Can he re­vive the Po­laroid era? Let’s see what de­vel­ops

Can Im­pos­si­ble Project CEO OSKAR SMOLOKOWSKI get us to smile for the cam­era?

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - By Sax David

WP hen Im­pos­si­ble Project, the com­pany h founded to re­vive pro­duc­tion of o

t Po­laroid film, re­leased its first batch of prod­uct six years ago, the re­sults were em­bar­rassg ing. Pic­tures fre­quently had weird splotches on ra them and oc­ca­sion­ally leaked cor­ro­sive chem­i­cals. p Some­times an en­tire $21, eight-pic­ture pack of film h

s would spit out of a cam­era at once. The pho­tos that

b did de­velop took as long as an hour to do so, which y is not very in­stant.

M “The prod­uct was barely us­able,” says Oskar a Smolokowski as he sips green tea at a New York City

rk bak­ery. The Im­pos­si­ble Project’s 26-year-old chief exec

P utive of­fi­cer is in town to dis­cuss launch plans for the I-1, e the com­pany’s new cam­era, which goes on sale May 10. c Priced at $299, the I-1 mar­ries dig­i­tal con­trols with ana­log k

m pho­tog­ra­phy. The cam­era’s me­chan­ics, right down to the dis­tinc­tive whine of the rollers that eject each pho­to­graph, e

zi evoke Po­laroid’s legacy, but Smolokowski is ea­ger to point a out that the I-1 is not a Po­laroid prod­uct. n

Un­til now, his Ber­lin-based com­pany made film that worked only in vin­tage Po­laroid cam­eras. With the mar­ket for con­tem­po­rary in­stant-film cam­eras quickly grow­ing into a prof­itable niche for Ja­pan’s Fu­ji­film and oth­ers, Smolokowski is bet­ting the I-1’s hy­brid de­sign will of­fer the first real chance to de­cou­ple Im­pos­si­ble Project’s fu­ture from Po­laroid’s past.

Like sim­i­larly tri­umphant nar­ra­tives about the re­turn of vinyl records and in­de­pen­dent book­stores, Im­pos­si­ble Project’s story be­gins with the rapid col­lapse of a legacy ana­log in­dus­try fac­ing dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion. Dur­ing its hey­day in the 1970s, Po­laroid, based in Cam­bridge, Mass., had as much as $ 2 bil­lion in an­nual sales ( more than $ 12 bil­lion in to­day’s dol­lars) and 50,000 em­ploy­ees. And, like Ap­ple to­day, it was the most ad­mired con­sumer tech com­pany in the land, ac­cord­ing to Christo­pher Bo­nanos’s book In­stant: The Story of Po­laroid. But decades of mis­man­age­ment took their toll, paving the way for the first of two bank­rupt­cies in 2001. As it bounced be­tween own­ers,

Po­laroid quickly dis­con­tin­ued ● Herchen

cam­eras and film. helped work out the kinks in the

Flo­rian “Doc” Kaps, an Aus­trian film’s chem­istry

bi­ol­o­gist who at the time was work­ing for Lo­mog­ra­phy, a Vi­en­nese com­pany that mar­kets new ver­sions of quirky Soviet-era film cam­eras, spied an op­por­tu­nity. He ap­proached Po­laroid in 2005 with a mar­ket­ing plan heavy on so­cial me­dia and e-com­merce. “They told me, ‘If you re­ally be­lieve in this s---, you can be a dis­trib­u­tor,’” he says. Kaps be­gan sell­ing dis­con­tin­ued Po­laroid film for more than twice its orig­i­nal price on his web­site, un­saleable.com, along with old Po­laroid cam­eras he bought on Ebay and re­fur­bished. Three years later, when Po­laroid an­nounced it would close its last film fac­tory, in En­schede, Nether­lands, Kaps scraped to­gether €180,000 ($204,000) to buy the plant’s equip­ment and struck a deal with the land­lord to take over the lease. For an ad­di­tional €1 mil­lion, he pur­chased Po­laroid’s re­main­ing film stock, which he sold to fi­nance the re­vival of the plant at a to­tal cost of €4 mil­lion. Un­saleable was re­branded Im­pos­si­ble Project, af­ter a quote from Po­laroid founder Ed­win Land: “Don’t un­der­take a project un­less it is man­i­festly im­por­tant and nearly im­pos­si­ble.”

