once you have done that, you drag and drop the photo’s from that event into the platform. We then watermark the photos for you, we handle the distribution making it downloadable to participants. The photographer then receives a payment each month for the photos that have been purchased making the e-commerce side of thing much easier.
We have started out initially in the mass sports participation industry such as running, cycling, triathlon etc. The reason for this is the nature of the events and the way they are categorised. If you were a participant in a race, for example, you can search for you photograph by your entrant number or bib number for example. Say for example you ran in the Birmingham 10km, you could search for your bib number at that specific event and buy a selection of photos that contain that information. The photography is happy, the customer is happy and Zento takes a small commission making the whole process a lot easier for everyone.
You mentioned that at the moment you are looking specifically at the sports industry, is there any other types of events such as concerts etc that you are looking at expanding to?
We haven’t started looking at those kinds of events as of yet, however, my co-founder is an image recognition expert and former part of Google. At the moment we are looking at some interesting things around image recognition that would be able to recognise participants. Once that is running we would be looking at including it to cover pretty much everything. You could take a photo anywhere as long at it could recognise the participant and the details of the event are registered.
What is your background and how did you come up with the idea for Zento pics?
Well, my original background was in the finance industry. I was originally working at Fidelity Investment Managment which was great and really good fun. I was a products manager after enrolling off the graduate scheme. I, however, found that change was a bit slow. My brother phoned me up one day with a completely different business idea and as a result, I left Fidelity to concentrate on that idea. Sadly, it didn’t quite work out and as a result of that I left and started up Zento. I’m a cyclist and I really love cycling along with taking those all important selfies. It got me thinking about always wanting those memories captured from the day and events that you take part in. It that ability to really remember and document those achievements in something that you enjoy or compete in. So through my passion of cycling the idea for Zento was born. We did some research and found that there were a lot of issues with tracking down photos or that the websites were particularly great as user experiences. We know photographers can take great pictures but they might not have the software or development skills to help with the commerce side of things. This is something we really looked at and also found that participants were finding it increasingly frustrating at the length of time it took to find photos etc. So Zento was really set up to improve things for both photographers and their customers, all while providing a more user-friendly experience.
So we set up Zento in July last year and set about building the site and the systems using a local company in Birmingham, we do like to source locally. They have done a fantastic job to get us to where we are today. Since launch in October, we have covered 20 events, 7,5000 photos uploaded to the platform and around 350 downloads so far. Things have started off really well and we are now looking at how we can expand the number of photographers using the site and also participants using the site.
So why is it important to set up the business in Birmingham and keep it Birmingham-based?
Well, the simple answer for sourcing things locally in Birmingham is the control element. For example, I could phone up the company if things we not going quite right but then I could always take a walk down to the company and check in on things in person. More importantly is that there is a better understanding as you can meet people face to face which helps to get them involved in the overall vision of the company and its products. The company we used to get us up and running went above and beyond because we were able to sell the vision to them of what Zento could be and they were excited about the potential of working with use further in the future. Keeping things within Birmingham allows us to tap into a lot of the talent that is in the city. The web developers here are extremely talented and it seems a shame to kind of look abroad or in other cities when with have this amazing group of people on the doorstep. It might cost a little bit more but you know you have that accessibility and continuity, so in the event, anything does go wrong, we know that things would be a bit more of a priority when working on a resolution.
There are other benefits to staying within the city especially when you consider that UK athletics is based here which definitely helps with the access to the sports elements that we need. There is also the element of having five fantastically talented universities within touching distance of the city centre. This allows us to connect and hopefully drive that entrepreneurship spirit within these institutions. The ability to inspire those graduates to come out and be creative, take on leadership and ownership of new ideas really helps everyone serves to boost the tech scene in Birmingham of which we are a part of and really if we can inspire these potential developers to work with other start-ups in the city, it become a great opportunity for everyone.
That is definitely an inspiring and passionate reason for staying in Birmingham.
Yeah, I’ve been incredibly lucky with Zento and so far it’s been a really fun journey. There is a number of good people around me and Zento who have helped us and the support we have received has been fantastic. This has really helped us move forward with things and really get off the ground. Natwest and the E-spark scheme have been a massive help by providing access to the bank’s massive network along with a vast array of mentors who are always on hand and want to give something back. The mentors themselves are successful business owners with specialities in their chosen sectors. The fact you can just phone them up or email them and they will go out of their way to help you out.
At the recent Opportunity Knocks event, you pitched Zento to several key investors in from of hundred of people at iCentrum, how did you get involved with that opportunity and how did the experience feel for you?
Well, Opportunity Knocks was organised by Natwest and the E-spark scheme, so prior to the event we held a 3-minute pitch-off between the various start-ups in the hatchery. I managed to complete the first stage and was able to get through to another phase that included the core people from E-spark and was pushed forward to the main event. On the day there was a lot of preparation for us to do. We had to understand what the best structure is for pitching for which I got some really good feedback about how we structured our pitch. Pitching is interesting for me, I only ever remember the first two words of each paragraph. The thing is, I know my own business better than anyone else and so if I stumble, it is important to remember that the only one that knows if I have stumbled is myself. That being said, I did really practice the pitching everywhere prior to the event and even isolated myself for 15 minutes to practice before going up on stage. When I got up on stage, I was actually feeling quite good as it was in my head which was extremely important and the content that we had gone through in the hatchery with my enabler really helped. I was confident that I had good content and good structure, it was just the delivery of which you just have to go through. There is always that nervous energy and I was literally shaking but in a good way and you just have to control that. Especially when you consider that my pitch to investors was following Dave McClean, who is such an awesome presenter and public speaker. At the end of the day though you just have to own the stage. As long as you can answer the questions well and convey your business, then that gets you the conversations with the investors. It was a great opportunity for Zento and as a result, we have had a lot of positive conversation of the back of it and is leading to some more exciting things.
