Success: Flash idea just the start for photo business

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Five years takes firm from garage to overseas markets.

James Madelin says 90 per cent of what a photographer wants to achieve with lighting will be gained through the Orbis. Photo / Thinkstock
James Madelin says 90 per cent of what a photographer wants to achieve with lighting will be gained through the Orbis. Photo / Thinkstock

The story of Enlight Photo, a company selling patent-protected camera accessories across the globe, is one of those classic inventor-in-a-garage tales.

Co-founder James Madelin, a photographer who has worked for the Herald on Sunday, among other publications, initially developed his modular ring flash, the Orbis, using duct tape, foil, polystyrene and other scraps from his Auckland garage.

It worked well, even if it "looked like crap". An online search revealed no such product was commercially available and a company was born to meet the gap in the market.

Nearly five years after that moment in his garage, the Orbis is selling around the world, assisted by a host of celebrity-photographer endorsements.

The company has even won an Exporter of the Year award from the American Chamber of Commerce in New Zealand.

The Orbis is one of a number of new flash technologies that "are so sophisticated and powerful that 90 per cent of what a photographer would want to achieve with lighting can be done with these small flashes", Madelin says. "It's democratised photographic lighting."

Madelin is coy on specific revenue figures, but notes that its export-award win was in the under-$500,000 category "and we've continued to grow since then".

Whatever the figure is, it still took a lot of work to get the company to this point, and Madelin is at pains to point out that the co-founder of the company, his wife, Naomi, played as big a role as he did in making Enlight a success.

They're both British-born but when Madelin was courting Naomi, who had fallen in love with New Zealand on an earlier trip, she made it clear that if he wanted a future with her he would have to forge it Down Under.

Godzone it was and now there are two Kiwi kids, which made the decision to create Enlight a difficult decision.

Business owners whose family home is at stake will always experience some terror. But Madelin claims to feel a similar consternation even now.

"It feels like there's more on the line because I've spent five years living and breathing every moment of my life to build a global photography brand."

His fear is based on staking the company's future on a new product he's developed called the ioShutter, which is a camera control for an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.

"You plug your iPhone or iPad into your decent camera ... and you can do all sorts of really cool things with the shutter control," Madelin says.

These include scheduling the camera for shoots while you sleep, time-lapse photography, and sound and movement triggers for shooting.

Madelin developed the device when he realised that no matter how hard he tried, the company would always be a niche business.

"[The ioShutter] has got huge headroom - it's a considerably bigger market than my other accessories," he says.

"It means that it's not just going to be available in pro-camera stores; it's going to be in Apple stores and places like that. The exciting/scary thing is whenever you pivot your company into a new market that's considerably bigger than anything you've done before, that obviously has the consequent terrifying pressures on your cash flow and your risk. It's an interesting psychological challenge."

Helping in that challenge will be Enlight's victory last month in the Auckland Business School Entrepreneurs' Challenge, where it was one of four companies to win a share of $1 million in low-interest funding to help expand their businesses overseas, a prize supported by expat Kiwi businessman Charles Bidwill.

Asked about his skills, Madelin says: "My skill base is having been a fan of Lego and gadgets."

It also helps that he knows enough about software to speak the language to developers and is a talented draughtsman who can sketch designs. He can also speak French, Spanish and Italian, which is a big help when negotiating deals in Europe.

The Enlight team is large but only 2 full-time equivalent staff are on the payroll; everything else is outsourced.

He has an advisory board of five members ("I speak to one or two them each week"), has product and graphic designers in Britain, patent and intellectual property law done in the United States, a New Zealand lawyer to handle contractual matters, the software development handled out of Singapore and Sri Lanka, and the electrical engineering done in Auckland.

Madelin plans to retain this system as he unfurls the ioShutter and associated accessories, but will expand the team and explore further partnerships as he seeks to escape the niche market and achieve mainstream retail capability.

The self-imposed limit of a lifestyle business is not for him.

"I can't understand someone being happy with where they're at, if what they've got is something of value."

- NZ Herald

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