Mak­ing film is a del­i­cate dance of chem­istry and physics,

per­formed en­tirely in the dark. The En­schede fac­tory had been one of the fi­nal links in Po­laroid’s pro­duc­tion chain; it as­sem­bled com­po­nents from other fac­to­ries into film packs. A skele­ton crew headed by en­gi­neer An­dré Bosman, a 30-year vet­eran at the plant, set out to re­verse- en­gi­neer the process. “If you think about the devel­op­ment of Po­laroid’s prod­ucts, you’re talk­ing about hun­dreds of en­gi­neers and bil­lions of dol­lars in re­search,” Smolokowski says. “And Im­pos­si­ble did this with five guys who didn’t know the chem­istry and only re­ally knew how to run the ma­chines.”

Chief Tech­nol­ogy Of­fi­cer Stephen Herchen ex­plains that Po­laroid’s film had three key com­po­nents: the light-sen­si­tive neg­a­tive, the pos­i­tive on which the im­age was im­printed, and a pod that re­leased the de­vel­oper fluid as the film passed through the rollers. By 2008 al­most all the con­stituent el­e­ments, in­clud­ing cus­tom dyes and poly­mers, had ei­ther ex­pired, been dis­con­tin­ued, or been banned for en­vi­ron­men­tal rea­sons. Im­pos­si­ble Project set out to try to make a sim­pler black-and-white for­mula. The prod­uct that de­buted in 2010 worked, but barely. “Let’s just call it ex­per­i­men­tal,” Kaps says with a smirk and a shrug. To im­prove out­comes, the com­pany be­gan is­su­ing in­creas­ingly com­plex instructions to cus­tomers, in­clud­ing or­ders to shield pic­tures from light by taping a card­board box onto the cam­era front.

At a friend’s urg­ing, War­saw-born Smolokowski vis­ited Im­pos­si­ble Project’s store in New York in 2012, where he was liv­ing at the time, and picked up some film. Like other mil­len­nial con­sumers be­hind the com­pany’s growth, he liked the crap­shoot qual­ity of the ex­pe­ri­ence. “The pic­tures were in­ter­est­ing and im­per­fect, and there was this en­gag­ing chal­lenge of get­ting it to work,” he re­calls. Af­ter meet­ing Kaps, Smolokowski per­suaded his wealthy fa­ther to make an in­vest­ment of €2 mil­lion in the busi­ness in ex­change for a 20 per­cent stake. (A Soviet-era Ukrainian mu­si­cian who later amassed a for­tune in the energy busi­ness, Wi­ace­zlaw “Slava” Smolokowski is Im­pos­si­ble Project’s largest share­holder.) Soon the younger Smolokowski was work­ing as Kaps’s as­sis­tant. In De­cem­ber 2014 he be­came CEO.

Film has ex­pe­ri­enced a small re­nais­sance in re­cent years, led by Fu­ji­film and its col­or­ful In­stax cam­era, which de­buted in 1998 and uses a tech­nol­ogy sim­i­lar to Po­laroid’s. The Ja­panese com­pany sold 5.5 mil­lion of the cam­eras last year, along with an es­ti­mated 40 mil­lion packs of film. (An­nual sales of Po­laroid cam­eras peaked at 13 mil­lion in the ’70s.) Mar­ket­ing for In­stax tar­gets young con­sumers and stresses the fun, novelty fac­tor. “It’s not nos­tal­gic. It’s a new thing for them,” says Manny Almeida, pres­i­dent of Fu­ji­film North Amer­ica’s imag­ing di­vi­sion.

