Cary entrepreneur launches app for printing photo albums

rbutt@newsobserver.comDecember 1, 2013 

Like most parents, Xiaohu Yao and his wife like to document candid moments in their children’s lives. But they found that putting together a well-designed album can be cumbersome and costly.

That prompted Yao to develop tapsBook, a free mobile app for Apple devices that organizes, synchronizes and prints photos from a slew of different sources, including Facebook, Dropbox and iPad photos.

“It’s all about that magical button to put a visual story in context beautifully and automatically,” said the 38-year-old Cary resident.

About 48 percent of people who started a photo book never finished it because the process was too long or too difficult, according to a survey by the Photo Marketing Association International.

Along with two co-founders, Ming Lin and Jane Yao, Yao hopes to solve what he calls “photo management chaos.” Yao earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science at the University of Maryland and an MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. He was a manager at IBM for 10 years before starting tapsBook.

The app launched in early August and has attracted about 6,000 users thus far. Yao said he has raised an undisclosed amount from investors to finance the apps development and near-term growth.

Two weeks ago, a team of three tapsBook employees helped launch a localized version of tapsBook for the Chinese market. Aside from hiring high quality engineers at lower cost, adapting the app to a local culture is crucial to expanding its reach, Yao said.

Lucrative market

While half of tapsBook’s promotional emails were read in the U.S., the open rate in China was only two percent.

“That’s when we realized we really need a localized workforce to connect to the local culture,” Yao said. That involves connecting the app to popular photo services and social networking platforms in China, such as QQ.

TapsBook is targeting a $2 billion online photo printing market that is growing rapidly thanks to the popularity of online photo sharing. According to IBISWorld, the industry’s operating profit is projected to reach 6.9 percent of revenue in four years, above the 5.4 percent share of revenue in 2007.

It usually takes about a week and about $25 to have a 20-page photo book printed and delivered. The company recently reached a deal with Walgreens to offer same-day pickup in 4,000 locations nationwide.

Joe Rago, senior mobile product manager for Walgreens, said the chain just released a platform for multiple third-party developers to print photo books.

“The timing made the collaboration a natural fit,” said Rago, adding that mobile orders make up more than 30 percent of Walgreens overall photo business.

Through a revenue sharing agreement, Tapsbook get a certain percentage of every photo book sold by Walgreens.

While a dozen apps – including Mosaic, Shutterfly and Snapfish – also offer customized photo book services, Yao is looking to differentiate tapsBook by integrating data analysis.

That means pulling data from check-ins and captions when users post photos on their social media platforms. Image analysis will also be used to detect similar backgrounds and automatically aggregate photos in themed albums.

One of the biggest challenges in the mobile app industry is retaining users after they’ve downloaded an app. KISSmetrics, a mobile apps analytics firm, found that around 90 percent of downloaded apps are deleted after they’ve been used just once.

A tool for theme parks?

The key is to listen to customers’ feedback and act upon it, said Yao.

“The problems we identify may differ from that of customers, so it’s refreshing to hear interesting angles of different user experiences,” said Yao. He said 80 percent of tapsBook’s customers have created one or more photo books, and 40 percent of those people have created 6 albums or more.

To keep users interested, TapsBook plans to introduce more photo book templates by creating a design marketplace.

Eventually, Yao wants to integrate the app into the entertainment industry, specifically in theme parks. Instead of taking an obligatory group photo at the entrance and trying to identify themselves in the huge monitor, visitors could create personalized photo books and carry them home on the same day.

TapsBook is now available for download from Apple’s app store.

Butt: 919-829-4523

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