Zebra Instant brings printing to chatbots

Zebra Instant is a new print-focused photo company taking aim at one of the big inhibitors to mobile photo printing: Convenience. The Venice Beach, Calif., company uses bots and SMS technology to break barriers to mobile printing.

Zebra was founded by Anton Pereiaslavtsev, an I.T. and finance professional, Alexey Bizikin and a software developer and a math wiz along with Chris Saunders, who was a creative director. Pereiaslavtsev says the group was “united by our passion for mobile photography and our vision of the future where ordering photo products from a phone should be ridiculously easy.”

The team has come up with several product lines for photo printing, including text-to-print kiosks, text-to-print software, the “HolySnap!” iOS app, and most recently, printbots. All these ideas were built around ease of use.

“We wanted to give our special photos special treatment and turn them into merchandise, but we soon realized that it was really hard to do on your mobile device,” says Pereiaslavtsev. “There wasn’t a simple app or website built for that. We knew this problem was an opportunity in disguise.”

Like most startups, Zebra Instant’s first step was the app – in this case, the “Rock Your Photos” for iOS. The results were disappointing, according to Pereiaslavtsev. “While the app was simple to use and got great user feedback, we realized it was really hard to get folks to download apps in general and our app in particular. The experience was ridden with friction – there were too many steps involved: users had to find and the app, find the icon on their phone, then open and get familiar with the interface, choose a photo, browse the product options, add to cart and finally make a purchase. A torture for many.”

The team embraced SMS technology to build the text-to-print kiosks, letting users order 4-by-6 prints in less than a minute, and add custom gifts to the order for delivery later. User response was great, but the capital-intensive steps of building kiosks, training staff and marketing stymied growth.

Eureka printing moment

In 2016, the realization came that 1.2 billion Facebook Messenger users exchange 7 billion photos a month, and there was an opportunity to develop a bot for chat platforms. Internationally, chat platforms like WeChat draw hundreds of millions of users.

“Facebook opening their platform to developers presented a huge opportunity for us both in terms of convenience for users and distribution for us,” he says. “We knew we had to make the first chatbot that would make turning photos into printed merchandise as fun and simple as talking to a friend.

“The best part is the bot could be installed on any Facebook page giving any organization — be it a business, a nonprofit or an influencer — an ability to have their own photo merchandising bot. The initial response from influencers has been very positive. This should finally solve our distribution problem that we faced both with our app and the kiosk.”

The Zebra Instant platform offers fulfillment through three vendors – Circle Graphics, Centrics and Gooten – and is offered as a white-label solution and as an API. Pereiaslavtsev claims a brand could be up and running with a printbot in less than a day.

Pereiaslavtsev says SMS still offers great opportunity, too, especially in brick-and-mortar establishments. Retailers are posting an SMS code or “text-to-number” sign within stores and let customers place orders right there. This has the added benefit for retailers by collecting phone numbers – should the user opt-in – for later upselling. It also has the advantage of working on low-tech devices like flip phones (which, surprisingly, are making a comeback). He notes 90 percent of text messages are opened, a much higher rate than email.

“Our vision for the future is to make ordering photo products as easy as sending a photo to a friend on all the major messaging platforms in addition to Messenger and SMS: WeChat, Skype, Kik, and Line,” says Pereiaslavtsev.