Im­pos­si­ble Project sold 28,000 re­fur­bished Po­laroid cam­eras last year and more than a mil­lion film packs, ac­cord­ing to Smolokowski. The film is still a bit tem­per­a­men­tal, but faster: Black-and-white de­vel­ops in 10 min­utes, color in 40. He says the com­pany needs to sell twice as much film to be prof­itable—which is very dif­fi­cult with a lim­ited sup­ply of vin­tage cam­eras. “It’s a mas­sive hur­dle,” he says as he sur­veys Im­pos­si­ble Project’s ar­ray of cam­eras at an Ur­ban Out­fit­ters in Man­hat­tan. A nearby In­stax dis­play dwarfs it.

Two years ago, Smolokowski ar­ranged a meet­ing with Jesper Kouthoofd, who runs the Swedish de­sign stu­dio Teenage Engi­neer­ing, to show him blue­prints for a cam­era Im­pos­si­ble Project was pre­par­ing for pro­duc­tion. Kouthoofd, whose clients in­clude Ikea, New Bal­ance, and Ab­so­lut, tore them apart, say­ing the cam­era was too retro— another re­heated Po­laroid. The de­signer sketched up a con­cept for Smolokowski, who per­suaded his team to change di­rec­tion.

The I-1’s min­i­mal­ist form is dic­tated largely by func­tion. Its shape—a pyra­mid atop a rec­tan­gu­lar base—is re­quired to prop­erly ex­pose the film to light that en­ters the lens and bounces off a 45-de­gree-an­gled mir­ror. The me­tal body is cov­ered in matte-black plas­tic; there are few but­tons and no dig­i­tal dis­play. Says Kouthoofd: “We’re try­ing to spark an in­ter­est in ana­log pho­tog­ra­phy, and I just tried to make it as sim­ple as pos­si­ble.”

What sets the I-1 apart from even the best vin­tage Po­laroid cam­era is the qual­ity of its op­tics, the LED ring flash that au­to­mat­i­cally ad­justs to light and dis­tance (and gives the cam­era the look of a ro­tary phone), a highly ac­cu­rate pop-up viewfinder that looks like it be­longs on a 19th cen­tury ri­fle, and the abil­ity to con­nect to a smart­phone with Blue­tooth. On a com­pan­ion smart­phone app, users can ad­just aper­ture, shut­ter speed, and other vari­ables while em­ploy­ing com­plex ef­fects with In­sta­gram-like sim­plic­ity. Smolokowski plans to open the app up to soft­ware de­vel­op­ers later this year. The I-1 was also de­signed to ac­cept a range of fu­ture ac­ces­sories such as viewfind­ers and screens.

Smolokowski es­ti­mates Im­pos­si­ble Project could one day own up to 10 per­cent of In­stax’s mar­ket share, though he prefers to tar­get the higher- end, pho­tog­ra­phy-fo­cused con­sumer that is the com­pany’s base. “Eight years af­ter sav­ing the fac­tory, we fi­nally feel able to have a prod­uct and cam­era to give us a chance,” he says.

The stress of the up­com­ing launch is vis­i­ble on Smolokowski’s face. He claims to have no so­cial life or ro­man­tic life. “He’s 180 per­cent ded­i­cated,” says Kaps, who re­tains his shares in the busi­ness but is no longer in­volved in day-to-day man­age­ment. “He wants to prove to the world that he can do it.”

When we’ve fin­ished talk­ing, Smolokowski un­zips his back­pack and pulls out an I-1 and a fresh pack of black-and-white film. He pops it into the cam­era, and the mo­tor buzzes to life. He hands me the ma­chine, and I aim at his face and press the shut­ter. Af­ter a burst of flash fol­lowed by that trade­mark Po­laroid sound, a pho­to­graph rolls out. We wait to see how it de­vel­ops. <BW>

● The I-1 cam­era, which was used to take the pho­to­graphs on these pages

● Im­pos­si­ble Project’s of­fices in Ber­lin

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