Monday, January 4, 2010

Razors that outlive the razor blades (and its maker)

Everyone always talks about how important it is to create a “razor and razor blade” business model. Although business jargon is often sloppily applied, this would normally translate into “get people to use your durable base unit and then sell them lots and lots of consumables.”

Best case, you can keep a struggling Fortune 100 company alive for a decade or more. Don’t believe me? Look up the role that inkjet and laser printer cartridges played for HP during the period roughly 1995-2005 as its enterprise and personal computing businesses were plunged into commodity price wars.

Normally the razor-and-razor-blade model assumes some form of incompatibility and switching costs. After all, the worst possible scenario would be to subsidize adoption of your hardware and then have it used to pad the consumables profits of another company.

Today we found an interesting antique “razor” that outlived the razor blade maker. When we sought to get passport photos, our local Mailboxes Etc. (now a “UPS Store”) used an OER PC-10 passport camera. It appears that OER took an off-the-shelf Polaroid back and added its own optics so that a single snap would print two near-identical photos.

(Note to the Millennials: Polaroid was a film-based photography company that provided instant photography before digital cameras were invented.)

By creating instant film, getting a passel of patents — and driving the evil Big Yellow out of the market with a $0.9 billion judgementEdward Land’s once-famous company had the instant film market to itself. Unfortunately, the film business ain’t what it used to be, and unlike their Japanese rival (Fuji), both Polaroid and Kodak went into a long decline as megapixels replaced chemical reactions.

As a result of that decline, from 2006-2008 Polaroid decided to stop making cameras and then their film. No matter how long lived the cameras were, Polaroid wasn’t going to be around to profit from selling more razor blades, leaving a bunch of angry orphans. (Of course, the current Polaroid is a zombie company that was liquidated and the remainder purchased out of bankruptcy by a private equity firm).

Fortunately for our local MBE, Fuji is selling film packs that work with the 80- and 100-series Polaroid film. So, as my dad showed me 40+ years ago, you take the picture, count to 60, pull out the picture, count to 120 and then pull the transfer sheet off.

Thanks to this trailing edge technology, the State Department has two passport-size color photos of my daughter, and Fuji made a couple of bucks off the transaction. (Due to user error, it took 3 tries to get the picture right). Alas, if we’d taken the pictures at Costco, we could have had digital photos for one-third the price.

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