Nothing can prepare you for the sights and sounds of the Shinjuku district in Tokyo (except for maybe spending some time in Hong Kong or Taipei). On the main streets, flashing neon lights pulsate up and down skyscrapers, shops blare music at ear-piercing decibels, and touts try to lure you into their bars, restaurants, and karaoke joints. Try to duck into a small alley and you won’t really escape from this sensory overload—you’ll just find a seemingly never-ending warren of pocket-sized bars, yakitori stands, and designated smoking areas.
This can all be enough to send you back to your (teeny) hotel room for the duration of your stay, but if you persevere, you’ll be rewarded with some truly magical experiences. Like purikura, for example. Now you may be saying “Puriku-what?” but let me explain. Purikura (an abbreviation of the words purinto kurabu or ‘print club’ in Japanese) is a high-tech photobooth. Once you step inside and take your pictures, you get to perform some quick Photoshopping to lighten or darken your skin, enlarge your eyes, extend your lashes, and add custom stamps and lettering to the photos that will be printed out moments later.
Not content to just enjoy these machines in Japan, entrepreneur Leila Ali is on a mission to bring purikura to the US with her company You Pic It Pictures. We caught up with Leila to learn the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, crowdfunding, and being a one-woman team.
Where did the idea for You Pic It Pictures come from and how did you go about creating a company?
You Pic It Pictures (YPIP) is a custom photobooth company specializing in renting out Japanese-style booths to weddings, special events, and festivals.
If you ever find yourself in Tokyo and your tour guide happens to be a Japanese female aged 15–35, chances are she’ll insist that you go to a purikura parlor (that’s “photobooth arcade” to you and me). There they have whole rooms full of these state-of-the-art photobooths with touchscreen technology that allow you to manipulate the image in the wackiest of ways. Some of my pictures look like I’m an anime character. Once you’re inside, it’s a world unto itself and highly addictive.
The idea for YPIP came about after I returned to the US from living in Japan for five years. I took a job as a mobile marketing tour manager for a commercial printer company that was looking to expand their core demographic. The tour stopped through many county fairs and festivals nationwide where I noticed teens still went crazy for photobooths here, too! There would be lines of them to get inside some really antiquated booths just for the opportunity to be silly with their friends. I just thought to myself, “If you only knew how cool this could REALLY be…”
After a bit of research I found that there are pockets in America, mostly in novelty museums and Chinatowns where you can find these booths, but no one was really promoting that cross-cultural exchange. I figure if America can embrace sushi and karaoke, why not purikura?!
Did you have any entrepreneurial experience before You Pic It Pictures? What do you think it takes to make it as an entrepreneur?
In high school, I sold candy to the student body in order to pay for a class ski trip. It was a rip-roaring success. I think I made enough for the trip and some pocket money while I was there. Enabling my classmates’ sugar habit was so lucrative that the principal eventually shut me down because the unrest that developed when I sold out of certain things caused a bit of unruly behavior now and then.
Outside of that, no.
Now that I’m knee-deep in the process of starting my own business I view entrepreneurship more as a vocation. I truly feel called to this work. It almost doesn’t matter what the product is, although being passionate about the product is the only way to maintain the level of intensity you need in order to give a business the legs it needs to stand alone.
To be an entrepreneur means that you are competent in a great many things but perhaps not an expert at it all. You must know your own skills well and be completely honest with yourself about your shortcomings. Recognizing and taking responsibility for your blind spots may hurt your ego, but it will benefit your business if you get the help you need sooner rather than later.
You must truly understand EVERY aspect of the business you’re in. You may not need to know how to make an Excel spreadsheet, but you surely do need to know how to read it and use it. Being self-motivated is absolutely crucial. In the beginning you are beholden to no one. If you don’t do whatever needs doing then it simply doesn’t get done and that will only hurt you in the long run. Opening a business is a marathon not a sprint. And trust me, you don’t want to make the race any longer than it has to be.