The questions on the day were pretty tough, how did you find it?
Yeah, to be honest I was more scared of the Q&A than the pitching. With the pitching, you are in control as you know exactly what you need to say, you’ve done your research and you know your number so you can just deliver. The Q&A can give you any question, fro example there was one about copyright of photos which fortunate regularly crops up and we had done quite a lot of research into. the thing with Q&A’s is just being truthful with yourself really, there is nothing wrong in my opinion of saying “that a really good point and I don’t know the answer at the moment”. As long as you can go away and find the answer then come back to them at a later date and say “thanks for your question, I’ve gone and done some research and this is the answer”, it shows you are open minded. I think when you start to try and blagg everything it shows that you are in trouble cause they will know your blagging. So yeah the Q&A is definitely challenging and even if certain elements are not quite spot on, as long as your confident in what you are saying and that you know your business better than anyone else, then you are generally okay. One of the best bits of advice I have received is that when someone asks you a question, don’t look back at them while you answer the question. This stops you seeking validation that your answer is right and gives you the time to take in the question, take a couple of seconds and then give the answer to everyone present but that person. Otherwise, you can find yourself in danger of waffling along until the person nods giving you the validation.
So Opportunity Knocks was a really useful event for you moving forward then?
Yes, and we have had a number of conversations with investors since. We regularly keep them updated so they have a chance to see how far we are moving along and the progress we are making. We have also had a number of conversations with image recognition experts. One thing that I’ve found challenging in our business is the value of data. One of the big visions for Zento is the machine learning and image recognition space. Extracting valuable data from every photo uploaded. Yes we want to provide a fantastic customer based service and provide awesome memories through the platform and its photos, but actually, we need to look at what is useful in that photo to the likes of brands, sponsors and event organisers. So we’ve been able to diversify through conversations with experts and looked at how we are solving a problem and using it as a route to market that could provide better value for our customer. It adds a whole new dimension to how big we could possibly grow in the future.
So how important is it to you to be involved with Silicon Canal and its aims?
First of all, Silicon Canal is just brilliant. Think fo the tech awards, there was an amazing number of businesses there and present who all contributed and volunteered to the creation and running of the event. In my view, that made the event a fantastic sucess. To have that number of businesses all aligned to the same vision of creating a unified ecosystem is brilliant to see. The white paper launch for me was the start. It was when I came across what they were trying to do but the Tech awards really validated how much Silicon Canal is growing. Hopefully, that is something that will continue to grow in 2017. I moved to the city from London, to set up Zento in Birmingham and so I didn’t really know too many people. Silicon Canal has allowed me to meet a lot of really awesome people and a lot of great businesses and received some great help. It is really a great way to meet new people. The funny thing is you never really who is going to help you or how you can help so having that ability to network both personally and professionally has really helped with driving Zento forward. That ability to share experiences and have the ability to give and gain advice is vital in the ecosystem. having that so close to hand allows you to move your business forward a lot quicker that struggling and scratching around trying to solve problems individually.
Selfishly, I get to meet loads of awesome people and everyone is inspired in the city. If you look within Silicon Canal you have everyone from me as a start up through to companies with multi-million-pound turnovers. Everyone in between has an awesome story to tell and so having that knowledge and access at your doorstep with a genuine connected network of people that really want to help each other is amazing. there is genuinely no kind of animosity or competitiveness and that has lead to a community that is keen to listen, keen to learn from each other. It helps to break down those barriers and struggling to connect with people and leads to a lot of warm introductions.
What is next for Zento?
Well, it is myself and Sam at the moment but we’ve had an interesting conversation that could lead to another member joining our team but also possibly a fourth later down the road. We wanted to grow and although we outsourced the first part of the project we are keen to build an in-house team of developer. To do this though we will need investment so hopefully that is something that will happen soon. It is all about the customer though so we are looking to grow our user base of photographers and continue to add real value n the events industry and start to change the way people related to photography and how they capture their memories and how they relive them, that would be really good for me. The combination of these things allows us to grow and cover more things from around the UK would be really fun. There’s also the data side and image recognition side of thing which we can hopefully grow as well.
Final question, how will do you see yourself coping with the increase in 360 photography and VR industries?
The event world and mass participation sports is an interesting one because it is all about experiencing the emotion of completing an event with other people. So you train for x number of months for a marathon and then you are there. So for me, the VR element can enhance the spectator aspect of the event by almost allowing you to live the moment with the person running but I can’t see VR disrupting the emotion of actually being there, living and delivering on something that you have trained for. A 360-degree camera and drones there’s some really fun stuff you can do with that. If you think about a marathon, you have 26.2 miles of extraordinary scenery with iconic landmarks of which you can get some amazing photographs from. If you can start to create photos which add a whole new dimension to that, you are more likely to want to capture those memories. It’s a big one on our radar, in terms of how we can deliver 360 photos for people to relive thier memories of the day. that is the way it is starting to go and something we are actively looking at, 360-degree photographs are really going to change the way things are remembered and we want to be able to allow our customer to relive their moments in the best way possible. It is a really interesting space for us. So if you a photographer doing interesting and innovative stuff or working with 360-degree pictures, we would more than welcome you to getting involved with the platform at https://zento-pics.com/.
We would like to say thank you to Oli Hills for taking the time out to speak to us about Zento. If you want to find out more about the company, you can get in touch via their website or alternatively reach out to Oli and the team via Facebook or on Twitter @ZentoPics. We have also included the full uncut audio interview below: