Graham Hobson

Work with fresh eyes

HOF Entrepreneurs Graham Hobson 1920X1080

Published: 16/09/2020

Graham Hobson founded Photobox, the online photo printing company, in 2000, when he was working as an investment banker and found himself dreading the post-holiday trip to Boots to get his family snaps printed.

Graham Hobson was a reluctant entrepreneur. Even as he was developing his digital photo printing group, he admits to secretly hoping that Fuji or Kodak might come up with the same idea and do it instead. They didn’t - and Photobox was born.

How did Photobox start?

The idea came to him when he was in his mid-thirties, married, with two children, working at an investment bank. He took many photos of his young family, but the experience of taking them to Boots and getting them developed was often dispiriting. Only one in five would be any good and most of them would remain in the packets.

“It just seemed a waste – of money, of the world’s resources.” He decided to buy a digital camera to be more selective about what was printed. “It was 1999 and there was nowhere to print them yourself. I thought ‘maybe I can do this’.” After two weeks of writing a business plan on his commute to work, Graham had the foundations for Photobox.

I have a track record of oversimplifying things.
Graham Hobson

For Graham, the ingenuity of his business model was in its simplicity – ‘I was thinking, how difficult can it be? It's basically a website, order management system and a big fat printer.’

In the beginning, it was just him until a former City Technology  colleague, Mark, came on board. However, it wasn’t a straightforward hire, as Graham explains “I must have tried three or four times. Luckily (for me) he was made redundant! He still wasn’t sure that it was for him, so I gave him a huge chunk of equity.”

The business rode out the technology boom and bust in its early days. However, this meant that the company was run as a small business for longer than it should have been which, Graham admits, was difficult. ‘I just didn’t pick it up fast enough. All family life was on hold for a long time. We had no holidays, I had to re-mortgage, sell my car. It was a tough period. After the initial launch we needed to do another raise. The Nasdaq crashed and everyone thought B2C was a bad idea. We were introduced to Middle Eastern investors who said they were going to give us £1m, which never materialised.’

In 2006, Stan Laurent joined Photobox from AOL to lead its European expansion and Graham moved into position as CTO. The founders expected Stan to hold the position for a few years, tidy the company up and then move on, but bringing him onboard proved to be one of the best decisions the company made. He would go on to work for Photobox for a decade and be a defining source of advice for both Graham and the company.

At the time, Photobox had six websites across Europe that needed consolidating into one, a project that was optimistically supposed to take nine months. Two years later, the website wasn’t delivered, and Graham was approaching burn out. On the brink of quitting his role as CTO, Stan advised him to take some time off.

About 18 months in, I said, “look, fire me”, I'm not the right guy to do this, I'm lost on what to do next, and he said something like “take a week off, just clear your head and come back to work with fresh eyes”
Graham Hobson

This advice gave Graham the space and time to reconsider his approach to the challenge and realise there was a solution, and that he was the best person to come up with one. ‘He put a lot of pressure on me, but I also now realise in retrospect – and he's a good friend now – that he trusted me, and he respected me as a founder.’

Graham Hobson’s exit from Photobox

His exit from Photobox came "very slowly with lots of false starts.” 2010 was the first year that we tried to exit the business through a trade sale. That didn’t complete and we reflected on why. We felt there were some gaps in our business model and profile that gave us less options for exit. This prompted us to buy Moonpig and create a larger group. Later we considered exit through IPO or sale to private equity and eventually the latter was the right way to bring in new investment and take the business to the next level.

The Photobox group was sold to private equity in 2016 for a sum reported to be £400 million.

What’s next for Graham Hobson?

Since leaving, Graham has worked in supply chain tech, resulting in another sale, and has worked with many start-ups and tech-enabled businesses as an angel investor. He sees many good ideas fail for trivial reasons: “Start-ups fail because they hit a bump in the road, make a stupid decision and don’t recover. I can tell them what not to do because I feel like I’ve made a lot of the mistakes. There are so many dead-ends and tar pits.”

In his role as a mentor, Graham shares advice with other CEOs and CTOs, and often echoes the advice he received all those years ago from Stan Laurel. When mentees are feeling under pressure, Graham guides them to approach the week as if they are a newly appointed CTO so they can assess the situation from a fresh perspective.

A lot of people who come out of entrepreneurship have imposter syndrome. I have certainly wondered if I was lucky or skilled? In truth it was a bit of both. It was a tough journey at times but I’m so glad I took the leap.
Graham Hobson

‘Whenever I speak at events, attendees want me to tell them the secret, to sprinkle the magic pixie dust that will allow them to achieve success,’ Graham says. ‘You realise that it is a process of natural selection. In retrospect, I made a thousand decisions that got me to the finishing line and any of them could have gone wrong. But I had a certain determination, and a lack of acceptance of failure. If there was a code red situation, I would go for a walk and then say, ‘ok, what do I do next?’.’