Also I find that I’ve got to be my own champion and cheerleader. A great many people will tell you why a thing won’t work, it can be discouraging, disheartening, and oftentimes it’s true. I treat criticism like a breathing exercise. I let it in. Then out. Just like the air you breathe, there are elements of criticism that can benefit you and the rest you can simply expel away from your body.
Talk us through your career progression. How did you end up doing what you’re doing right now?
Upon returning to the US after six years of living abroad, I went back to marketing. This time I had a managerial role in a mobile marketing tour that criss-crossed the US for about six months. We toured around several county fairs and festivals where I saw teens hanging out around old school photobooths with their friends. You know the kind that pump out black and white style passport photos. I just thought wow, these are still popular, but the technology is so far behind the times.
I did a little web search to find the Japanese booths here in America but I found that only a few novelty shops, niche museums, and a handful of Chinatowns throughout the nation had these purikura machines that I came to love. After further digging I noticed that the machines that did exist here weren’t really translated enough to make them user-friendly for English speakers, nor were they marketed very well.
It was an easy enough fix to me since my job involved taking new unfamiliar products and introducing them to the masses in a digestible and easily understandable way. Even though I had the skills to disseminate this product well, the thing that keeps me most engaged is that I genuinely love it. I love cramming myself into a booth with three or four of my BBFs and being silly and figuring out the goofiest and most creative ways to enhance our pictures. Each picture is a memory and memories are what make a rich, colorful life. Beyond being a cool photobooth, YPIP embodies one of my core values, which is to have a little fun with my friends.
What is a typical day like for you?
YPIP is very much in its infancy so I still have to work another job to make ends meet. I work for a car sharing company that allows me to use my car as a taxi service. It offers optimum flexibility, which I love, and allows me to have a captive audience to talk about YPIP with each time I pick up a fare.
My day starts at 4:30am. I’m out the door by 5am to do the morning rush. By 10am I’m back at YPIP headquarters, sending emails, fundraising, meeting potential clients, etc. Then I’m back on the road again by 5pm to do the evening rush. I’m usually home again by 10pm for a quick snuggle with my partner. Then I do it all over again.
P.S. I do sneak in a yoga class mid-day about three times a week. It’s the only way to stay centered for me.
What drew you to your current profession? Which skills, education, and experience were necessary to get you there?
Dietrich Mateschitz drew me to my current profession. Mateschitz went to Thailand on a business trip around 30 years ago. He saw all the cabbies there drinking a drink that they claimed gave them energy. He asked to try it. He loved it. He brought it back to Austria, slapped a different label on it and called it Red Bull. Maybe you’ve heard of it. I want to be the Dietrich Mateschitz of of Japanese photobooths.
The skills that got me here I learned in the world of Marketing and Promotions. I started as a Brand Ambassador for a variety of household names/products and then became a Product Specialist and eventually a Mobile Marketing Manager, which involves a lot of touring nationwide. All of this involves a great deal of talking with the public, which involves a fair bit of psychology (for which I have no degree).
I fancy myself a sidewalk psychologist like Lucy from the Peanuts. I listen, I assess, and then I offer my solution (usually the product that I was hired to hawk). While on my last tour I observed that American teens are every bit as interested in photobooths as Japanese teens. It was time for me to choose a product that I was genuinely excited about. I saw an opening with purikura. I took it.
What was your college major? How does it relate to your career path?
I have a BFA in Theater from New York University, Tisch School of the Arts. The conservatory-style training I received there taught me to be a jack of all trades and—most importantly—the fine art of improvisation. If you’ve ever staged a low-budget theater production, then you know that you’ve got to not only know how to act and entertain, you might also be called upon to help with the set, costumes, and light rigging—among other things. Actors are among the most resourceful people I’ve ever met and acting is the lens by which I continue to view myself even though I haven’t stepped foot on a stage in years.
I graduated NYU the same year as 9/11. All the disposable income for the city had left and Broadway houses were shutting down. The only companies hiring actors were marketing firms looking for bright fresh faces to hawk product. There’s a reason why actors do commercials; they’re natural salespeople.
I took to it immediately. There is nothing I can’t sell, but it’s not fun unless you actually believe in the product. So now my own personal vow to myself is that I won’t stand behind a product I would never buy myself. That was a tough one to keep when I was much younger and cigarette companies paid top dollar for people who yielded the kind of quantifiable results that I was able to produce. Integrity may not be a necessary characteristic of an entrepreneur, but it should be.
What are your favorite things about your job? What are some of the challenges?
I love that every single day is completely different from the day before. On any given day I will have a conference call with my distributor or network with event planners, fundraise, work on marketing strategy, advertise, or work on product development. At the end of each day, I make a list of no more than five tasks that I want to address the following day and I try to stick to that.
It’s important that each day produces victories, however small, so that I can visibly see progress. Sometimes I’ll throw myself a bone when I’m particularly overwhelmed like “do the dishes,” which is an easy task that also calms me down. Not all tasks have to be work-related and a victory is a victory. Rig the game of life in your favor and you’ll always want to play the next day.
What advice would you give to college students interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours?
Take your time. I remember feeling like it was very important to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my life right after college. 9/11 presented challenges for me in the sense that the market for what I had been studying, acting/design, dried up for a period of time after I graduated and I was forced to re-evaluate my skills and adapt to the workforce that existed when I graduated.
Marketing and Promotions was a cross-over trade skill that paid the bills, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it forever and ever. I did it for two years, travelled the world, lived in Europe, Japan, and Australia, and actually made a living as a professional performer overseas before returning to the States and picking up marketing again.
If I had never gone to Japan, I would never have been inside a purikura machine. If I had never worked in marketing, I would not have had the skills to introduce the product to America. The experiences you have shape and often dictate your career path. That is especially true for an entrepreneur. The more experiences you have, the more skills you gain as well as perspective. Entrepreneurs need to be able to see the big picture, so take your time and observe what the big picture really looks like for you. Then dive in.
You’re running a campaign on Indiegogo. Would you recommend this path to other entrepreneurs? What should they know about it ahead of time?
Indiegogo is a great platform for anyone with a great team. Gather a group of people working toward your common goal and make sure each person is 100% committed to the success of the campaign.
Crowdsourcing campaigns require more than an amazing video. They require a great deal of cold calling and door knocking. You become like a politician in that regard. It’s a lesson I learned in hindsight. There are many well-wishers out there, but very few people willing to roll up their sleeves and give your cause the kind of attention it needs to thrive.
My biggest deficit is that I’m a one-man-band. At present, in the beginning stages of my business, the actual day-to-day operations of YPIP don’t require much overhead, which is why I don’t have a staff, but not having a team in the case of running a crowdsourcing campaign does not work in my favor.
I invite you all to check out my campaign, read my origin story, and contribute! Small businesses are the very backbone of our nation. When you think about it, there are far more small businesses in the country than there are large corporations. The little guy runs the corner store, the barber shop, the cleaners, the bakery. Multiply that by every town, suburb, and city in the nation, and you’ll see that despite the efforts of the 1%, the little guy’s influence is still significant. We’re the ones more likely to support the high school athletic department and fund the local town festivals and parades. We give young people their first job experiences and we’re often more amenable to negotiate with customers experiencing financial difficulties. By supporting us, you also help us support you.
Homework time! Leila mentions that she couldn’t pursue a career in theater because of the economic downturn when she graduated. But she was able to find a job that allowed her to use her acting talents in Marketing and Promotion. If you’re studying something like theater, think about some of the ways you can apply your skills outside of the traditional avenues. Check out how Deirdre Quirk uses her skills in a customer service role, Roberta Pereira became a producer and publisher, and Jennifer Tepper was able to create a career as a programming director and theater historian.